Those of us who follow the work of Velikovsky know that as a Freudian psychoanalyst he had a life long interest in a curious human pathology; what he originally called ‘collective amnesia.’
“Worlds in Collision” was published in 1950. In this book, in a short chapter, he introduced the psychological subject of amnesia, appearing among his better known scientific theories.
Fast forward to 1974 and we see the term morphing into ‘cultural amnesia,’ an entire conference dedicated to the subject, organized by Earl Milton and held at Lethbridge University in Alberta, Canada. The conference was titled, “Recollections of a Fallen Sky: Velikovsky and Cultural Amnesia. Two people with us today, Irving Wolfe and Bill Mullen, presented papers there. Irving called his talk “Shakespeare and Velikovsky, Catastrophic Theory and the Springs of Art.” For Bill it was “Structuring the Apocalypse, Old and New Variations.” More ominously Velikovsky offered the title “Cultural Amnesia: The Submergence of Terrifying Events in the Racial Memory and their Later Emergence.” A one sentence quote from his paper makes my hair stand on end. Velikovsky cries “The inability to accept the catastrophic past is the source of man’s aggression.”
During the conference Velikovsky made special mention that he was working on a book to be called “Mankind in Amnesia.” Eight years later and three years after his death in 1979, “Mankind in Amnesia” was finally published, compiled by Velikovsky’s wife, Elisheva, his assistant Jan Sammer, with written contributions by Lynn Rose. In the Foreward, Rose writes, “The theme of collective amnesia was so important to Velikovsky that during those many years he never failed to include it in his lectures in colleges and universities, in several cases devoting the entire lecture to the subject.”
This theory of cultural amnesia is based on celestial crises and earth catastrophes being seminal events in human history. Amnesia was the reaction to such traumatic events, a way of unconsciously protecting the mental life of surviving individuals from debilitating fears brought on by such wanton destruction. Velikovsky the psychoanalyst, saw amnesia as an imperfect mechanism of memory suppression, recognizing that with forgetting also came later remembering, often with dreadful results.
In this talk we will explore Velikovsky’s cultural amnesia theory and the related process of the ‘sublimation of catastrophic memory,’ a less repressive reaction to traumatic events.
Velikovsky did recognize this healthier sublimation process, but it was his associates that drew out this dynamic in greater detail. I credit contemporary scholars like Alfred de Grazia, Irving Wolfe, Dave Talbott, Bill Mullen, Gunnar Heinsohn, Roger Wescott, Richard Heinberg, Benny Peiser, Warner Sizemore, Lynn Rose and numerous others who addressed this subject. I stand on the shoulders of these men.
In his book, Mankind in Amnesia Velikovsky addresses the fateful matter of our unconscious memory repression: “The great derailment of this planet on its travel put a deep-seated fear into man’s soul; and as the deepest traumas are relegated to oblivion in the soul of a single individual, so also is the case with human kind.”
“The reaction against efforts to bring to the surface of consciousness repressed contents that struggle to stay repressed, can be violent and cause an outburst of hatred; the person trying to help another to bring up the suppressed may be accused himself of fomenting hatred and discord.”
Amnesia is classically understood as an ego defense – a reactive, unconscious repression of memory caused by trauma that is too difficult to bear consciously. It is a protective mechanism, but not without its attendant costs in the later resurfacing of pathological symptoms. Velikovsky considered this condition of cultural amnesia to be so destabilizing for human society that he felt it could eventually lead to an apocalyptic thermonuclear war.
Velikovsky tells us, “As a psychoanalyst I returned many times to the problem of awakening the conscious mind to the forgotten heritage of ages. The traumatic experiences that humans keep buried in oblivion possess enormous power over the destiny of nations. If the human race is not made able to face its past, the traumatic experience that caused cultural amnesia will demand repetition – and since the atomic age began, humans have lived under the sword of Damocles.”
From angry scholars to societal fits of rage, amnesia is revealed as a reactive, disturbing force when symptoms surface. One is a condition of an individual, the other is collective. To understand how amnesia could lead to extreme consequences, the well known psychological complex of PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder offers a guide. Using this approach, both Carl Sagan and society at large can be put on the couch.
