Freud Memory Photography (Jewish Techno-Paganism) (Mary Bergstein)


A friend recommended and I liked a lot, loved it actually, Mary Bergstein’s Mirrors of Memory: Freud, Photography, and the History of Art. In this book about everything, Bergstein writes about art, psychology, archaeology, religion, medicine, but primarily about the relation between images and mental life by speculating upon the sculptures, photographs, images of photographs from books that Freud had in his library. It doesn’t matter that we don’t really know which images would have been most important to Freud, or even which books he might have actually read (p.2). What matters is the way Bergstein re-assembles them.

Myth comes back as memory. Memory looks like dream-photography. Photography looks like a dream memory (p.273). There are three fundamental couplings that are of interest to me here. [1] gods, goddesses,  and hysterics (women), [2] Jews, Egyptians, Rome and Romans, [3] eros and oblivion. In Bergstein’s reading, the original objecthood of the object has been “de-realized” as what matters most psychologically is not the reality of an object such as a god or a statue of a god as much as the impact or the presence of an image. Photographic images are “photographic [surrogates],” “fragments of bodies floating in a darkened space –served as pretexts for erotic desires” “surpassing the primary referent” (p.274, 20-1, cf. 63). In both photography and memory, the operations are automatic and violate the order of chronotype time, revealing latent truths (pp.17, 23, 24).

Bergstein’s book sheds a lot of light on Racial Fever, Eliza Slavet’s book on “Freud and the Jewish question,” especially Slavet’s fifth chapter in which we are given to understand how for Freud Jewish “spirituality” and “intellectualism” (Geistigkeit) is rooted in biological memory as its substrata. Slavet notes how Freud sought in this to balance Geistigkeit and sensuality, which Bergstein reminds us is what actually drew Freud to anthropomorphic, pagan religion (237). Bergstein does is to make a similar set of points regarding the balance between Geistigkeit and sensuality and to illustrate it, photographically, which is the truest accomplishment of Mirrors of Memory (pp.219, 237, 240ff, 259). To find and create that balance, Freud had to go to Rome, a city which he loved, like many other Central Europeans and German Jews, which is the subject of Asher Biemann’s excellent Dreaming of Michelangelo. Memory is photographic, figuratively, and imagined as such, literally –and also lithophilic, having to do with the love of stones, in this case sculptures as if brought back to life via the Pygmalion effect of the photographic medium.

What I take from Bergstein’s book is the suspicion that Freud was a Jewish techno-pagan. As a way to think about things like matter and memory or religion and art, photography commends itself for the way a detail can dominate focus, becoming more vivid, torn out of context, filling the mind’s eye. In all this, Bergstein would seem to suggest that Freud was a kind of modern primitive, who took to sculptures and photographs of sculptures as a kind of sympathetic magic and technological talisman, which is the subject of the last chapter of a book whose own magic effect is to create a genuine sympathy for it object, Sigmund Freud, or at least the image of her object through the magical medium of photographic memory.

There are a bunch of photographs I want to share in separate posts to follow.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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