The Weirdness of History

By Jerry S. Piven, Ph.D.

Dr. Piven's article is a gem! Though, perhaps, it might have been better entitled, The Usefulness of Psychohistory. The short and interesting musings of Professor Piven include fascinating case study examples which show us how the study of psychohistory can bring us knowledge of the "whys" of historical movements. We find that the assumed causes are often not what they seem to be. Instead we find that unconscious psychopathology explains much of the real causes of life altering events which sweep us, along with the rest of humanity, towards our destiny.

The first three paragraphs of The Weirdness of History gives the reader some bizarre information about three famous historical figures. Try to guess who they are before you receive the answer from the author. You will probably name one or two correctly. If you get all three, well - well done!
-- John A. Speyrer, Webmeister

Imagine, if you will, a tortured soul, who in the midst of his daily excretory ritual, is accosted by a hostile vision of Lucifer himself. The Devil attacks him in the castle lavatory, hurling scatological slurs (and perhaps other matter) toward his hapless defecating victim, whose only defense is to fling insults and other available material back at his evil foe. He finally defeats Satan with "a mighty anal blast." Imagine how this fecal hallucination became the inspiration for a theological revolution, how this tortured soul became the leader of a religious movement which changed history irrevocably. "Scatet totus orbis," he proclaims: the entire world defecates.

Imagine another unusual psyche, a failed artist with one testicle, who is obsessed with the elimination of a virulent disease from society. He enjoys having his lovers relieve themselves on his face, cannot experience the erotic unless their fetid excretions pour over his eyes and mouth. He becomes the leader of his country, which engages in a furor of genocidal ethnic cleansing. This leader is so charismatic that after his paranoid speeches his subjects riot, go on delirious killing sprees, and random strangers copulate frenetically from the ecstasy his message inspires. He lays waste to innumerable lands, peoples, cultures.

Finally, picture a child beaten daily by his father, an expert in childrearing practices. The father methodically beats his child, admonishes him, places him in a steel harness to prevent him from any sinful movement. The child grows up to be a respectable juror, but eventually falls ill. He hallucinates that God is victimizing him excruciatingly, invading his body, and turning him into a woman. Paradoxically, he becomes the advocate and avatar of this God, and spreads his message from his padded cell.

If such cases do not arouse a sense of wonder, shock, bafflement, or disgust, then history, the human mind itself, will surely hold scant interest. Why learn anything, when ignorance is instantaneous?1

These cases are real. The first is the case of Martin Luther, a rare soul whose impact on history and religion is inestimable. And yet he was not a well man. His obsession with feces is absolutely weird; his excremental visions embarrassing, offensive, or comical to those who hear them. How was this psyche, in all its genius and dementia, formed?

The second case, and I cannot imagine that the reader will not have guessed, is none other than Adolf Hitler. How was it that a genitally mutilated child2 came to enjoy such perverse sexuality, strive psychotically to dominate and destroy the world, and inspire such violence and delirious sexual excitement? Under what conditions do people have frantic sex after violent speeches? How is it that groups of ordinarily sane human beings can be whipped into a frenzy, aroused in their hostility and bloodlust to slaughter blithely and self-righteously? How do we understand such spontaneous madness?

The final example is that of Dr. Schreber, a case made famous by Freud and debated endlessly by psychologists for eighty years. Wherefore his religious delusions? Why would God want to turn him into a woman?

Psychohistory addresses cases and questions such as these. Psychohistorians themselves approach history from a variety of disciplines, integrating anthropology, sociology, and biology into their psychological investigations of human motivation and the irrational. After all, history is fairly nightmarish (Joyce's hero Stephen Dedalus proclaimed that "history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake").3 How are we to understand such bizarre phenomena? The first thing is to find the sheer insanity of history beguiling and fascinating, and realize that mere chronicling of events just does not explain much about the lunatic and precocious imaginations that have created the world we inherit.

The fascination for lunacy, imagination, vision as well as hallucination, is what seduces us. We seek models to understand the mind, realize that any attempt to understand cases like those cited above, are doomed to pathetic failure without an informed understanding of the human psyche. History without the psyche is not human at all, and those who are struck by the irrational, by the creative imagination itself, will find typical explanations of historical events and personages drearily dull, insipid, soporific, and frankly worthless.