Before we highlight such pathology, I suggest we use our imagination to touch into something we naturally choose not to do – to recall the terror of our surviving ancestors – the loss of life of loved ones, the collapse of culture, the grave destruction, the degradation of the environment, and the great tribulations in rebuilding society. Condensed into pure fear, Irving Wolfe calls it the triple terror: the fear of individual death, the fear of the death of our species and the fear of the death of the world. This is what human society strives to push out of consciousness.
In this scenario, after the effects of catastrophe, how could the survivors respond? A high degree of amnesia would naturally set in as a response to the trauma. Memory such as this can be too incendiary to live with and gets buried as deeply as possible in order for life to go on. However, as Velikovsky has informed us, nothing stays submerged forever. Unpleasant associations embedded in memories can get triggered into consciousness by small, random events, leading to severe disturbances to one’s life.
The pathological symptoms ascribed to PTSD are deeply disturbing. They are often violent in character, in actions towards oneself and towards others such as anger, paranoia, grief, self-injury, psychic numbing, compulsive addiction, and the trading of victim status for that of perpetrator. Warfare, despotism, slavery can all be seen as collective pathological responses by taking on an extreme perpetrator role as a way to displace a previous victimization. Velikovsky looked to the Assyrians and their genocidal rage under the banner of the planet god Ares as an example of a behavior that was emulated in response to their own physical disasters.
One of my mentors, Alfred de Grazia, whom I visited at his home in Naxos and in France during the last two years of his life, expresses it similarly in his eye opening book, “The Disastrous Love Affair of Moon and Mars.” A quote: “Memory, I offer, is of traumatic origin. Human memory begins in horror and the need to forget. To remember is to forget; to forget is to remember. From the beginnings of true nature until now, no one has been exempted from the rules of amnesia, not even the philosophers whose sublimation of the terrors of becoming a creature of memory have seemed to carry them far from particular events.
Myth and dreams coincide, operating according to similar laws. The conscious and unconscious parts of the mind exchange with each other what is required for a sense of control to exist so life can go on. Still the balance is scarcely a happy one. Human nature is imprinted by a deeply buried, unresting, and generalized great fear. The fear is reflected today and in the earliest human institutions of religion, politics, sex, schools, commerce and war.”
In this grim review so far we have painted a sorry picture of an amnesic humanity struggling with itself and its history, suffering from mis-knowledge and a suppressed emotionality.
But wait, there’s another story to tell, one that is uplifting, a canny side of humanity that knows how to construct its own alternate reality! This is sublimation, a more therapeutic approach to dealing with a lousy hand of cards. This is not the reactive repression of amnesia, but a skillful reworking of once disturbing memory.
My goal for the rest of the talk is to show you various threads of this Velikovskian sociological inquiry that are slowly disappearing from view due to the greater fixation on all things Science. Each of the following subjects deserves its own presentation, so consider this an introduction.
We will explore five cultural rituals: blood sacrifice, theater, mythic storytelling, athletics, and the plastic arts of sculpture and painting as activities that have helped humanity tell an important story about itself.
We have lost contact with the formative period of human history in which these stories began. Though we are at a great remove and the trail has gone faint, we can explore fragments of the original rituals which we still perform today as clues to our collective past. These rituals continue to satisfy us because they have become archetypal responses to old collective memories. We can see how they changed over time and developed into new stories, sublimating what were once bewildering and threatening experiences by creating a new narrative, sometimes with a positive spin and oftentimes a new outcome, until such time that the new narrative buries the disturbing content of the original event.
We have unconsciously hidden these memories from ourselves in covert ways because we fear their significance. If we were to have a complete recall, we would need to face the realization that the cosmos might again threaten our existence as it once did our ancestors.
We will now explore an important contribution by Irving Wolfe, a thesis he calls “Collective Memory and the Springs of Art,” which explains how the high cultural arts of theater, mythic storytelling and literature arose out of a need to interpret and work through mankind’s experiences of celestial disorder and earth upheaval. This is the heart of the sublimation process.
