[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Freud and His Discontents

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Subject: NYTBR: Freud and His Discontents

Freud and His Discontents
New York Times Book Review, 5.5.8


    "CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS'' first appeared in 1930, and on the
    occasion of its 75th anniversary has been reissued by Norton ($19.95).
    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. ''Classic'' can mean that an intellectual work is
    indisputably definitive in its realm, or it can mean that its prestige
    has outlived its authority and influence. 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 1950'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. And . . . 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. ''Civilization and Its Discontents'' brims with
    quotations from Goethe, Heine, Romain Rolland, Mark Twain, John
    Galsworthy and others. 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.

    ''Civilization and Its Discontents'' itself is the product of a
    profoundly agitated, even disturbed, mind. By the summer of 1929, 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 1923, 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 writes at one point that ''the low estimation put
    upon earthly life by the Christian doctrine'' was the first great
    expression of hostility to civilized society in the West; yet
    elsewhere, he cites the Christian commandment to love one's neighbor
    as oneself as ''one of the ideal demands, as we have called them, of
    civilized society.'' Later, in the space of two sentences, he gets
    himself tangled up when he tries to identify that commandment with
    civilization itself. 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.'' Throughout the
    essay, Freud's hostility to Christianity is so intense that he seems
    determined to define civilization in Christian terms. The book should
    have been called ''Christian Society and Its Discontents.'' That is
    what it really is.

    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 1933, 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 1920, 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

    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.

    Lee Siegel is the book critic for The Nation, the television critic
    for The New Republic and the art critic for Slate.

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