Sunday, August 26, 2018

Civilization and Its Discontents Paperback – July 1, 2016 by Sigmund Freud (Author), Joan Riviere (Translator) (Martino Fine Books)

Sigmund Freud  born Sigismund Schlomo Freud; 6 May 1856 – 23 September 1939) was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst.

Freud was born to Galician Jewish parents in the Moravian town of Freiberg, in the Austrian Empire. He qualified as a doctor of medicine in 1881 at the University of Vienna. Upon completing his habilitation in 1885, he was appointed a docent in neuropathology and became an affiliated professor in 1902. Freud lived and worked in Vienna, having set up his clinical practice there in 1886. In 1938 Freud left Austria to escape the Nazis. He died in exile in the United Kingdom in 1939.

In creating psychoanalysis, Freud developed therapeutic techniques such as the use of free association and discovered transference, establishing its central role in the analytic process. Freud's redefinition of sexuality to include its infantile forms led him to formulate the Oedipus complex as the central tenet of psychoanalytical theory. His analysis of dreams as wish-fulfillments provided him with models for the clinical analysis of symptom formation and the underlying mechanisms of repression. On this basis Freud elaborated his theory of the unconscious and went on to develop a model of psychic structure comprising id, ego and super-ego. Freud postulated the existence of libido, an energy with which mental processes and structures are invested and which generates erotic attachments, and a death drive, the source of compulsive repetition, hate, aggression and neurotic guilt. In his later work Freud developed a wide-ranging interpretation and critique of religion and culture.

Though in overall decline as a diagnostic and clinical practice, psychoanalysis remains influential within psychology, psychiatry, and psychotherapy, and across the humanities. As such, it continues to generate extensive and highly contested debate with regard to its therapeutic efficacy, its scientific status, and whether it advances or is detrimental to the feminist cause. Nonetheless, Freud's work has suffused contemporary Western thought and popular culture. In the words of W. H. Auden's 1940 poetic tribute, by the time of Freud's death, he had become "a whole climate of opinion / under whom we conduct our different lives."

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud (Author), Joan Riviere (Translator) is a reprint of the American Edition of 1930. In this seminal book, Sigmund Freud enumerates the fundamental tensions between civilization and the individual. The primary friction stems from the individual's quest for instinctual freedom and civilization's contrary demand for conformity and instinctual repression. Many of humankind's primitive instincts (for example, the desire to kill and the insatiable craving for sexual gratification) are clearly harmful to the well-being of a human community. As a result, civilization creates laws that prohibit killing, rape, and adultery, and it implements severe punishments if such commandments are broken. This process, argues Freud, is an inherent quality of civilization that instills perpetual feelings of discontent in its citizens.

I choose Freud's Civilization and its Discontents to be the book that accompanies me in this way. Not only because it has hitherto not been easy to get hold of a copy, but because it quite simply tells you all you really need to know about life and its vicissitudes. There comes a point in one's existence, after all, at which one begins to suspect that any book that could not be renamed or sub-titled Civilization and its Discontents is going to be more or less a complete waste of time.

This, written in 1930, on the eve of destruction as it were, is a summary of Freud's beliefs, the potted essence of his system as applied to the broad picture. Those who decry the Freudian technique as far as our interior mental landscapes go would do well to remember that, whatever his flaws as a scientist, he was a first-rate essayist. When away from the couch or the consulting room, he was as penetrating and beguiling a thinker as Montaigne.

Freud's considered starting-point for civilisation comes at that moment when primitive man decided, after unusually careful deliberation, not to put the fire out by peeing on it, but to allow it to keep burning. "By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitement he had subdued the natural force of fire. This great cultural conquest would thus be the reward for forgoing the satisfaction of a drive."

All else follows from this; and this is why, even at a time of unprecedented technological mastery, people are still no happier than they ever were. Or, indeed, why civilisation is just as likely to lapse into psychosis as not, a development which in Freud's part of the world was to happen in fairly short order. "We have taken care not to concur with the prejudice that civilisation is synonymous with a trend towards perfection," he notes laconically. For the notionally civilising influence of Christianity, he reserves his most exquisite scorn: "Unfortunately all the massacres of Jews that took place in the Middle Ages failed to make the age safer and more peaceful for the Christians. After St Paul had made universal brotherly love the foundation of his Christian community, the extreme intolerance of Christianity towards those left outside it was an inevitable consequence."

That is an insight it is worth paying to know, and is typical of the hard clarity of Freud's essay. There may be moments - such as his theory about not peeing on fires - when your scepticism or sense of offence is aroused; but there is much more that is unarguably to the point.

"With none of my writings," declares Freud, "have I had such a strong feeling as I have now that what I am describing is common knowledge, that I am using pen and paper, and shall soon be using the services of the compositor and printer, to say things that are in fact self-evident." When an essayist starts thinking like that, then it is usually a sign that he or she is on the right track. And in Freud's case, the track was pointing in an important direction: an answer to the questions of why we are still unhappy, and why we do bad things against our own and others' best interests. He had started to work this out in his 1920 essay, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" - but that work, while perhaps even more ground-breaking than this one, was less accessible, being more defended by thickets of psychoanalytic jargon. Here the jargon is not only minimised, it has entered the language. So at least here when you encounter the phrase "anal eroticism" you can be sure that it has been used properly.

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