This is a six minute video of Irving from 1980, taken by Wal Thornhill on the shoreline near Sydney, Australia. Irving uses the words ‘racial memory,’ a term Velikovsky preferred, perhaps now outdated, as a Jungian reference to how memory might be brought forward in time through a collective unconscious.
For those interested, Irving’s video continues for another 10 minutes and can be viewed at my Planet Amnesia web site.
The psychological term, ’sublimation,’ began with Nietzsche, then popularized by Freud who defined it as the process of deflecting subconscious sexual instincts into acts of higher social valuation. Since Freud’s time, these sexual allusions have been scrubbed and now we find an updated definition of sublimation in Wikipedia as “a mature type of defense mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behavior.”
Depending on one’s perspective, this could be considered a skillful survival strategy or a sleight of hand, a kind of unconscious coverup. However we choose to view it, sublimation is a helpful blanket term that points to a re-working of memory, transforming a story over time to make it more culturally acceptable and diminished in severity. This is done through a process of re-enactment or re-play, the narrative becoming altered to suit the needs of the collective.
A story can be told by various means, through the media of theatrical events, through mythic storytelling, through performance of athletic games, through literature, through the plastic arts of painting and sculpture. We can refer to this in modern parlance as “game therapy, or play therapy.”
Gunnar Heinsohn, a scholar of Catastrophism, whom I visited at his home in Gdansk, Poland, offers us a psychological description of this term in his important book, “Creation of the Gods” translated into English by Anne-Marie de Grazia: “Modern child therapy is constructed as play-therapy, the success of which is measured according to the extent that (traumatized) children become again capable to play actively and to become the directors of their own arrangements.
Irving Wolfe has given us evidence for a similar process in Shakespearean plays. The drama that unfolds is meant to take us through a cathartic experience, the outcome satisfying in its resolution over dark forces. We can then go on with our lives in greater peace.
These plays and others are often constructed as tragicomedies, and sometimes as farce, with comedy as perhaps the most successful sublimation tactic. The clown, the jester and a melodrama is perhaps the best example.
In Shakespearean plays we are introduced to an everyday pleasant world that soon becomes disordered; there is confusion and turbulence, an emotional struggle ensues, fate hangs in the balance, human tragedy occurs, a denouement is visible to all – yet in the end there is resolution as the social order regains stability, albeit at great human cost. Shall we laugh or cry at this familiar outcome?
As passive observers of such a play we are guided along a narrative that can be sometimes exhilarating and sometimes discomforting, but in the end the world is always set right. We enjoy the roller coaster ride because it satisfies something deep inside us. We encounter something archetypal, but don’t know its origins. Witnessing this theater we vicariously experience the travails of overcoming catastrophe as the actors in the play have done, emerging as survivors. The idea that we are re-playing ancient cosmic battles that once had severe consequences for our species doesn’t come into the picture. Our human play at sublimation is powerful, able to bring us emotional recovery, distancing us from old fears.
Such disquieting memories that get massaged through artistic re-enactment were played out in a most dramatic fashion during the Bronze Age where the story really begins. Here we will explore Heinsohn’s thesis on the sublimation of catastrophic memory, an early play therapy; what he calls Theomachy Theater.
Quoting from Heinsohn “From the understanding of the childish compulsion to play we can grasp why the early cults of the Bronze Age play at “The Flood” and at “World-fire.” It is these very events which produced the overwhelmingly disturbing impressions which threw communities into psychic chaos if they could not be healed. The first priests become the heroes of humanity because they are producers and directors of the healing sacred Agon. We are no longer surprised to find that next to the parts of afflicted mankind, the presence of actors appearing as annihilating or saving heavenly bodies is also required.”
These seminal experiences were remembered, recalled and re-played again and again through various game therapies in order to deal with their absolute significance for humanity, and to learn their lessons. We can call this ritual, the re-telling of a mythic story that was too important to forget. This was not an amnesia, but a workable sublimation.
Mankind projected meaning onto these visions of celestial combatants, these willful, rogue astral bodies and called them gods. These gods were seen to war on each other, with earth, and with humanity.
