Freud, Civilization and its Discontents

I missed group this week because I went to Chicago to see Leonard Cohen in concert.  It wasn’t as though class is less important to me than Leonard Cohen, but I like to take advantage of opportunities that I see as “once-in-a-lifetime” when they come along.  In the hours in the hotel room leading up to the concert, I read the majority of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents.   It reminded me that our civilization could be a perfect, beautiful organism if it weren’t for the individuals within it.  Rotten individuals sour the whole of civilizations.  At least, this may be the gospel according to Sigmund Frued, who has probably never been accused of being a staunch optimist.  Frued has however many times over been accused of being sex-obsessed and a misogynist, so when these elements in this book emerged, I chose to see them merely within the context of his argument as opposed to an insult to my womanhood.

Instead of finding a common bond between the civilized human being and the savage human being, Freud chops them down to their fundamental differences.  And what these differences seemed to me to boil down to was sexuality and sexual deviancy.  There is little reference on Freud’s part though to sexual love and the beauty that can often be found therein.

If individuals are what sour civilization, isn’t he just another individual adding his own spit and vigor to an already spat-upon and vigorous society?  Instead of trying to contribute beauty and love into his culture, he was fueling the fire of hatred and suspicion with his callous words and attitude. I understand that there is ugly in the world and there are evils to fight.  I just think that Freud merely presents the uglies and evils without offering enough defenses against them.  He seems to be complacent in the idea that our world is a cold, lonely place.

The reason I mentioned Leonard Cohen as a background for the reading of this text is that he is one individual who makes the world a more beautiful and more satisfying place to live, even in the midst of wars and famine and Fox News Channel.  Leonard Cohen is a musician and a poet and these are two endeavors that naturally inject beauty into the civilization from which they come.  These two practices fit into a list of practices, mainly confined to art, music, and literature, that serve only the purpose of promoting happiness.  Whereas most things in a Utilitarian society work as a means to promote happiness as an end, art, music and literature, work as an end and a means to happiness.  They are more immediate.  They should be valued as such.  Freud probably wouldn’t place much emphasis on the importance of music and poetry because of his strict adherence to pointing out that within a society that is ugly.

Another reason I mention Cohen is a specific song that he sang during his performance that night in Chicago.  He sang a song called “Anthem” which I had never heard before and I am beginning to think that there is a reason it has never entered my life before that night.  I tried before the show as I was putting on a dress and makeup, to push Freud out of my head and return to my own world where we can appreciate and hope to create and experience beauty, but I kept wondering, “What if he’s right?!” It was really bringing me down, until Cohen performed this song.  The song was strengthened because before he sang it with his band, he recited it in the form of poetry to make his point even stronger.  His point was contained in the couplet that kept repeating throughout the poem: “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

In an almost perfect retort to Freud, Cohen reminds me that while the world is filled with ugliness and evil and poison, everything has a crack which allows in a bit of beauty.  And this crack is what I longed for in reading Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents.

Sebald, The Emigrants

The Emigrants tells anecdotes about four people the narrator encounters and their emigration to or from Germany.  All display the same feelings of foreign unfamiliarity with the land they now inhabit.  They are all struggling to find their place and their meaning in a land that is foreign to them.  This is a common story amongst those in generations before my own.  I fit comfortably into a generation of people whose location has been established by our emigrant grandparents and great-grandparents.

I, like many of my college classmates, chose to study abroad during my undergraduate studies.  I went first to France for five months to study the language and culture and then to Egypt for a month to study art history.  There seems to be a common belief amongst college students that one way to expand one’s horizons is to study internationally for a semester or a year.  In reading this book I began to wonder if that is because we, as a generation, never had to overcome great obstacles to find our homes.  And now in our later years, we are longing for some sort of international understanding of the world.   It is seen as a way to put into perspective our luck in being born into a stable sense of home, or nationality at least.

In college I read about the struggles implicit in the struggles for freedom, struggles that I had never experienced and never would unless I forced myself.  I’m not trying to equate my international travel with the incredible feats of early emigrants, but it helps put things into perspective.

Reading this book made me begin to wonder if many of us heard of the international struggles of generations before us and are looking for similar definition in our own lives.  We’re not fighting against anything except our own feelings of boredom and complacency.

Image result for the emigrants sebald

Satrapi, Persepolis

As a personal injury lawyer in mobile, I look for reading material that shows me a new environment or people in a new way. I absolutely loved Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. After reading this I see a new utility of graphic novels. Throughout this book, the pictures work to continuously remind the reader that all of the events she chronicled were happening to a child. The pictures were so much more emotional than so many words could be. It was a way to keep me, the reader, engrossed in the life of this girl. Satrapi took events that took place so far away from my own life and put them into pictures, pictures vague enough that I could place myself within them, and made them unavoidable.

Another thing I really liked about Satrapi is that she doesn’t seem to have an attitude of entitlement or snobbery because of all of the hardships she’s been through. She is still very humble and doesn’t concentrate on the pain she’s endured. It would probably be quite easy for her to much less gracious. She maintains a humor in her words and in the accompanying pictures. From the very beginning she is an incredibly likeable and relatable character when she has the inner turmoil with her veil. She seems to understand the reasoning behind things once it is explained to her, but she also has a close personal relationship with her idea of God and that keeps her questioning the rules implemented upon her instead of just becoming one person in a sea of people. She maintains her individuality by never just accepting that which she is told. She doesn’t necessarily argue things, but she definitely develops her own questions about the world in which she lives.

