Authenticity and the Modern Unconscious
One of the most salient characteristics of the culture of our time is the intense, we might say obsessive, concern with authenticity as a quality of the personal life and as a criterion of art. If we undertake to point to specific developments in contemporary art by which the preoccupation with authenticity expresses itself, literature offers us a sufficiently striking example in the drastic reduction that has taken place in the status of narration, of telling stories. It is the exceptional novelist today who would say of himself, as Henry James did, that he “loved the story as story,” by which James meant the story apart from any overt ideational intention it might have, simply as, like any primitive tale, it brings into play what James called “the blessed faculty of wonder.” Already in James’s day, narration as a means by which the reader was held spellbound, as the old phrase put it, had come under suspicion. And the dubiety grew to the point where Walter Benjamin could say some three decades ago that the art of storytelling was moribund. T.S. Eliot’s famous earlier statement, that the novel had reached its end with Flaubert and James, would seem to be not literally true; the novel does seem to persist in some sort of life. But we cannot fail to see how uneasy it is with the narrative mode, which once made its vital principle, and how its practitioners seek by one device or another to evade or obscure or palliate the act of telling.
Benjamin speaks of the “orientation toward practical interests” which is “characteristic of many born storytellers”; he says that stories are likely to contain, openly or latently, “something useful,” that they have “counsel to give.” And this giving of counsel, Benjamin says, has come to have “an old-fashioned ring.” Old-fashioned: which is to say inauthentic for our time—there is something inauthentic for our time in being held spellbound, momentarily forgetful of oneself, concerned with the fate of a person who is not oneself but who also, by reason of the spell that is being cast, is oneself, his conduct and his destiny bearing upon the reader’s own. By what right, we are now inclined to ask, does the narrator exercise authority over that other person, let alone over the reader, and arrange the confusion between the two and presume to have counsel to give?
Richard Gilman, perhaps with Benjamin’s essay in mind, has said of narration that it is “precisely that element of fiction which coerces and degrades it into a mere alternative to life, like life, only better of course, a dream (or a serviceable nightmare), a way out, a recompense, a blueprint, a lesson.” A chief part of the inauthenticity of narration would seem to be its assumption that life is susceptible of comprehension and thus of management. It is the nature of narration to explain; it cannot help telling how things are and even why they are that way. How did death come into the world and all that woe? Well, I will tell you—“In the beginning. . . .” But a beginning implies an end, with something in the middle to connect them. The beginning is not merely the first of a series of events; it is the event that originates those that follow. And the end is not merely the ultimate event, the cessation of happening; it is a significance or at least the promise, dark or bright, of a significance. The tale is not told by an idiot but by a rational consciousness which perceives in things the processes that are their reason and which derives from this perception a principle of conduct, a way of living among things. Can we, in this day and age, submit to a mode of explanation so primitive, so flagrantly Aristotelian?
To that question a negative answer has been given by a significant part of one important intellectual profession—of recent years many historians have repudiated the ancient allegiance of their craft to the narrative mode. Such is the extent of their disaffection that G. R. Elton can speak of it as “contemptuous hostility” and feel under the necessity of making the defense of narration a chief intention of his book on the principles and practice of political history. Professor Elton accounts for the settled antagonism to the method of narration by the multiplicity of evidential material which has become available to modern historians. It is a multiplicity so great as to induce the belief that it must inevitably be betrayed into simplicity if it is presented as a story and that “the only way of writing history consists in taking a bit of the past to pieces before the reader’s eyes and putting it together again, in the description of an organism or structure.” Elton acknowledges the intellectual gratification which follows from the method of structural analysis—“a task properly completed and a piece of proper understanding added . . . to the general store of knowledge”; by comparison, he says, “the satisfaction of telling a story (however complicated), is likely to be at best aesthetic, at worst meretricious.” Yet he contends that the exclusive commitment to the method of analysis issues in the negation of history itself, for it ignores the “fact of motion” in which history consists. “Without a sense of time and change, of life and death, history ceases altogether to be history, whereas a narrative devoid of the full range of past experience is still history, only not altogether adequate or satisfactory history.”
Inevitably we wonder whether something more than considerations of technique has not led the historians to their adverse view of narration, whether beneath the methodological reasons there is not to be discerned an unformulated cultural judgment. This possibility is affirmed by J. H. Plumb, whose explanation of the low status of narrative history is much more drastic that Elton’s, for it is his view that the past itself is on the point of being extirpated from the consciousness of modern man. The extremity of his thesis is announced by the title of the book in which he sets it forth, The Death of the Past. “Industrial society,” Professor Plumb says, “unlike the commercial, craft and agrarian societies which it replaces, does not need the past. Its intellectual orientation is towards change rather than conservation, towards exploitation and consumption. The new methods, new processes, new forms of living of scientific and industrial society have no sanction in the past and no roots in it. The past becomes, therefore, a matter of curiosity, of nostalgia, of sentimentality.” That is to say, the past, so far as it exists in the modern consciousness at all, is not what in the past it was—it is not the sanction of authority, it is not the assurance of destiny. Its coming to the verge of death was a sudden event, occurring within present memory, a generation ago—in Britain, Plumb says, the last potency of the past was expressed in the nation’s “concept of its own role in the titanic struggle against Hitler.”
“A narrative past, a past with sharp and positive beginnings”—it is thus that Plumb characterizes the past that has passed away. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” These are beginnings as sharp and positive as any can be, and the great efflorescence of history in the 18th and 19th centuries—of narrative history, as now we are required to say—may be thought to have had it as one of its unavowed aims to supply their loss. When God died, as by common consent He did, however slowly the explicit news of the demise was received, history undertook to provide the beginnings which men once thought necessary to the authenticity of the world and themselves. Nietzsche says that the realization of the death of God makes all things seem “weightless”; the great narrative historians in some considerable degree kept gravity in being by thickening the past, making it exigent, imperative, a sanction of authority, an assurance of destiny. The tale they told interpreted the sound and fury of events, made them signify something, a direction taken, an end in view. “In the beginning was the Witenagemot.” “In the beginning was the genius of the Celtic race.” From which follow the purpose, the glories, the essential rightness, the indubitable actuality, the firm sentiment of being of the English people, of the French people. Narrative history, by its representation of necessity and vicissitude, served to keep man sufficiently weighty, made it still possible for feet to know that the solid earth was under them, that there was a required and right course for them to follow. “To write the History of England as a kind of Bible”—this was an enterprise that Carlyle urged in a time of crisis and anxiety. “For England too (equally with any Judah whatsoever) has a History that is Divine; an Eternal Providence presiding over every step of it . . ., guiding England forward to its goal and work, which too has been considerable in the world!”
