On November 10, 2016, I decided to read Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. I was suddenly interested in how and why individuals and society develop an urge toward the death instinct. It’s light reading. I mean, the book is light, and it’s short. So there’s that.
Some people are unhappy that I’ve chosen to read something by Freud. He wasn’t known for his progressive feminist views. He didn’t even make it into the first wave. Maybe I should have read Adler or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But Freud was on my bookshelf. Besides, the person who doesn’t think I should be reading Freud is the very same person who gave me this particular copy of Civilization and Its Discontents.
Having an impulse to read about the death instinct is ironic. Or maybe it’s funny. But if there’s one thing that’s not especially funny, it’s Freud. I know he has a book on Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, but I’m betting right now—without even looking at it—that it doesn’t make people laugh. If Civilization and Its Discontents is any indication, Freud may have written about jokes, but he was no joker.
Here’s a little glimpse of his optimistic discourse.
Thus our possibilities of happiness are already restricted by our constitution. Unhappiness is much less difficult to experience. We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to [others]. The suffering which comes from this last source is perhaps more painful to us than any other. (1930/1961, pp. 23-24)
Okay. So maybe when Freud wrote this he was a little short on serotonin at his pre-synaptic cleft [as if I believe that neurochemical imbalance nonsense]. Seriously, what Freud needed was some regular aerobic exercise . . . and maybe yoga combined with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy so he could embrace nonjudgmental acceptance. I think Freud would have gotten into mindfulness because it would have allowed him to bask in nonjudgmental acceptance of all things except for people who didn’t practice mindfulness. Or maybe he would have been better served using individual emotion focused therapy with Leslie Greenberg; that way he could talk to a chair and emote. And if you read Freud, it’s easy to conclude he needed to do some emoting because his self-analysis was sort of like late 19th century self-injurious behavior. . . VERY PAINFUL.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud starts by confessing that he feels troubled over his apparent inability to have religious experiences. He seems to long for an “oceanic” experience of being one with the universe that might be attributable to God or religion. Although he seems rather reluctant to openly admit that. Later, he trudges through an analysis of “Love thy neighbor.” Unfortunately (at least for his neighbor), Freud ends up making more of a case for hating the neighbor. His logic is flawless, at least from his perspective. In the end, Freud embraces the likelihood of a death instinct which, in his time, was probably related to Hitler’s rise to power.
But what was Freud’s solution to the death instinct and Hitler’s ascension?
He had no solution. Or at least he had no solution in which he had much confidence. His last two sentences mark the battle lines. He admits to an incontrovertible aggressive and destructive impulse in individuals and in society. That’s much less fun than riding in a convertible. But more to the point, will hate, aggression, and destruction dominate? Freud seems to say—paraphrasing here, “Maybe so, maybe not.” The future, according to Freud, is in the hands of Eros.
With regard to the final outcome, Freud implies, “We shall see.”
This is like when your television show ends with the phrase, “To be continued.” Only now with internet streaming, rarely do we have to wait a whole week for the stunning conclusion. Sadly, Freud died before he reached the stunning conclusion.
But here’s where things get interesting.
Freud died on 23 September 1939 and John Lennon was born on 9 October 1940.
According to Buddhist philosophy, the soul can be reincarnated somewhere between 49 days to 2 years following death.
This leaves open the possibility—or even likelihood—that Freud was reincarnated as John Lennon and eventually, in 1967, wrote and sang, along with his Beatle friends, “All You Need is Love.” The point that Freud, reincarnated as John Lennon, was trying to make is that we all need to be liberally spreading Eros around as a Death Instinct antagonist.
There’s much more to say about this, but for now, I think the obvious take-home message is for us to all practice loving our neighbors even though we might be able to make a better intellectual case for hating them. We should probably love our enemies too. And I’m adding a twist to this for 2017: sometimes this isn’t going to be fluffy gooey love. It’s going to be some bad-ass, in-your-face tough love.
This is my New Year’s resolution—to be a practitioner of good-old Freudian in-your-face tough Eros.
Although I’m ending this with a wish for you all to have a Happy New Year, I’m also recognizing that the pursuit of happiness is aptly phrased because just when you think you’ve got it, it goes and flits off to somewhere else and you have to keep chasing it.
Good luck with the chase and good luck with that Eros thing.