A Return to Group Psychology.... and an Analysis of My Own Ego

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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A Return to Group Psychology.... and an Analysis of My Own Ego

Laci Hutto

Finals week has arrived and it's been over two months since I wrote my first paper for this class. I'd skipped over the first possible topic, because I'd been considering writing a Freudian analysis of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, and after having taken a Psychoanalytic Theory course last semester, in which the readings were 70% Freud, I wanted to stay as far away from everyone's favorite cocaine-addled misogynist as possible. We read through Moby-Dick for this class, and I started worrying about what I could possibly write about for that book. I've never been good at coming up with my own topics for papers, so I usually go with the prefabricated ones most professors give out with each assignment.

We didn't get a topic sheet for this paper. No suggestions about what to write. I had no ideas at all until one day in class when we were discussing why no one on board the Pequod had thought to stand up to Ahab and say "Look here, you crazy fool, we're not going with you on this suicide mission." Ideas were flying around the classroom, and the idea of mob mentality came up. My idea clicked then as I started remembering something I'd read about the effects belonging to a group had on an individual's psyche. By the time I realized that the reading I was remembering was Freud, it was too late. My idea was set, and I knew I could write a good paper explaining exactly why no one on the Pequod was able to save himself from dying alongside Ahab. I returned to my Freud texts from last semester, brushed up on Freud's view of group psychology, and worked out how I thought Ahab's crew fit the patterns Freud described as typical for members of a group.

Especially after reading so many of his works during the fall semester, I sometimes have a very low opinion of Freud, his theories, and the methods at which he arrives at the justification of those theories. One exception to this is his Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego, in which he considers the effect that being part of a group has on a person's subjectivity. I could understand and even agree with much of what he had to say on the subject, and in many ways, reading Moby-Dick through the lens of Freud's Group Psychology seemed to be like reading a case study proving the theory.

A lot of Freud's theorizing on group psychology is what we now take to be common sense, something that everyone knows at least a little about. The idea for this paper clicked so readily in my mind because when we were throwing around terms like "mob mentality" and "group mind" in class, I didn't automatically recognize them as Freudian concepts because they've been so generalized and made so accessible for reference by anyone, regardless of whether he or she has read Freud's text. Freud accounts for this process of becoming part of a group mind, describing the ways in which mob mentality may take over a group and cause them to act in unusual ways. This mind, he says, is produced "under a certain condition," in which an individual "thought, felt, and acted in quite a different way from what would have been expected." (Freud 6) We could easily see the crew's time at sea as being the sort of condition Freud is describing.

One of the major things that makes Moby-Dick work as a would-be case study is that Freud describes the role the leader of the group has in manipulating the group members into acting in ways uncharacteristic of their own individual selves. This is a necessary part of the explanation if we are to use Moby-Dick as a case study, since the question is not only about the crew of the Pequod but also about their captain.

The captain, however, does not even enter the novel physically until several chapters into their time at sea. From his very introduction, at a meal with the crew, he seems to be a completely separate entity from the rest of the crew. Ishmael and the readers of Moby-Dick hear rumors of the captain up until Chapter 34, when he finally becomes a physical presence in the story, and this delayed introduction shows us that although he is on board the Pequod, he is separate from the other members of the ship's crew. In reading the novel through a Freudian lens, then, we see that Ahab is not part of this "group mind." The question that arises from this observation is why, if Ahab has been at sea with the rest of the crew, is he somehow exempt from this binding of minds? Freud answers this question by discussing the role of the leader as an entity separate from the group mentality.

Freud describes a group as "an obedient herd, which could never live together without a master." (Freud 17) His theory of group psychology does not end with the idea that men will band together mentally when left in certain conditions; his account requires that there be a leader to govern the group. Ahab is the obvious choice for a leader in the context of the novel simply because of his role as ship's captain. More than this, however, he "posses[es] a strong and imposing will, which the group, which has no will of its own, can accept from him." (Freud 17) This description of a group leader, set forth by Freud and matched by the character of Ahab, helps to fit the novel with Freud's theory, since it is exactly such a leader who must, according to Freud, take over to rule the minds of the men who have become bonded under a group mentality.

Ishmael notes, after the crew has agreed to chase the white whale, that Ahab is very conscious of the fact that he must use the men of his ship as tools by which to accomplish his mission. Ishmael also points out that Ahab recognizes that using money to keep the men in line would be very effective, since without the promise of it, the men will mutiny and "cashier" Ahab. (Melville 178) The chapter-long discussion of the means by which Ahab will manage to keep the men of the crew under his governance shows Ahab's effectiveness as a Freudian group leader. He knows how to act in such a way to give the men just enough of what they want that they will not turn against him.

