By Shady S. Shebak, MD
Psychiatry Resident, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Roanoke VA
Moses parting the sea is a story that continues to capture our collective imagination. It is one of powerful visual imagery, as well as complex symbolism. It is a story of a people who escaped what is presented as a tyrannical leader, but it may also be seen to symbolize our individual struggles, utilizing symbols that can be deciphered by cultures and people worldwide. To go in-depth into the story of Moses and Pharaoh, I would be required to read volumes of books on the subject, as well as write volumes more, so instead I choose to stick to the parting of the sea, and will try to briefly break this story down. It is a long time ago, in a land that continues to headline the news channels and mesmerize peoples of East and West. This land is none other than Egypt. It is hard times for Egypt, as her borders have become weakly protected, Pharaoh has collected wealth beyond our imagination, and systemic eradication of the Egyptian way of life has become all but normal. The population is tired, and long gone are the days of benevolent Pharaohs whom the people wanted to serve. These times are different; the people are being forced to serve the King who has elevated himself to the status of the Divine. Today, Moses stands at the edge of the Red Sea, with his staff, and his followers behind him, with nowhere to go but to face judgment by the God Osiris, who has been reduced to nothing more than a tool for the King to keep subjugation over the masses. Moses and his followers are assured annihilation by Pharaoh’s mighty army! The prospect of Moses’s followers continuing their lineage, albeit, continuing their own existence is dim, as Pharaoh’s army encroaches ever so closer. It is here that God orders Moses to part the Sea with the inspired staff, and Moses drives the staff into the ground… and the mighty sea opens up with the blessing of God. The followers of Moses’s monotheism (a mixture of Hebrews, Egyptians, and Phoenicians) make their way across, while Pharaoh’s army makes the chase. Moses and his followers make it to the other side, and sea closes in on Pharaoh’s army, annihilating their life and their collective lineages.
In this heroic tale, every detail, every side story, and every word uttered has meanings upon meanings. Moses’s staff symbolizes his ability to save his lineage and that of his followers from destruction, and therefore also symbolizes their continued ability to procreate; in this instance, the staff may be viewed as a phallic symbol. Another metaphor one can contemplate on is when Moses drives his staff into the ground; something of the sort of conception occurs. The sea opens up, making way for a safe but scary journey for Moses and company to traverse. The famed psychoanalyst Dr. Bernard Bale may view the scary journey across the open sea similarly to how he views the scary and turbulent journey of the fetus inside his mother’s womb. This metaphorical womb remains open for all of Moses’s followers to make it across, reborn, but with many trials and tribulations awaiting them. Upon further examination, we see the castration of Pharaoh by Moses, in where Moses has taken the might of Pharaoh and humiliated Pharaoh by using nothing more than the staff.
The limited knowledge I have in psychoanalysis has given me a vivid, imaginative, and fantastical outlook on literature, history, and myself. Long have I been a fan of mythology, fiction, fantasy, storytelling, and a prisoner of my own imagination, where I am free to roam and wonder, believe and expand. When I was formally introduced to analytic theory by an attending psychiatrist whom I had worked with as a medical student in 2011, a dimension that was mostly unknown to me was added upon my already existing sense of wonder. My appreciation for literature, religion, movies, and my own inner psyche increased manifold. Everything became more animated. It was around this time I began to explore myself in more depth, to learn all the comforting traits that I possess as an individual, as well as the not so comforting traits. I became engrossed in writing poetry that reflected my various moods and emotions, and I attribute this resurgence of creativity to psychoanalysis. I took a deep interest in studying alchemy, although not formally. I wanted to know how a “polluted” mind can be transformed into a connected, insightful, and “powerful” mind. I renewed my interest in mythology, especially with regards to the phenomenology of symbolism common across cultures, religions, myths, and cults. I remember seeing how the psychoanalysis of a person can be applied to entire societies, as outlined in Freud’s ‘A Civilization and its Discontents’. It is for these reasons that I plan on studying psychoanalysis when I am through with my psychiatry residency training. In my quest to understand the mind, I plan to pursue a rich education of both the sciences and the humanities.
