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A new edition of a classic text of Western culture is a happy occasion, not least because it offers the opportunity to debate the book's effect on the way we see the world -- or whether it has any effect at all. Being leatherbound is sometimes synonymous with being timebound. Freud's essay rests on three arguments that are impossible to prove: the development of civilization recapitulates the development of the individual; civilization's central purpose of repressing the aggressive instinct exacts unbearable suffering; the individual is torn between the desire to live Eros and the wish to die Thanatos.
It is impossible to refute Freud's theses, too. All three arguments have died in the minds of many people, under the pressure of intellectual opposition, only to remain alive and well in the minds of many others. To clarify the status of Freud's influence today is to get a better sense of a central rift running through the culture we live in.
In one important sense, Freud's ideas have had an undeniable impact. They've spelled the death of psychology in art. Freud's abstract, impersonal concepts have worn away the specificity of fictional character. By the 's, here and in Western Europe, it was making less and less sense to fashion the idiosyncratic, original inner and outer lives of a character in a novel.
His or her behavior was already accounted for by the universal realities of id, ego, superego, not to mention the forces of repression, displacement and neurosis. Thus the postwar rise of the nouveau roman, with its absence of character, and of the postmodern and experimental novels, with their many strategies -- self-annulling irony, deliberate cartoonishness, montage-like "cutting" -- for releasing fiction from its dependence on character.
For all the rich work published after the war, there's barely a fictional figure that has the memorableness of a Gatsby, a Nick Adams, a Baron Charlus, a Leopold Bloom, a Settembrini. And that's leaving aside the magnificent 19th century, when authors plumbed the depths of the human mind with something on the order of clairvoyance.
Of course, before that, there was Shakespeare. And Cervantes. And Dante. It seems that the further back you go in time, away from Freud, the deeper the psychological portraits you encounter in literary art. Nowadays, often even the most accomplished novels offer characters that are little more than flat, ghostly reflections of characters. The author's voice, or self-consciousness about voice, substitutes mere eccentricity for an imaginative surrender to another life.
But if we have Freud to blame for the long-drawn-out extinction of literary character, we also have Freud to thank for the prestige of film. The depiction of fictional people's inner lives is not the strength of the silver screen.
Character gets revealed to us by plot turns, camera angles, musical scores -- by abstract, impersonal forces, much like Freud's concepts. In a novel, character is shaped from the inside out; in a film, it's molded from the outside and stays outside.
How many movie characters can you think of -- with the exception, perhaps, of Citizen Kane -- whose names have the archetypal particularity of Isabel Archer or Sister Carrie? For better or for worse, film's independence from character is the reason it has replaced the novel as the dominant art form in our culture.
Yet Freud himself drew his conception of the human mind from the type of imaginative literature his ideas were about to start making obsolete. His work is full of references to poets, playwrights and novelists from his own and earlier periods.
In the latter half of his career, he applied himself more and more to using literature to prove his theories, commenting, most famously, on Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. If Freud had had only his own writings to refer to, he would never have become Freud. Having accomplished his intellectual aims, he unwittingly destroyed the assumptions behind the culture that had nourished his work.
Freud's universal paradigm for the human personality didn't mean only the decline of character in fiction. Its authoritative reduction of the human personality to developmental flaws undermined authority. The priest, the rabbi, the minister, the politician, the general may refer to objective facts and invoke objective truths and even ideals. They may be decent, reasonable people who have a strong sense of the reality principle, and of the reality of other people. But in Freud's eyes, they are, like everyone else, products of their own narrow, half-perceived conditions, which they project upon the world around them and sometimes mistake for reality.
Nothing they say about the world goes unqualified by their conditions. By the summer of , when Freud began the book, anti-Semitism -- long a staple of Austrian politics -- had become at least as virulent in Austria as in neighboring Germany.
Hatred of Jews played a central role in Austria's Christian Socialist and German Nationalist parties, which were about to win a majority in parliament, and there was widespread enthusiasm for Germany's rapidly growing National Socialists.
It's not hard to imagine that Freud, slowly dying from the cancer of the mouth that had been diagnosed in , and in great pain, felt more and more anxious about his life, and about the fate of his work.
Perhaps it's this despairing frame of mind that leads Freud into sharp contradictions and intellectual lapses in "Civilization and Its Discontents. He describes the sacred injunction as being "undoubtedly older than Christianity," and then catches himself, as if realizing that the idea of universal love was unique to Christianity, and adds, "yet it is certainly not very old; even in historical times it was still strange to mankind.