Quoting Heinsohn again: “From an anthropomorphizing and beastiomorphizing perspective, the cosmic collisions of inorganic clumps of matter have often been viewed as duels between warriors, beasts or fabulous beings. The end of the catastrophe is seen as the victory of one of the heavenly combatants, or of one party of gods, with another, or opposing party “losing,” “dying,” eventually being annihilated. Therefore the cosmic, or “divine” side of this overwhelming impression must be integrated into the healing play of men in the form of a duel: “the slain being, man or animal, represents of course the godhead itself in the same sense that for us an actor on the stage represents King Lear and, for the duration of the play, is identical with him.”
This theomachy, or god warfare crisis that brought destruction to earth was later replayed by humans during the Bronze Age in grand theatrical games and performances on hilltop citadels. This was the original “art” form, the re-enacting of events in the form of drama. The earth at this time likely carried an intense electrical field charge and allowed the priests to create spontaneous burnt offerings on their high stone altars, and to employ dramatic forms of St. Elmo’s fire. Perhaps these priests were the first electrical engineers, Moses-like in their fire and brimstone liturgies.
Quoting an 18th century catastrophist, Nicholas Boullanger: “Notwithstanding all the noise and solemnity of these games and festivities, one has nevertheless taken notice of the fact that they resembled tragedies more than pleasure games. And what might have been the motive for the beating and fighting of fencers in all of these games? Their first purpose had no doubt been to represent in a sensuous way the combats of the gods. One sacrificed to storms, lightning flashes and thunderclaps and imitated these atmospheric phenomena with much noise and rumble. Of the warlike dances in the honor of Castor it was believed that they represented the war of the [celestial] giants.”
Continuing with Heinsohn, “Athenaeus writes about a dance which was called the Burning of the World. Is it possible, therefore, that in the rituals the flood and the burning of the world are indeed imitated? And what reality do these menacing words represent? Are the participants not acting as representing themselves? Could they be, far beyond that, actors who were made to take on a dangerous, even a murderous part?
In the ritual, therefore, (as written in the Enuma Elish) the King plays the role of the celestial body Marduk, which must defeat the flood bringing celestial body Tiamat. In perfect correspondence, we know about ancient Egypt that the king fulfilled his most important function – that is to say, his priestly function – in that he annihilated “humans, animals or objects as aspects of threat”
What emerges in the Bronze Age is a cultural phenomenon that becomes a central focus of people’s lives. This theomachy theater with its stage sets, its panoply of actors, masks, costumes, and ornaments evoked celestial beings and their exploits. With cacophonous music and tightly scripted storytelling, high cultures came into formative being through these artistic expressions displayed in grand pageantry. The incredible rituals that we see in the Bronze Age were the impetus for all kinds of cultural expression, far beyond the contribution of improved metallurgy and advances in agriculture.
Bronze Age theater came into being not for the sake of entertainment, but for an important therapeutic function. Heinsohn offers a compelling theory that these theatrical events included human and animal sacrifice as a central feature and that such ritual murder performed a healing for a zombified population, calling it “game therapy for cosmically disturbed communities.” To understand this radical effort at sublimation of disturbed memory we need to imagine how completely devastated human populations would have been after a catastrophe, and living in fear that another one could be on its way.
Reading further from his Creation of the Gods book, I quote: “The great sacrificial cults reveal themselves to be collective healing rituals for communities which have been turned insane, i.e. which have become “incensed by their misfortune.” The anger at the triumphant attack of nature, which cannot be evacuated constructively through aggression, flight or plea bargaining, finds itself pushed back down the throat of humanity, as it were. In the ritual, it is used up in an organized fashion. Now, the collectivity in need of healing inflicts upon human or animal impersonators of the forces of nature (quoting from Freud) “that unpleasantness, which itself has suffered and avenges itself thus upon the person of this proxy.” In the butchering of the proxies of falling heavenly objects, sickening anger evaporates.
Humans free themselves in this bloody action from the up to now inwardly directed anger which had kept them in helpless catatonia, psychosomatic pain, or in a state of aggression endangering their fellow human beings. This then empowers the community to turn its efforts once more to solving practical problems.”
The founders of these sacrificial cults, these sacred executioners, were psychologically so perceptive and so successful through staging of this liberating theater that they were considered heroes and good shepherds to humanity. These narratives were the beginnings of religions, underpinned by a strong social compact and a rigid hierarchy.
