- Desolate Among Them: Loss, Fantasy, and Recovery in the Book of Ezekiel
As Peter Homans (1989) develops Freud’s theory of mourning into a theory of culture in The Ability to Mourn, he relates both its emergence and its structure to the processes of individuation and secularization in the modern West. He states:
Individuation has two components, return and release. In the first, there is the loss of symbols or meaningful structures, the response to which is mourning; in the second, a movement forward into consequent structure building and the creation of meaning, of new structures of appreciation. The response to loss opens up this transitional space, which is both social and historical, and in the space persons construct a bridge of symbols between inner and social worlds through fantasy activity and its implicitly narrative character.(333)
I suggest that this understanding of the individual response to cultural change is not simply a theory applicable to the loss of an over-arching religious worldview in recent centuries in Europe and America, but a general theory of the loss of traditional culture, grounded in the stronger aspects of psychoanalytic theory concerning attachment, loss, and the permanence of memory, and subsequently smoothed out and enriched by object-relations psychology, sociology, and philosophy. Specifically, I anticipate that the approach to the individual and to culture through the psychoanalytic notion of object loss will be extremely fruitful in the clarification of the subjective experience and symbolism represented in the Book of Ezekiel.
Assuming the facts offered in locating this prophet in a setting—his priestly lineage, his exile in Babylon—to correspond to the situation of the original visionary to some appreciable degree, one must recognize Ezekiel’s existence as [End Page 105] an individual, one not simply highly religious and devoted to Yahweh but also devoted to the ultimate significance of law, temple rites, and nationalism in the traditions of Israel. This individual has been forcibly torn away from temple, nation, land, and tradition and sent into exile in a strange country with worship offensive to a priest of the Israelite God. Such a situation is surely inductive of cultural mourning, as understood by Homans:
• There is a loss both of symbols and meaningful structures, perceived in both the military occupation of the land and in the failure of Yahweh to protect it and its representative leaders.
• Ezekiel’s response is personal yet related to his society (the council of Elders) and history (the prophetic role in the Judaic notion of history, the sense of due punishment for the historical failures of Israel to abide to the covenantal relationship [Ez 1:3; 6:9–10; 16:59–63]).
• Readers are privileged to the “transitional space” created for the mediation of old and new symbolic representations of a view of reality that no longer exists, as it confronts a reality that, by the structures and ideals of the old worldview, should not exist.
• One must also acknowledge the integral nature of fantasy and narrative in the visions of Ezekiel, and allow that the images and dynamics depicted therein emerge at least from some middle point between complete, rational, conscious control of their use and the irruption of over-determined, meaning-laden associations as found in dreams. However, their spontaneity and multivalent symbolism suggest the visions emerge as authentic products of the unconscious.
It is appropriate to examine Ezekiel as a first-hand witness of one of the most significant events in world history, the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. The conquest, combined with the exile of the Judean social leadership—including the priesthood—forced a radical change in the Israelite worldview. Unlike some later apocalyptic literature, the Book of Ezekiel is not dependent on the tradition of the fall of Jerusalem and its [End Page 106] Temple for its setting, but rather shapes that tradition as reality brings those very events into the midst of the Jewish people. In fact, more than half the book takes place between 592, five years after the first deportation, and the actual destruction of the Temple in 587. Thus while the prophet as an exile feels the loss of the two most important Zionistic structures already...