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Mankind in Amnesia

Lecture before the Graduate Student Forum in Princeton, December 6, 1967

This room is familiar to me; not all the faces are familiar. It was on October 14, 1953 that I had the honor for the first time to speak at the forum of the Graduate College. At that time and in this place I claimed that should Jupiter be examined on emitting radio noises they would be detected. Therefore, this room is good on my memory. My coming here that time was after a period of eleven years of solitude in libraries. The ancient world came alive before my eyes—the ancient world and the domain of the sky. Everything was different from what I was taught. It was not a peaceful world evolving through billions of years, it was not a solar system, a family of planets serenely traveling on their orbits. The past was of conflict, of cataclysm, perturbation and the solar system was not a peaceful place.

Ten years ago, in 1957, the space age started. Since then, an entirely new picture of the solar system evolved. The moon, a cemetery circling the earth—whether there was at any time an abode of life, we don’t know—covered by oceans of lava, pocked by craters, whether of collision or eruption, a devastated world, is not inactive, nor cold to its core—it is hot under its surface, it was bubbling only recently, it is even partly self-illuminating. Mars’ surface proved to be moonlike, no abode of life unless of micro-organisms, also a world perturbed, also emitting more heat than expected. Venus was proved to be a real hell. The name Lucifer for the morning star is fitting. Its surface is hot to an extent that many metals must be molten—bismuth and zinc and tin and lead—and it is covered by a suspended envelope, 15 miles thick, 45 miles above the surface of the planet, of dust and gases, and it rotates not as it should according to the cosmological theories, but retrogradely and, surprisingly, locked in its rotation with respect to the earth so that every time it passes between the sun and the earth it turns the very same face to us.

We are not in the center of the universe, as people thought before Copernicus and for a century after him—but we are at the optimal place in the system—not too close to the sun and not too far away from it. We live on a planet that is protected; it is surrounded by a magnetosphere that keeps most of the cosmic rays out; it is enveloped in an ionosphere that protects us from the damaging ultra-violet rays coming from the sun. It has an atmosphere, not like the moon which has none, or Mars that has a very thin one. This atmosphere lets light go through. It is composed of oxygen diluted in nitrogen so that we do not burn our lungs. We have a plentiful supply of water, four-fifths of the planet is water, and most of it is neither frozen nor in a vaporous state. We have life in the ocean, we have life on ground, we have life in the air. So we are in the optimal place, but it is a very fragile situation. Not because a new catastrophe of cosmic origin is in store but because man himself may be the instrument of destruction.

I started my work as psychoanalyst. For sixteen years I worked as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Palestine—today Israel. And when I started my present work, I was led by certain considerations, axiomatic in psychoanalysis. Forgotten memories of a man need to be re-awakened and brought to the surface, to the conscious mind in order to free the person of his irrational behavior. Can we not approach racial memory, racial amnesia, and racial fantasies, in the same way we approach earlier memories, the unconscious mind and the dreams and fantasies of a single personality?

There is a phenomenon that traumatic experiences to which a human being is subjected are forgotten, are erased from the conscious, but conserved in his unconscious mind. This is one of the major contributions of Freud to the psychology of the unconscious mind. The irrational behavior of man comes from a traumatic experience in the past, that the person tries not to know, to forget, not to be aware of, to explain away. All kinds of phenomena come out of this. Criminal behavior, running away from reality, suicidal urge—and we are today a society which is certainly irrational.

As historian and psychologist I felt a duty to continue on Freud’s path, from single individual to the entire human race, because the human race forgot the traumatic experiences to which it was subjected, and only very recently so. (I will read to you from the first page of the future book, Mankind in Amnesia.)

“Contorted figures in discotheques till morning hours, self-immolating young nuns in blazing robes in Vietnam, uncouth beatniks declaiming verse, racing cars overturning in flames onto onlookers who came to witness disaster, assemblages of co-eds in hallucinogenic leave from reality, crowds of negroes reducing city-quarters to shambles, men in capsules revolving around the earth in 90 minutes, next aiming at the moon. All this and much more is the outward picture of mankind in dismay.

