“What we call happiness, in the strictest sense of the word, arises from the fairly sudden satisfaction of pent-up needs”.
back to Civilisation and Its Discontents
Back in July, I swerved into a tangential condemnation of postwar America as a culture in large measure predicated on a impossible orientation toward the happiness of the individual, based on the idea that ‘he’ should live ‘his’ dreams. Willy nilly, I explored how this was underwritten by a set of essentially Hobbesian assumptions about the social field: humans are aggressive, competitive, diffident, and seek glory for themselves, and must ‘practise’ happiness and dream-living in a ruthless and unequal capitalist marketplace where sex sells, winner takes all, and loser loses everything, and blames themselves when this happens.
In this selfsame cultural field – one G.O.A.T and 300 million losers – it’s posited back ‘down’ on individuals that positive thinking and personal striving – and only these – can overcome the obstacles to happiness that American society (deliberately, or as ‘nature’) places in front of the individual. I noticed how, in these precise senses, twentieth-century American society has been strikingly Freudian, closer even to Eduard Bernays than it is to its other titanic 18C-20C influences, shorthanded by the names of Roger Williams (Baptism), William Miller (Seventh Day Adventism), Herbert Spencer (Social Darwinism), Charles Davenport (Eugenics) and Norman Vincent Peale (positive thinking).
Freud’s scene, situated in and around the modernist scene seated in and seeded by early twentieth century Vienna, is an Other to our own. Reading Musil, Broch, Canetti, and Kraus in the 2020s is a wonderful opportunity to peer into another modern reality adjacent yet profoundly different to ours; a Germanophone ‘West’ reckoning with the profound trauma of World War One, and the melancholia at imperialism’s loss, whose passionate obsessions and tragic, elegiac tonality is as lost on us as it has been intellectually formative (not just the above milieu and psychoanalysis, think also of Wittgenstein, Hayek, Polanyi, Schumpeter, Von Foerster, and Fritjof Capra).
For Freud, the discontents of his – and all – civilisation resides in the “conflict between instinctual drives and social demands”(Horney, 86): where the drives, whose pleasures are irrational and libidinal, insistently ‘knowing no no’, forever push unconsciously against the diurnal reality of work and renunciation, like a salaryman’s erection pushing against a commuter’s thigh on a packed train, with condensation running down the windows, and the smell of skin and hair pressed into your nostrils.
As Horney distils this so clearly in her limpid prose, this means “the subjective factor involved in anxiety lies in our own instinctual drives… both the danger anticipated by anxiety and the feeling of helplessness toward it are conjured by the explosive force of our own impulses (both quotes Horney, Neurotic Personality of our Time, 53). We are all dealing with an instinctually-insistent inner life that is unconscious, and that must be continually repressed when it nudges us (like a hungry dog’s snout nosing our seated thigh), because its unbridled expression is profoundly antisocial, because it is primally sexual, aggressive, and selfishly oriented to its own driven satisfaction, at whatever expense to its object.
This transcends individual pathology and reaches toward a social theory of mass repression-neurosis, in the following way. If the neurotic is someone who is always ‘standing in her own way’, as Horney puts it, then Freud’s civilisation means that all of us must be our own constant doorbitch, vigilantly repressing a set of instinctively-based, ever-insistent urges, many of which are far darker, more aggressive, and uncontrolledly sexual than the ‘ideal I’ of our ego would ever be comfortable freely admitting, let alone loosing upon the world and the commuters in our mi(d)st.
Freud’s Viennese modernism in all this is precisely that all of kultur: all the great works of enlightenment are products of the sublimation of these instincts, which still ‘contain’ this unbehagen; music, philosophy, art and literature are the transfiguration of our erotic disfigurement by society into kultur’s highest intellectual and artistic expressions.
Yet in everyday life such transfigurations might be no great work of art, it could also be banally disgusting and at someone’s expense. A friend of mine once alighted a train as a Tokyo school girl after a strange ‘pressing’ by a commuter, only to find that some guy had managed to come in her blazer pocket.
Freud loads hard on this kind of unloading, these ‘releases’ of ‘tension’ which he sees underpinning the conflict between our driven inner life and the renunciation of our wished demanded by reality:
“As we see, it is simply the programme of the pleasure principle that determines the purpose of life. This principle governs the functioning of our mental apparatus from the start; there can be no doubt about its efficacy, and yet its programme is at odds with the whole world – with the macrocosm as much as with the microcosm. It is quite incapable of being realized; all the institutions of the universe are opposed to it; one is inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ has no part in the plan of ‘creation’. What we call happiness, in the strictest sense of the word, arises from the fairly sudden satisfaction of pent-up needs. By its very nature it can be no more than an episodic phenomenon. Any prolongation of a situation desired by the pleasure principle produces only a feeling of lukewarm comfort; we are so constituted that we can gain intense pleasure only from the contrast, and only very little from the condition itself. Hence, our prospects of happiness are already restricted by our constitution”.
Moreover, as in the above example: one salaryman’s lukewarm comfort is another schoolgirl’s formative disgust and surreal sexual assault.
Yet, to be sure, most of us don’t wank into strangers’ pockets.
