In a must-read book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on mass psychology.
“Here is a very simple, but not unimportant, observation. It is not so much the possibility that the past is preserved in mental life that obliges us to subscribe to this postulate; rather it is its consequences, and particularly the most shocking of them. Namely, that history is a cyclical movement. Crowds also move through cycles, returning to places they have already visited and unconsciously repeating ancient actions. Charisma is one of these. We can see in it one of those materials subsisting from ancient times, periodically resurfacing when the wheel of society brings it out into the open air again and then disappearing once more. We must push our hesitation aside and ask how the process works. Beings and situations from the past take the form of an imago or figurative representation in our minds. Like old-fashioned pictures, they make present, in a simplified form, what is absent. It is usually a question of beings and situations we have identified with - our parents, our nation, a war or revolution associated with particularly strong emotions. As Laplanche and Pontalis point out, the imago can manifest itself in feelings and behaviour as well as in images (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1967: 196).
Most kinds of imago bear the mark of having been suppressed at one time or another for moral, political or cultural reasons. They come from a process of selection aimed at erasing them from the history of a people. The condemnation of Galileo or the execution of Louis XVI, the persecution of the Jews or the crucifixion of Christ were attempts to stop the people identifying with them or their ideals, which were to be eliminated once and for all. Far from disappearing, such forbidden and selected elements are grouped together and reconstituted in memory. With the insight of genius, Balzac has movingly described in Le Medecin de campagne how the scattered and secret members of the Old Guard lovingly reassembled the fragmentary memories of ‘their’ Napoleon and created the legend of the man whose name it was forbidden to utter during the Restoration.
With its terrible obstinacy, the memory first conventionalises both the smallest thought and the most insignificant detail of reality and every actor involved. By this, I mean that it removes everything that is incompatible and complex in them, stereotypes them and reproduces them in conformity with certain typical set forms. Heroes will always die a striking and tragic death, great leaders will always have the majestic face of the strict, calm father, prophets will always have a flowing beard and speak in angry and just tones, and so on. And they are made close to us and familiar to us, all alike. The process of identification always fixes characters in a vignette, and this they endure valiantly.
Memory then endows them with an all-pervading emotional strength. For want of a better term, let us call this the charm of nostalgia. By contrasting past and present, our memory contrasts the people and the reality around us with the image of their counterparts reconstructed by our minds. We remove all that is unpleasant, negative or unbearable from them and tend to keep only what is agreeable, positive and gratifying. And even when it is a question of history's bloodiest tyrants or the most lamentable periods of our own lives, we always recreate memories which are more satisfying and more in conformity with our desires.
In most cases, this charm of nostalgia removes all virulence from past conflicts, as when we think of our own childhood or the history of our country. It makes incompatible things compatible and even manages to make implausible ones plausible. It reshapes the imago according to the principle of the coincidentia oppositorum, the cohesion of opposing ideas, feelings and characters. The result is that things from the past never appear to us as they really were, but are filtered through the major themes of our own history or culture and are always more brilliant or more obscure than in reality. There is no such thing as memory. There are only memoirs, like those written by authors seeking to justify their existence, seeking to fascinate the reader with the story of their life and convinced that they are telling the truth.
The charm of nostalgia is all the more irresistible when more distant and more ethereal periods are involved. Freud notes that:
Long-past ages have a great and often puzzling attraction for men's imagination. Whenever they are dissatisfied with their present surroundings - and this happens often enough - they turn back to the past and hope that they will now be able to prove the truth of the inextinguishable dream of a golden age. They are probably still under the spell of their childhood, which is presented to them by their not impartial memory as a time of uninterrupted bliss. (Freud: XXIII, 71)
What is transmitted from one generation to another with such slavish fidelity is thus a work of the imagination grafted onto a stock of indestructible psychic reality.
These types of selected and forbidden imago are preserved like memory traces. From time to time they emerge into our conscious mind. Together with thoughts and memories linked to a drive, they are, according to Freud, censored, deformed and stifled by the individual's desire to keep them in the unconscious. Despite being thrust back in this way, however, they tend to come back along the indirect road of dreams, neurotic symptoms and so-called psychosomatic disorders. When this happens, the unconscious content exerts, without the knowledge of the conscious mind, an obsessive and inescapable influence. This disturbing process is the return of repressed material. Strictly speaking, however, it is proper to individual psychology and difficult to apply to mass psychology.