“What if really the unidentified flying objects are spying lenses produced in our atmosphere by a remote control and we are under observation? If such were the case—it is not—what picture do we present to an observer from another world? Armies are crossing the ocean to spray with torch hose villagers and with defoliant chemicals fields and forests. Affluence grew around the crematoria where six million people were gassed and the last fat extracted from their emaciated bodies and used for soap. One hundred thousand men, women and children gather as onlookers at a public hanging in the Congo. And derricks are prepared to dig a hole through the earth under the ocean bottom.”1

The Copernican revolution met with opposition because man does not like to think that he is not in the center of the universe, and even more so he does not like to think that he lives on a planet that travels, that moves. The opposition to Darwin came because it was most unpleasant to think, especially in the church-going England, that there is no distinction in principle between man and animal, man with the soul and the soulless animal, only in gradation. But the idea of Darwin that we are secure in our future, that nothing will happen to this earth because nothing did happen in the past, made him acceptable. Changes are small, infinitesimally small, homeopathically small—Darwin in his private life was a homeopath. At the very end of his Origin of Species he wrote that since there is a direct line from pre-Cambrian life to our own time, there could not have been any great catastrophes in the past and we can be certain there will be none. But this was nothing less than psychological scotoma. Psychological scotoma, like ophtalmological scotoma, is an inability to see. Darwin saw through his own eyes on his travels in South America in the pampas of Patagonia, on the plains of Brazil, in the Cordillera of Peru, immense hecatombs of animals big and small, forms still extant and also extinct. He wondered and wrote in his diary: “But to destroy all these animals, small and big, from Tierra del Fuego in South America to the Bering Strait of North America, nothing less than shaking of the entire framework of the world could suffice.” Of the extinction of species he wrote, also in Origin of Species, that it is the most amazing, unexplained, and perplexing phenomenon. He built up a theory of which the main thesis is that the geological record has gaps. On these gaps he built his work, because without them there is no theory of evolution in the Darwinian sense. The argument is ex silentio and is but absence of evidence. Darwin uses the postulated large lacunae in the geological and paleontological records to explain the perplexing accumulations of bones in numerous localities by slow evolution and by slow extinction. But they are not explainable that way, already because in so many assemblages bones were found heaped together of animals from the polar circle, like arctic fox, polar bear or seal, and from the tropical regions, like boa constrictor, crocodile and ostrich, and from the depth of the ocean, all thrown together, and not in one or two places, but in very many all over the world. Alfred Wallace, who simultaneously with Darwin came to the same idea of evolution by natural selection, described the Siwalik Hills at the foot of the Himalayas, bursting with hundreds of miles of deposits of broken bones of animals that do not belong together. Beyond the clerical circles Darwin’s revolution was not met with what is usually described as great opposition. The scientific world accepted him rather soon, rather from the beginning. We are living in a peaceful world and nothing will happen to us. You can invest your money in the stock exchange or in real estate. All is secure. The sea and land will not change their borders.

If you don’t have a Bible just stop at a motel and you find one there. And there you will read if you open it twice—the chances are better than fifty-fifty—a description of some phenomena that are certainly not peaceful. The foundations of the earth were discovered, coal was falling from the sky, earth was trembling, hills were moving into the sea, sea and land were changing places, mountains vomited lava and were molten like wax. And this kind of pictures are found in the prophets through the Psalms and also in the books of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, without end. Even fundamentalists read them as metaphors. Follow the description the Dominican monks wrote down as told by the aborigines of this continent—I quote it in Worlds in Collision—and imagine stones falling from the sky with crashing noises and bitumen pouring down, and men trying to go on the roofs, while the buildings collapse, or to climb the trees which throw them away; imagine the Pacific Ocean rising like a towering wall and approaching the continent, the entire land burning with a thousand volcanoes; new mountains going up and the water carrying everything away. This is not a vision: it is described in historical texts and folk traditions and in epics of many races of the world. We don’t like to think about those things as real events. Already about the time of the first century B. C. started the forgetfulness. In the Sibylline books or in the New Testament many sentences tell of the expectations of Doomsday—a scene taken from the experiences of the past. The phenomenon of the creeping-in oblivion you can observe in the debate between the anti-clerical Lucretius who understood the heritage of ages and the clerical Cicero who claimed that the planets are gods. Nothing can happen to them and whoever claims that at any time they can be at fault should be brought to court and for a capital punishment. The Pythagorean secret teaching, the Stoic philosophy, all the mysteries and various rites, all go back to those experiences, in order to re-live them.

