For better or for worse, film's independence from character is the reason it has replaced the novel as the dominant art form in our culture. Yet Freud himself drew his conception of the human mind from the type of imaginative literature his ideas were about to start making obsolete. His work is full of references to poets, playwrights and novelists from his own and earlier periods. In the latter half of his career, he applied himself more and more to using literature to prove his theories, commenting, most famously, on Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. "Civilization and Its Discontents" brims with quotations from Goethe, Heine, Romain Rolland, Mark Twain, John Galsworthy and others. If Freud had had only his own writings to refer to, he would never have become Freud. Having accomplished his intellectual aims, he unwittingly destroyed the assumptions behind the culture that had nourished his work.
Freud's universal paradigm for the human personality didn't mean only the decline of character in fiction. Its authoritative reduction of the human personality to developmental flaws undermined authority. The priest, the rabbi, the minister, the politician, the general may refer to objective facts and invoke objective truths and even ideals. They may be decent, reasonable people who have a strong sense of the reality principle, and of the reality of other people. But in Freud's eyes, they are, like everyone else, products of their own narrow, half-perceived conditions, which they project upon the world around them and sometimes mistake for reality. Nothing they say about the world goes unqualified by their conditions.
"Civilization and Its Discontents" itself is the product of a profoundly agitated, even disturbed, mind. By the summer of 1929, when Freud began the book, anti-Semitism -- long a staple of Austrian politics -- had become at least as virulent in Austria as in neighboring Germany. Hatred of Jews played a central role in Austria's Christian Socialist and German Nationalist parties, which were about to win a majority in parliament, and there was widespread enthusiasm for Germany's rapidly growing National Socialists. It's not hard to imagine that Freud, slowly dying from the cancer of the mouth that had been diagnosed in 1923, and in great pain, felt more and more anxious about his life, and about the fate of his work.
Perhaps it's this despairing frame of mind that leads Freud into sharp contradictions and intellectual lapses in "Civilization and Its Discontents." He writes at one point that "the low estimation put upon earthly life by the Christian doctrine" was the first great expression of hostility to civilized society in the West; yet elsewhere, he cites the Christian commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself as "one of the ideal demands, as we have called them, of civilized society." Later, in the space of two sentences, he gets himself tangled up when he tries to identify that commandment with civilization itself. He describes the sacred injunction as being "undoubtedly older than Christianity," and then catches himself, as if realizing that the idea of universal love was unique to Christianity, and adds, "yet it is certainly not very old; even in historical times it was still strange to mankind." Throughout the essay, Freud's hostility to Christianity is so intense that he seems determined to define civilization in Christian terms. The book should have been called "Christian Society and Its Discontents." That is what it really is.
And then there is the aggressive instinct, a universal impulse that Freud claims presents the sole impediment to Christian love and civilized society, but which he cannot quite bring in line with his earlier theories. It's as if he were, understandably, sublimating into theory his own feelings about the Christian civilization that, even before Hitler's formal ascension to power in 1933, seemed about to devour him and his family. Certainly, Freud's rage against the dark forces gathering against him has something to do with his repeated references, throughout the book, to great men in history who go to their deaths vilified and ignored. In one weird, remarkable moment, Freud introduces the idea of "the superego of an epoch of civilization," thus supplanting even Jesus Christ with a Freudian concept -- thus supplanting Christ with Freud.
But the most enigmatic, or maybe just incoherent, element of "Civilization and Its Discontents" is Freud's contention -- fancifully laid in 1920, in "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" -- that every individual wishes, on some level, to die. In "Civilization and Its Discontents," he does not account for this outrageously counterintuitive idea, explain his application of it to history or even elaborate on it. The notion appears toward the end of the book and then does not occur again. Nine years later, in exile in England, weak and ill, Freud committed physician-assisted suicide, asking his doctor to give him a lethal dose of morphine. For all Freud's stern kindness toward humanity, for all his efforts to lessen the burden of human suffering, Thanatos seems to be the embittered way in which he universalized his parlous inner state.
It hampers the understanding to read "Civilization and Its Discontents" without taking into consideration all these circumstances. If Freud has taught us anything, it's that any evaluation of authority has to examine the condition of those who stand behind it. As for repairing to "Civilization and Its Discontents" to gain essential elucidation of our own condition, the work seems as severely circumscribed by its time as by its author's situation.