In the first place, it presupposes the existence of an unconscious, which is not a mass phenomenon, and not admitted by psychoanalysis (Freud: XXIII, 259). In addition, the return of repressed material is primarily a matter of repressed erotic drives, and it is to these that the greater part of what is compressed and forgotten in the unconscious relates. But the psychic residues of times long past, the inheritance of the mases, is rather of a mimetic nature. It is a question of identification with one's ancestors, a great man such as Einstein or Napoleon, or with one's birthplace and so on. It returns in each generation. When Freud, in the closing pages of Moses and Monotheism, undertook his final account of the development of the human race, he declared that it could be seen as ‘a return of the repressed’. But he immediately went on to add: ‘Here, I am not using the term “the repressed” in its proper sense. What is in question is something in a people’s life which is past, lost to view, superseded and which we venture to compare with what is repressed in the mental life of an individual’ (Freud: XXIII, 132).
In order to avoid a rather dubious transfer from one branch of psychology to another, we can envisage a specific process, imago-resurrection. This is expressed in a sudden, almost theatrical, and at any rate total and vivid, recall of situations and persons from the past. There are several analogous situations. If the temporal cortex of an epileptic patient is stimulated, there is a total resurgence of the experiences, images, situations, actions and feelings of the whole of his past life. Similarly, when someone is in a state of emotional shock, he begins to speak in a different and forgotten kind of language and to react in an archaic way unseen for a long time. In addition, what has happened in the past and relates to the primordial identification of a group tends to be tirelessly repeated and to impose itself as a kind of coercive model. It is as if, for example, those participating in one revolution were reproducing and resuscitating another, as if we were seeing a recreation of the French Revolution in the Russian Revolution. Or again, as if a single emperor, a Cresar or a Napoleon, were being continually reborn in every other emperor.
There is an important consequence. In everything to do with the present, we are not only seeing a copy of the past but reliving it with the feelings appropriate to the original events. Thus we can see the achievement of an archaic and perfect society in a future society, Christ in the Pope, Napoleon or Louis XIV in de Gaulle, and so on. We are reminded of the words of the great Arab philosopher Saada: ‘Great is the number of women who in the shade of the tent and hidden by the veil are beautiful. But take aside the veil and thou wilt see the mother of thy mother.’
I have spoken of resurrection because the idea is a very ancient one. All cultures have beliefs connected with it and ceremonies to facilitate it and show its result, particularly when a charismatic leader is involved. Max Weber has pointed out that the possession of a magical charisma always presupposes rebirth. The rebirth is that of an image that the mass recognises.
In addition, identity with another person is always mentioned on such occasions. Especially with a dead person. Pythagoras’ pupils pictured him as resembling the wizard Hermotines, and later Stalin was seen to resemble Lenin. The Romans made the process into a political formula, with the founder resurrected in each successive emperor, who therefore bore the title redivivus: Octavius Romulus redivivus, for example. The practice still continues. When the Soviets declared that Stalin was the Lenin of their day, they did so under the pressure of the same social and psychic necessities. All leaders hold on to power by recalling a multiple imago of the past which, once it has come to the surface, rekindles the feelings of days gone by. Baudelaire saw this clearly: ‘Those phenomena and ideas that occurred periodically throughout the ages take on, each time they are resurrected, the complementary nature of the variant and the circumstance.’
All I have said here may well seem difficult and unconvincing. It is hard to believe that events and persons are stored in an immaterial form in the memory of succeeding generations, and that after an interval they are invariably reincarnated in a new physical and social being, or that even the smallest event and the most insignificant emotion of the masses have their causes in that past and their effects in the future that recreates it. In short, that the future is already part of the past. And so we shall consider the resurrection of imago as a hypothetical and perhaps even an imaginary process, rather like the ghost fields of physics. It does just make it possible for us to envisage the continuity of identifications in the course of history, but no more.”