Supplemental Freud Materials
A Map to Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, Especially with Respect to Spenser’s Faerie Queene
Introduction. This edition’s introduction to Freud’s text describes its subject as “the [apparently] irremediable antagonism between the demands of instinct and the restrictions of civilization” (4). But while that’s not wrong, neither does it sufficiently explain why Freud’s little book has been recognized as such an important contribution to the culture. For Freud’s subject is not just instinct and civilization. Rather, it is a whole theory of human behavior, of why we act as we do, of why even the best-intended of our actions seem to have brought so little lasting inner happiness to humanity as a whole, and of how not just nature but the very social structures we have created to govern our social interactions seem to have hindered us as individuals in our life’s quest for a sense of well-being and content.
Civilization and its Discontents is thus a major contribution in western culture’s literature of Big Ideas, and as such it is engaged in much the same task as many of the great philosophical and literary works of the past, Spenser’s Faerie Queene prominently among them. For Spenser, too, carries out an analytic reflection on the questions of how and why human beings act as they do in confronting or avoiding the internal, driving forces of their emotional lives, and it should thus be no surprise that the two works—so different in mode, so different in scope, so different in language—should run on lines of thought so strikingly parallel. Though their assumptions can vary (Spenser, for example, does not see religion as a “patently infantile” illusion!), they take as their starting points those same questions of why we act, of why our actions so seldom bring us any lasting sense of happiness and content, and of what, if anything, we can do to change that otherwise depressing outlook.
Chapter I. Freud begins his reflections with ruminations about “values,” generally, and about religion in particular. What is it that human beings feel that make them want to construct religion? He talks about an “oceanic feeling.” As he describes it he sounds much like Kant on the sublime, although he also suggests that while others report this feeling, he has been unable to locate it within his own experience.
But why does Freud raise this issue at all? First, perhaps, to establish two ways of viewing things: one, the superstitious, infantile, “mystical” religious way (much of what civilization defines as valuable is based in religious thought); and two, the scientific, analytic, rational way.
But Freud is also introducing here both the assumption for his whole method (that our conscious analyses of the motives of human life are not trustworthy, and that we must therefore adopt an analytic attitude and method which will result in truer, more consistent, and finally more healthy understandings of motive) and an illustration of how and why one does it. People have this notion of religion, a notion they hold dear and use to organize their actions, their value systems. Yet their grounds for religion, upon analysis, turn out to be explainable not in terms of supernatural powers in the world but rather by means of unconscious psychic drives and processes.
The Rome example also “shows us how far we are from mastering the characteristics of mental life by representing them in pictorial terms.”19 Mental life, then, is essentially obscure and resistant to understanding. No wonder The Faerie Queene, which takes the same phenomena as its subject, so often has the same hyper-pictorial feel to it.
Chapter II. The fact that religion exists, despite its (to Freud, at any rate) manifestly “infantile” origins in the seeking of a father figure to ensure against the world’s pains and deprivations, demonstrates that civilization has deep and systematic discontents. For without them, religion would never have arisen. There would be no need for it. But there is need: “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.”23 Those measures are in general of three kinds: 1) deflections of needs, 2) substitutions for needs, 3) intoxicants.
To explain religion Freud then moves to a discussion of life’s purpose. What is that purpose anyway? Not the cosmic purpose religion offers us. Indeed, Freud sees no cosmic purpose to human life at all. He does, however, see an internal psychic purpose upon which the whole of one’s psychic economy is based: the pursuit of happiness. Or a little more precisely, the absence of pain and unpleasure, and (insofar as is possible) the experiencing of pleasure.(N1) The individual’s imperative towards the pursuit of pleasure he calls “the pleasure principle.” Unfortunately, the mind’s pursuit of happiness “is at loggerheads with the whole world.... There is no possibility at all of its being carried through; all the regulations of the universe run counter to it.”25 Our body falls apart and dies; the world itself brings forces of natural destruction against us; our relations with other people cause us suffering as well.