Heinsohn continues, “A lot was achieved for the benefit of the community if it was not directly involved in the killing. A great measure of guilt had then been taken from it by the priest. Therefore it finds itself indebted to him and treats him with feelings of awe which establish a feeling of distance. When this awe is expressed through marks of respect and the bringing of material gifts, the decisive step towards a priestly aristocracy, and eventually to human high culture, is achieved.
The legitimation of the priests dwelled in their healing potency over a truly stricken collective. This legitimation becomes undone when, at the beginning of the Iron Age, catastrophes come to a halt and the strong remedies are no longer needed.”
As the bronze age came to a close the routine sacrifices became oppressive and some cultures opted out, the most prominent being the Jews and the Buddhists. The old warring gods had fled and new narratives took hold in the axial age. Fears dissipated and the Jews abandoned their sacrificial cults, except for the temple in Jerusalem and became chroniclers of history, while the Buddhists turned away from the Brahmanic sacrifices, rejecting all gods, and explored the nature of consciousness, encouraged by the newly quiescent heavens.
This Bronze Age sacrificial theater can be seen in another example of sublimation, in what we now call competitive sports or athletics, what the Greeks called Agon. Bill Mullen, my partner in our May 2016 Toronto conference wrote a paper that explored this topic called ‘Pindar’s Wisdom: Terror at the Edge, Victory Joy at the Center.’
One of the best known examples are the Mesoamerican ball games in which human heads representing bolides or astral bodies were used as foot balls. We see such decapitated heads memorialized by the Olmecs in giant ball-shaped stone carvings, many with helmets. Similar to the hilltop citadel
theomachy theater in the West, the ball players representing the vanquished were put to death at the end of the competition.
A more familiar example are the Olympic games that began as a running marathon to commemorate a moving celestial drama. The games were meant not only to address an important past event through an archetypal duel, but also to create social stability, a kind of safe space between rituals. If the ritual competition between players was preformed skillfully and the gods were honored appropriately, the populace could be assured that until the next games all would be well with the world.
In the Bronze Age there were some willing victims for such theatrical games, in later times less so. The substitution of animals became more common and the scapegoat appeared. Criminals and captured enemies were also made the victims, they being deified as well before they were sacrificed. Heinsohn restates this so-called Bronze Age time period as the “Age of Sacrifice,” so prevalent were these world wide cults.
So far we have explored sacrifice, theater and athletics as dramatic art forms that helped sublimate catastrophic memory. The evolution of these forms is an important thread to follow.
DeGrazia offers to connect the dots: “The first phase consists of direct experience of gods in nature. The second phase permits god-heroes, the third phase pure heroes, and the fourth phase calls for plain human beings with typical human behaviors. To take an example: Mars is Ares; Ares becomes Hercules; Hercules is a god, but also becomes quite human; Hercules becomes subject to a mass of folk tales; the unconscious artistic mind can push to all limits of the imagination with him.”
Returning to Heinsohn, “The more one moves away from real blood sacrifice (at the end of the bronze age), the more important becomes the idol fashioned by the artist, thanks to which the holy-healing action becomes transportable. We see the evolution of god figures moving away from those represented in the flesh. The parallel to the Christian god-icon is again evident.”
This is another sublimation, an important transition in physical representation of god-ness, incorporating the arts of sculpture and painting. From this point, it can be seen to change further with cultures like Islam and early Buddhism forbidding the representation of god images all together in order to drive away association with idols. Fleshy corpses to inert stone statues to inner visions of gods or the one god, is quite a sublimation.
Roger Wescott paints a picture of one myth and links it back to its catastrophic origins: “We still find common themes, one of the most wide-spread of which in both hemispheres is that of the “ash child”, an underprivileged young person who grows up in filth without the respect of either family or neighbors yet manages to rise to an elevated status in later life. In the Old World, where the protagonist is a girl (known as Cinderella in English), her story is the most popular of all traditional narratives. In the New World, where the hero is male, he is known as Dirty Boy. In both cases, however, there is a common element of rising from the ashes, which resonates not only with the “rags to riches” folklore of modern capitalism but also with the ancient phoenix motif in Europe, Africa, and Asia. And here too there may well be a catastrophist motif of the recovery of mankind and the attainment of new greatness following a global conflagration.”
