‘Reflections on Taboo-breaking’ by Russell Bennetts


Introduction by Daniel Bosch

Forewarned is forearmed. Over a century ago, Sigmund Freud embarked upon an extended exploration of totem, taboo, and obsessional neurosis. Though he made extensive use of ethnographic and folkloric material as foils for his analyses of anxiety disorders prevalent among contemporary Viennese, at the outset of Totem and Taboo, Freud exhorted his fellow scientists to take care, for

The similarity between taboo and obsessional sickness may be no more than a matter of externals; it may apply only to the forms in which they are manifested and not extend to their essential character. (26)

The strength of Freud’s comparison and contrast of “savages” with the bourgeoisie doesn’t really depend on how rigorously clean we keep our lab coats: it is founded on an intuitive faith in their common humanity. Yet hadn’t even non-scientists done as Herr Doktor says? It seems even poets who would reflect on the persistence of taboo must take care to distinguish similarities in “essential” characteristics from those which are merely “external”!

Russell Bennetts’ lab coat is pristine. In his “Reflections on Taboo-breakng” he has constructed a totem which inscribes precisely, syllogistically, that form of wildness to which we obsessional neurotics feel we are most entitled. Bennetts knows well the savage truth that poems — even “Untitled” poems — have both titles and bodies. He knows that a title personifies that body — it’s a poem’s name — and that the use and abuse of any poem’s name may be pyscho-emotionally freighted. Bennetts knows how often we over-rationalize and abuse poems’ names in transactions that cheapen the energy which animates their bodies — that poems’ titles must be subject to the strictures of taboo.

Here is Freud on the frontier where science becomes poetry:

…taboos are mainly expressed in prohibitions, the underlying presence of a positive current of desire may occur to us as something quite obvious and calling for no lengthy proofs based on the analogy of the neuroses. For, after all, there is no need to prohibit something that no one desires to do, and a thing that is forbidden with the greatest emphasis must be a thing that is desired. (69)

In Bennetts’ “Reflections on Taboo-breaking,” the blankness of the page is an image of the desired set of taboos — an empty set. “For, after all,” as Freud has it, “there is no need to prohibit” — or to exhibit — “something that no one desires to do, and a thing that is forbidden with the greatest emphasis must be a thing that is desired.” Likewise, Bennetts’ near silence on taboo-breaking — he merely, carefully, names it — is precisely the non-action by which taboo is both wiped out and upheld. For “As was only to be expected,” writes Freud (his name means “joy”!)

obsessional neurotics behave exactly like savages in relation to names. Like other neurotics, they show a high degree of ‘complexive sensitiveness’ in regard to uttering or hearing particular words and names; and their attitude towards their own names imposes numerous, and often serious, inhibitions upon them. One of these taboo patients of my acquaintance had adopted a rule against writing her own name, for fear that it might fall into the hands of someone who would then be in possession of a portion of her personality. She was obliged to fight with convulsive loyalty against the temptations to which her imagination subjected her, and so forbade herself ‘to surrender any part of her person.’ This included in the first place her name, and later extended to her handwriting, till finally she gave up writing altogether. (56-57)

If Bennetts’ “Reflections on Taboo-breaking,” were not the quintessential poem of the long 20th century, we might reduce it to a belated Oulipoesis, the holding of a mirror to the blank page which discovers it as an ideal form: the lipogram in A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y and Z. But his poem’s suppression of the entire alphabet is neither incomprehensible savagery nor empty post-modern gesture. In its silence and stillness, Bennett’s poem stands at the edge of taboo — as we all must — and does not go there.


Reflections on Taboo-breaking

after Ogden Nash

Is Wetter
But brother
Is better.


All quotations from Sigmund Freud, “Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence” (1912), as published in Totem and Taboo, American edition W.W. Norton (1950), James Strachey, translator. Bosch’s text was written before Bennetts had written the poem, when only the title existed.

About the Author:

Russell Bennetts is the editor of Berfrois. He lives in Kentish Town, London.