The final scene in the book was absolutely heart-breaking to me. Marjane at the airport waving her parents away so that she could go forth into something absolutely unknown to her was so brave and I found myself amazed at her bravery. She seemed more concerned with her parents having to watch her go, than her actually having to go herself. Her family was so important to her and little observations about her family (ie. Jasmine flowers falling from her grandmother’s breasts each night as she undressed) made it so hard to see them struggle with her leaving.

What struck me most in the book was her sincerity. When she felt like throwing herself onto the floor, she threw her comic self onto the floor. When she felt like singing and dancing, her comic self sang and danced. It must have been a very cathartic experience for her to create this literary self. The visualization of the emotions she had been feeling were probably as enjoyable for her to create as it was to read.

Pagels, The Origin of Satan

In her historical recount on how Satan came to be, Elaine Pagels presents in The Origin of Satan some very interesting and relevant questions. She presents a great deal of dates, names, cultures, and understandings of the idea of evil and Satan and therein she can’t help but bring up some huge questions. I decided to just make note of some of these questions and explore those with a modern context in mind.

  1. How has Satan transformed from a representation of evil, lust, greed, envy, and anger (introduction xvii) into the commonly accepted idea that Satan is a spirit who presides over Hell and all of the damned souls? Logos, merchandise, television, comics, film, all realms of pop culture seem to have accepted this little red-skinned gentleman wielding a pitchfork, perhaps a horned and hooved creature, as the scariest depiction of Satan possible. After doing a quick google search with the keyword “Satan,” one website referred to him as “unsportsmanlike,” which I suppose is quite accurate. It seems to me that our culture has taken this being that is supposed to epitomize evil, secure fear in the hearts of the masses, and represent all that is “bad” and neutralized him…. turned him into a punchline so that we can’t justly fear him. I don’t know what the cultural implications are of such a gradual and unintentional cartoonization of the devil are, but on a preliminary thought it probably has a lot to do with fear.
  2. Considering Satan as a reflection of ourselves is a practice usually reserved for God. People love to throw around the phrase “made in his image” so we’re continually seeing ourselves as a reflection of God. It is a lot more fun (accurate?) to see ourselves as a reflection of Satan. Do we ever see our immediate selves as possessing Satanic qualities, or is that a judgment we reserve for “others?” Is it merely another way to create a moral superiority over those we meet?
  3. Pagels stresses the point in this book that throughout human history, the enemy has always been the other. That often becomes represented by the image of Satan because it is the easiest representation of the attributes in another that we don’t understand. The fear/hatred of the other is a very simplified (and to me, intriguing) way to easily disassociate yourself from those you don’t understand completely. We see it all the time between groups of people: black vs white, gay vs straight, American vs non-American, Christians vs. Non-Christians. It seems that every major political and personal battle fought throughout history can be boiled down to being a struggle between us and them. To oversimplify an issue that could probably solve all of the world’s problems, bring peace to the middle east, end hunger, create peace, and enforce love: How can we as humans overcome the us vs. them mentality that seems to be inherent in our makeups?

Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Bonhoeffer’s title suggests that one must pay to be a disciple but I read the book as more of a guide to being a good person while living by Christian values – whether or not subscribing to the belief system as a whole.

In the first section, he warns of the distinction between cheap and costly grace outlining that cheap grace is that without discipline or practice.  His main example is to ask forgiveness and enjoying the consolations of forgiveness without really following the gospels that grant this forgiveness. He has a greater esteem for the costlier grace and refers to it as a more hidden treasure.  This seems to be, and in doing a little research is found to be, the backbone for many church-promotion groups.  This is another way that the Church uses fear as a motivating factor to recruit members. (Read: Job)  And it is even a way to motivate already-committed Church-goers to be more adherent to Church laws.  It seems a lot to me like saying, “Well, you may be a Christian, but you’re just not Christian enough.”

Bonhoeffer argued the secularization of the Church claiming that it doesn’t demand the requirements of absolution that are found within Christ, however he blames this on monasticism because it seemed to be an indication to all non-Monastics that they didn’t need to follow such regiments.

I liked his section (24) on The Suffering of the Messengers, it seemed very prevalent today as we live in a society where religion is almost seen as a mental illness in extreme cases.  Very bluntly, Bonhoeffer say that “the messengers of Jesus will be hated to the end of time” (215).  This is probably sad but true.  Anyone who considers himself a “messenger” or a “martyr” or “invincible” will be hated by the masses.  I don’t agree that we should hate these people, because I think that hate has no beneficial place amongst humans, but I definitely think that we need to take some people with extreme beliefs with a grain of salt.  I even found myself sporadically scoffing at Bonhoeffer’s extreme statements such as, “The fact [that the return of Jesus will take place suddenly] is more certain than that we shall be able to finish our work in his service, more certain than our own death. This assurance that in their suffering they will be as their master is the greatest consolation the messengers, as Jesus have.” (216) I find myself adhering more to the faiths which don’t push suffering forth so prominently as a way to serve your lord.

I’m trying to figure out whether Bonhoeffer thinks that we all need to be disciples to Christ, or if he is just offering suggestions as to how to become so.  Claiming that, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son…. There is trust in God, but no following of Christ.” (64) seems to suggest on his part that being a Christian without obedience is time wasted because trusting God is useless without following Christ.

Image result for bonhoeffer