Civilisation and Its Discontents, 1.1
Religion, Rolland, the Oceanic Feeling, and the constrained diversity of our responses to Gaugin's questions
Civilisation and Its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur), Chapter one, part 1.1
Freud begins by framing Civilisation…(C&ID) in terms of spiritual questions. He starts by tackling the responses that religion has given to the most basic existential questions posed by Gaugin in 1897:
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
In introducing these responses, Freud notes that there’s more than one. From the outset, his theory is multimodal, and his first move is to establish correspondences that concede the substantive plurality and diversity of people, modes of existence, desires, and values. I always find this a surprising set of moves for an opening paragraph in a work – by this author – for a broader public. It’s not quite what I expect from Freud, and it doesn’t scan smoothly: I have to re-read it a few times to see what he’s chosen to open with. But when I do, as in so many places in C&ID, I notice the ‘triple’ distillation, how much high-level synthesis has had to be done to get to it. Hard diamonds hard to see straight through.
Freud sees essentially four orientations, each tied to a value-set applying a group-held epistemology, or doctrine, to the most basic existential questions, and so working out a way to live together, somehow. I re-describe these groups as the ‘normies’, the Christians, the mystics, and the ‘men of science’… interestingly – and I’ll return to this at the end of this post – this is strikingly similar to a fourfold typology that Mary Douglas gives in her 70s and 80s work, developed further by Thompson, Ellis and Wildavsky. I think there’s a neglected sociological insight in play that can point Freud’s insights beyond themselves, so I’ll ‘circle back’ to it, as Americans on podcasts are wont to say these days.
Freud opens by describing a kind of ‘normie’ orientation, which responds to human existence with a value set which is about seeking power, wealth and esteem for ourselves ‘and admiring it in others’. Not accidentally, this is somewhat similar to the account of human motivations – competition, diffidence, glory – given by Hobbes in the thirteenth chapter of Leviathan. Coincidentally, they’re also similar to the passion, aggression and ignorance that drives the great whirlpool Buddhism calls Samsara.
Freud immediately descries these ‘normie values’ as ‘false standards’, and contrasts them with those of his esteemed friend (who turns up in the footnotes as Romain Rolland), who is held up as one of a minority of truly great people reaching up toward a set of ‘truer’ values. It’s really interesting: again, this is also the basic move of Buddhism, insofar as there is the basic set of Samsaric values and life, in which there is suffering, in which most people live by cycling through the grinding wheels of passion, aggression and ignorance. But there is a glimpse of another way of being; it is possible, some people really do embody and it, and we could leave our dissatisfying roiling hot tub, by seeking to emulate them. Other better ways are possible.
As a side note with Hobbes in mind: dominant Western responses have typically enjoined us to put our lives ‘under’ some kind of big Other. Hobbes offers the security of living under a sovereign. Gregory Bateson resolves alcoholism by following the Twelve Steps’ recourse to a transcendent – stop trying to be the controlling God of your own life and realise you powerlessness by placing yourself under a power greater than yourself. And this is also how the Middle Eastern monotheisms have tended to resolve this existential dilemma. One might read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, or Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (the major work after C&ID, the last major work before his death), to think through where this keeps leading.
I think we could sum up Freud’s opening contrast and correspondence as follows: most people live their ‘default settings’, with everyone trying to get mine for me. Typically, we live in a world of wanting, wanking, ogling and pining, seeking pleasure, avoiding unpleasure, craving our own expansion and elevation, chafing under reason and responsibility. We flee from death and pain and try to wangle a way to get our hands on what we’re grasping for, what we’ve been fixating on. And (if we’re lucky), we gorge ourselves on whatever pleasures they can get ours slippery mits on, and screw the hangover, deal with it tomorrow. And yet: unlike Hobbes, Freud openly concedes this is not all, this is not how everyone lives, that there are actually many ways to live, and among the diverse modes of desires and existence, there are people like Rolland, who radiate a better, truer existential possibility.
Freud’s correspondence with Rolland transpired when the former sent the latter a copy of Future of an Illusion, which explains religion by way of the fundamental analytic distinction between errors and illusions. Religion contains factual errors, true, and religions can and continue to be critiqued on the basis of their factual errors: we can find excellent accounts of the historical Jesus, and huge scholarly works on the emergence and transformations of Christianity. But as anyone who has ‘argued points’ with a true believer learns, religious beliefs never evaporate under this kind of scrutiny, and this is what illusions, in distinction to errors, are really about. (I wish the new atheists would have read Future… before arguing in that unedifyingly brittle and arrogant way they tend to with believers, because this deeper point about the power and meaning of illusions is usually missing from their account.)