Given, then, that we cannot actually get what we truly want, we must somehow negotiate with our instincts, modify them, if we are to have any happiness at all in the long term. We can repress altogether; or we can displace our drives onto other objects in such a way as to avoid the frustrations the world would otherwise enforce. Or we can create illusions. Or we can conjure up ideals, constructing, in effect, a wish that we can take as an aim for action. Such ideals can be realistic, but many are delusionary. This is what Freud understands religion to be. (The difference between an illusion and an ideal is that the ideal is actually possible? Religion for Freud is an illusion because its ideals—themselves just ideas of perfection, or perfectibility—are unrealistic?)
But the general thrust of this chapter is to point out that we have these different ways of trying to negotiate our way to happiness, though, again, the project as a whole will have to fail. Religion in particular restricts people’s efforts by imposing its moral codes. These have the effect of addressing demands from our instinctual drives, although its ways of addressing those demands do not always much conduce to happiness.
Chapter III. This chapter opens by invoking the Romantic analysis of culture, as a destructive thing. Freud rejects this analysis as naive, but nevertheless asks into the question of why civilization has come to be so much distrusted. That leads in turn to a second Q: what is civilization anyway? Freud defines it as “the whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes—namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations.”42 As for the first—achievements. That’s science, and the interesting claim here is that science in effect is work done in the service of wish-fulfillment. It is directed towards supplying us with the things we have come to believe we need or want: protections against disease, the ability to fly, to remember, to talk at a distance. In this sense, since the power of a god is for Freud precisely the power to achieve the things we want but cannot have, we increasingly become god-like (we are “prosthetic gods”!). Trouble is, that doesn’t seem to solve our problem—“man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.”45
Other demands of civilization: beauty, or, the idealization of the useless (another strong Kantian strain here). Cleanliness, and order. Beyond these, civilization is represented by the “esteem and encouragement of man’s higher mental activities”—especially “ideas,” and even more, his “ideals”—“his ideas of a possible perfection of individuals, or of peoples... and the demands he sets up on the basis of such ideas.”47 That is to say: civilization establishes many of our values—and with this we touch again on the matter raised back in Chapter 1.
But then Freud turns to the social demands of civilization. Indeed, civilization may be said to begin with these—especially that of justice: “the replacement of the power of the individual by the power of a community” 49. This in effect is a sacrifice by the individual of instinctual outcomes in favor of the notion of community. That this sacrifice occurs demonstrates that we must all undergo restrictions in order to create community.49 But that also creates a problem:
A good part of the struggles of mankind center round the single task of finding an expedient accommodation—one, that is, that will bring happiness—between this claim of the individual and the cultural claims of the group; and one of the problems that touches the fate of humanity is whether such an accommodation can be reached by means of some particular form of civilization or whether this conflict is irreconcilable.50
That is in fact the Key Question. For if the point of life for any one individual is the satisfaction of “the familiar instinctual dispositions of human beings,” and if the demands of culture require restrictions upon or changes in an individual’s instinctual drives, then the possibility arises that culture’s restrictions and changes may finally prevent an individual from achieving happiness at all.
Chapter IV. Here Freud treats the history of civilization, on the implicit principle that we can better understand the demands culture places upon us, and evaluate better its effects upon us, if we can first understand its origin and its development.
Culture begins for Freud when work is recognized, and a fellow worker is valued for being productive. Freud sees the resultant sense of community as a replacement of the earlier family structure, which itself only arose when sexuality first had become a constant, rather than intermittent, drive (so a male wants a female around him continually, and therefore gives up his earlier itinerant, wandering ways). But the family that results from this change in sexuality is limited by the father’s tyrannical domination, what Freud calls the “totemic” culture. In response to that way of structuring power, Freud’s story of the origins of society imagines that the family’s sons banded together, established an understanding about power sharing among themselves, and deposed (and killed) the totem father. This slaying of the totem father is the crucial first step towards a social, as opposed to a familial, organization. “The taboo-observances [created by the sons’ agreement among themselves] were the first ‘right’ or ‘law.’”55 So Eros and Ananke, love and necessity, are the parents of civilization.
