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Sigmund Freud

Freud’s writings about culture work primarily to debunk belief, not to provide solutions to the problems of social relations. The psychoanalytic cures he tries to provide at an individual level – the working through and analysis of the symptoms of individual illness through psychoanalytic practice – are difficult to translate to the mass level. For instance, Freud sees religion as filling a need which it would be better for society not to have. But because this need is associated with the most primal desires and fears of childhood – desire for safety and fear of abandonment or punishment – it is hard to imagine how this need might be overcome. Freud’s critique of civilisation in his writings on culture and religion is not done in the name of something higher. He provides no prescription to cure civilised society of what ails it. Despite Freud’s reliance on dodgy anthropological ideas about ‘primitive’ people, psychoanalysis works primarily to dispute the idea that there are ‘naturally’ degenerate people, races or classes; it breaks down the idea that the pathological is immoral, seeing the pathological as in continuum with the complex, passionate but unquestionably normal state of human emotional life. In this way Freud questions assumptions about the ‘abnormality’ of pathological behaviour and desires when he writes about culture as well as when he writes about individuals. In Totem and Taboo he imagines that society suffers from a traumatic founding story – a primal murder of a loved and envied father figure that instilled simultaneously the sense of guilt and the need to worship a leader or god. By tracing out the similarities between neuroses, tribal religious practices and infantile beliefs he creates a layered picture of the mind. Buried underneath a surface of civilised, rational, scientific belief there is a sense in which we all still have faith in magic, in the power of thought to kill or wound, in the power of repeated ritual to affect the outside world. Freud lived in fear that psychoanalysis would be seen (as it often was) as an alternative religion. He wanted his own ideas to be firmly on the side of science. But then again he also often acted like a religious leader; he demanded absolute loyalty from his followers; he insisted that true analysts would never stray far from his ideas of the central tenets of psychoanalysis. One might argue that Freud, too, fell victim to that intractable human desire for faith in something higher – a substitute god or father figure. In a sense he set up himself and psychoanalysis as that father. As social theory, psychoanalysis can appear quite conservative. Freud does not have much faith in social utopias such as the one that communism promises. His view of human nature is pessimistic and sceptical – he doesn’t believe that a shift in economic factors could change the basic nature of humanity. Freud appears to accept society’s norms at the same time as recognising that they are not natural or written in stone. Rather, society’s norms are viewed as repressive but often necessary. All psychoanalysis can offer in this instance is a new way of understanding them. Psychoanalysis, in this sense, supports the status quo. It is not a theory of individual or social transformation. Human nature (the id) is intractable in its desires. SUMMARY Freud’s ideas about anthropology are now viewed as based on mistaken assumptions about ‘primitive’ peoples and human prehistory. Yet his conclusions are none the less often psychologically intriguing. In his writings on religion, society and anthropology Freud sees similarities between religious ritual and the pathological practices of obsessive-compulsives and neurotics. In Totem and Taboo he creates an Oedipal myth to explain the origins of society – one in which a tribal band of brothers joins together

to overthrow and kill the leader of their tribe and the father of them all, thus gaining access to the forbidden females of the horde. In ‘The Future of an Illusion’ and ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ Freud puts forward the thesis that the source of both religious practices and the practices of civilised society is the repression of instinctual urges. Civilisation as we know it exists because humans are capable of the process of sublimation, the process by which instinctual urges – demands for sex, food, the death of enemies – are changed into non-instinctual behaviour – such as politics, art and music, but also neurotic illness. Freud’s ideas on civilisation lead us to the conclusion that we are all potentially monsters in the unconscious; it is just that the repressive restrictions of civilisation prevent most of us from acting on our desires. According to Freud, the childhood of the individual as well as the childhood of the race survive in the depths of the individual mind, and it is not clear that civilisation can provide a satisfying alternative to those early desires and demands. Instead, our civilisation and religion often leave humankind unsatisfied, wanting more happiness but unable to achieve it. Civilisation is, in a sense, primarily a mode of keeping unruly desires reined in and usefully sublimated into the potential pleasures of culture. We will now turn to the ways in which psychoanalytic thinking has been adopted for interpreting these pleasures, particularly those of art and literature, and why, especially in recent days, psychoanalysis has provoked both gleeful agreement and enormous resistance. We return once again to the question of my opening chapter, Why Freud? and add, Why now?

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