As religions are driven by illusions (not just errors), the ‘forceless force of the better argument’ does not hold; one does not convert a believer, or even persuade them. In my personal experiences witnessing and participating in these ‘discussions’, usually reason and evidence only reinforces and confirms an already strong sense of defended identity in both interlocutors. Reason perversely entrenches the passionate holding of beliefs and group identities. One need only look at the internet for the past few decades to see ample evidence of how this plays out with any given set of beliefs, and the corrosive polarisation that ensues. But reason never works, to return to Future… on page one, Freud is showing us to the limits of reason, right there, from the start.
Illusions carry and promise to fulfil a believer’s wish. This means that stubborn unreason always inheres in belief. In my own language, closer to Fromm, illusions support a sense of self and world and a devotional unity of order and orientation.
I’d like to add a point: no one believes alone. Even the Unabomber sent his bombs to other people; even the cave hermit withdraws ‘from’ a group in the valley. Thus the illusions of belief are always group phenomena, perennially tied to personal identity and group solidarity. Attack a person’s religion the way the Dawkins of this world do, and you are cursing their family and community and what holds them together. Good luck to you.
If we can extrapolate and add a bit here, based on what is implied in Freud’s paragraphs, Monotheistic religions, more particularly, are practised by groups whose living together bounds the world into (saved) insiders and (damned) outsiders, either based on a reading of scripture held up as Truth, or on a sense of grace or the Holy Spirit, or devotion to a prophet (eg Jesus) or loving parent (eg Mary). So there is always boundary work going on here, and this is primary insofar as it co-constitutes inside and outside, thus defining roles and friends and enemies. Mary Douglas uses this bounding conception in all her work, most famously to show how groups establish regions of purity and danger, then develop rituals to uphold and enforce this cosmic order. Thinking of boundaries and bordering practices, Wendy Brown used the illusion of sovereignty to explain the depth psychological factors animating contemporary wall building: I think we can also see such walling in ourselves and all around us, not just as something that ‘they’ do, but that is boundary work is a basic, essential part of how 99% of people tend to live in groups.
Back to Freud: we inhabit religions because of the comforts and consolations these illusions give us, because they carry wishes we have for ourselves and the world and our loved ones to fulfilment, protecting our love from harm and our life from oblivion. They are meaningful responses to Gaugin’s questions: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? These responses help us do the necessary boundary work that builds and reinforces identity and territory; and they are nearly always worked into narratives.
By telling such stories, we transform the world and its suffering into something with meaning, with a beginning, a middle an end, with an author, with protagonists, with heroes and villains, with the promise of meaning and redemption. It’s easy to other and distain the believers as Dawkins and his ilk tend do, but we all have a deep yearning for consoling stories that give us a unity of order and orientation we can practise with other people. In the absence of a Church or congregation, most people make do with Hollywood, Republicans vs Democrats, America vs China, or Call of Duty.
I have Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) in my family, and without a doubt, the sect is a religion in these senses I’ve tried to convey. Committing one’s life to the group brings real community where people are truly committed to carrying one another’s lives; this is the great ‘dividend’ that anyone can see, and I’ve seen it in action. It is precisely the ‘community’ most normies feel is lacking in their capitalist suburban lives. The hot tub and the holiday house, the SUV and the bottle of wine, it really does lack richness, and 95% of people have the basic sanity to intuit this and sense their alienation, even in the midst of abundance, even on a drunken Saturday in the bubbling heat of the hot tub – and especially the next headpounding morning. After the orgy, the laundry. In sober contrast to the worldly ways of these nihilistic normies (and the nattering nabobs of negativism), by living in emulation of early persecuted Christian groups, and through a very close, regular reading group study of their English translation of the Bible, JWs practise their commitment by living in a willed minority group animated by a story about who they meaningfully are as ‘saved’, in a world where ‘the end is nigh’, in contrast to the wordly others around them, who aren’t gonna make it. For me, this has always got weird where you’re at their house and obviously the worldly ones… are we really damned? For all eternity? Harsh…
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
The JWs’ response to this is a set of stories that transform the world into a story of creation, where even death and destruction is redeemed as justice and paradise. This law-giving story about group and world and its eschatology gives an unambiguous set of meanings that explain how, moreover, the world was created for ‘us’, what happens when we die, and how the world’s story began and will end, with paradise for the believers and a story of redemption and judgment for the world, the rightful judgment of the world’s creator, whose omniscience means He won’t make any mistakes; there are no miscarriages of justice, no wrongful judgment, no botched evidence or racist juries.
