In one of his last works, Civilization and its Discontents (1929-31), Freud explored the consequences of a fundamental ambivalence in human nature towards both self and others. He traced the origin of this ambivalence to the workings of two fundamental ‘instincts’ or drives which he considered to operate both in the individual and in society at large, the erotic (Eros) which binds people together, and the aggressive (sometimes called the Death Instinct in this work) which acts contrariwise. It is certainly no longer accepted that the word ‘instinct’ is the proper description for these potent forces within the psyche and within society, but the effects which he describes in Civilization and its Discontents are surely no less apparent now than they were when he wrote.
His point is basically this:
“The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. It may be that in this respect precisely the present time deserves a special interest. Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety…”
‘Civilization’, he contends, puts heavy demands on the individual to give up personal satisfaction or happiness in the interests of social order and conformity, and he cites as an example, the way young children are required to renounce their (primary) satisfaction and pleasure in ‘anal erotism’ and to become clean:
“The most remarkable example of such a process is found in the anal erotism of young human beings. Their original interest in the excretory function, its organs and products, is changed in the course of their growth into a group of traits which are familiar to us as parsimony, a sense of order and cleanliness…We cannot fail to be struck by the similarity between the process of civilization and the libidinal development of the individual… It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct [drive], how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression or some other means?) of powerful instincts. This ‘cultural frustration’ dominates the large field of social relationships between human beings…”
Renunciation like this produces a situation in which the denied desire is perhaps consigned to unconsiousness, and its energy then produces some ambivalences in the psychic or social fabric. Freud uses a wonderful example of this ambivalence in man’s relation to dogs: he notes that dogs are at once idealized as ‘Man’s best Friend’ and ‘faithful’ and reviled as ‘dirty’. In one of my favourite footnotes, Freud analyses this paradox to show that it arises from denial – since man stood on his hind legs, he hasn’t been able to smell the good ground smells or other folks’ bottoms very much, whereas dogs do. Hence there is envy and desire completely unconsciously held towards our canine friends, and it shows in the ambivalence we maintain toward them. I suppose it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that in doggy society, sniffing these smells is a major social function; dogs, after all, have their pee-mail. But civilized man has raised himself above this level, and by his elevation has renounced that source of social cohesion and personal satisfaction.
Much more central to his argument is Freud’s analysis of the renunciation of sexual desire which is required of the individual to maintain social order:
“Present-day civilization makes it plain that it will only permit sexual relationships on the basis of a solitary, indissoluble bond between one man and one woman, and that it does not like sexuality as a source of pleasure in its own right and is only prepared to tolerate it because there is so far no substitute for it as a means of propagating the human race.
This, of course, is an extreme picture…. Civilized society has found itself obliged to pass over in silence many transgressions which, according to its own rescripts, it ought to have punished. But we must not err on the other side and assume that, because it does not achieve all its aims, such an attitude on the part of society is entirely innocuous. The sexual life of civilized man is notwithstanding severely impaired… One is probably justified in assuming that its importance as a source of feelings of happiness, and therefore in the fulfilment of our aim in life, has sensibly diminished…
“ The ‘severe impairment’ of sexual life is also likely to provide the ground for highly ambivalent attitudes, held both by the individual and by society in general, towards sexuality. The ‘passing over in silence’ of these anomalies is surely a familiar enough issue for us even now, seventy years later, to give some attention to what Freud is suggesting. He is in fact contending ‘that what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery.’ In the same way that an individual can become neurotic in response to the personal struggle he may have with the conflicted feelings and frustration he experiences in the face of heavy demands to renounce his desires, Freud suggests that society at large can also be made neurotic. The difficulty then would lie in diagnosing the neurosis – in the case of an individual, other individuals are taken as giving a benchmark for ‘normal’ or non-neurotic states; but by what criteria, he asks, can a neurotic society be diagnosed?
