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Parsons, E.C. (1916). Discomfiture and Evil Spirits. Psychoanal. Rev., 3(3):288-291.

(1916). Psychoanalytic Review, 3(3):288-291

Discomfiture and Evil Spirits

Elsie Clews Parsons

The psychologists have discovered ethnology. There is Professor Thorndike's criticism of the ideo-motor theory, a theory, he points out, that “originated some fifty thousand years ago in the form of the primitive doctrine of imitative magic, and is still cherished because psychology is still, here and there, enthralled by cravings for magical teleological power in ideas beyond what the physiological mechanisms of instinct and habit allow.” There is Freud with a book on totemism and taboo and Dr. Otto Rank writing about the hero myth. And the other day in the hands of one of their American translators, a well-known alienist, I noted with surprise a volume of “The Golden Bough.” At a later moment I was still more surprised to hear the theory of recapitulation issuing from his respectable psychological lips. That alluring theory the Freudians, it seems, have resurrected to serve their turn. And for their theory of the infantile psychosis it does nicely. How long it will satisfy them is another question. Meanwhile it is a means of directing their attention to the study of comparative culture.

In this field there is, I venture to suggest, a particularly fertile corner awaiting them—demonology. Between belief in evil spirits or bad luck and apprehensive or troubled states of mind there is unquestionably a close relation. For the moment I would point out the concomitance of belief in supernatural evil and perturbation of a certain type, the perturbation caused by breaks in the routine of life.

In spite of the safeguards given the tendency to routine, given habit, these breaks must occur, and they occur the more sharply for their very postponing. Sooner or later the facts of change caused by age or sex must be met. Shirked as they actually occur, when met at last face to face they startle or shock. Ceremonialism and, by the less primitive, sentimentality are the methods we take to reduce this shock. Crisis or epochal ceremonial is, we may say, a kind of shock absorber.

Nevertheless, mitigated though it be, in various degrees the shock of change does tell.

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