It is imperative that I learn and excel in understanding the brain as much as I can so as to bridge the unnecessarily growing gap between these two inseparable fields: humanities and neuroscience. I find that psychiatry, and specifically psychoanalysis can play a crucial and necessary role in bridging the gap between these two subjects. The neuroscience of the brain is full of drama, ballets, music, fire, and drives that can be best explained if one has the background in psychoanalytic theory. I find it stunningly beautiful that we have a limbic system full of colorful urges, irrational impulses, and Spartan-like tendencies. We must not discount the rational and Athenian pre-frontal cortex, as it goes to war with the limbic system. The enlightened pre-frontal cortex views itself master of decisions and knower of all that is proper, but the anterior cingulate cortex knows better. The anterior cingulate cortex finds itself caught in the middle of this tug of war, bringing about a balance, and putting forth what will be made conscious to the person. All of this is done underneath our awareness, similar to the warring trio: id, ego, and superego. My interest in neural correlates to psychoanalysis culminated in a presentation I gave at the Neuropsychoanalytic Congress of 2014, where I formulated a case of tinnitus induced anxiety using psychoanalytic terms, and then showed the physiological correlation of what is going on in tinnitus to make my point. Basically, tinnitus causes an over-arousal of the limbic system, and with no release of this energy, a person suffers from anxiety. I saw that the limbic system functions as part of the id, and due to tinnitus’s constancy, there was no release for this libidinal energy, and thus a person with tinnitus may become neurotic. I think overtime, we may have to make a transition in the words we use to describe the functions of the mind. We may have to gradually shift from using id, ego, superego to more neuroscientific terms; but in doing so, we can be artful and just as poetic as before. New times and new information may mean an evolution in the lingo we use.
Finally I want to touch upon my view of psychoanalysis in its present state. I don’t see the lights dimming upon psychoanalysis just yet (as some have suggested), and that may be because I’m on the periphery. I think many are concerned that less clinicians are being trained in psychoanalysis, and although this may be a problem, I think that psychoanalysts and experts on psychoanalysis have not taken full advantage of the wide interest within society regarding psychoanalytic theory, history, and uses outside of clinical work. I will not speak in much more detail about this, as I am not yet in a confident place to speak to these issues, but rather, these are just some things I’ve noticed and wished to briefly mention.
To end, I’d like to relay a dream I once had. It’s a dream that subtly explains why we need psychoanalysis to remain a force in today’s world of increasing reductionism and faulty objectivism at the expense of subjectivism and imagination. This dream is one of many personal reasons I am fascinated by psychoanalysis, and is another point in favor of there being a subject that is in between neuroscience and the arts. We cannot simply explain away all the symbols and themes within dreams as coincidences or as “formation of new memories”. As for the dream, it was dreamt as if Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud were directing it to the sound of Mozart’s or Sonbati’s music, and to the words of Niethzche’s script:
In this dream, I am wandering in ancient Egypt. It’s a crisp sunrise, and as I traverse this ancient land I see some Egyptian workers castrating bulls with large scissors, and the bulls do not put up anything of a fight. I continue to walk and see before me a field of stunted palm trees, some dead and some struggling to survive. The sun’s rays are coming in from behind these short stubs of palm trees, and it’s quite a beautiful view, regardless of the situation that the palm trees face. Something about this place told me that I had been here before. I remembered the field of palm trees, and the field hadn’t changed much from the last time I’d seen it, but I’m unsure when the last time was. I look up to see the sun is now rising on the side of the Pyramids of Giza, and I say to myself “That over there is Khufu, Khafra, and Menkara”, although I said this phrase in Arabic. The three great pyramids of Giza are named after those three Pharaohs, and I had recognized them in my dream. Nearby some modern apartments are being built, which was slightly confusing since I was in ancient and not modern Egypt, but I brushed that information aside and continued to traverse what now felt like holy land. The feeling of “holiness” to the land intensified until I awoke to the names of Allah and Ra being repeated respectively.
What do I make out of this dream? That’s a loaded question…