But if the model of genital love offered the clearest path to pleasure, those who adopted it as their main path to happiness were also exposed by accepting that model to its weakness: vulnerability to its loss by death or unfaithfulness. To avoid that risk, an alternative formulation arises, a displacement of sexual energy to create “aim-inhibited love,” in which one loves mankind in general, not specific sexual objects at all. This as it develops becomes for Freud the means by which civilization becomes an enemy to the pleasure principle. For aim-inhibited love gets high value—it is the root of friendship. Yet “Love with an inhibited aim was in fact originally fully sensual love, and it is so still in man’s unconscious.”58
Less satisfying than genital love, this aim-inhibited love nevertheless helps escape the exclusiveness of genital love, and is thus less risky. It is also a founding notion, along with need, for civilization, as opposed to individual pleasure. But both get called “love,” and they thus are confusingly commingled.
Indeed, this displacement is the key displacement. For erotic drive also gets displaced not just to friends, but to other things as well, as human beings substitute work for sex. And this is especially in men, not women, who “are little capable” of such sublimations of instinct.(!)59 Indeed, Freud imagines that women have become hostile to civilization, since it withdraws man from woman, and from the family. “What he employs for cultural aims he to a great extent withdraws from women and sexual life.”59 That is a major deformation of the individual’s original mental economy of pleasure seeking:
So, civilization impairs sexuality and (therefore) happiness, at least at the level of sensuality.(N2)
Chapter V. The task of this chapter is to describe man’s aggressive nature as an instinctual drive basic to human psychic energy. Freud begins by recapitulating the conflict he sees between civilization and the individual on sexuality. He describes this in terms of conflicting needs: civilization’s need to bind large numbers of people, versus the individual’s sexual need to bind only two. He grants that, as stated, this conflict doesn’t have to require unhappiness: “so far, we can quite well imagine a cultural community consisting of double individuals…who, libidinally satisfied in themselves, are connected with one another through the bonds of common work and common interests. If this were so, civilization would not have to withdraw any energy from sexuality.” (65) That, I would note, is certainly what Spenser imagines. But Freud doesn’t think that this fantasy has ever yet happened: “But this desirable state of things does not, and never did, exist.” (65)
The problem as Freud sees it is that for some reason civilization requires that erotic interest be so robbed that there is little left for happiness. It requires us to convert libido into “aim-inhibited libido on the largest scale so as to strengthen the communal bond by relations of friendship.”65 But why? Freud will shortly answer by saying that civilization sees as its enemy not sex, but violence. Supposing that each of us has an aggressive, destructive instinct as well as an erotic one, civilization sees the greatest threat to its continued existence as that which comes from out instinctual destructiveness. Homo homini lupus, he quotes from Plautus, “human beings are wolves to human beings.”69 That threat is so great that civilization must redouble its efforts to create bonds among us, even it that means it will ride roughshod over all else in order to protect itself. “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is from Freud’s perspective an ethical ideal that reveals the depth—and the desperation—of civilization’s need in this respect.(N3) For on its face the rule makes no sense. Indeed, it seems clearly enough an idea that runs exactly counter to the self’s interest. But civilization insists upon it as part of its program to promote aim-inhibited libido, and it does so in spite of the unreasonable and happiness-killing sacrifices people must make in order to follow the precept.
Not everyone will accept that aggressiveness is an inherent part of the human psyche, and Freud grants that it is often enough well disguised. “As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures.”69 But at times “it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.”69 (N4) And it is precisely this aggressive instinct that “forces civilization into such a high expenditure [of energy].” Always “threatened with disintegration,” “Civilization has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man’s / aggressive instincts and to hold the manifestations of them in check by psychical reaction-formations.”69-70
Yet in spite of all its efforts, culture’s control over aggressiveness remains very tenuous. Culture does all right with “the crudest excesses of brutal violence,” but “the law is not able to lay hold of the more cautious and refined manifestations of human aggressivness.”70 (N5) (Think Wall Street!)