The human history, that starts with the invention of writing, is hardly 5,000 years old. Anyone of you who reached already the age of 25 lived a full half percent of the recorded history. Or I can say, since I work on my book, it passed already more than that. It is a short period to remember and plentiful documentation is available, but the inability to read, word for word, what is written by assuming metaphors where there are no metaphors is a familiar psychological phenomenon of explaining away or rationalizing.

A man who suffers complete amnesia does not remember anything from some date on in the past. He may find himself in the street and he does not know from what town he came, what is his name, whether he is married and has children. He may look for psychiatric help or he may live in a kind of incognito, marry and run the chance of being detected as a bigamist. The cause of the amnesia is in a traumatic experience, the memory of which cannot be faced. Actually the very first case in the psychoanalytical history, a common patient of Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud, was a young lady who had taken care of her father before he died and the experience was so overwhelming for her that she developed a grave neurosis, though not a complete amnesia, but complete as to the events of that period.

A second phenomenon, which Freud stressed again and again, is that a person suffering of traumatic neurosis has the urge to repeat the experience, to re-live it again; very often the person tries to change the roles—he was the victim, he will make another the victim.

Now we are in a much progressed technological age. When I wrote my book I did not expect that I will be here to read about the exploits in the sky. As if man fixed all the problems here on earth he tries to reach the planets. Everything here on earth is in turmoil. Mankind is in dismay.

The communistic world is split, the Semitic world is torn, so also the Latin American and the African and the southeast Asian. Barriers are built even on the Himalayas as if they are not barriers high enough by themselves. This nation is a house divided. Black power, students’ unrest, disorganized society, no more one nation.

It is very well to start the morning by finding your shoes, your textbooks to come to classes and spend the day in classes or in the library, never thinking that we are travelling in space—so safe is the ship. Safe it is—the planets came to a peaceful co-existence. But they still show their wounds. They are still in fever—Mars, Venus and Jupiter and the rest of them are hotter than theoretical would anticipate. Their wounds and the fever are the consequence of their having participated recently in theomachy, the battle of the gods. But today almost every orbit is free of being interchained with another orbit. Nothing spectacular from cosmic spaces is in store for us. But man himself achieved an immense progress in technology. Sciences were proven all wrong. From Harold Urey’s theory of the moon to everything else that was spoken and said. Only recently I visited that friendly library that is never closed here on the campus, not even on Christmas night: the Fine Library of Physics. I pulled out an astronomical text of a Harvard Professor published in 1946. I read it, it was to me like reading Regiomontanus, the accepted astronomer who had his books in scores of editions in the days of Copernicus, while the second edition of De Revolutionibus took place—I do not exactly know how much after the first—eighty years probably. Everything changed, no more the same universe. Today you go into the astronomical building library, a beautiful new place on this campus, and you find there many magazines, and you open as many as you care: all discuss plasma and magnetic fields and interrelations. Nothing of the kind was when I wrote my books. But this is all due to the engineering progress. Is it not amazing to send out a vehicle to overcome the gravitational pull, to aim it at a planet that is hundreds of millions of miles away on its orbit, to know exactly the day and the hour when it will reach the rendezvous point, to scan the planet for its magnetic field, content of its atmosphere, for its form whether it is spherical and on a battery of a few volts to send back a code in many millions of dots of signals with large radio antennas to catch these signals, to put them through computers, to interpret them and to report them—entirely the work of engineers. But before all this, the progress in physics made possible the fission and fusion to the atom. In twenty-five short years since the first successful experiment in a courtyard of the University of Chicago, the means capable of destroying the population of the world is already in the arsenal. This country alone has more than necessary to destroy every city, every village in the world. And on the other side of the ocean another great nation already developed intercontinental missiles that can be thrown over the ocean and then in a kind of saving, in separating itself into six heads destroy simultaneously Boston, Pittsburgh, New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Detroit. And American feature an “omnibus” that may drop continually atomic warheads traveling over Russia. The Russians will soon have artificial satellites permanently in orbits and carrying atom heads that can be directed by a signal to any place on earth. This is really what the ancients called the sword of Damocles. The only population of intelligent being that is left in this solar system—whether there was or was not such population on other planets—nothing is left there. We are alone, man is alone. Contact a star—but the closest star is 4 ½ light years away. Don’t start a long distance telephone conversation by a “Hello!” it will take 9 years to have a “Hello!” in reply. And this is the closest and most probably it has not a single soul with whom to converse there.