The book should have been called "Christian Society and Its Discontents. And then there is the aggressive instinct, a universal impulse that Freud claims presents the sole impediment to Christian love and civilized society, but which he cannot quite bring in line with his earlier theories. It's as if he were, understandably, sublimating into theory his own feelings about the Christian civilization that, even before Hitler's formal ascension to power in , seemed about to devour him and his family.
Certainly, Freud's rage against the dark forces gathering against him has something to do with his repeated references, throughout the book, to great men in history who go to their deaths vilified and ignored. In one weird, remarkable moment, Freud introduces the idea of "the superego of an epoch of civilization," thus supplanting even Jesus Christ with a Freudian concept -- thus supplanting Christ with Freud.
But the most enigmatic, or maybe just incoherent, element of "Civilization and Its Discontents" is Freud's contention -- fancifully laid in , in "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" -- that every individual wishes, on some level, to die. In "Civilization and Its Discontents," he does not account for this outrageously counterintuitive idea, explain his application of it to history or even elaborate on it.
The notion appears toward the end of the book and then does not occur again. Nine years later, in exile in England, weak and ill, Freud committed physician-assisted suicide, asking his doctor to give him a lethal dose of morphine. For all Freud's stern kindness toward humanity, for all his efforts to lessen the burden of human suffering, Thanatos seems to be the embittered way in which he universalized his parlous inner state.
It hampers the understanding to read "Civilization and Its Discontents" without taking into consideration all these circumstances. If Freud has taught us anything, it's that any evaluation of authority has to examine the condition of those who stand behind it. As for repairing to "Civilization and Its Discontents" to gain essential elucidation of our own condition, the work seems as severely circumscribed by its time as by its author's situation.
Today, Freud's stress on the formative effect of the family romance seems less and less relevant amid endless deconstructions and permutations of the traditional family. His argument that society's repressions create unbearable suffering seems implausible in a society where permissiveness is creating new forms of suffering. His fearless candor about sex appears quaint in a culture that won't stop talking about sex.
And a great many people with faith in the inherent goodness of humankind believe that they are living according to ideal sentiments, universal principles or sacred commandments, unhampered by Freudian skepticism. Yet there are, unquestionably, people for whom Freud's immensely powerful ideas are a permanent condition of their lives. Behind the declaration of ideal sentiments, universal principles and sacred commandments, they see a craven sham concealing self-interest, greed and the wish to do harm.
Neither of these two groups will ever talk the other out of its worldview. In this sense the conflict is not between the Islamic world and the "liberal" West; it is between religious people everywhere and people who, like Freud, see faith as an illusion, a set of self-deceiving notions about life. To put it another way, Freudianism is not a science; you either grasp the reality of Freud's dynamic notion of the subconscious intuitively -- the way, in fact, you do or do not grasp the truthfulness of Ecclesiastes -- or you cannot accept that it exists.
For that reason, the most intractable division in the world now is between those who believe that the subconscious plays a fundamental role in human life, and those who don't.
That's the real culture war, and maybe even the real clash of civilizations. Books Freud and His Discontents. Home Page World U.
Freud and His Discontents
Here is a very classy new imprint from Penguin: 20 short non-fiction works, chosen for the inordinate influence they have had on the cultures that produced them. Not only are the texts themselves important, but the books are beautifully produced, and slim enough to slip into a pocket. I choose Freud's Civilization and its Discontents to be the book that accompanies me in this way. Not only because it has hitherto not been easy to get hold of a copy, but because it quite simply tells you all you really need to know about life and its vicissitudes. There comes a point in one's existence, after all, at which one begins to suspect that any book that could not be renamed or sub-titled Civilization and its Discontents is going to be more or less a complete waste of time.
Kindling the fire of knowledge
Sigmund Freud examines the neurosis he perceives as afflicting not only individuals but entire cultures, possibly the entire species. If only we acted in accordance with our natures, our lives would pass in unrelenting massacre. We would howl in ecstasy as we eviscerated our foes, trampling their skulls and plunging our jaws into their innards to feast on gore, finally ripping out their hearts and raising them to the sky — until, all too quickly, a stronger party obliterated us. In his late work Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud examines the neurosis he perceives as afflicting not only individuals but entire cultures, possibly the entire species. We are born to an inheritance of aggression: in our pre-civilised state, we would gladly enslave the other, torturing and humiliating him for pleasure.