In any case, given the sacrifices needed to control not just sexuality but destructiveness as well, “we can understand why it is so hard for [humanity] to be happy in … civilization.” 73 And try as we may to find better ways of satisfying our needs, we will do well to allow for the possibility “that there are difficulties attaching to the nature of civilization which will not yield to any attempt at reform.”74
Chapter VI. This chapter is mainly spent fitting Chapter V’s newly espoused view of a destructive “death instinct” into Freud’s larger theory of the human mind. Interestingly, by page 81 Freud describes the destructive “death instinct” as accompanied “by an extraordinarily high degree of narcissistic enjoyment, owing to its presenting the ego with a fulfillment of the latter’s old wishes for omnipotence. The instinct of destruction, moderated and tamed, and, as it were, inhibited in its aim, must, when it is directed towards objects, provide the ego with the satisfaction of its vital needs and with control over nature.”81 This raises a question of the relation of what Freud calls the death instinct to an interest in power and control. Which derives from which? In Spenser one has the icon of the boar, dominant and violent at once; but is it destruction per se? In the Garden of Adonis, the boar, which elsewhere is destructive and deadly, is controlled yet still alive, a kind of dynamic principle of generative power imprisoned below the garden’s surface within a womb-like cave.
In any case, the chapter’s last paragraph summarizes Freud’s final position on this issue of the destructive instinct: “The inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man, and … it constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization…. [C]ivilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind.”81 “But man’s natural aggressive instinct, the hostility of each against all and of all against each, opposes this program of civilization.”82 Which leads to Freud’s over-arching claim: “the meaning of civilization is no longer obscure to us. It must present the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species.”82 [And how far is that, we might ask, from the traditional, Judeo-Christian envisioning of the world as the battleground between the forces of good and evil, God and the devil?)
Chapter VII. This chapter describes the mechanism by which we have come to control our destructive instincts. In short, Freud argues that we have achieved control by the civilization’s having turned the individual’s aggression inward against the ego as the super-ego. Early on in our lives, in response to the threat of the loss of love, we learn to behave—doing so simply by rejecting instinctual satisfactions. But that only restricts instinctual energy, instead of using it up. It thus still seeks an outlet, and this happens by its being redirected into anger, which in turn again is directed (via identification) towards the ego. And as the child grows up, this deflected energy creates the super-ego, a permanent “garrison,” as Freud calls it, living in and controlling the conquered city of the ego, continually now channeling the aggressive instinct inwards against the ego as punishment both for deeds done, and for the very entertaining of the possibility of doing various forbidden deeds. The result of this aggressiveness is the culture’s ubiquitous, inevitable, inextinguishable sensation of guilt.
But Freud’s discussion of guilt, aggression, ego and super-ego is particularly interesting as he strives to explain one of the most peculiar dimensions of our moral lives: our sense of guilt not just for things we do or have done, but even for our merely thinking about doing things.(N6) For once the child has internalized the parent, whom it obeys for fear of losing love, and has set the newly internalized super-ego parent up as a conscience, the child is no longer afraid only of being found out. Rather, s/he now also has an internal sense of wrong which—because located internally where it can over-see all that one thinks as well as all that one does—finds us out and assigns guilt even before one has done anything at all! [cf. Foucault’s notion of the panoptic!] And that internal authority is quite capable of levying punishment for this potential sinfulness: “The super-ego torments the sinful ego with the same feeling of anxiety and is on the watch for opportunities of getting it punished by the external world.”86
That’s a little depressing: whether one acts “rightly” or not, on still gets to feel guilty. Does it then make any difference to the conscience whether one has been good? Freud does make room for such a difference. For when we have actually committed a misdeed, we have not just guilt, but “remorse” as well. We actually commit a misdeed when “an instinctual need acquires the strength to achieve satisfaction in spite of the conscience, which is, after all, limited in its strength; and with the natural weakening of the need owing to its having been satisfied, the former balance of power is restored.” A sort of temporary overwhelming of the garrison,
Or so Shakespeare would have it in Sonnet 129. Freud, meanwhile, links this problem to his originary myth of the slaying of the totem father. That deed led to ambivalence, for the sons both loved and hated the father, and “After their hatred had been satisfied by their act of aggression, their love [which had been pushed aside long enough to accomplish the rebellion] came to the fore in their remorse for the deed. It set up the super-ego by identification with the father; it gave that agency the father’s power, as though as a punishment for the deed of aggression they had carried out against him….”95 This dynamic is retained even now, as “the inclination to aggressiveness against the father was repeated in the following generations.”95 This all leads to Freud’s climactic conclusion: Now, love’s role in the creation of the conscience is clear, as is the “fatal inevitability of the sense of guilt”:
Civilization is thus “inextricably bound up with … an increase of the sense of guilt.”96 Unfortunately, this confers upon the individual a burden that is “hard tolerate.”(96) And energy that is bound up inside this way may come bursting out in ways and at times that are truly horrific.
