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American Imago 60.4 (2003) 545-549
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This book is a collection of seven essays plus a Preface, which, as I will explain below, I found to be in some ways the most novel and stimulating part of the book. The essays, most of them already published as journal articles, cover a diverse range of topics with no unifying thread other than Dundes's characteristic application of a particular kind of psychoanalytic interpretation to the materials he addresses. Two of the articles, one on Disney's film The Little Mermaid and the other on fraternity hazing, are coauthored with Lauren Dundes, Alan's daughter, a sociologist at Western Maryland College.
To those familiar with Alan Dundes's vast output over the course of his long and extremely prolific career, the papers in the current collection do not represent any new departures. His essays almost invariably address a given topic by beginning with a thick ethnographic description of the phenomenon under discussion, followed by a very thorough review of the existing literature on the topic in many languages, and concluding with an interpretation, usually at once surprising, ingenious, and both right on and also sometimes a bit pat, drawing on the classical psychoanalytic writings on folklore and symbolism, relying heavily on Freud and Jung as well as on Jones, Rank, Bettelheim, and sometimes Klein. A pervasive influence and precursor is Géza Róheim, whose title as the leading exponent of psychoanalytic folkloristics of his generation Dundes certainly can claim without dispute. At their best, his essays impress and delight with their combination of great erudition and the punch of their solutions, which often result in a genuine "aha!" experience for the reader at all open to them. At their less inspired, they can also seem predictable and a bit quaint in their evocation of a style of psychoanalytic interpretation that has long since been superseded in the academy by newer (though not necessarily better) approaches with their own favored concepts, catch-phrases, and jargons.
In "The Psychoanalytic Study of Religious Custom and Belief," a sort of showcase in which he displays his wares and [End Page 545] also argues for a "Kardinerian" relativization of psychoanalytic propositions in the study of religious phenomena, Dundes bases his analyses of ritual feasting, ritual self-mutilation, and the idea of the Deus Otiosus (the absent or ineffectual God) on the formula God : worshiper :: parent : child. Following this logic, the reason people fast when they want to commune with the divine is "perfectly obvious. If an infant associates feeling hunger pangs with the coming of an adult parent. . ., then the adult who wants a deity to approach must clearly make himself hungry" (9).
Likewise, self-inflicted wounds arouse the concern of a god just as the wounds of a child arouse the attention of the parent. The Kardinerian revision comes in the examination of the Deus Otiosus: Dundes argues that this phenomenon is prominent in the religious traditions of West Africa, where it corresponds to the absent father as the child experiences him in polygynous arrangements where wives and children live in separate houses from the father, who is only an occasional visitor. I have to say that when I read this article I was indeed both taken by surprise and rather persuaded by Dundes's "perfectly obvious" solution to the fasting question. It almost serves as a caution to the reader: if you like this, keep reading; if you can't relate to it, don't bother with the rest of the book. It's hard for me to see what anyone could object to in it, other than it is no doubt an oversimplification. As for whether it is actually "psychoanalytic," that depends on whether one is prepared to equate an interest in the influence of childhood experience on adult mental life—which really seems to me a self-evident necessity of any theory of culture that rests on "learning"...