Civilization and its discontents james strachey pdf

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civilization and its discontents james strachey pdf

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Summary: Written in the decade before Freud's death, Civilization and Its Discontents may be his most famous and most brilliant work. It has been praised, dissected, lambasted, interpreted, and reinterpreted.

Civilization and Its Discontents

Whether or not historical effects can be attributed to mythic causes it would seem likely that the end of an empire might expose its underlying myths and bring them into question.

Certainly, the modernist generation of the early twentieth century provided a critical illumination of such strains some decades before the formal dismantling of the British empire in the mid century; a process that continued through the rest of the century with the gradual uprooting of the mental and psychological underpinnings of colonialism.

It was no accident, therefore, that for several modernist writers myth was not just a literary means but a focus of philosophical self-examination; as it was also in other fields of enquiry such as the new modern disciplines of anthropology and psychoanalysis.

So modernist writers sought not just to use myth but to understand the mythopoeic impulse as such. They had begun to realise that man is an inescapably mythopoeic animal. Anthropology was internalised as psychology. But this process was, in the first instance, partial and ambivalent: for the analysis of myth can always lend itself to self-deception as much as to self-understanding. How does a mythopoeic animal go about the business of self-understanding?

Or rather, perhaps, to understand the workings of myth we have stretched the term a little beyond its common usage. For, as well as the evident content and structure of specific stories or rituals, there lies the more suffusive, less tangible, level of a Weltanschauung , an overall dispositional view of the world at a level too encompassing, and usually too unselfconscious, to become an object of justification in itself.

The world view contains the more evident myths and can be illuminated by them. Freud speaks readily enough of the Weltanschauung of primitive peoples, and indeed that of psychoanalysis itself, and yet it is not clear that he can fully see into his own. More specifically, I am concerned with a fundamental opposition, at the level of Weltanschauung , which secretly governs much modern literature and cultural analysis.

This dispositional opposition governs the rival conceptions of civilization in these writers. By the early twentieth century, an internal self-critique of European civilization had developed the radical possibility, already mooted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that civilization was not merely prone to vices and corruption but was in itself a radical form of corruption.

Philosophically, it affirms the importance of the mythopoeic as such and he insists that the gods, as myths, cannot be reduced to an idea.

Psychologically, it affirms a radical trust in the instinctual nature of man. They are the cause of our great injustice against our nature, against all nature. That is why we find so little nobility among men; for it always the mark of nobility that one feels no fear of oneself. It was almost a masterpiece in good form. As is well known, Freud came to the view, espoused here by Gerald, that the primordial instincts of man are intrinsically destructive and must be subjected to civilized repression and sublimation.

But probably not, for temperamentally-based world views are usually unshaken by rival conceptions; indeed, they are actively reinforced. For they always include their own pre-emptive version of the opposition. Freud recognised that the instincts are frequently distorted by civilized repression: that was the very premise and point of psychoanalysis.

Strictly speaking, they offer no positive view of the instincts only a refusal to assume that they are dangerous as such. And this refusal is in turn heavily qualified by their mutual specification that the ability to live spontaneously from instinctual impulses is a difficult achievement likely to be encountered only in rare individuals. Analytically considered, or in their objectifiable truth claims, therefore, these world views may not be so far apart, yet their attitudinal opposition is radical and pervasive.

It could be objected here that the remarks quoted from Nietzsche and Lawrence bear on a different level of the question: they are concerned with attitudes towards instinctual impulse in modern human beings whereas Freud is concerned with the remote origins of the civilizing process.

But that is precisely where the power of myths has to be acknowledged for the mythic account reflects, and endorses, present day attitudes.

The psychic model of the id and the superego maps directly on to the colonial relation as well as on to an elite view of social order. With vicious circularity, each of these orders lends a naturalised authority to the others; each is an image of necessary, restraining authority.

Freud would warn of possible misreadings here since such peoples were themselves at some unknown distance from their origins but he did not question the underlying assumption that they represented an earlier rather than a different line of development. Indeed, the perceived evil in the novella lies in the dereliction of this duty. Actually, in the evolutionary view it is precisely their primitive nature that requires a powerful restraint such as the arbitrary absolutism of taboo.

So the African stoker performs his duty with a superstitious terror of the hungry demon in the furnace. For him, they offered possible examples of alternative life forms in which the relation to the instincts is precisely not one of restraint. Each of them constitutes a potential world view governing the meaning of the others. At times he wished to claim empirically demonstrable results comparable to those of the natural sciences yet he also recognised that the id and the superego were no less mythical entities than Dionysos and Apollo.

Myth is a legitimate object of scholarly enquiry but hardly of scientific proof. Yet Freud wanted to turn myth into knowledge and, as a medical practitioner, he felt the need for something more scientifically authoritative than historical scholarship. Maybe there is an internal psychological motive here too. For Freud sought to give the impersonal authority of science to a model of the psyche which was in itself a statement of authority and control.

Once again, one may speculate how it might have affected his thought if he had accepted more readily its own peculiar status but the present context rather requires asking how far his conception of science was itself an unconscious myth. But when natural science becomes the presumptive paradigm of all knowledge and understanding it shades into myth and it was a crucial motive in several major modern writers to resist this assumption and to relativise the claims of science.

In these writers science itself is placed under the sign of myth. This, of course, has nothing to do with New Age rejection of science, or a questioning of its truth status within its own domain, it merely seeks to place scientific understanding within a more inclusive sense of the humanly created world. From the positivist viewpoint, myth and religion, whatever cultural wealth they may involve, were ultimately forms of superstition.

Comte himself, of course, recognised that science could not of itself provide the direction of human life, particularly on the social scale. So while he sought to turn social life into an object of science, thereby becoming in effect the French founder of sociology, he at the same time proposed an institutionalised religion of Humanity as a secular version of medieval Catholicism.