Chapter VIII. Here Freud first recapitulates remarks on guilt, which lead to further discourse on the super-ego, but now as both a cultural as well as an individual construct. He begins by noting how much of guilt is unconscious—a power at work in the mind which the consciousness does not recognize, and thus cannot use to explain either feelings of anxiety, or other neurotic symptoms. Indeed, many will not admit that they have such general guilt feelings as those described in Chapter VII. But guilt breeds a need for punishment—a phenomenon people can see more easily than guilt as an unconscious force. But guilt is there, Freud declares. Moreover, if guilt can be unconscious for an individual, so can it be for a culture—something that manifests itself simply as a cultural sense of anxiety, or dis-ease, an Unbehagen, or malaise: civilization’s “discontent.”
Again, Freud sees this as a way to explain religion’s draw: without such a widespread sense of guilt, itself the result of the tension between our instinctual demands and the culture’s counter demands, what would be the attraction of religion’s claim to be able to redeem one from guilt and sin? (N7) In which case, since those repressions are out of proportion to the real need for them, the guilt is disproportional as well. We are punished and seek punishment unreasonably. The very mechanisms that humanity has developed to establish and further the group thus become the means by which happiness for individuals is compromised or even denied.
Now. A further complication lies in the relation between individual super-ego and cultural super-ego. As we develop, we develop both. For the individual, we retain the aim of happiness, but we have to fit into a community in order to do this. Obviously, this requires of us that we bond with others. Now, in the individual, we do all we do in accord with our best understanding of the happiness principle. To be sure, our encounters with reality force us to adjust, but the aim remains the maximizing of pleasure and the minimizing of pain. In the process of civilizing, however, society creates for us its own super-ego, one which has no pleasure principle. It’s only aim is union. “It is true that the aim of happiness is still there, but it is pushed into the background. It almost seems as if the creation of a great human community would be most successful if no attention had to be paid to the happiness of the individual.”105 So we find ourselves in constant conflict, self versus society. This is a conflict which Freud things might be resolved someday, “however much … civilization may oppress the life of the individual today.”106 But that conflict isn’t the same as the conflict between Eros and death which is “probably an irreconcilable one.”106
A major problem in this is that the cultural super-ego’s demands are not necessarily realistic. “It issues a command and does not ask whether it is possible for people to obey it.”108 Thus in the effort to control violence culture has adopted the rule: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” But: “The commandment is impossible to fulfill; such an enormous inflation of love can only lower its value, not get rid of the difficulty. Civilization pays no attention to all of this; it merely admonishes us that the harder it is to obey the precept the more meritorious it is to do so.”109 The result is an unhappiness no less strong than that produced by aggressiveness. “What a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defense against it can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness itself!”109
Freud ends with the one thing he claims to know: “that man’s judgments of value follow directly his wishes for happiness—that, accordingly, they are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments.”111 He leaves us with what is for him the overwhelming question: “The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.”111 The final question is thus whether Eros will ever be able to be equal to Thanatos. Freud imagines this as an approaching struggle, and, perhaps aware of a specter like Hitler on the horizon, he ends with what has since become a famous last sentence: “But who can foresee with what success and with what result?”112
Certainly the result in the decades following this book was disastrous for happiness and for human life. Nazism arose, the Axis partnership of Germany, Japan and Italy launched a drive for domination in the world, and the death-destruction impulse seemed fully ready to dominate its opposing life force. But now, more than sixty years after the collapse of the Axis driven night of war, what more can we say about that same question?(N8)
(1) This section echoes quite obviously Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and a number of Plato’s dialogues. All of these echoes remind us that Freud’s text participates in a long tradition of philosophical inquiries into the causes and symptoms of, as well as the prospects for, the human condition.