But now the narrative past, like the divine Beginner for whom it was for a time the surrogate, has lost its authenticating power. Far from being an authenticating agent, indeed, it has become the very type of inauthenticity. Here and now may be unpleasant, but at least they are authentic in being really here and now, and not susceptible to explanation by some shadowy there and then. The disfavor into which narrative history has fallen with historians is reflected in the virtual extirpation of it from the curriculum of our schools and its demotion in the curriculum of our colleges. It has changed the nature of political thought, the radical no less than the conservative: Marxist theory, at least so far as it is popular, no longer proceeds under the aegis of the logic of history, as so proudly it did forty years ago. It bears upon the extreme attenuation of the authority of literary culture, upon the growing indifference to its traditional pedagogy; the hero, the exemplary figure, does not exist without a sharp and positive beginning; the hero is his history from his significant birth to his significant death. And perhaps the low status of narration can be thought to have a connection to the family—traditionally the family has been a narrative institution, with counsel to give and a tale to tell of how things began, including the child himself.
I have not put forward the matter of our culture’s adverse opinion of narration in order to deal with it as in itself it deserves to be dealt with, but only to exemplify the kind of cultural phenomena which might properly come within the purview of a discussion of the ideal of authenticity. But now that it is before us, it may appropriately be made to serve a further purpose, that of introducing the large and difficult subject I do propose to deal with here in some detail—the ideal of authenticity as it relates to the modern theory of the mind, and in particular to that concept which is definitive of modern psychological theory, the unconscious. The concept of the unconscious was brought to its present complex development by psychoanalysis. As I need scarcely say, psychoanalysis is a science which is based upon narration, upon telling. Its principle of explanation consists in getting the story told—somehow, anyhow—in order to discover how it begins. It presumes that the tale that is told will yield counsel.
Psychoanalysis entered fully upon the cultural scene not many years before Eliot made his statement about the novel having come to its end. Some critics have speculated that psychoanalysis itself played a part in the devolution of the novel, that it offered a narrative explanation of conduct which, by comparison with that of prose fiction, seemed more complete and authoritative. But if psychoanalysis can be thought to have been in competition with the novel and to have won some sort of ascendancy over it, this was not of long duration. In recent years the attachment of the American educated class to Freudian theory has markedly diminished. This development cannot be ascribed to any single cause, but the contemporary disenchantment with narration as a way of explaining things surely has some bearing upon it.
Still, if a withdrawal of credence from psychoanalysis is indeed to be observed as a tendency of our culture, it is a tendency which has by no means completed itself. Among the elements of Freudian theory there is at least one that stands in no danger of being abandoned, for it is integral to our cultural disposition. This is the doctrine that in the human mind there are two systems, one manifest, the other latent or covert. It is not an idea with which we are always at ease—by each one of us the personal evidences of an unconscious mental system are likely to be received with an ever fresh surprise and discomfiture which qualify their credibility. Yet despite occasional vicissitudes, the idea of an unconscious mental system is firmly established in our culture.
That a portion of the activity of the mind is not immediately available to consciousness is of course not in itself a new idea. It did not originate with psychoanalysis. Freud himself said that it was the poets who discovered the unconscious, and beyond the poets’ instinctive recognition of it there has been a considerable body of formulated belief in its existence and some fairly specific predications about its nature. Scholars have described the numerous pre-Freudian theories of the unconscious and a recent work by Henri F. Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious, does so in an especially thorough way.
In speaking of the sources of Freud’s thought, Professor Ellenberger adduces the intellectual tendency which, he says, requires emphasis because it has hitherto been overlooked. This is the disposition of mind, salient in Europe for some centuries, which he calls the “unmasking trend” and describes as “the systematic search for deception and self-deception and the uncovering of underlying truth.” Ellenberger assigns its beginnings to the French moralists of the 17th century and notes its continuance in Schopenhauer, Marx, Ibsen, and Nietzsche. One might add that the idea of “unmasking” also played an important part in the ethos of the French Revolution. The “unmasking trend” continues with unabated energy in our own time, and if we try to say why the idea that there is a mental system which lies hidden under the manifest system has won so wide an acceptance among us, doubtless one reason is that it accords with our settled belief that beneath the appearance of all human phenomena there lies concealed a discrepant actuality and that intellectual, practical, and (not least) moral advantage is to be gained by forcibly bringing it to light.
It would be an incomplete but not an inaccurate description of the theory of psychoanalysis to say that it conceives of the conscious system of the mind as a mask for the energies and intentions of the unconscious system. Freud himself puts it that the ego, which is the seat of consciousness, is “a kind of façade for the id,” which is unconscious. This suggest a complicity between the ego and the id, which does in fact exist. It does not, however, suggest the simultaneous antagonism between the two entities. The energies and intentions of the id are instinctual and libidinal and its sole aim is the achievement of pleasure. The primary concern of the ego is with the survival of the human organism, and to this end the ego undertakes to control the heedless energies and intentions of the id, going so far as to thrust them out of sight, which is to say, out of consciousness. By thus repressing the impulses of the id, the ego makes possible the existence of society, which is necessary for human survival.
But the tale, as we know all too well, does not end here. The instinctual drives of the id, although controlled and in large part repressed, do not acquiesce in the program of the ego. In the darkness of the unconscious to which they are relegated, they maintain a complex subversive relation with the conscious system and succeed to some extent in expressing themselves through it, not directly but by means of a devious symbolism. This symbolic expression of the repressed instinctual drives typically involves some degree of pain and malfunction and is called neurosis. The pathology is universal among mankind. As Freud puts it, “We are all ill”—neurosis is of the very nature of the mind. Its intensity varies from individual to individual; in some the pain or malfunction caused by the symbolizing process is so considerable as to require clinical treatment. But the psychic dynamics of such persons are not different from those of the generality of mankind. We are all neurotic.