But the underlying problem, in either case, was not absurd and it was differently addressed by the relevant modern writers. These works subsume both religion and science into a self-consciously aesthetic understanding of mythopoeisis. So in Ulysses , as various disciplines are invoked by succeeding episodes, the effect is to indicate a standpoint which can entertain them all, including science. On this model, the primary natural instincts do indeed await the creation of a civilized order but they are seen in themselves as benign, while the whole poem looks with some irony on philosophical thought which always follows, rather than creates, the complex spontaneity of human achievement.

This was not necessarily associated with beauty or with the realm of art. It was, in the first instance, the capacity of human beings to escape the compulsions of their condition and to reflect freely on their values. Art is important because it allows this capacity to be exercised in its purest form on a potential infinity of human possibilities.

And so for Schiller, the aesthetic was not only the foundation of human development, from which science itself would develop, but also its final phase as a conscious appreciation of art and beauty in a properly aesthetic spirit enables the expression, expansion and critical understanding of the human world including the realm of scientific knowledge. Beauty is important in the examination or celebration of values because it affects us by exciting desire rather than exercising restraint.

For him, scientific objectivity, while indeed a crucial gain at the level of objective knowledge, is a great loss at the level of affective participation in the world such as was apparently enjoyed in archaic myth. On this model, taking science as the paradigm of knowledge was a fundamental error, and an epistemological trap.

Cassirer saw the aesthetic as a crucial achievement of the modern world view because it combines inward affective participation with cognitive objectivity. Again, it is evident that the aesthetic on this model represents a modern Aufhebung , or sublation, of archaic myth. It is myth infused with philosophical self-consciousness, or, if you like, philosophical self-consciousness defined as myth.

The translation significantly modifies the original by moving the theme into a more conscious register. Can a society be maintained without shared values beyond those of political rationality itself? Over the next decade, Thomas Mann distanced himself from these views and espoused the cause of European civilization; most notably by the conscious mythopoeia of his biblical tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers.

If Freud, quite rightly, sees culture and civilization as two sides of the same coin, they nonetheless have an aspectival difference which, for that very reason, affects how the whole is seen. For in dismissing this distinction Freud was not collapsing civilization into culture but absorbing culture into civilization.

Discontent is the product of restraint. But he also knew that it was the correct term. Although his immediate theme was a different one, political rather than artistic or philosophical, his use of this term bears upon that of the present argument.

As has already been remarked, in the line of thought stemming from Schiller through Nietzsche, the essential index of aesthetic culture is the individual who does not require restraint.

The outer form of civilization is made meaningful here by the inner force of aesthetic culture. Unfortunately, although culture represents in principle the inner spirit as opposed to the outer forms of civilization, culture itself is constantly subject to empty externalisation.

The Germanic word Freud does not use here is Bildung. The Bildungsroman follows the highly individual process whereby a pre-existing body of high cultural and aesthetic experience is meaningfully absorbed.

For only within the individual can it be truly meaningful. Otherwise, indeed, it can be a corrupting element pandering to the worst vices. So for Nietzsche, the worst philistine was not the Arnoldian figure who lacked culture, and would possibly be ennobled by acquiring it.

Early in his career he coined the term Bildungsphilister , or culture philistine, to denote that the truest philistinism arises from within the very process of cultivation.

This philistine is not ennobled, but is disastrously enabled, by culture. For such a person, Nietzsche says, in Schopenhauer as Educator ,. To be cultivated means: to hide from oneself how wretched and base one is, how rapacious in going for what one wants, how insatiable in heaping it up, how shameless and selfish in enjoying it.

Lawrence was highly cultured in any terms: he reviewed books across several European languages; wrote a ground-breaking study of American literature; and had a formidable knowledge of European painting. For it was not a matter of what he knew, but of what he was. The fact that he never acquired a personal library may be largely a result of his peripatetic life, but it also suggests something essential: that his reading existed only as part of him. In this tradition, the aesthete is not the languid connoisseur of nineteenth-century legend, but the figure who lives most fully within the world.

But the moment by moment intensity of existence which Walter Pater recommended, and thought to find predominantly in great art, Lawrence lived out in reality.

Understood in this spirit, religion is not threatened by science as it has a different order of significance. Indeed, it is only when religion is understood to be objectively untrue as history, or as a statement about the afterlife, that it acquires its true force as an image of the present life.

Religion is then understood in a properly aesthetic spirit. By contrast, Freud seemed unable to enter imaginatively the world view of religion. In Civilization and its Discontents he has a melancholy view of beauty and thinks of aesthetics as a science. He constantly committed the elementary error of confusing aetiology with meaning.

There is by definition no way of adjudicating between radically opposed world views. Lysander Kemp Harmondsworth: Penguin, , XXI — James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, cop.

Study Guide for the Book Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

Whether or not historical effects can be attributed to mythic causes it would seem likely that the end of an empire might expose its underlying myths and bring them into question. Certainly, the modernist generation of the early twentieth century provided a critical illumination of such strains some decades before the formal dismantling of the British empire in the mid century; a process that continued through the rest of the century with the gradual uprooting of the mental and psychological underpinnings of colonialism. It was no accident, therefore, that for several modernist writers myth was not just a literary means but a focus of philosophical self-examination; as it was also in other fields of enquiry such as the new modern disciplines of anthropology and psychoanalysis. So modernist writers sought not just to use myth but to understand the mythopoeic impulse as such. They had begun to realise that man is an inescapably mythopoeic animal.


CIVILIZATION AND ITS. DISCONTENTS. By Sigmund Freud. (First published in ). Translated from the German by JAMES STRACHEY. I. It is impossible to.


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