Ahab is the perfect leader in this sense, as we see throughout the book. He proves time and again that he can very effectively play to the desires of the crew just enough to keep them in his command. Through these twisting jabs into the crewmember's joined psyche, Ahab maintains his position as the leader of the group. When he first convinces his crew to chase after the whale with him, he does so by becoming so excited himself that "the mariners began to gaze curiously at each other, as if marveling how it was that they themselves became so excited at such seemingly purposeless questions." (Melville 138) From this first manipulation of their minds, Ahab only continues to gain control over the crew, even performing a binding ritual later in the chapter in order to seal the group mentality and his rule over it. This binding works as it is intended. For the rest of the story, the crew members are hooked into their roles as part of the group led by Ahab. They would not dare to question his commands, even if under normal circumstances they might object to what is obviously little more than a suicidal vendetta rather than the kind of whaling mission they are supposedly trying to embark on. Ahab plays into the "sentiment of invincible power" that the group has acquired that stops them from recognizing the inherent dangers of being led on this madman's quest for vengeance.

The members of the crew, after being bound together by their time at sea and the pull of Ahab's influence, lose their subjectivity. Although Melville names them individually and seems to give them personal characteristics, for all intents and purposes, the members of the crew are no longer individual beings. They are concerned not for their own safety and well being, as they would have been if they had not succumbed to the group mind. This is consistent with Freud's account of the effects of being part of a group, as he claims that the member of a group "readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest," and that, furthermore, once in a group mindset, "no personal interest, not even that of self-preservation can make itself felt." (Freud 10, 13)

This theory describing the behavior of members of a group shows clearly why the members of the Pequod's crew would see no further than the directives handed down by Ahab. They have no personal interest; everything they seek to do is for the good of the group, according to Freud. I would go a step beyond him and say that they are not just seeking to do what is good for the group, but what is good for the leader of the group. The group believes that the leader is guiding them with their interests in mind, and, in the case of the Pequod, does not realize that the leader is actually using them as mere tools for his self-centered mission of revenge. His hold in this way over the members of the crew is so strong that they follow him blindly, convincing themselves that he is not actually leading them into any real danger. Stubb, for example, decides that the best way to deal with the decision to chase the whale is to sing and laugh, later insisting that the crew is in no more danger than any other whaling ship on the sea, despite talk of Ahab's insanity. (Melville 145, 385) Ishmael himself points out that "this pertinacious pursuit of one particular whale, continued through day into night, and through night into day, is a thing by no means unprecedented in the South sea fishery." (Melville 413) Stubbs' and Ishmael's claims, rather than proving that the Pequod's mission is not that unusual, serve to show that they are under the effect of the group mentality, being convinced by Ahab that it is right to hunt the whale.

One person on the ship who was not part of this collective mentality succumbing to Ahab's governance is that of Starbuck. Starbuck is under Ahab's influence, but this relationship is different from that of Ahab and the rest of the crew. They are in a two-person group mentality, known in Freudian terms as hypnosis, led by Ahab. The effect of Ahab over Starbuck is the same as his effect over the rest of the crew, but Starbuck is alone in his mental processes, and is not governed by a group mind telling him to forget all thoughts of self-preservation. He protests from the very beginning, claiming that Ahab's plan is insane, and that it is not right to change the intended mission of the whaling ship. His protestations continue up to the very end, when Starbuck begs Ahab to quit, saying "Oh! Ahab... not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist." (Melville 423) There is a personal bond between these two men, but the overwhelming dynamic still ends with Ahab's control over Starbuck.

Ahab knows how to treat the men of the ship in order to keep them under his control, but his control over Starbuck is not acted out in the same way. He points a musket at Starbuck and threatens him, a kind of action he would not use so readily on any other member of the crew. Starbuck in return considers killing Ahab with the same musket in his sleep, but cannot. These events separate him distinctly from the other crew members, proving that while he is under Ahab's thrall, he is not part of the group mentality as it applies to the other members of the crew. Ahab's pull over him is personal, magnetic. The pull is so complete that "Starbuck's body and Starbuck's coerced will were Ahab's, so long as Ahab kept his magnet pointed at Starbuck's brain." (Melville 177) This aligns with Freud's account of the leader's effect over others, so we see that even though Starbuck is not mentally part of the crew in this way, he is in another kind of Freudian group psychology in his relationship to Ahab, and as such is also unable to pull away enough to stop the ship from searching for Moby Dick.