The basis of the clinical procedure of psychoanalysis is well known. The therapeutic method begins with the belief that when once the conscious part of the mind learns to interpret the difficult symbolism of the repressed drives of the unconscious and by this means brings to light what it feared and thrust out of sight, the ego will be able to confront the drives of the id in all their literalness and thus be relieved of the pain that their symbolic expression causes. The patient, the analysand, by various means, by retrieving his childhood experience, by reporting his dreams and interpreting them with the analyst’s help, by articulating his fantasies and his fugitive thoughts, of which some will be trivial and silly, others shameful, will learn to identify the subversive devices of the banished impulses and come to terms with them as appropriate elements of his nature and thus deprive them of their power over him.
If this were the whole extent of the therapeutic enterprise, it would surely be possible to speak of it as a process of unmasking. It seems to constitute a very considerable effort of self-knowledge, a strenuous attempt to overcome an inauthenticity of the mental life which is not the less drastic because it is enforced and universal. And this is so not merely because of the nature of what is confronted in psychoanalysis—because, that is, the idea of authenticity readily attaches itself to instinct, especially to libidinal instinct—but because an inauthenticity of the mental life is implied by the very nature of neurosis, its being a substitute for something else. Psychoanalysis speaks of the pain or malfunction of neurosis as a “substitutive gratification”—what could be more inauthentic than an impulse toward pleasure which gains its admission into consciousness by masquerading as its opposite? The neurosis is a Tartuffian deceit practiced by one part of the mind upon another. It is to be dealt with by tearing the mask from its face.
But if indeed this were the whole extent of the therapeutic enterprise and, as such, suggested the whole extent of the theory of neurosis, then Jean-Paul Sartre would have been largely in the right when he made his adverse judgment on psychoanalysis, impugning the sincerity of the self-knowledge it yields, charging it with an essential bad faith, a profound inauthenticity.
Sartre delivered this judgment in a chapter of Being and Nothingness, his monumental investigation into the conditions of personal authenticity. He based it on his understanding of what must follow from the assumption that the mind consists of two parts, the unconscious id, which is wholly comprised by the instinctual drives, and the conscious ego, which censors and controls the id. “By the distinction between the ‘id’ and the ‘ego,’” Sartre says, “Freud has cut the psychic whole in two.” As a consequence of this dichotomy, the phenomena of the id, which can be known only by hypothesis, may indeed be brought to the conscious mind as more or less probable; they will not, however, be known with the force of an intuition, as an actual part of the individual’s moral being. As Sartre puts it, “I am the ego; I am not the id.” That is, the person in psychoanalytic treatment acquiesces in a view according to which he, the ego-he, the subject, is separated from, and permitted to disown, that part of himself of which he has been unconscious until psychoanalysis disclosed it to him—as an object. Sartre represents him as having been given license to say, “. . . I am not these psychic facts, insofar as I receive them passively,” that is, insofar as he receives them as mere phenomena distinct from what he calls his self. They may be, so to put it, discoverably inside him and at work upon him, but he regards them as no more really him than he would a tumor simply because it had been discovered in him.
Sartre’s criticism of psychoanalysis on the ground of its de-authenticizing effect would have to be considered very seriously had analytical theory rested at the point where Sartre’s knowledge of it seems to have stopped. But Sartre, writing in 1943, took no account of what had been happening in the development of Freud’s thought during almost a quarter-century. In 1919 Freud began a radical revision of his theory of the unconscious, and on the basis of his later formulations it can no longer be said that he cuts the mind in two, making a dichotomy between the unconscious id and the conscious ego. His developing theory does not represent the ego as coextensive with consciousness—some part of the ego is now thought to be as out of sight in the darkness as the id. “There is something in the ego itself,” Freud says, “which is also unconscious, which behaves exactly like the repressed—that is, which produces powerful effects without being itself conscious and which requires special work before it is made conscious.” To Freud’s avowed surprise—he speaks of the phenomenon as a “strange” one—the activities which go on in this newly discovered part of the ego are the same as some of the activities which are engaged in by the conscious part of the ego. These are activities which are regarded as, to use Freud’s phrase, “extremely high ones,” such as moral judgment and self-criticism. That is to say, moral activity is no longer to be seen as wholly a function of consciousness.
This is a decisive change in the conception of the ego. No longer is the ego viewed by Freud “as something autonomous and unitary.” Rather, he says, in its unconscious part the ego “is continued without sharp limitation” into the id. “The ego itself is cathected with libido”—indeed, the involvement of the two antagonists with each other is so intimate that Freud can say of the ego that it “is the libido’s original home and remains to some extent its headquarters.”
The momentousness of Freud’s revision of his theory of the ego will be immediately apparent. Where once the ego, the segment of the mind which, so to speak, does the living and transacts business with the world, was thought of as wholly conscious and as bedeviled in its practical purposive existence by the blind instinctual drives which seek by devious means to subvert its control, now the ego is understood to be in part unavailable to consciousness, no less devious than the id and profoundly implicated with the id’s libidinal energies, while at the same time its “extremely high” activities of moral judgment and self-criticism direct themselves, quite without benefit of consciousness, not only to the id but to the ego itself.
We may note in passing the effect which this radical change in the conception of the ego had upon clinical practice, how its extreme complication of the topography and dynamics of the unconscious system gave pause to the earlier therapeutic optimism of psychoanalysis, at least in point of the length of time required for successful treatment, leading Freud to write his paper with the disquieting title “Analysis Terminable and Interminable.” But what bears upon our present interest is the completeness with which the revision of ego-theory sets at naught Sartre’s criticism of psychoanalysis. The charge that psychoanalysis institutes a profound inauthenticity in the personal life by making a dichotomy between the ego and the id which alienates the conscious self from its subversive libidinal impulses is seen in the light of Freud’s later formulations to have no validity whatever. Had Sartre’s objection been advanced a quarter-century earlier, it would have been apposite indeed; put forward when it was, its anachronism must be accounted one of the curiosities of philosophy.
Yet if the particular charge of inauthenticity which Sartre brought against psychoanalysis must be dismissed, it by no means follows that all further litigation on this score is to be similarly nonsuited. The concept of authenticity is inherent and operative in Freudian theory, and it is both inevitable and appropriate that it should be invoked as a decisive criterion in the judgment of psychoanalysis itself. It is no less validly applicable to psychoanalysis in its later development than in its first formulations. Indeed, Freud’s revised description of the ego issues in a theory of society to which the criterion of authenticity is especially pertinent.