If we extinguish life on this planet or if we bring it down to the state of barbarism, and a state of degeneration caused by radiation, it may have been better if had not started at all. But this can happen because we are victims of amnesia. We do not wish to know what happened in the past. Some reader of mine wrote to me: “Even the opposition that you met, the vociferous and hostile opposition that had no precedent in the history of science, was largely caused by the non-desire to know what happened in the past and to realise the traumatic experience of the ancestors, the evidence for which comes from all places, from planets, from the torn continents and torn bottoms of the sea, from all ancient books, sacred books and historical tablets in cuneiform, hieroglyphics on papyri.” And why I ask, did the ancient man worship the planets? And why Zeus, Jupiter, was the main deity? And would you know if you go out, would all of you know to identify among the stars the main deity, planet Jupiter, worshiped by all ancient world? And why was the sun a secondary deity, if everything was always as it is now? Why human sacrifices were brought to planetary gods? And later to the cross and still later to the swastika? A reader of mine, a psychologist in Jerusalem, wrote me: “But anti-Semitism has its first roots in the very fact that the Jewish people by some chance had some survivals, when the sea was torn apart, the sea of Passage, and they took upon themselves the yoke of moral rules and they praised themselves that for their benefit the events took place that threw all the world into shambles, not just Egypt. All the world suffered utter suffering, and here a nation repeatedly claimed and blessed the God for these very events. How not to hate, for the hatred comes from the sub-conscious mind.”

The scientific world, though at small steps, approaches the view that the Darwinian evolution is not the solution, that the world underwent great catastrophes, that planetary bodies are not serene travelers through eons of time on peaceful orbits.

So when I come here to speak about mankind in amnesia it is because I realize the severity of the situation. Something of immense importance is at stake. Before I finish I will read you a letter from one of my readers. “I feel that the ancients in myth, epic and sacred works have been trying to tell us something about a problem that bothered them a great deal. It appears fairly clear that our ancestors were trying to communicate a deep fear, a terrible anxiety. They where talking about a problem that was so terrible that the most drastic measures to group discipline and/or self-repression were justified. It was a powerful fear. It is sometimes suggested that the bible can directly be applied to modern life in that all the ancients were really writing about was the problems of survival, while avoiding neurosis, worries, unhappiness and so on. To me that approach is very unconvincing, the god those people were writing about was terrifying. In the Old Testament he is the god of wrath. And in the New Testament, as Albert Schweitzer among others has pointed out, he is about to end the world in Jesus life-time or shortly thereafter. He was dangerous and violent. Rock, fire, flood, hurricane and similar weapons he used on those he judged ill of. That’s what the ancients wrote, and I see no point in trying to water it down. That’s what they meant. They were really scared.”

I brought you my message. Take it as an effort of a psychoanalyst to apply the method of his art to racial memories and the racial subconscious mind. You understand yourselves what is at stake. You should understand also that coming here I did not wish to sound as a prophet of doom, and I did not call you to mend your ways or to repent but to know yourselves. In order to bring our contemporary life to a rational scale, the very first what we need is to know the past and to be able to face it.


  1. Those passages from an early version of the book are not included in the [printed version].

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