To sum up a little. Freud argues that religion, like the way I’ve summarised it here – which is how many JWs seem to me to really live, which is eminently though not only a Western and Middle Eastern set of group practices and beliefs – is animated by powerful illusions whose core, moreover, is a wish about self and group. Notice that I’m emphasising the primacy of groups here, which Freud continually mentions, but in passing: the Father of psychoanalysis of course remains focused on individuals and depth psychology. But what is the wish of religion, in such groups? In C&ID, Freud ends the first chapter by chalking up this wish to a terrible fear of helplessness that individuals feel, and the transformation of the ambivalence of dependency, whose primary site of development is the family, into the eternal security of fatherly protection. Is this all that religion is?
If the religion of the JWs was all that religion was, Freud would have nailed it, I think. As for the JWs – or the Catholics, or the Sunnis, as the twin towers of universalism – all you need do is invest. Anyone can join: the JWs are literally knocking on your door hoping you will. Join, believe, and you get a very neat set of group-held meanings that do make sense of suffering, life, and death; they do answer the question of how we ought to live and die and what it all means, and they do give people a tribe to share this story, and support one another through the ups and downs of life and death.
But the belief of the believers is also a trap that prevents its bounded circle occupants from pointing beyond themselves: there cannot be open thinking if there is belief. To re-place the circle inside the circle, JWs wishing to point beyond this could get a lot out of to reading Civilisation… they could consider their own beliefs critically by taking its claims seriously; they could deconstruct their own beliefs and realise their selfish and narcissistic need for a restoration of unconditional love and eternal protection by an invisible parental figure, and the restoration of the ego and its existence in Paradise. But – and here’s the very thing about the belief of the believers, the binding core of the illusion – they have a weltanschauung among whose key functions is precisely to obviate the need to do so, and in fact, it tells them that the likes of Freud and Nietzsche are worldly, and will lead you away from the Truth.
And like others, this is a sect that disfellowships the worldly… so if you get too curious and too worldly, if you ask too many impertinent questions too directly, you do risk being ostracised by your family and community for the rest of this life, and missing out on the eternal afterparty that is Paradise. Just sayin’.
I ask you to notice: not accidentally, this is structurally similar to what is offered (and threatened) by ethnic nationalism and many of the most prevalent conspiracy theories, in Freud’s time, and now. But let’s not other these phenomena: we’re all implicated in ‘religion’ in this sense, we’ve all lived by stories and been involved in groups, for we all live in families with cultures and tell our national selves stories about how we’re special and will live in glory forever, specially protected by some big Other, unlike those others, the out-groups who haven’t heard the Truth or refuse it, whose suffering and death, which ‘we’ anticipate as imminent, will not be redeemed. Fascists, who practise ethnic nationalism and conspiracy theories and tie it to a politics of violent extirpation, are only an intense and structurally violent and destructive instantiation of a nearly universal modern way we’ve seen fit to deal with life and death, friends and enemies, together.
I’ve expended quite a few paragraphs setting up the importance of religion in this sense that’s familiar to most Westerners. Partly this is just a quirk of my uninhibited style when I don't edit myself (which I'm deliberately trying not to): apologies. But also, it also seems important to give detail to these framing points because Freud made the unusual rhetorical choice to open the book by really drawing our attention back to Future... and ‘all of the above’. These are not accidental choices, these are careful points that, I guess by reading the text, came after binning quite a few drafts. I think it’s really interesting that he begins Civilisation… with what have been the dominant religious answers to the most basic spiritual questions, that the first cab off the rank is how religion has managed to deal with our existential-social situation. I read this as Freud saying, in a way, that it’s precisely because he finds their answers so deeply unsatisfying that he has to write the book, just as it’s because he’s not happy with Rolland’s alternative response, that he has to reply, then keep going. There is nothing in in theism, or in monism (of which more shortly), that satisfies Freud’s intellectual curiosity about how we live together via our belief, that checks out with anything that his knowledge of evolution, anatomy, science and the mind tells him, or that conforms with what really kept coming up in decades of clinical experience. In fact, it’s precisely this latter experience, decades of hours sitting with and listening to people’s free associations, traversing their neuroses, getting glimpses of the unconscious phantasy animating people’s pathological repetitions, that leads him to dismiss most ordinary experiences of religion as an infantile regressions into unbounded narcissism, the wish that oneself and one’s group might live forever, watched over by a protecting father who deals out punishment to one’s enemies, and gives redemptive justice to the world that He created just for ‘us’. Just so.