From the first, it need scarcely be said, a conception of society had been central to Freud’s psychology. The ego was a social entity; society was the field of its experience and from society the ego took much of its direction and received many of its gratifications. In relation to the id, which was defined by its a-social impulses, the ego was the surrogate of society. One might say that society was all too rigorous in its demands and that at its hands the ego as well as the id of any of its individual members suffered excessive frustration. Still, the social life had come into being at the behest of the ego and to serve its purpose of survival. The price which society exacted for advancing the aims of the ego could be scrutinized and possibly adjusted. Psychoanalysis certainly did not license the idea that communal life and the civilization that arose from it could be changed in an essential way, to the end of freeing the individual from frustration, yet it did seem to suggest that the relation between the individual and the community was, roughly speaking, a contractual one, which the individual might regard pragmatically. It was a relation that seemed to admit of at least some degree of accommodation on both sides.1
But this view of the cause of individual frustration was profoundly modified by the development of Freud’s new conception of the ego, which began in 1919. In 1930 Freud published his most fully articulated statement of what his theory of the mind implies for man’s social destiny. Civilization and Its Discontents is a work of extraordinary power. For social thought in our time its significance is unique. It may be supposed to stand like a lion in the path of all hopes of achieving happiness through the radical revision of social life.
Despite Freud’s gift of lucid expression, Civilization and Its Discontents is a difficult book, in some part because it undertakes to lead us beyond an idea with which we are familiar and comfortable, that society is the direct and “sufficient” cause of man’s frustration. Its central thesis is that society is no more than the “necessary” cause of frustration. As Freud now describes the dynamics of the unconscious, the direct agent of man’s unhappiness is an element of the unconscious itself. The requirements of civilization do indeed set in train an exigent disciplinary process whose locus is the ego, but this process, Freud says in effect, is escalated by the unconscious ego far beyond the rational demands of the societal situation. The informing doctrine of Civilization and Its Discontents is that the human mind, in the course of instituting civilization, has so contrived its own nature that it directs against itself an unremitting and largely gratuitous harshness.
The specific agent of this extravagant severity is an element of the unconscious which has not been named in what I have so far said about psychoanalysis, although its activities have been referred to—they are those “extremely high ones” of moral judgment and self-criticism. The element of the unconscious that carries on these activities Freud calls the super-ego. He tells us that the super-ego was originally part of the ego but seceded from it to establish an autonomous existence and a position of dominance over the ego’s activities. It derives its authority from society, whose psychic surrogate it in some sense is. In some sense only, however, because in point of repressiveness the super-ego is far more severe than society, whose purposes are largely practical and therefore controlled by reason. We mistake the nature of the super-ego when we make it exactly synonymous, as commonly we do, with conscience. Only up to a point are the two coextensive. The operations of conscience are determined by its practical social intentions, but (the super-ego is under no such limitation and in consequence its activity is anything but rational.2 The process it has instituted against the ego is largely gratuitous, beyond the needs of reason and beyond the reach of reason. The particular kind of pain it inflicts is that which Freud calls guilt.
We must be clear that in Freud’s use of it this notorious word does not have its ordinary meaning. Freud does not use it to denote the consciousness of wrongdoing, which he calls remorse.3 The nature of guilt as Freud conceives it is precisely that it does not originate in actual wrongdoing and that it is not conscious. It takes its rise from an unfulfilled and repressed wish to do wrong, specifically the wrong of directing aggression against a sacrosanct person, originally the father, and it is experienced not as a discrete and explicit emotion but as the negation of emotion, as anxiety and depression, as the diminution of the individual’s powers and the perversions of the intentions of his conscious ego, as the denial of the possibility of gratification and delight, even of desire. Guilt is Blake’s worm at the root of the rose-tree.
At this point I think it should be remarked that the description of the super-ego given in Civilization and Its Discontents is—by conscious intention, of course—a highly prejudicial one, putting all possible emphasis upon the gratuitousness of its behavior, upon its lack of measure and reason, its needless harshness. As against this pejorative view, we should recall that Freud understood the institution of the super-ego to be a decisive “advance” in the development of the mind. “It is in keeping with the course of human development that external coercion gradually becomes internalized,” he says in The Future of an Illusion; “for a special mental agency, man’s super-ego, takes it over. . . . Every child presents this process of transformation to us; only by that means does it become a moral and social being. Such a strengthening of the super-ego is a most precious cultural asset in the psychological field. Those in whom it has taken place are turned from being opponents of civilization into being its vehicles. The greater their number is in a cultural unit the more secure is its culture and the more it can dispense with external measures of coercion.”4
Yet when we have given all possible recognition to the essential and beneficent part that the super-ego plays in the creation and maintenance of civilized society, we cannot ignore its deplorable irrationality and cruelty. These traits manifest themselves in an ultimate form in the terrible paradox that although the super-ego demands renunciation on the part of the ego, every renunciation which the ego makes at its behest, so far from appeasing it, actually increases its severity. The aggression which the ego surrenders is appropriated by the super-ego to intensify its own aggression against the ego, an aggression which has no motive save that of its own aggrandizement. The more the ego submits to the superego, the more the super-ego demands of it in the way of submission.
It is not practicable to recapitulate here Freud’s explanation of how the super-ego became what it now is—the argument is difficult in the extreme, involving as it does the contradictions and conversions of the immemorial dialectic between the fostering and unifying instinct which Freud calls Eros and the hypothesized death-instinct from which aggression, including the aggression of morality in the service of Eros, derives.5 And for our purpose, the whole of the dark history, fascinating though it be, is not essential. It will be enough if we understand that although it was to serve the needs of civilization that the super-ego was installed in its disciplinary office, the actual behavior of the super-ego was not dictated by the actual needs of civilization; the movement of the super-ego from rational pragmatic authority to its gratuitous cruel tyranny was wholly autonomous.
This being so, must we not say that Freud’s theory of the mind and of society has at its core a flagrant inauthenticity which it deplores but accepts as essential in the mental structure? Man’s existence in civilization is represented as being decisively conditioned by a psychic entity which, under the mask of a concern with social peace and union, carries on a ceaseless aggression to no purpose save that of the enhancement of its own power, inflicts punishment for no act committed but only for a thought denied, and, so far from being appeased by acquiescence in its demands, actually increases its severity in the degree that it is obeyed. Nor does the insatiable tyrant confine its operations to the internal life of individuals; its rage for peaceableness quickens and rationalizes man’s rage against man. The hegemony of this ferocious idol of the psychic cave may indeed not have been required or intended by civilization, but surely in tolerating the great fraud civilization is profoundly implicated in its grotesque inauthenticity.
