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.