Yet in Civilisation… from the outset, Freud is also trying to dispense with Future… to push beyond it after the first page or two. In C&ID, the bigger task is to give a cogent response that can at least try to tackle the more enigmatic and wide-open idea of what we might call spirituality, and this transcends organised religion and its groups and texts and illusions. Rolland agrees with Freud that religion per se may keep us, as believers, in the grip of its illusions. But Rolland thinks that Freud has missed the cosmic point: the animating force underneath all religions is what one might call the animating sense of grace, satori, nonduality, oneness, Spinoza’s ‘intellectual love of God’, the emanating love for the world that has no object or expectation, the kind of ‘hippy stuff’ one might glimpse while tripping, after decades – or in a flash – during meditation, while severely deprived of sleep or food, once one’s logical ammo has been totally exhausted, in a near-death experience: “in the many obscure psychic states such as trance and ecstasy”, as Freud writes at the very end of the chapter.
Freud condenses this animating sense of spirituality the slightly unsatisfying phrasing of ‘the oceanic feeling’. In the 1970s, one of Osho’s books enjoined us: Be Oceanic. Watch Wild Wild Country, to see where Osho took it, or read Sloterdijk (who was a follower), to see where one might keep taking Osho and others (including Freud and Nietzsche).
I haven’t read Rolland’s work, but on the assumption that Freud is reporting back faithfully, I take it Rolland is remonstrating against Freud’s narrow and cynical view of religion, with its all-too-Western prejudices and blindspots, which are all on display. Rolland is offering a different view, commonly grounded in the subjective experience of a truth that is outside language and can only be experienced directly, the nonduality that many spiritual traditions emphasise is impossible to express in discursive concepts.
These Eastern traditions have warned us that language, especially conceptual, Western language and its dualist underpinnings and thousands of years of baggage about what religion and spirituality usually mean (see above), has basically 0 chance of grasping the profundity of what Rolland is trying to point to. Typically, wherever secular Westerners have tried to re-describe what’s been going on with these human experiences for thousands of years – which people across many cultures find to be the most profound experiences of their lives – they usually throw their own baggage back all over it, turn it back into mysticism, or put it in the trippy, dippy, or ‘hippy nonsense’ camps.
Moreover, when Westerners become seekers after this and head to the East here, or head for the hills up north, we usually end up with the cringe of white shaved scalps in cultural robes; wellness enemas and deferred ejaculation; gurus and cults, thus Wild Wild Country, or worse: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I can’t speak for other people, but for me this is everything gross about the counterculture of my parents’ generation, and how it washed up in northern New South Wales and Southern California. Reading Freud, one can sense his homologous contempt; it’s something he has to try to be ‘generous’ about, but really can’t come at. As Maggie Nelson quips in On Freedom, “those who thought Reichian orgasmatrons or queer orgies were going to bring about the death of capitalism or fascism always misjudged the possible relationships between pleasure, desire, capital, and power”.
Freud is not raising something new or anomalous by relating Rolland’s commitments, or something that ended with the generation of theosophy’s dominance. At least as far back as Schopenhauer, and from to the postwar and 60s counterculture to contemporary wellness and witchcraft, the ‘oceanic feeling’ keeps suggesting what most Westerners have lost, or continue to fail to understand, but crave, and that some individuals come back from the mountains to tell us they’ve glimpsed. This is an unbehagen in the kultur. The JWs have fled this for a very meaningful set of stories and a community, but at some cost to cosmic truth and cultural and evolutionary-planetary time, as evidenced by the continuous existence of 40,000 years of indigenous culture, and the bones of pesky dinosaurs.
Meanwhile, Freud’s normies, with their veneration of power, wealth and esteem, are of course trapped in the egoic trance of Western civilisation, worshipping the unbridled capitalism that’s killing them and destroying their ecology (but not until the hot tub goes cold), and it’s precisely this aspect of their ‘civilised’ nature/culture – alongside the a priori supremacy we grant to our civilisation’s reason and power over nature/other culture – that they hold it in too much contempt to even glimpse this ocean of love. They really are trapped in a mode of being that prevents them from ever glimpsing the basic nondual truth of the loving cosmos; feel the clunk of the car door shutting into the hushed silence of the cabin, sense the pressurisation of the cabin, hear the hum of the aircon. Back to the truth and reason of your mortgage, your investment portfolio, and your diesel SUV with you: or is it nullity and terrifying alienation, moral aloneness, and existential homelessness? Might as well renovate your holiday house or kill yourself; either way, it makes no meaningful difference. If God is dead, then everything is permitted. If it feels good, do it.