It is natural to suppose that if this anomalous condition of human existence can be discovered and described by the rational intellect, it might, by this same agency, be efficiently dealt with to the end of controlling its activity and thus bringing about a substantial increase of human happiness. Inevitably we entertain the speculation that, since the aggressivity of the super-ego has some part of its tortuous etiology in its response to the aggressive impulses of the ego, a revision of societal arrangements which would have the effect of lessening ego-aggression should induce the super-ego to abate its characteristic fierceness. Freud himself, in the concluding pages of Civilization and Its Discontents, raises the question of how far this project is susceptible of being realized. The reply he makes is tentative and gentle in its manner, as how could it not be, denying as it does an aspiration to which all of conscious human desire must tend? He will not dismiss out of hand all possibility of devising societal forms which might have a beneficent effect upon the psychic dynamics he has described. But his skepticism, though muted in courtesy to our hope, is profound—is, we cannot but know, entire. He consents to say that it is “quite certain that a real change in the relations of human beings to possessions” would make society’s ethical ideals more attainable. He cannot go on to say that this will bring about a melioration of the dynamics of the unconscious life. He understands the limitless exigence of the superego to be rooted in the immemorial past, in the natural history of an organism in which the will to survive by ceaseless effort is matched in strength by the will to find peace in extinction. Against the psychic dynamics instituted by this ambivalence, by this interfusion of the primal “Yes” and the no less primal “No,” and reinforced by later ambivalences, the simultaneous love and hate of the father, the desire for isolate autonomy and for union with others, it is unlikely that any revision of societal forms can prevail. Ultimately it is a given of biology, definitive of man’s nature, and its consequences are not to be reversed.
Why did Freud bring his intellectual life to its climax—for such we might take Civilization and Its Discontents to be—with this dark doctrine? What was his motive in pressing upon us the ineluctability of the pain and frustration of human existence?
The question I put is the one that Nietzsche says should guide our dealings with any systematic thinker. He urges us to look beneath the structure of rational formulation to discover the will that is hidden beneath, and expressed through, its elaborations. What is that will up to? What does it want?—really want, that is, apart from the “truth” that it says it wants.
There is no malice in the question Nietzsche prescribes. It has for its purpose not “reduction” but comprehension, such grasp upon a man’s thought as may be had through the perception of its unarticulated and even unconscious intention. It is a mode of critical investigation whose propriety and efficiency Freud himself of course confirms.
To that question I would propose this answer: that Freud, in insisting upon the essential immitigability of the human condition as determined by the nature of the mind, had the intention of sustaining the authenticity of human existence that formerly had been ratified by God. It was his purpose to keep all things from becoming weightless.
For Freud, as we know, religion was an illusion with no future whatever. This certitude was central to his world-view and he was remorseless in his efforts to enforce it. Yet from religion as it vanished Freud was intent upon rescuing one element, the imperative actuality which religion attributed to life. Different individual temperaments, committed to incompatible cultural predilections, will respond to Civilization and Its Discontents in diverse ways, but all will take into account, positively or negatively, its powerful representation of the momentous claim which life makes upon us, by very reason, it seems, of its hardness, intractability, and irrationality. The fabric of contradictions that Freud conceives human existence to be is recalcitrant to preference, to will, to reason; it is not to be lightly manipulated. His imagination of the human condition preserves something—much—of the stratum of hardness that runs through the Jewish and Christian traditions as they respond to the hardness of human destiny. Like the Book of Job it propounds and accepts the mystery and the naturalness—the natural mystery, the mysterious naturalness—of suffering. At the same time, and without contradiction, it has at its heart an explanation of suffering through a doctrine of something like original sin: not for nothing had Freud in his youth chosen John Milton as a favorite poet, and if he gives no credence to the idea of redemption, he yet acquiesces, and with something of Milton’s appalled elation, in the ordeal of man’s life in history.
Nothing could be further from my intention than to suggest that Freud’s attitude to human experience is religious. I have it in mind only to point to the analogue which may be drawn between Freud’s response to life and an attitude which, although it is neither exclusive to nor definitive of religion, is yet, as it were, contained in religion and sustained by it. This is what we might call the tragic element of Judaism and Christianity, having reference to the actual literary genre of tragedy and its inexplicable power to activate, by the representation of suffering, a faith quite unrelated to hope, a piety that takes virtually the form of pride—however harsh and seemingly gratuitous a fate may be, the authenticity of its implicit significance is not to be denied, confirmed as it is by the recognition of some imperative which has both brought it into being and prescribed its acceptance, and in doing so affirmed the authenticity of him to whom the fate is assigned. It is this authenticating imperative, irrational and beyond the reach of reason, that Freud wishes to preserve. He locates it in the dialectic of Eros and death, which is the beginning of man’s nature. Its force in his own life, in the shaping of its character and style, is decisive. In the last days of his long painful illness he forbade his physician to administer any anodyne stronger than aspirin, and when he discovered that his injunction had been violated out of compassion, he flashed out in anger, “Bei welchem Recht?”: by what right had the good Dr. Schur interfered with his patient’s precious sentiment of being as that was defined by his chosen relation to his fate, with—as a phrase in Beyond the Pleasure Principle has it—the organism’s “wish to die in its own way”? That bitter rebuke had its origin in assumptions that are now archaic. The perception of their inevitable anachronism, of their ever diminishing vitality, was the ground of Nietzsche’s revulsion from the developing modern culture. Nietzsche dreaded the “weightlessness of all things,” the inauthenticity of experience, which he foresaw would be the consequence of the death of God. Hence his celebration of amor fati and of what he called the “energizing pessimism” of the Greeks in their great day.
It need scarcely be said that Civilization and Its Discontents receives scant welcome from the dominant intellectual culture of the present time. Its view that life in civilization is largely intractable to reasonable will is profoundly alien to the prevailing ideology. Its informing ethos cannot fail to offend the established moral sensibility. The nature of the affront it offers is suggested by its very title. Freud thought first of calling the book Das Unglück in der Kultur, “Unhappiness in Civilization”; this he changed to the present title, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, and suggested that this be translated as “Man’s Discomfort in Culture”; he assented to the phrase by which the book is now known in English. “Unhappiness” which is a “discomfort” or a “discontent”—the understatement proposes a firm acceptance of life, of death, and of the developed mode of existence which is yielded by the unremitting dialectic between them, but at the same time a cold eye cast upon all three: an irony of simultaneous commitment and detachment such as is required of Aristotle’s large-souled man. So patrician an ethical posture cannot fail to outrage the egalitarian hedonism which at the present time is the educated middle class’s salient mode of moral judgment.