There really is no amateur way to understand folks like Hitler and Martin Luther, or Nazism, revolution, religious wars, without an understanding of the psyche and its host of derangements. One would have to recreate the wheel, be so perspicacious and brilliant that he or she could invent psychology from scratch. Possible, but not bloody likely. Occasionally someone conceives quantum mechanics or calculus instantaneously, creatio ex nihilo, but realistically how does one understand coprophilia or jihad on one's own?4 The future of historical analysis must include a psychological and interdisciplinary perspective to make any sense of the question of why.

We are fortunate to have a number of psychological perspectives which provide a few facts, and some palpably useful models with which we can present a penetrating analysis of the human mind. We have found that children develop with specific needs and proclivities, that the nature of character and pathology result from certain modes of experience. Psychodynamics are neither random nor unpredictable.5

We have found that Luther's phantasms may be traced to the tortuous relationship with his father, deriving from the complex matrix of abuse, guilt, and loathing heaped upon him like so much offal.6

We can similarly perceive that Schreber's religious hallucinations of the God who victimizes him symbolize his pathological relationship to the invasive and violent father who made him feel helpless and feminized.7 Or we may examine something far different, such as the erection of the Egyptian pyramids, detecting in these massive monuments eternal denials of the gruesome facts of death and decay.8 These are but a few examples, a few hints to stimulate the reader to ask new questions, glimpse the amazing complexities of human motivation and fantasy.

But we do not only use psychology to diagnose history. The point is not to diagnose Joan of Arc as a schizophrenic and be done with her. We surely seek to understand human motivation, because the history of the imagination in all of its lunacy is beguiling and fascinating. We seek to understand the depths, the feelings, the symbols, the nature of the hallucinations and madness. And yet we also wish to learn from history. How do we understand ourselves if not by learning lessons, struggling with those imaginations, asking how in God's name the same people who fall to their knees before the divine in love and gratitude can mount their horses and ride thousands of miles through the desert to waste the most cultivated and spiritual folks on the planet. What is with these people? And what does this say about us, our religions, holy wars, self-righteous invasions, our insanity?

Therein is the fascination. We espy a culture turning to madness and cannibalism in a heartbeat. We ask both what inspired this frenzy, and when do we succumb to similar ferment? We examine a case of human sacrifice, the holy consumption and consecration of the victim, and wonder if perhaps there is an uncanny similarity when we ritually eat the body and drink the blood of our Lord.

This is our task: to use our unique psychological knowledge to deepen our understanding of these uncanny phenomena, and explore the nature of humanity through the historical imagination. Always a sense of deepening and exploring, taking very little for granted when it comes to that enigma we call psyche. For it is an enigma, and becomes all the more fascinating and alluring as we discover the opulence of the imagination. Damn if it isn't exciting.

Dr Jerry S. Piven teaches the psychology of religion at New School University and New York University. His courses focus on death, sexuality, and psychoanalytic investigations of culture and history. Professor Piven also trains at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, and has lectured for the International Psychohistorical Association, The American Academy of Religion, and The Ernest Becker Foundation. He is the author of a book entitled Death Denial and Religious Evolution: Psychopathology and Sexual Violence in History, which has been submitted for publication.

1 Quoth Hobbes.
2 The facticity of this anatomical feature is questionable. But that is another aspect of the fascination to pursue history.
3 Joyce, James. Ulysses. Chapter 2, line 3 7 7.
4 Of course, we psychohistorians sometimes commit the concomitant error of basing our analyses on a superficial knowledge of history. A fact to remember before we describe non-psychological histories as soporific or worthless! I would describe both psychological and historical knowledge as sine qua nons of interpreting history. Neither one is adequate on its own.
5 Though they may indeed be confusing and elusive! Such is the complexity we seek to understand and investigate.
6 See especially Erikson's Young Man Luther and Norman 0. Brown's Life Against Death.
7 See the case of Schreber in Freud's Three Case Histories.
8 See for example Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death.

From The Journal of Psychohistory, Volume 28, No. 1 Summer, 2000. Reproduced with permission.

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