Monday, November 21, 2011

Toward a Theory of Thanksgiving (pace Freud)

I went to art school in 2003, and my school was really big on what they called "theory." This word seemed to refer to pretty much any long-winded writing that was inscrutable; it didn't have to be about visual art at all, really. The argument for this course of study was that back in the 1980s, there was a lot of theory-driven art. True enough. It didn't seem to matter that most people hate theory-driven art, and that nobody was making any theory-driven art any more. Academic art is by definition twenty years, at least, behind the times.

So every week we read hundreds of pages of prose I would never have read except under duress. With one exception: Freud. I really like Freud. He's not really that inscrutable, and he's all about sex, of course, and he has a wonderful 19th century writing style, with long, meandering, thoughtful sentences. At least it's wonderful in translation. (It could be horrible in German for all I know.) Like the best Victorian writers, Freud manages to be both prim and salacious at once. He describes the most perverse goings-on with a clinical detachment that barely masks his delight in them.

  His writing style is also wonderfully parody-able. So one time, when we were assigned to write an essay about "Totem and Taboo," and it happened to be around Thanksgiving, I was inspired to write this "theory of Thanksgiving turkey-eating." I hope it's funny even if you haven't read "Totem and Taboo" recently.

The inhabitants of the continent of North America have some
strange customs, which, nonetheless, psychoanalysis is able to elucidate, if not penetrate.  Perhaps the strangest is their custom of murdering and then devouring millions of turkeys on the last Thursday of November of each year.  The Americans do not eat turkey at any other time of year, or only rarely.  And, they do not commonly murder turkeys individually, as the wild turkeys of that country are practically extinct, and the domestic turkeys are known for their propensity to shit upon people’s porches, as they love to roost on the porch railings. So, turkeys are not much kept as domestic pets.  Indeed it could be said that the Americans have a taboo against killing turkeys individually (which certain white male inhabitants of the rural South ignore completely, as they do other taboos generally).   How, then, can we account for the mass murder of turkeys each November? 

First, it is important to know that the inhabitants of the United States, for the most part, have only been in that country for a few generations, with few exceptions.  They are of European, African, Asian, or South American extraction, whose ancestors came to the North American continent as recently as last week, or as long ago as the 17th century.  We are excepting from our survey of this population the native people, who were practically exterminated between the time when Europeans first arrived, bringing diseases to which the natives were susceptible, and the late 19th century, when the last of the native people were exterminated.  Nonetheless, some of their genes doubtless survive in the present population of the United States.

So, acknowledging that the history of the United States is rooted in a murder, nay, a genocide of several million of the original inhabitants, what connection could this have to the ritual murder of millions of turkeys every year?  The ritual murder at “thanksgiving” is no less than the commemoration of this “original sin,” which the Americans have largely forgotten, of the murder of the ancient ancestors of their land, the native people.  These people are, as it were, the “ancestors” of the present inhabitants, in the sense that they owned and controlled the motherland. In order for Europeans to gain access to her fertility, the ancient native patriarchs had to be destroyed, and even devoured.  We see this cannibalistic destruction in the pictures of the first thanksgiving, displaced, however, as the native ancestors are portrayed as “guests” at the feast rather than as the dinner itself.  In fact they were the hosts, who ended up giving their own flesh as food to the Europeans.  But such an unpleasant and disagreeable thought is not palatable at the thanksgiving table; thus the European Americans represent themselves as the hosts, the Indians as their “guests”, and the turkey as the meal.

What drove the European Americans to commit this atrocious sin that they now cannot contemplate, and have even forgotten?  Lust for the land that the native people controlled, is the only possible answer, as psychoanalysis makes clear.  The Europeans felt excluded from the use of the “rich virgin wilderness,” as they described it.  They felt that the native people monopolized her fertility, and didn’t even use it to its fullest.  The native people were mere hunters and gatherers, the Europeans thought, rather than sophisticated farmers like the Europeans.  Thus they justified the murder of the patriarchs and the seizure of their fertile virgin motherland.

But once the murder had been accomplished by the end of the 19th century, remorse set in immediately.  The band of Europeans remembered how quaint and picturesque the native people had been in their full regalia. They found themselves unable to mate with the female natives, and in fact they erected a taboo against Europeans mating with dark skinned women of any race. It is as if, by murder of the Indian fathers and by the seizure of their lands, they had in fact become the kinsmen of the Indian women and new members, initiated by violence,  of the same turkey clan.  Similarly, they began to lament their own destruction of the once-great forests, the despoliation of the streams, and the destruction of the prairie grasses.  Almost immediately they began to set aside the most beautiful of the lands they had seized as national parks, which were never to be touched by any white man for his use. The analogy of land use with mating thus becomes explicit, as the incest taboo is operative even environmentally.

Now we can see the strange custom of mass turkey murder in its full meaning.  The turkey, it will be seen, stands for the ancient ancestor, the patriarchs, the native people of the Americas who were themselves murdered en masse so that food could be grown for Europeans on their fertile motherland.  In that sense, the native people became, as it were, the food of Europeans. The turkey is the perfect, although unconscious, symbol for the Europeans of the native people that they exterminated:  it is a bird native only to the Americas and was not known to Europeans before they came to this new continent; and it has a reputation of being a somewhat guileless bird, easy to hunt and kill, although somewhat shy and very elusive in the wild.  Therefore, in celebrating its murder and devouring every year, the European Americans are re-enacting their original sin, both celebrating their defiant triumph over the former holders of the land, and propitiating their totem, the bird, which they revere even as they slaughter it.  For no less a person than their beloved Founding Father Benjamin Franklin proposed that the turkey be the totem animal of the newly created United States. In fact the official totem bird is the bald eagle; however, psychoanalysis easily recognizes the bald eagle as nothing other than a displacement of the turkey into a form that is more palatable (no pun intended) to the American mind, being less of an explicit reminder to the European Americans of the bloody origin of their nation-state.  The totem animal—whether turkey or eagle—embodies their community, which is the true object of their worship. And yet also the embodiment of their sin:  “in the beginning was the Deed.”

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