A clear index of the distance at which the book, and Freudian theory in general, now stands from contemporary sentiment is the attention and admiration which of recent years have been given to the writings of the English psychiatrist, R. D. Laing. Of the complex psychic dynamics which Freud explicated Dr. Laing takes no account whatever. His theory of mental pathology rules out the possibility of pain being inherent in the processes of the mind, and, indeed, gives but limited credence to any autonomous mental activity. Laing solves the uniquely difficult problem of schizophrenia by assigning to this extreme mental disorder an etiology of ultimate simplicity—schizophrenia, in his view, is the consequence of an external circumstance, an influence exerted upon the psyche, specifically upon the sense of selfhood, of a person who is more disposed than others to yield to it; the schizophrenic person characteristically has what Laing calls an “onto-logical insecurity,” a debility of his sentiment of being. The malignant influence which he fails to withstand commonly masks itself in benevolence, yet its true nature is easily detected, for it is always the same thing, a pressure exerted by society through the agency of the family. It is the family which is directly responsible for the ontological break, the “divided self” of schizophrenia; Laing is categorical in saying that every case of schizophrenia is to be understood as “a special strategy that the patient invents in order to live an unlivable situation,” which is always a family situation, specifically the demand of parents that one have a self which is not one’s true self, that one be what one is not. We may put it that Laing construes schizophrenia as the patient’s response to the parental imposition of inauthenticity.
Laing does not say through what conditions there develops, or might develop, the personal being which is really one’s own, what are the means by which authenticity is maintained. Although his theory of mental disorder inculpates society in an ultimate degree, he proposes no revision of present societal arrangements by which mental pathology, or the mental impoverishment which he attributes to the state of “normality” in our culture, might be prevented. The only principle for societal action which may be thought to emerge from Laing’s impassioned and sometimes brilliant and moving diagnosis of the given state of affairs is wholly and blandly negative—since the self of the infant can maintain its pristine authenticity only if the process of its maturation is self-determined, it follows that we must not give our assent to any form of rearing, education, or socialization in which prescriptive influence has a part.
What Laing tells us about the mind in relation to society is of course not new in any essential way. It is a view to which, in one or another of its intensities, our culture has long been habituated. The inculpation of society has become with us virtually a category of thought. We understand a priori that the prescriptions of society pervert human existence and destroy its authenticity. The considerable admiration that is being given to Laing is a response not to the originality of his conception but to its extremity—his inculpation of society comes so near to being absolute that it is experienced as an exhilarating liberation, if not, alas, from the bondage of social necessity, then at least from the duress of its moral authority.
This being so, there will be no ready disposition to give credence to a view of the mind in its relation to society which proposes the idea that authenticity is exactly the product of the prescriptions of society and depends upon these prescriptions being kept in force. Such a view has been advanced, and not by some conservative humanist but by a writer whose own inculpation of society is scarcely mild, by none other than Herbert Marcuse. It is not a view that Marcuse intended to adopt. To all appearance, it forced itself upon him in the course of putting forward a quite opposite view. The contradiction that thus manifests itself in Eros and Civilization is confusing when it first turns up, and Marcuse, so far as I can discern, never resolves it, yet the muddle it makes of his argument is to the credit of his honesty.
Eros and Civilization is Marcuse’s attempt to bring Marx and Freud into harmony with each other. As its title suggests, it directly confronts the doctrine of Civilization and Its Discontents. Like Norman O. Brown, whose Life Against Death has certain strong affinities with Eros and Civilization, Marcuse holds Freud’s book in high regard, and he, like Brown, deals rigorously with the liberal revisionists of Freudian doctrine, such as Erich Fromm, who seek to bring into question the premises of its pessimism. Marcuse, accepting these premises, undertakes to refute the outcome of the argument which Freud develops from them, the conclusion that the structure of the mind cannot be altered or its distress significantly reduced.
Marcuse’s belief in the possibility of a radical change in the mental organization rests upon his claim that quite considerable changes have in fact already taken place in the quarter-century between the publication of Civilization and Its Discontents and the composition of Eros and Civilization. Advances in technology and developments in the economy, Marcuse says, have reduced the imperative force of material necessity which played so important a part in Freud’s account of the development of the mind of man in civilization. As a consequence, the inhibition and constraint which necessity entails are measurably less exigent. The general relaxation of moral restriction has had a discernible effect upon the individual psyche, to the extent of having brought about an alteration of its very structure. The change that Marcuse believes to have already occurred he takes to be the earnest of more momentous changes yet to come. He foresees that the imperative and coercive nature of the super-ego, which he indicates by his terms “surplus repression” and “performance principle,” will become obsolete—his projected curve of ensuing mental change points to the end of “alienation,” to the realization of the young Marx’s envisioned state of freedom in which all human activity is gratuitous.
Marcuse addresses himself specifically and uncompromisingly to the two criteria by which Freud appraises the mental health of an individual, that is to say, his chances of living in civilization with a minimum of unhappiness or with a maximum of compensating gratification. They are the ability to work and the full development of genital sexuality. In both there is doubtless to be discerned a degree, or a kind, of personal liberty. The ability to work presumably implies the desire to work; Freud scarcely had in mind enforced labor, rather a purposive and constructive activity which holds out the promise of satisfaction. And the development of genital sexuality can be said to have succeeded only if it realizes itself in autonomy and pleasure. Yet of course both work and genital sexuality imply a considerable degree of constraint and renunciation. In the present condition of humanity the most freely chosen and best-loved work involves frustration and requires pertinacity and self-discipline. And the development of genital sexuality is an arduous process which fulfills itself only through the renunciation of earlier modes of sexual gratification. Marcuse, whose prophetic range extends to envisaging an eventual triumph over death, or at least over all fear of death, foresees the day when the “performance principle,” which came into being at the behest of the super-ego and which at present determines both our conception of work and the imperativeness of the ideal of genital sexuality, will surrender its stern rule. In the spirit of William Blake, Marcuse characterizes the phallus as an agent of alienation and tyranny—Blake calls it “a pompous High Priest” whose insistence that it “enter in at a secret place” denies that the body is holy “in every minute particular.” When the infantile sexual impulses, those which Freud calls polymorphous-perverse, are no longer repressed in favor of an exclusive genitality, the circuit of renunciation and guilt will be broken and the death-instinct, which is established in the superego, will be deprived of its energy of aggression against the self.