Today, Freud's stress on the formative effect of the family romance seems less and less relevant amid endless deconstructions and permutations of the traditional family. His argument that society's repressions create unbearable suffering seems implausible in a society where permissiveness is creating new forms of suffering. His fearless candor about sex appears quaint in a culture that won't stop talking about sex. And a great many people with faith in the inherent goodness of humankind believe that they are living according to ideal sentiments, universal principles or sacred commandments, unhampered by Freudian skepticism. Yet there are, unquestionably, people for whom Freud's immensely powerful ideas are a permanent condition of their lives. Behind the declaration of ideal sentiments, universal principles and sacred commandments, they see a craven sham concealing self-interest, greed and the wish to do harm.
Neither of these two groups will ever talk the other out of its worldview. In this sense the conflict is not between the Islamic world and the "liberal" West; it is between religious people everywhere and people who, like Freud, see faith as an illusion, a set of self-deceiving notions about life.
To put it another way, Freudianism is not a science; you either grasp the reality of Freud's dynamic notion of the subconscious intuitively -- the way, in fact, you do or do not grasp the truthfulness of Ecclesiastes -- or you cannot accept that it exists. For that reason, the most intractable division in the world now is between those who believe that the subconscious plays a fundamental role in human life, and those who don't. That's the real culture war, and maybe even the real clash of civilizations.
ESSAY Lee Siegel is the book critic for The Nation, the television critic for The New Republic and the art critic for Slate.Continue reading the main story
Discontent and Its Civilizations
Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London
by Mohsin Hamid
"The first requisite of civilization ... is that of justice," wrote Sigmund Freud in his 1930 book Civilization and Its Discontents. Ideally, this is true, but it often seems like some civilizations never got the message. Though maybe it depends on what you mean by justice, and how you define "civilization" — if you can at all. In his new book, novelist and essayist Mohsin Hamid expresses some doubts: "Civilizations are illusions, but these illusions are pervasive, dangerous, and powerful. They contribute to globalization's brutality. ... Civilizations encourage our hypocrisies to flourish."
The title of Hamid's new essay collection, Discontent and Its Civilizations, is obviously a play on Freud's controversial, classic work, but that's where the similarities end. While both books tackle the role of the individual in society, Hamid's book is more personal and much more wide-ranging, concerned with the ways in which human beings invent themselves in a global society that's become both closer and more divided than ever before. "The self we create is a fiction," Hamid writes, and it's one that's getting harder and harder to write.
The essays in Discontent and Its Civilizations form something like a memoir, although indirectly. The book is divided into three sections, "Life," "Art" and "Politics," and it's clear that for Hamid, the three are closely intertwined. The personal essays in "Life" describe Hamid's somewhat nomadic childhood and adulthood — he was born in Lahore, Pakistan, where he now lives, but he spent many years in New York and London.
As a result, he's always been conflicted about where he belongs, particularly after the September 11 attacks, which took place after he moved to the United Kingdom: "The 9/11 attacks placed great strain on the hyphen bridging that identity called Muslim-American. As a man not known for frequenting mosques, and not possessing a U.S. passport, I should not have felt it. But I did, deeply. It seemed two halves of myself were suddenly at war."
The second section contains several of Hamid's essays about art, chiefly literature. Best known for his novels The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Hamid studied under Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton, and sees self-invention as a positive force: "I believe that that the hope of invention animates the arts," he writes. "And I feel the same hope as I think of people coming together to invent a world that is post-civilization, and hence infinitely more civilized."
The collection of political essays in the book's final section is perhaps the most forceful and interesting of the three. Hamid is a harsh critic of globalization, which he calls a "brutal phenomenon" that "brings us mass displacement, wars, terrorism" and a host of other social ills. His life as a global wanderer lends him a unique perspective on international politics, particularly as it concerns his home country.
"Pakistan plays a recurring role as villain in the horror subindustry within the news business," he writes, noting that the relationship between that country and the United States deteriorated dramatically after the killing of Osama bin Laden and several American drone strikes that killed Pakistani civilians. The situation, Hamid says, is even more complex than citizens of either country tend to imagine: "The alliance between the U.S. and the Pakistani military remains, therefore, a relationship between parties viewing one another through gunsights. Each side blames the other for putting its citizens in grave danger, and each is correct to do so."
In other words, the relationship between the two countries is, like pretty much everything that relates to international politics, much more complex than we realize. That's what's so refreshing about Hamid's book — he avoids platitudes and easy answers, recognizing that the self, like art and politics, is full of contradictions. Hamid is an amazingly gifted writer, and Discontent and Its Civilizations is a near-perfect essay collection, filled with insight, compassion, and intellect. It's a powerful look at the way people juggle their individuality with the tensions that inevitably result from being part of a community. The personal, Hamid argues, will always be the political, and it's pointless to try to disentangle the two. "Minority relations are a microcosm of society," he writes. "Each individual human being is, after all, a minority of one."