(But do we all secretly wish to, or is that guy just a pervert? I’ll return to this in a later post)
Many of the twentieth century’s greatest intellectuals have been arguing with the implications of Freud’s cultural and social theory (all extrapolated from what’s implied in the above) ever since, in the way that we’re still arguing with and against Hobbes’ disquisition on human nature in the state of natural liberty, ‘where all men have the right to all things’. For Hobbes, the societally-necessary interposition is only the externality of sovereign power, an over-aweing and highly visible ‘one’ to keep the ‘all’ in covenant to one another. In Freud’s vision – which is also an in-tensification of Hobbes, and Spencer, and Augustine – the repressive sovereign has to be internalised, and ‘we’ must exercise a degree of cognitive effort to keep control over the ever-insistent throbbing pushing of the instinctive pushing wish toward the “fairly sudden satisfaction of pent-up needs”.
So: kultur means we renounce contact with the wished-for breast for the booby prize of art, and this could be a very Viennese loveliness (see above). And in the social realm, this is an immediate, argument for socially-necessary repression (which, like Hobbes, is hard to argue against, the moment you accept its presuppositions): a conservative’s call to ‘reality’ against the impossibility of socialism and anarchism, and the wish, re-minted as a salutary and bracing realism, that we are – and must be, and ought to be – all ruled over by authorities and institutions who can beat back the beating off and whispered sweet nothings that would be corrosively, all-destructively unleashed, in the absence of the softly speaking big stick. It’s an argument against the surging masses, as much as it is against our squirming urges.
The countercultural counterargument, from Weimar Berlin to 2020s Berlin, via Wilhelm Reich and Southern California, has always been that it is precisely and only in the full expression of humanity’s erotic strivings that the repressiveness of repression can be overcome. It is the authoritarianism we have internalised that is twisting our naturally good erotic selves: it’s the bad cop doing the repressing who’s actually into leather hats and domination. Thus coming could be overcoming the policeman inside, while coming in someone’s pocket is merely the twisted unkindness that a repressive and hierarchical, patriarchal society has foisted inside the mind of a hapless toxic masculinity that wants so badly to connect, yet can only do it in an impersonal and offensive way, as technically skilled as it is socially maladroit, all fast furtive fingers, poor eye contact, and bad breath.
(And this can be seen with where he pointed his load: he came very accurately in a schoolgirl’s pocket, not on everyone around him)
A century on, we can now look back and see more clearly, I think, that the Freudian-modernists and Reichian-counterculturalists have both been exaggerating: society can neither be solved by repressing our erotic selves and attending art exhibitions monitored by security guards, nor could everything be ‘fixed’ by repression’s orgiastic overcoming. (Foucault’s chapter on the ‘repressive hypothesis’ in the History of Sexuality Volume One on this is still to the point [and written after the Reichian orgasm spasm tried to overcome the double daddy of the French state and the structuralist-Lacanians, post ’68]). We could double down with Adorno and say ‘in psychoanalysis nothing is true except the exaggerations’. But I think Adorno is wrong… the exaggerations are distortions, and thus not quite true, and more than a bit twisted.
But what does Freudian modernism mean if we boomerang back to postwar American culture, the injunction to find happiness by ‘living your dreams’, and the upheld promise that we will find it if we do? Remember that, for Freud of course, such a cultural injunction is a dangerous illusion, for one’s dreams are always wet dreams about wet nurses and dark aggressive thoughts about deeply familial orifices spied through hard keyholes. Our ‘dreams’ are glimpsed visions of wish-filled Bacon canvases that we must supress in our waking hours, if we’re to remain civil enough to live tolerably well together, somehow.
It’s a very Viennese milieu, a century ago as now; kitsch facades and pompous civility hiding dank basements and unannounced families, and piano teachers who like to play ‘slap me as hard as you can’, even more than practise waltzes (which was all we were paying her to do!). But at any rate, if one accedes to Freud’s view of dreams and living, one cannot be happy, because one cannot really live one’s dreams and still live tolerably in society – and one cannot be happy anyhow.
“Suffering threatens us from three sides: from our own body, which, being doomed to decay and dissolution, cannot dispense with pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which can unleash overwhelming, implacable, destructive forces against us; and finally from our relations with others. The suffering that arises from this last source perhaps causes us more pain than any other; we are inclined to regard it as a somewhat superfluous extra, although it is probably no less ineluctable than suffering that originates elsewhere” (15).
What’s a Freudian modernist to do then? The best-only productive thing we can do with our civilised tension is to sublimate our drives as art and kultur, then live with the (almost) intolerable burden of guilt and repressed-neurotic subjectivity, as we confront suffering and death, which eventually overcomes all elusive moments of happiness.
Should we accept this, it means that civilisation makes us all, and it makes us all forever neurotic; or, as George Clinton said of Mother Nature in ‘America Eats Its Young’ (with and against Freud and Reich):
A luscious bitch she is, true
But it's not nice to fool mother nature
The proud mother of god like all ho's
Is jealous of her own shadow
So who is this young Vic Tanny bitch
Who wish to be queen for a day?
Who would sacrifice the great grandsons and daughters
Of her jealous mother
By sucking their brain
Until their ability to think was amputated
By pimping their instincts
Until they were fat, horny and strung-out
In her neurotic attempt to be queen of the universe
Who is this bitch?
And if so: where to from there?