Thus the movement of Marcuse’s argument on its way toward the destiny of peace, freedom, and pleasure which has been made feasible by the reduction of material necessity and the cultural constraints it entails.
But, as I have said, at one point in its course the argument diverges into a startling negation of itself. It suddenly is made plain that the relaxation of moral restrictions which is to be observed in the American culture of 1955, when Marcuse wrote, and which is said to license the hope of a redeeming psychic mutation does not in itself give Marcuse any satisfaction. On the contrary, he regards it with a dismay which he explains in considerable detail.
The chief cause of Marcuse’s distress is what follows from the alteration of the traditional role of the family, which has become so much less decisive in the rearing of the child that the morphology of the psyche is no longer what Freud described it to be. Marcuse is here far from being disposed to insist on the harm done to the ego by the gratuitous severity, the “surplus repression,” of the super-ego as it was classically brought into being by the family. Quite the opposite: his whole concern is with the devolution of the power of the super-ego, which he sees as resulting in a deplorably lowered degree of individuality and autonomy. “Through the struggle with mother and father as the targets of love and aggression,” he says, “the younger generation entered societal life with impulses, ideas, and needs which were largely their own. Consequently, the formation of the super-ego, the repressive modifications of their impulses, their renunciation and sublimation were very personal experiences. Precisely because of this, their adjustment left painful scars and life . . . still retained a sphere of private non-conformity.” But in our contemporary cultural situation, Marcuse says, with the authority of the family, especially of the father, much diminished, the individual’s ego “has shrunk to such a degree that the multiform antagonistic processes between id, ego, and super-ego cannot unfold themselves in their classic form.” In the present dispensation “the formation of the mature ego seems to skip the stage of individualization,” with the result that “the generic atom becomes directly a social atom.”
What Marcuse is saying about the development of the individual we have heard before: he means exactly what Rousseau meant when he spoke of the “sentiment of being” which socialization invades and negates. Rousseau’s sense of the attenuated sentiment of being of his contemporaries as compared with that of the ancient Spartans, or of the Parisians as compared with that of the Genevans, is paralleled by Marcuse’s preference for the personality-type shaped by a relatively repressive society, such as Freud took for granted, as against the personality-type of a later, more permissive day.
Expectably enough, the adverse political implications of reduced individuality are salient for Marcuse. He is apprehensive that, as compared with a traditional society, an affluent, permissive, and pleasure-oriented society controls the individual both more efficiently and more profoundly, and he is constrained to conclude that moral intransigence and political activism are brought into being by renunciation and sublimation. But it is not only for moral and political reasons that Marcuse, in the face of his Utopian commitment, prefers the character-structure shaped by a non-permissive society. His judgment in this matter is in some part directed by what might be called an aesthetic of personality. He likes people to have “character,” cost what it might in frustration. He holds fast to the belief that the right quality of human life, its intensity, its creativity, its felt actuality, requires the stimulus of exigence. It is a certitude which is in firm accord with the prevailing ethical style of the century in which he was born. In 1819 Keats said in one of his most memorable letters, “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?,” that is to say, an ego or self which, as he puts it, is “destined to possess the sense of Identity.” Freud, as we have seen, in his own wry way imputed to necessity the same developmental function. And Marcuse, in the very act of prophesying the virtual end of necessity, discovers in it a perverse beneficence—upon its harsh imperative depends the authenticity of the individual and his experience.
No doubt there is some Hegelian device which will properly resolve the contradiction between Marcuse’s predilection for the strongly defined character-structure that necessity entails and his polemical commitment to a Utopia which will do away with necessity. I have not been able to discover that this dialectical ingenuity has been brought into play. The contradiction is allowed to stand, together with the baffling question of how the process of Utopian redemption is guaranteed by its inception in such psychic changes as Marcuse observed in 1955, which issued in a character-structure and a culture which are as deficient in grace as in authenticity.
I have suggested that, by the store which he puts upon a character-structure which is defined and strengthened by the demands of a traditional society, Marcuse sets himself apart from, and at odds with, the prevailing tendency of radical speculation about personal authenticity. The extent of his alienation may be measured by reference to an extreme though characteristic manifestation of this tendency which in recent years has become dramatically salient—the view that insanity is a state of being in which an especially high degree of authenticity inheres.
This remarkable opinion has developed, we may suppose, partly in response to the high and increasing incidence of mental illness in our epoch and the virulence of the form it takes. Some four decades ago psychoanalysts found it possible to observe that the hysterical neuroses with which Freud was concerned in his early practice and theory were giving way to the so-called character neuroses, whose symptoms were less overt and gross, chiefly anxieties and incapacities which, however painful they might be, did not typically have the effect of incapacitating the patient for social life. This lenitive trend of pathology—or of the cognizance of pathology—has now reversed itself toward mental conditions which are more severe than neurosis of any kind. It is not neurosis that now preoccupies the attention of psychiatric theory, including that formulated by laymen, but the far more extreme pathology of psychosis, especially schizophrenia. The Freudian clinical theory is by no means to be written off as irrelevant to schizophrenia but its characteristic therapeutic procedure is not efficacious in the treatment of this psychopathy. As for the Freudian ethos, what I have called its patrician posture of simultaneous acceptance of and detachment from life in civilization makes it patently—and bitterly—inappropriate to the situation of the psychotic person.
Given the magnitude and the terrible pathos of the situation—it has been estimated that one out of every hundred children becomes schizophrenic—and given the inconclusiveness of attempts to locate the etiology of schizophrenia in one or another biological malfunction, it was inevitable that the cause of this grievous pathology should be sought in social factors. It was no less inevitable that, when once this causative connection had been established with any semblance of plausibility, the characterization of society that followed from it should be of an ultimately pejorative kind: society was not to be thought of as civilization’s agent exacting for the boon of human development a price that was high yet not finally beyond what the means of the race might afford, but as the destroyer of the very humanity it pretended to foster. What was not inevitable was that this line of thought should issue in the view that insanity is a state of human existence which is to be esteemed for its commanding authenticity.
