The Rambler

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C. Travis Webb

C. Travis Webb
July 16
Writer, teacher, father, husband--definitely not in that order. If you've got the time, check out


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NOVEMBER 8, 2010 1:56PM

Civilization and Its Discontents

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Civilization and Its DiscontentsThere’re a lot of places to go out here for reviews. The latest episode of “Nikita,” check. The latest book reviews, here you go. Movies, music, video games, the only thing more plentiful than opinions in cyberspace is porn, and there’re even reviews for that–though I won’t put a link to that here, since I’m all set on the Viagra front, at least ’til I begin collecting senior-citizen discounts. So, what I’ve decided to do, for the most part, is talk about the books that I think might help. Not in a self-help kind of way, but in a make-sense-of-this-mess kind of way. The books may not be palliatives–though some will be–and in fact, the really good ones might be irritants, as this one is, but they will address, in some way, what it is to be here, on this planet, about now, sometimes hungry, and sometimes free. That doesn’t mean “The Rambler” will always be serious, just that it won’t recommend you read something that isn’t. You probably already know where to go for titillation and don’t need my help, but if you do, CW’s, “Nikita,” is a lot of fun.

Even if you’ve never taken lit theory or studied the history of psychology, it’s likely Freud is no stranger. In fact, though Freud is one of the most frequently maligned of the great modern synthesizers, the other being Marx, his theories have found contemporary scientific support–Oliver Sacks and Mark Solms, for example–and continue to assert themselves every time we realize there’s something “underneath” our jealousies, “below” our insecurities, some other reason than the visible ones at the “bottom” of this crazy need to read our lover’s emails, and Jim Crow our brothers.

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud moves through his entire ouevre, from the Oedipal complex to the struggle between Eros and Thanatos. And although Freud had developed the idea of “the death instinct” earlier in his career in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, it has its most chilling implications here, in Freud’s final question regarding the struggle between the life and death instincts–asked in the sickly light of Germany’s waxing hyper-nationalism. Of the promise of civilization, with its civilities and its comforts, against the possibility of self-destruction, Freud asks simply, “But who can foresee with what success and with what result?” the contest will resolve. Who can know if Eros will win out? Who can convince us that Thanatos, the same destructive impulse that drove the Huns across the steppes and erased the Aztecs, armed with biochemistry and fusion, won’t reduce the whole history of man to meat and ash? In 21st-century America it may seem like a silly question, but if Freud is right about anything, he is right in his criticism of Marx, which is easily extensible to a criticism of historical progress of any kind: namely, that wherever society and technology take civilization, the “indestructible feature of human nature will follow it there.”

Indeed, it is precisely Freud’s warning against too much faith in our own transcendence that draws the other recommendation for this particular edition of Civilization and Its Discontents, and that is the introduction by Christopher Hitchens, another great skeptic of humanity. The introduction is interesting for a few reasons, not only because it gives Hitchens a chance to show off his intellectual heft and iconoclasm, but also for his testament to Freud’s continued relevance. Hitchens is too thorough not to mention the many detractors that Freud has faced in the last 100 years, but he also defends him admirably, using J.G. Ballard, author of Crash and Empire of the Sun, for support, and most interestingly, using his own investigations into the emergence of Western grown “Islamic suicide-murderers.” Hitchens notes that all of the suicide-bombers he studied, “complained about the impossibility of finding a woman,” which he connects to the channeling of sexual energy into violence through repression. The book is worth a read for his introduction alone.

Now, I’m not going to spend a lot of time playing piñata with the parts of Civilization and Its Discontents that I disagree with; there’re plenty, and more qualified writers than this one have spent careers doing it. But I will pick a fight with Freud’s characterization of religion, because it is J.G. Ballard’s characterization, and it is Hitchens’s, and it’s a fight that’s still going. Honestly, it’s probably a little self-aggrandizing to say that I’m picking a fight with Hitchens, even second-hand, since there’re probably more people interested in Hitchens’s bowel movements than my blog, but hey, in true Freudian fashion, let’s break some idols.

Freud, and I suspect most of the atheists that I respect, including Hitchens, mistake necessity for sufficiency in their psycho-social explanations of religion. In other words, yes, absolutely, the psychological and sociological conditions that give rise to religion must be accounted for: fear of death and communal control being the two most apparent; however, these explanations alone are not sufficient to explain the religious impulse. Simply put, and in the interest of brevity, the impulse towards universal identification has too many by-products to be so neatly summarized as either denial or power, or some theoretical hybrid of the two. These remainders lead us to do things like write poetry, and dance ecstatically, and spin tales about the origins of fire and gravity, because at bottom we too are not always two, but sometimes one, and that one is sometimes, just sometimes, greater than two. The “oceanic” feeling, as Freud calls it, is not simply a historical regression, but an imminent possibility.

Of course, it’s possible I’m wrong about that last bit. Perhaps Freud and Hitchens and the rest are right, and I’m laboring an illusion to spare my ego; although I don’t identify with any particular tradition, perhaps I’m still too much of a Romantic to lift the veil. The point is that either way, this edition of Civilization and Its Discontents is worth your time, if for nothing else than the question.

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Some of Freud's detractors had some points, but it may be time for Freud to make a comeback...his was a remarkable investigation into the human mind.

As to religion - one of these days I plan to write a post about how religion is a form of art and perhaps vice of the things about the human mind (which Freud may have written about, no doubt did, but it's been decades since I read him) is its inventiveness and going off on tangents that may or may not be useful. The way evolution has life filling every possible niche seems a parallel to the way humans will dream up stuff. Engineering, agriculture, etc. were and are channels for this that are useful - but of course we cannot stop when usefulness ends and, further along, harmfulness starts (and, in the case of religion, we don't seem to be able to discern that borderline)...
Myriad, agreed that psycho-social invention mirrors evolution's dizzying variety. There's this really interesting anthropologist/linguist named Frits Staal, who essentially argues that Vedic religious rituals find their origin in the imitation of bird songs indigenous to the Indus valley.

I also agree with the horrible momentum of history.

Thanks for being so thoughtful.