Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Freud and Civilization

"One cannot easily imagine [Freud] as an uninhibited pot-smoking nudist hippy."

Originally published in the New Criterion

"Freud’s last paragraph [in Civilization and its Discontents] begins as follows:
The fateful question for the human race seems to be whether, and to what extent, the development of civilization will manage to overcome the disturbance of communal life caused by the human drive for aggression and self-destruction.
In other words, man is endowed by nature with instinctual desires that have to be controlled in civilized conditions, if those conditions are to continue to obtain, but the control gives rise to frustration, guilt, and anxiety, that is to say to discontent.
Freud’s model of the mind is deeply hydraulic (he grew up in the great age of steam, after all). He tells us, for example, that “any restriction of … outward-directed aggression would be bound to increase the degree of self-destruction.” On this view, then, the attempt to control outward aggression (and the sexual urge, the other great component of what he calls the id) must result in pathology of one kind or another. As one prisoner who had just killed his girlfriend put it to me, “I had to kill her, doctor, or I don’t know what I would’ve done.” Suffered from a mild degree of hypertension, perhaps, which would have been far worse.
On a hydraulic model, of course, it is hardly surprising if a head of steam, that is to say instinct, builds up occasionally, and eventually bursts the machine that contains it asunder. There will be Chinese Cultural Revolutions and Liberian Civil Wars from time to time (and not only in China or Liberia) that wreak havoc on all the material symbols of civilized restraint. The iconoclast, resentful at the restraint he has hitherto been forced by circumstances to show, will look at those symbols and, like Malvolio, say, “I will be revenged on the whole pack of you.”
In Civilization and Its Discontents, for example, [Freud] says more than once that civilization, precisely because it imposes such restraints on man’s instinctual appetites, leaves him less happy than he was in a state of nature. It would be only too easy to conclude from this that Freud thought that a return to an instinctual free-for-all was desirable, especially as he says that the purpose and aim of most men in life is happiness.
But Freud was a thorough-going Viennese bourgeois himself; one cannot easily imagine him as an uninhibited pot-smoking nudist hippy. He was far too well-tailored for that nonsense. He had a scientistic outlook typical of a certain Germanophone intellectual of the era that by the end of his life was very old-fashioned, and was certainly not the outlook of a man who thought that anything went—quite the reverse in fact. If he believed that civilization made men unhappy, he did not think that they would willingly give up its comforts and safety for a return to nature. They were therefore stuck with civilization; their revolt against it was a little like Qu├ębecois threats to secede from Canada, constantly threatened and always troublesome, but not likely in the long run to destroy everything.
Freud believed that suffering caused by frustration was the condition of civilized existence; it could not be avoided. His view of the human mental economy being a hydraulic one, he thought that if suffering did not come to man in one way, it would come in another. He would have agreed with Doctor Johnson’s great philosophical fable, Rasselas, that no way of life is so satisfactory that it lacks many dissatisfactions. I am human, therefore I am dissatisfied. This conclusion does not come from psychoanalysis—whenever Freud uses the locution “As psychoanalytical investigations have shown …” you can be sure that intellectual sleight of hand is about to follow, for such investigations have not “shown” anything, not in the sense that Pasteur showed that fermentation was an organic process. No, Freud came to his conclusion as a highly cultivated, intelligent, elderly bourgeois reflecting upon life, and his conclusion is a conservative one, at least if it is conservative to believe that there are inherent existential limitations to human life and that political schemes that do not recognize them will almost certainly end in violence and avoidable suffering."

-- Anthony Daniels

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