(2) And Spenser would seem to agree, at least to a point. Look at all the people in Book 3 with sex drives in a twist. Much of what passes for civilized behavior here (Canto 1, Canto 9, and especially the goings-on as you move on into the first 5 cantos of Book 4) can be seen as deformed or perverse or destructive outcomes of erotic energies. But Spenser’s way of thinking about all this tends to run towards possible ways to counter these destructive effects. He would differ perhaps in believing (as Freud seems to doubt) that there are in fact social bonds, constraints, which can profitably and (this is the really important difference) happily discipline the primitive drive. Spenser would thus seem to disagree with one of the implications of Freud’s argument, that civilization is perhaps necessarily a great downer, more a destroyer than an enabler of happiness. Spenser would surely grant that destructiveness is rampant, but he seems to argue that civilization’s destructiveness is only the effect of a misguided and wrong kind of civilizing. Spenser’s ideal would include sexual love chastened by an analytic and informed disciplinary process. Like Freud, Spenser sees the culture as needing to sublimate (“chaunge,” or “transform”) energies. But where Freud sees this as necessarily reductive of pleasure, and therefore of happiness, Spenser seems to see this banding of energy as the only possible way to create real happiness. Without a well understood and clearly imagined sense of value, of goal and direction, one wanders in The Faerie Queene always in search of a true and lasting satisfaction, but never in a position to find it. Moreover, at least as he idealizes it in the Garden of Adonis, in Book 4, Canto 6, and in the image of the hermaphrodite that ends Book 3 in the 1590 edition, married sexual love for Spenser, undertaken with the full understanding that the reading of these books could be said to enable, would be full, frank, generous and fulfilling—rich in pleasure indeed.
(3) The fit between Freud’s analysis of Friendship and that implicit in Book 4, Canto 3 of the Faerie Queene is quite close. Indeed, the chief difference may only be the range of animals beyond mere wolves that Spenser invokes to embroider the underlying notion of our violent urges towards one another. See note 4.
(4) All of this is wonderfully suggestive as a framework for reading the first cantos of Book 4. Wandering pointlessly, the rout of knights that accumulates in Cantos 1 and 2 pick random fights, assault each other verbally, reveal a combination of erotic drive and inner unhappiness. Even when joined by Campbell, Cambina, Canacee, and Priamond, the ostensibly happy friends, the over-all social tension and dis-ease remains. Indeed, as we flashback to the mythic origins of friendship, the parallels to Freud’s thinking are strong. Canto 3 abounds in images of bestial anger and aggression—compounded by the absurdity of the combatants’ longevity. The crowning irony is that the battle only ends when Cambina enforces a mass amnesia with Nepenthe—forging friendship out of erotic desire, violence and forgetfulness. But the ensuing repetition of the very similar tournament of desire in Cantos 4 and 5 remind us that the energies have only been suppressed and/or displaced—not removed or transformed.
