online: 10 january 2006
modified: 8, 10, 18 january 2006

7 january 2006 civilisation and unhappiness

16:51: Sigmund Freud, 1856 - 1939

I am reading his essay Civilization and its Discontents, 1930. So far i've understood less than half - for much of it is written in the special language of psycho-analysis that is foreign to me at first reading. However the parts i understand seem to me exceptionally well-informed, truthfully written. and profoundly relevant to the understanding of industrial life, or any.

So what have i grasped so far?

That civilization, though supposed or intended to bring happiness, is organised in a way that makes unhappiness inevitable - and Freud, despite or because of his special knowledge of unhappy people and his wide knowledge of human culture, sees no remedy. In his perceptions, the death instinct (aggression against self or others) defeats the erotic instinct (the wish for universal and uninhibited love)...

Paraphrased thus, i feel that i am over-simplifying what Freud wrote (in this carefully-written essay that is said to summarise all of his work) but this is all i have grasped of it... so far.

Next day: here are some quotations selected by chance* between which i will insert my attempts to connect them :

page 49, line 21, word 1

One ethical view, whose deeper motivation will presently become obvious, sees this readiness to love mankind and the world in general as the highest attitude human beings can attain.

This love of everyone and everything, such as John Cage prescribed and enacted, comes of setting aside 'one's likes and dislikes'** so as to 'wake up to the wonder and excellence of everything'... but Freud, implies that one's loves or hatreds for specific people or things (including oneself) cannot be set aside without difficulty or suffering.

page 25, line 4, word 3

We never have so little protection against suffering as when we are in love; we are never so desolate as when we have lost the object of our love or its love for us.

But despite this limitation there are constructive things we can do.

page 29, line 23, word 4

We shall never wholly control nature; our constitution, itself part of nature, will always remain a transient structure, with a limited capacity for adaptation and achievement. Recognition of this fact does not have a paralysing effect on us; on the contrary, it gives direction to our activity.

...but what we can usefully do is much less than optimists, utopians, and believers in wholeness imagine...

page 2, line 10, word 1

On the basis of this oceanic feeling alone one was entitled to call oneself religious, even if one rejected every belief and every illusion ... This opinion of my esteemed friend ... [the novelist Romain Rolland] caused me no small difficulty. I can discover no trace of this 'oceanic' feeling in myself.

Freud's theory tells him that we are not free to set aside aggression learnt in infancy as this becomes disguised as seemingly good (but actually self-destructive) conscience.

page 84, line 27, word 4

As so often happens, the original situation is reversed. 'If I were the father and you the child, I should treat you badly.' ... If this is correct, one can actually maintain that conscience initially arose through suppression of an aggressive impulse and continues to be reinforced by similar suppressions.

So now, after this brief sampling of Freud's lifework, what have i learnt?

That both the hope and the fear of life depends upon intangible feelings (of love or hatred) that are not i think susceptible to proof or certainty. We can only enact whatever beliefs or disbeliefs we acquire - psychologists, utopians, or others.

I suspect that Freud's pessimism comes of believing that psychological entities are real whereas religious ones are not. To me all these things are constructions, susceptible to changes of mind, and not to be mistaken for absolutes...

*I used random numbers to choose page, line and word from Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, Penguin Books, Great Ideas, number 19, 2004. When the meaning of the selected word and line is not evident by itself, i have expanded the quotation.

**see some thoughts re order and conflict and John Cage's letting go of his likes and dislikes.

Since writing this i have come across a summary of the essay at:
and a website devoted to the life and work of Sigmund Freud.

(these pages are designed to be read with the window set to two-thirds of the screen width)

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