These stories that were often acted out in ritual can be seen to evolve over time. Many of them stand in stark contrast to watered down versions today.
I quote Wescott again in a similar vein as deGrazia, in his explanation of how this comes about:
“In the case of myth and non-mythic folklore, it was presumably brought about by a gradual process of desacralization. The first step in desacralizing myth was probably that of secularization – converting celestial agency to human agency and a cosmic setting to a terrestrial one, as in legend. The second step was …. desolemnizing legend itself, by converting human to animal agency and significant localities into places which are at once anywhere and nowhere, as in folktale.”
In time, the sublimation process warps the myth until the origins are obscured. The cosmic becomes the everyday. For example, we have removed sacrifice from all our rituals except for warfare. In modern sports the loser doesn’t die, but lives only in small dishonor and can play again.
Take for example the game of American baseball. Though unlikely the inventor worked off a secret society handbook, he did manage to construct this game therapy with elements of catastrophe:
The crowd waits in anticipation. A catastrophe occurs – a bolide is hit and ejected and thrown with violence, it is caught or dropped or it misses its target – strike! The players run in a circle with bases as way stations of safety until the next catastrophe. Teammates experience their own catastrophes, pushing each other along the sequence of bases without overriding them. They run home safely, the crowd cheers and great tension is relieved. The winning team completes the most orbits. Could baseball and other ball games find their origins in the ancient past, now sublimated into pleasant entertainment without the accompanying ancient fears? Can we make the connection?
We must take nothing for granted if we are to look deeply at such associations. Many cultural forms can be seen as archetypes having emerged in the distant past in response to huge impressionable phenomenon. Everyday occurrences were not recorded. Only the most significant events in mankind’s history were encoded into collective memory and carried forward.
My conclusion is that mankind has well succeeded at its sublimation efforts, so much so, that it has almost erased the memory of this pathway out of trauma. The old fears have been subsumed for the most part in the skillful and artful dance of forgetting and remembering. Too bad we can’t stand back and applaud ourselves, but clearly our work is not done. We need a full anamnesis, not just a sly sublimation.
In short, we have succeeded in some areas to heal our collective, but in others we are still acting out pathologically. It may be that our societies are still sick enough that we might blow ourselves up in frustration and anger as Velikovsky feared.
In an equally disturbingly vein, we may consider that once worldwide practices of the old sacrificial priesthoods still influence our societies, no longer benefitting humanity, but covertly enslaving it. Has an ancient social compact been broken? Has slavery crept into the equation to such a degree, through serfdom, through Babylonian money magick and usurious debt slavery, that we have reached a catastrophic crisis with the old priesthood run amuck with nothing better to do than harvest the well being of the ruled? Are we being farmed?
By habit are we creating a new apocalypse, no longer caused by solar system instability, but engineered by a troubled humanity as a way to revisit its judgement day??
Who knows the way out of our psychic mess, but I will hazard a guess that reconstructing certain events in our human past, our planet, and our solar system will go a long way towards a possible catharsis and healing.
In my last comments I now quote from the eloquent Irving Wolfe, something he wrote 40 years ago and still true today:
“We are in a period where, due to our rapidly-increasing expertise in technology, we are unearthing in all disciplines a series of disturbing secrets about ourselves and our world. In most cases, the reaction of the establishment has been a violent desire to prevent such secrets from becoming known or accepted. Thus, as suppression of the truth in art and science increases in direct proportion to the chance of it becoming consciously known, the resultant danger to mankind, is the danger that, like an individual neurotic, we will do horrible deeds. Increasingly therefore we must learn to use the message of art not merely to relieve this pressure as we have done up to now, but to remove it. Art, like medicine, will have to become preventive rather than merely curative; and in a sense art is a form of collective medicine. If we will cure ourselves, we must see to it that the remembering remains, by bringing the lurking truth into the open where it can be perceived and understood. This involves a tremendous alteration in our attitude to art, a quantum leap to a new level of collective self-understanding”
THANK YOU THE END