(5) Freud includes as a kind of counter example a digression on communism, because communism’s (and Marx’s, of course) central tenet runs directly contrary to his own. Communism’s somewhat Utopian view sees human beings as innately good, and now turned bad only because of the invention of private property. But Freud’s view, while granting that private property doesn’t necessarily do much in the way of public good, disagrees utterly with that assumption: “Aggressiveness was not created by property.”71
Freeing ourselves of destructive aggression, or rather, managing the instinct such that it is not socially destructive, leads to various devices. One is the way in which social groups gain internal coherence by demonizing others. “It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.”72 He notes the curious phenomenon of the animosities indulged in between groups with adjoining territories—and, he notes (with a sardonic and terribly prophetic irony), some others as well: “In this respect the Jewish people, scattered everywhere, have rendered most useful services to the civilizations of the countries that have been their hosts; but unfortunately all the massacres of the Jews in the Middle Ages did not suffice to make that period more peaceful and secure for their Christian fellows.”72
(6) Interestingly, Freud seems to suggest that not everyone develops much of a super-ego. Some people (the socio-path?) never create an internal censor.
(7) One might, by the way, suggest that “salvation” depends in a funny way on a version of conscious recognition of the unconscious sense of guilt. The unsaved don’t admit their guilt, don’t even think they have it. The saved (like Freud!) recognize it, and humilify themselves before it (RCK in Canto 10). But Christianity sees that guilt as the result of sin—the personal failing to do right. To this extent, then, Christianity and Freud agree. But Freud would see our sense of guilt not in doctrinal terms as a result of the Fall, or as the effect of any more metaphorical version of original sin, but as the inevitable result of the conflict between an individual’s inborn instinctual drives (both the father, and the internalized “father” created by identification) and the society’s need to repress or control those drives.
At the same time, the myth of the Fall enacts a version of Freud’s totemic myth, in which the command of the father is “slain,” as it were, rather than the father himself, and in which the invisible, eternal, omnipresent “God,” like the conscience in Freud’s telling, knows all, and punishes all. In both the human mind lives on with an unconscious sense of guilt for its “original” transgression; in both there is a kind of super-ego, one internalized as conscience, the other externalized as the God-figure, but imagined in such a way (omnipresent and omniscient) as essentially to be equivalent to an internalized conscience.
(8) I’m not sure I can answer Freud’s question (!), but as I suggested in note 2, I do think that it is precisely the vision of a victory of Eros over Thanatos that Spenser stages in Book 4. The preliminary move, in Book 3, is an investigation of Eros, of the disciplining and channeling of Eros, and of its consequent overwhelming power. The next move, in the book of Friendship, makes sense as the logical sequence, at least so long as one sees Friendship as precisely the thing Freud describes as the mechanism by which we move towards social groups. For Spenser, again like Freud, sees the issues of the one as reflected in the issues of the other.
3. Course Description for "Shakespeare, Spenser, Freud"--a senior Seminar and Capstone course.
Shakespeare, Spenser, and a Little Bit of Freud:
The goal of a Senior Seminar is to provide a "capstone" course to an English degree; just what, exactly, a "capstone" would be, however, is not very clear. Some would say it's a place to do in-depth study which shows all your skills as an English major, a research-oriented foray into the PR and PS shelves in Suzzallo Library. Others would say it's a place to kick back, read something cool and not to worry. This class adopts neither of those definitions. Instead I offer it as a sort of conceptual capstone: a place to read intensively in works which offer a thematic panorama of literature’s Big Ideas.
Which is to say: you've been reading books now for the past four or five years, thinking about the ways literature offers to reflect on the enterprise we human beings call "life." The plan here is to look at works by two great poets of the Renaissance, William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser, who themselves spent time thinking about many of these same issues. They worked in very different ways, but the questions they pursued were the big ones: What is Truth? How do we know it? What should we do with it? How do we human beings structure our lives? What makes us act the way we do? How do we seek happiness? What (indeed) do we think happiness is? What leads us into conflict? How do societies establish the values they live by? What is "civility"? Why is there unhappiness in our world? Why pain, why violence? What is love? Why do we seek it? Why do we fear it? Why is love so difficult to maintain? And amidst all these complicated and complicating questions, the biggest of them all: How can we live better and more happy lives?