The sad turn of fate in the lives of these crewmen comes at the end when they are all proven wrong in their trust for their captain. Throughout the voyage they convince themselves that Ahab would not lead them into any excessive danger, because he is their captain, and as such must be acting in their best interests. They believe that he will look out for them, since he is their leader. His hold over them does not break until the very end, when Moby Dick turns his rage on Ahab to the ship, killing every trusting man aboard the Pequod just before Ahab himself is taken underwater.

This tale is obviously not one that we would use if we wanted to show the positive effects of group mentality. For the men of the Pequod, being part of a group brings nothing but suffering and death. I believe that Freud's theory of group psychology fits this tale of misfortune perfectly, but it has to be stated that Freud does not seem entirely opposed to the idea of a group mind in general. His description of the effects all seem fairly negative, as he describes the loss of interest in self-preservation and the way in which becoming part of a group mentality lowers an individual's intelligence level to that of a barbarian. He uses as his prime examples the army and the church, but in his accounts of these he does not seem to dwell so heavily on the negative effects that he had described when outlining his group psychology. It seems that Freud was aware of the dangers of losing one's subjectivity to the group mind, and he warns his readers about those ill effects, but his accounts of actual groups do not seem so forcefully against group psychology. It is because of this that I say that while Moby-Dick and its tale of the consequences of falling into the group mind play very easily into Freud's theory, we do not necessarily have to believe that every instance of group psychology will end as badly as that of Ahab and the Pequod.

The novel Moby-Dick was published in 1850, six years before Sigmund Freud was even alive. What, then, do these two works have to do with one another? Melville had certainly not read Freud's work before writing his story of a monomaniacal ship captain, and while Freud might have stumbled across Moby-Dick before beginning his work on group psychology, that is not very likely because Moby-Dick did not even come into popular consciousness until the 1920s. The interesting thing about these times is that Melville's novel and Freud's newly formulated theories of group psychology both became popular at roughly the same time. I do not believe that either of the authors were directly influenced by one another in their writing, but the fact that these works came into the public consciousness around the same time seems to show at least a subconscious interest in the idea of mob mentality among the people of the time. I'm not claiming any other direct correlation between the works of a 20th century psychoanalyst and those of a 19th century writer, but it does seem interesting that the idea of group psychology would be put forth to the masses at the same time that a novel about the ill effects of being in a group mind became popular. Perhaps the people of the time read Freud's thoughts and, as I was, were interested to notice how his idea played out in the work of Herman Melville.

I said earlier that Moby-Dick could read as almost a case study for Freud's theory. As my last paragraph should have made clear, I don't mean that I believe Freud read Melville and used the crew of the Pequod to build his theory upon. In fact, I think it is the fact that Melville wrote the story without reading Freud and Freud wrote his theory without reading Melville that makes the strongest argument for Freud's theory. Melville was not thinking about psychoanalysis when he wrote Ahab. He was not intending for an early 21st-century college student to use his work in conjuncture with the theories of an early 20th-century Austrian psychoanalyst. He simply wrote a story using human behavior as he understood it, and the fact that it so closely fits in with Freud's theory seems to me to be evidence that at least supports the theory.

I found in my Psychoanalytic Theory class last semester that I did not think too highly of Freud or his methods. I could recognize his theories as interesting building blocks upon which to build new theories in psychoanalysis, but most of them seemed too absurd to even consider. What bothered me more than his theories, however, was the way at which he arrived at them. All too often it seemed to me that Freud would develop a theory based on one person's experience. He would then claim universality for that theory, and refuse to make adjustments when his theories seemed to fall short. He would make up case studies to support his own theories, and when presented with a real-life study that did not match up with the point he was trying to make, he would simply search around for details, no matter how minute, in a person's life that he could twist to fit his theory.

Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego was one of the only texts we read in the class that I could support. His analysis of group behavior seemed believable, and he didn't seem to distort evidence just to support the theory. Reading Moby-Dick actually helped to strengthen my belief in the theory. Once I settled on the idea that Freud's theory might help to explain why the crew of the Pequod sank, I took inventory of the ways in which Moby-Dick actually agreed with what Freud had said. When I only found similarities in the two accounts, and considered the fact that the authors were surely not in conversation with one another, I could read Melville's novel as an unintentional account of group psychology that supported Freud's theory. I was pleased to find that Freud had a theory which I could not only utilize but also believe in, and that Melville, by simply writing his novel of Ahab's hunt for the white whale, had been the one to convince me of that theory.

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