He examines in particular the demand society makes on its members to ‘love thy neighbour’:
“The existence of the inclination to aggression, which we can detect in ourselves and justly assume to be present in others, is the factor which disturbs our relations with our neighbour… in consequence of this primary hostility of human beings, civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration. The interest of work in common would not hold it together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests….. the commandment to love thy neighbour as thyself (is) a commandment that really is justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man.
“ I feel it is interesting that Freud almost seems to be verging on irony in this passage - as if the ambivalence of what he is describing is barely containable without some kind of slippage. The suspicion that it is precisely because the demand is so impossible to fulfill that it is ‘justified’ in the social sphere enables Freud to link it with the cognate formation structure which he posits for individual feelings of guilt:
“What means does civilization employ in order to inhibit the aggressiveness which opposes it, to make it harmless, to get rid of it, perhaps? … This we can study in the history of the development of the individual. What happens in him to render his desire for aggression innocuous? Something very remarkable which we should never have guessed and which is nevertheless quite obvious. His aggressiveness is introjected, internalized; it is in point of fact, sent back to where it came from … and now in the form of ‘conscience’ is ready to put into action against the ego the same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other, extraneous individuals. The tension between the harsh super-ego (conscience) and the ego… is called by us the sense of guilt; it expresses itself as a need for punishment. Civilization therefore obtains mastery over the individual’s dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.”
And having reached so far, he quickly comes to the troubling question of the work of psychotherapy – that it must often take a stance opposing the harshness of the conscience and the sense of guilt, and at the same time, ironically, to enable the individual again to function more harmoniously in society, which imposed the impossible demands and frustrations on him in the first place.
“We are very often obliged, for therapeutic purposes, to oppose the super-ego, and we endeavour to lower its demands… Exactly the same objections can be made against the ethical demands of the cultural super-ego. It too, does not trouble itself enough about the facts of the mental constitution of human beings. … It assumes that a man’s ego is psychologically capable of anything that is requred of it, that his ego has unlimited mastery over his id. This is a mistake; and even in what are known as ‘normal’ people, the id cannot be controlled beyond certain limits.”
It is clear enough that the basis for Freud’s gloomy forecast for the future of civilization is his belief in the ‘unconscious’, both as a personal and as a social feature. I think it would be true to say that, although the nature and contents of the ‘unconscious’ are still confusing and unclear, therapists on the whole do not doubt that it exists. Nor do they generally doubt that many of the ambivalences and conflicts of both individual people and of society arise from the ‘unconscious’ processes which continually accompany conscious life. In the work they do, they are often perturbed at the violent eruptions into consciousness and the News of unspeakable but nonetheless familiar human acts of violence and violation, and they work to integrate these aspects of humanity into less destructive forms. They seem never to doubt that it is their duty to serve civilization in this way. And this is what makes me wonder, betimes, whether the old man didn’t have a point.
In one of his famous lectures in Paris in the late 1960s, Lacan said:
“Most of you will have some idea of what I mean when I say – the unconscious is structured like a language. This statement refers to a field that is much more accessible to us today than at the time of Freud….”
[Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 1973]
I believe that in comparing the structure of ‘the unconscious’ to that of a language, Lacan was probably referring to the linguistic concept of the bi-polar nature of language (as in Saussure and Jacobson). If so, perhaps he also was implying that such a structure must manage to live with ambivalence, precisely because the two poles between which it exists are structurally in active tension and contradistinction with each other. And, if so again, then this would certainly not be at odds with the Freudian structure of ‘drives’ which are similarly opposed. Even though it is no longer tenable to regard these polar opposites as ‘instincts’ in themselves, their function in this kind of structure is also surely not unlike that of the current terms, ‘constitutional’, ‘genetic’ or ‘neurological’ which are seen as operating in tandem with ‘environmental’ factors. In short, it seems to me that the process and structure which Freud described still inhabits our thinking both about individual psyches and about society, and I suggest it would be worth returning to Civilization and Its Discontents as a particularly helpful historical document to review our position in psychotherapy now, as the Freudian twentieth century comes to its close.
Quotations come from Joan Riviere’s translation of Civilization and its Discontents on Vol. 12 of the Penguin Freud Library