I hope you can see how much is going on in C&ID… this is what I draw from the first few paragraphs. If we can sum it up, we should say: secular Westerners operate on default settings that are Hobbesian-samsaric: our civilizational orientation is basically egocentric, narcissistic, and grasping. We crave and venerate wealth, power and expansion, and because of the arrogance of our supremacist belief in our own reason and technology, we cannot countenance a love other than our own for ourselves, which always a love of extraction, consumption, a grasping desire to possess, utilise, and maximise, use up (with all the waste and destruction this implies). Meanwhile, monotheistic believers are consoling one another with a story that places them at the centre of the universe under the eternal security of a protecting father figure who deals out punishment to our enemies and saves them from death and the end of world. Yet increasingly (I’m riffing a bit to make this point, this isn’t in C&ID) organised religion and church groups fail to convincingly organise and hold together communities with these stories, and these days all the cravings and baggage we have in our souls gets transferred into worship of the group itself, the nation, the sect, the wellness cult, the nihilistic values of consumerism and capitalism. It’s a notable point (I’ll come back to in a future post) that Freud says very little about capitalism or imperialism in so many words C&ID; he is not a sociologist or social theorist like Marx and not Weber (as Marcuse claims he is in Eros and Civilisation), and if you read him closely as I’m trying to follow Lacan and Fromm in doing, this actually does complicate his appropriation by Frankfurt School thinkers also relying on those sociological insights, or claiming that they’re already fully ‘there’ as sociological insights.
Moving on. We could say, then, that there are four basic subject positions ‘available’ to the civilised Westerners Freud is describing.
Firstly, there are the normies, who express conformist acceptance with the prevailing norms, which are basically selfish, amoral, and about passion, aggression, and ignorance.
Secondly, there are unusual, better, more idealistic, perceptive exceptional individuals, like Rolland, who can glimpse a more radiant oneness, which Freud himself struggles and fails to grasp.
Thirdly, there are ‘men of science’, which Freud positions himself as, who are able to grasp some underlying material-biological-genetic truth of all of this in us as the animals that we in fact are (which I’ll focus on in the next post).
Finally, there are the believers, communities who share the meaning and consolation of religion, but at the cost of truth and a regression into group narcissism and infantile dependency.
To, err, circle back, I wish to conclude by committing the sin of functionalism, and place all this in a fourfold group, represented by a diagram. This might be triggering for people who did sociology in the 60s, if you’re out there. Please don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Parsons and an AGIL schema.
Thompson, Ellis and Wildavsky’s build on Mary Douglas' grid/group typologies to develop a cultural theory that can account for both for sociocultural variability and for the limited set of permutations we seem capable of as we live together. The authors are struck ‘constrained variability’: by the fact that there are only a limited set of answers to what I’ve cast as Gaugin’s questions, although there is so much cultural diversity, so many ways in which humans have lived well enough together. In fact, they say, there are four basic answers, and a fifth whose anomalous status ‘proves’ the four: that of the hermit. To quote the Life of Brian: ‘he’s over there – splitter!’
I don’t want to overburden the end of this post with a digressive explanation into their cultural theory, although it’s very interesting and a bit neglected and I wish I’d had it instead of unbridled postmodernism in my late 90s cultural studies classes. And I don’t want to lay their development of Douglas too heavily atop Freud’s schema, which, as I hope I’ve been stressing, has a different epistemology and focus, and whose context, as Lacan says, is basically Ibsen-ian. However, I’m struck by the fact that Freud’s reflections seem, likewise, to settle on four basic solutions to how we’re supposed to live together.
Cultural Theory goes on to say that in any given civilisation one mode tends to predominate, with the others there in some complementary mix. I think this is not dissimilar to what James Scott tells us, also under the influence from his hero, Owen Lattimore (another ‘nother post for another day). In other words, there is never only one culture in der Kultur. And this pluralism isn’t just a modern phenomena, it’s thousands of years old. Christianity grew up in the shadows of Judaism and Roman Imperialism, Western Civilisation has always developed in a complex interplay with Middle Eastern, Slavic, African and (since 1492) global counter civilisations, all of which put our own values into question. Moreover, as I hope I’ve underlined, we live in societies full of many, many religions and sects – and millions of individuals like Rolland, who can glimpse the oneness of cosmic love. However (interpolating a quote from Freud), it’s probably not as simple as that, “owing to the discrepancies between people’s thoughts and actions and the diversity of their desires”.