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  • The Horror of Culture: East West Incest in Chrétien de Troyes’s Cligés*
  • Leslie Dunton-Downer (bio)


The title of my essay alludes to Freud’s landmark work entitled “The Horror of Incest,” which illustrates the proximity—a proximity the system of differentiation shared by incest prohibitions and culture itself works to distance—of incest to culture. Freud writes:

There are men still living who, as we believe, stand very near to primitive man, far nearer than we do, and whom we therefore regard as his direct heirs and representatives. Such is our view of those whom we describe as savages or half-savages; and their mental life must have a peculiar interest for us if we are right in seeing in it a well-preserved picture of an early stage of our own development. 1

Freud discusses “the tribes which have been described by anthropologists as the most backward and miserable of savages, the aborigines of Australia” (1). We are not only like savages, genealogically close to them, but we also psychically contain them: they represent our psychic origins and against them we may measure our mental and cultural development. Freud’s study erects differences—differences that also serve as defensive fortifications—not only between savages and us, but also between our past and current selves. The Freudian elaboration of the horror of incest ultimately rehearses the horror of culture, its curious desire at once for continuity and clarity of division, its systematically violent and problematic investment in oppositions between filth and its lack, which in turn appear to validate or sanction differentiations of all kinds. 2

The Latin term incestus (“polluted,” “defiled,” “unclean”) signals etymologically the defining strategy of the prohibition: to promote the avoidance of what anthropologists following Mary Douglas call pollution, the contaminants of (synchronic) social order and its (diachronic) continuity. In other words, incest prohibitions work to limit cultural and [End Page 367] social ambiguity. It is often forgotten that the incest taboo promotes at once two kinds of practices, each directed at the preservation of seemingly independent but in fact systematically co-identified borders: (1) exogamy (marriage and sexual relations outside the group perceived as immediate kin) and, with few exceptions, (2) endogamy (marriage inside a specific group). That is, prohibitions forbidding marriages between, say, Brahmin and untouchable, Jew and gentile, or farmer and princess are identified with incest prohibitions insofar as they engage the same system of rules: the unions they aim to prevent are, as those between father and daughter or brother and sister, traditionally deemed horrible, unclean.

Clean relations occur with those outside the immediate family, but not so far out that the cultural, religious, “racial,” and social categories with which the family is profoundly identified are rendered invisible or lacking cohesion. 3 This two-way system of incest, which at once prohibits and enjoins sexual relations, generates mappings of cultural likeness and difference, cleanness and filth, and proximity and remoteness, which are used to preserve the functions of identities as culturally-bound, predetermined, valuable, and natural. The incest system in this way tropes the systematization of culture, setting the social grounds for other, “more elaborate types of differentiations,” as Margaret Mead has put it. 4 Consider, for example, Lev. 18, where the incest prohibition grounds cultural and geographical differences: “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you” (Lev. 18:3). The prohibition also asserts historical differences which paradoxically reinforce cultural continuities: “So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs which were practiced before you, and never to defile yourselves by them” (Lev. 18:30). Incest, practiced in a prior time and in another land, is explicitly prohibited partly to establish temporal and spatial boundaries within which a moment of cultural rupture (introduced by Mosaic Law) may be defined in terms of differences that ultimately serve the necessity of cultural continuity. 5 Associated with the momentous installation of as well as the unthinkable absence of culture, incest becomes the site of a potentially radical rethinking of systems of...

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pp. 367-381
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