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.