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 situation.
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.
ESSAY Lee Siegel is the book critic for The Nation, the television critic for The New Republic and the art critic for Slate.Continue reading the main story
How significant was Jewish culture and religion for Freud’s life and work?
Jewish culture and religion inevitably left a mark on Sigmund Freud’s life and work. Although Freud himself openly and consistently labels himself as an atheist, it can be seen from his writings how Jewish culture influenced his life and career as a psychoanalytic theorist. This can be probably rooted from his parents who are both Jewish and the presence of Jewish scriptures which were also a part of his early education.
Early in his life, he became aware of important issues such as the effects of anti-Semitism to Jewish people. Freud himself stated the pressure that he went through as a student: “I found that I was expected to feel myself inferior and an alien because I was a Jew” (1989, p. 13). Aside from his experiences inside the university, anti-Semitism caused him to struggle in order to gain more opportunities as a scholar. In his work titled Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud emphasized that despite the contributions made by the Jews throughout history, they have constantly been subjected to various forms of aggression. He also connected this violence to his assertions regarding identity formation. Because of this personal attachment to Jewish experience, many scholars have claimed that many aspects of Jewish culture have been subtly integrated into his works as a psychoanalyst.
Freud managed to publish a work titled Moses and Monotheism which expounded his psychoanalytic theory and explored Moses, one of the most important Jewish figures. However, in because of atheistic tendencies, Freud claimed in this work that the Jewish religion cannot be merely perceived as redemptive but rather, an enslaving force (Drob, 1989). Although Jewish culture and religion became influential for Freud, his rejection of dominant religious tenets still remained.
Drob (1989). Freud and Chasidim: Redeeming the Jewish Soul of Psychoanalysis. The Jewish Review 3 (1).
Freud, S. (1989). An autobiographical study. NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and Its Discontents. NY: Norton.
The Civilization and Its Discontents summary posted on our blog was completed by one of our newly registered writers. The book is not in the list of favourities among college and university students, so they usually face difficulties while writing its analysis. We answered one of popular questions in our essay. If you are assigned another task, feel free to contact our essay writing service writers. They will help you with any topic and will provide original help.