The position is grounded on two assumptive reasons. One is that insanity is a direct and appropriate response to the coercive inauthenticity of society. That is to say, insanity is not only a condition inflicted by the demands of society and passively endured; it is also an act, expressing the intention of the insane person to meet and overcame the coercive situation; and whether or not it succeeds in this intention, it is at least an act of criticism which exposes the true nature of society—thus interpreted, insanity is said to be a form of rationality and it is society itself that stands under the imputation of being irrational to the point of insanity. The second reason is that insanity is a negation of limiting conditions in general, a form of personal existence in which power is assured by self-sufficiency.
Even if it were still practicable to deal here with this phenomenon of our intellectual culture in the way of analytical argument, it would, I think, be supererogatory to do so. The position is to be characterized as being in an intellectual mode to which analytical argument is not appropriate. This is the intellectual mode that once went under the name of cant. The disappearance of the word from the modern vocabulary is worth remarking. In characterizing the position as I do it is not my purpose to minimize its cultural significance, which, in fact, I take to be momentous.
It was almost though not quite cant that Norman O. Brown uttered when, in his Phi Beta Kappa address at Columbia University in 1960, he spoke of the “blessing” and the “supernatural powers” which he desired to attain and which, he said, came only with madness.6 Professor Brown was at pains to specify, with due reference to Socrates in the Phaedrus and to Ficino and Nietzsche, that the necessary madness must be “holy” madness. That is to say, when he identified the state of imagination through which the individual escapes his bondage to institutions and to the democratic form of reason which is established in science and, indeed, in language itself, he did not mean literal insanity but only insanity in the virtually metaphorical sense which is commonly signalized by the use of the more genial word “madness” and validated by its ancient provenance. But though this is not yet cant, it presses toward becoming that and it makes the way easier for such fully achieved cant as is to be seen in David Cooper’s introduction to Michel Foucault’s book about the development of the modern conception of madness as a pathology.7 Dr. Cooper is a polemical psychiatrist of note, one of Dr. Laing’s collaborators. “Madness,” he says, “has in our age become some sort of lost truth.” “Madness,” he goes on, “as Foucault makes so impressively clear in this remarkable book, is a way of seizing in extremis the racinating groundwork of the truth that underlies our more specific realization of what we are about. The truth of madness is what madness is. What madness is is a form of vision that destroys itself by its own choice of oblivion, in the face of existing forms of societal tactics and strategy. Madness, for instance, is a matter of voicing the realization that I am (or you are) Christ.” So far from being an illness or a deprivation of any kind, madness is health fully realized at last. Laing has a better intelligence and a better prose than Cooper and can therefore be more qualified and complex. In his view it is only “sometimes” (the emphasis is his) that “transcendental experiences . . . break through in psychosis” to show their relation “to those experiences of the divine that are the living fount of all religion.” Laing distinguishes between “true” madness and such madness as is a “travesty” of healing; only the “true” madness gives rise to transcendental experiences of heuristic value. Yet all psychosis is to be thought of as a process of therapy, not in itself a disease but an effort to cure a disease, and there can be no qualification of the certitude that “true sanity entails in one way or another the dissolution of the normal ego, that false self completely adjusted to our alienated social reality. . . .”
Who that has had experience of our social reality will doubt its alienated condition? And who that has thought of his experience in the light of certain momentous speculations made over the last two centuries will not be disposed to find some seed of cogency in a view that proposes an antinomian reversal of all accepted values, of all received realities?
But who that has spoken, or tried to speak, with a psychotic friend will consent to betray the masked pain of his bewilderment and solitude by making it the paradigm of liberation from the imprisoning falsehoods of an alienated social reality? And who that reads and comprehends the blithe sentences which describe madness (to use the word that cant prefers) in terms of transcendence and charisma will fail to perceive the total refusal of human connection that they express, the appalling belief that human existence is made authentic by the possession of a power, or the persuasion of its possession, which is not to be qualified or restricted by the coordinate existence of any fellow man?
Yet the doctrine that madness is health, and that madness is liberation, receives a happy welcome from a consequential part of the educated public. And when we have given due weight to the likelihood that those who respond positively to the doctrine don’t have it in mind to go mad, let alone insane—it is characteristic of the intellectual life of our culture that, in radical psychology as in radical politics, it fosters a form of assent which does not involve actual credence—we must yet take it to be significant of our circumstances that many among us find it gratifying to entertain the thought that alienation is to be overcome only by the completeness of alienation, and that alienation completed is not a deprivation or deficiency but a potency. Perhaps exactly because the thought is assented to so facilely, so without what used to be called seriousness, it might seem that no expression of disaffection from the social existence was ever so desperate as this eagerness to say that authenticity of personal being is achieved through an ultimate isolateness and through the power that this is presumed to bring—the falsities of an alienated social reality rejected in favor of an upward psychopathic mobility to the point of divinity, each one of us a Christ but with none of the inconveniences of interceding, of being a sacrifice, of reasoning with rabbis, of making sermons, of having disciples, of going to weddings and to funerals, of beginning something and at a certain point remarking that it is finished.
1 For the possibility and extent of the accommodation, see Civilization and Its Discontents, in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Standard Edition, vol. XXI (Hogarth Press, London), p. 141.
2 For the complex distinctions that Freud makes between conscience and the super-ego, see, for example, Civilization and Its Discontents, p. 136.
3 See Civilization and Its Discontents, p. 131. “When one has a sense of guilt after having committed a misdeed, and because of it, the feeling should more properly be called remorse. It relates only to a deed that has been done. . . .” See also pp. 132, 134 (on the “normality” of remorse), 136-7.
4 Standard Edition, vol. XXI, p. 11.
5 It is perhaps worth observing that although subsequent writers, taking license from Freud’s use of Eros, often refer to the death-instinct as Thanatos, Freud himself does not use the Greek word, perhaps because he wished the speculative and much-resisted concept to appear in the un-mediated force of common speech.
6 “Apocalypse,” Harper’s, May 1961, pp. 46-49.
7 Histoire de la Folie, Plon (Paris), 1961; translated by Richard Howard as Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Random House, 1965. (In England the book is published as one of the Studies in Existentialism and Phenomenology, of which R.D. Laing is editor.)