To provide a contrastive viewpoint to focus some of these questions, and to keep a sense of connection with our own century (even as we prepare to leave it), we will also spend a certain part of our time with Sigmund Freud. For Freud, too, was deeply interested in these same issues. Indeed, especially in his later works, Freud's interests grow increasingly philosophical. In Civilization and its Discontents he takes up from a distinctly modernist point of view the same set of questions raised by both Shakespeare and Spenser, and so once we've negotiated our way a certain distance into the Renaissance view of these matters, we'll read Freud's to establish an alternative perspective.
4. Reading Spenser in the Context of Freud
Spenser and Freud: Beyond Repression
I want to use Freud in this class to suggest parallels between his and Spenser’s exploration of human psychic spaces. Consider three concepts, that of the Unconscious, that of innate psychic drives, and that of sublimation. The first of these, the Unconscious, is Freud’s way of accounting for the (to him) apparent fact that any human mind is bigger and more obscure than any conscious understanding of that mind can encompass. Though now in one form or another a virtual commonplace among those who deal with human psychic phenomena, it was by no means universally accepted when Freud advanced the notion, since many contemporaries would not accept that one couldn’t, with a little care, have conscious access to any thought one’s mind might have. Freud argued, by contrast, that there are desires, fears, needs which no mind can ever fully understand consciously, yet which still function as deep and powerful motives towards action.
The argument about the Unconscious unfolded in the late 19th century, yet Spenser’s 16th century representations of the mind seem to require a similar notion. Though The Faerie Queene is analytic, and therefore directed towards understanding, the open-endedness of its analogical/metaphorical mode more or less guarantees the insufficiency of any one reading. As soon as you’ve suggested that one thing is like another, after all, the ways in which that likeness can be explored are more or less unlimited. To be sure, we can find in Spenser places to conceptualize particular “conscious” problems, or psychic dynamisms, or arguments about how best to understand or deal with psychic issues. And the poem seems also to make a general overriding argument about the nature of human psychic drives and about how best to control and channel them. But at the same time the experience of Book 3 is of a highly diffuse mental landscape only figuratively rendered, and to which one responds only with ordering principles, not full comprehension. Like the figure of Adonis at the Book’s center, Spenser’s world of the mind is “hid from the world,” “in secret,” only to be guessed at by those who would understand it: “And sooth it seems they say...”(3.6.46-7), he teasingly declares—declaring himself no more than a reporter of what others only “seem” to say. Very like Freud’s complex, deceptive, unavailable Unconscious, Spenser’s mental landscape retains an essential unknowability, even while he proposes it for analytic study.
The second concept I see as common to Freud and Spenser is the claim that our actions in the world result from powerful, innate psychic drives. In his late work Freud posits two such drives, one the libido, Eros, identified with sexuality and generation, the other Thanatos, a death-instinct, identified with aggression and destructiveness. These are obvious inverses of each other, virtual mirror opposites, and Freud sees human life as the effect of the competition in mind and culture between these two great forces. In some ways Freud’s final sense of the mind is rendered in very traditional terms, as a kind of microcosm of a larger cosmic struggle between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil--and the future of Civilization itself depends upon its outcome.
Now Spenser, too, seems to see the mind in dualistic terms, although his understanding of those underlying drives is interestingly different from Freud’s. For where Freud identifies one drive with eros, the other with the death instinct, Spenser seems to imagine both drives as essentially sexual. Spenser is working from the Book of Nature here, reading into male and female physiology an emblem of two poles of the mind: one questing, thrusting, changing—essentially phallic: “And in his clownish hand a sharp bore spear he shook” he says of the Griesly Foster in Book 3’s first canto; the second enclosing, consolidating, constant, essentially (can we invent a word?) “monsian.” These two sexual images dominate the Garden of Adonis: Venus’s anatomically rendered mount, shaded with trees and dropping with dews, wherein Adonis is kept, no longer wishing to roam, his masculine, thrusting, transformative nature now controlled (and in that sense “chastened”) by Venus herself, safe because the destructive power of the boar is caged below the surface of the world, enwombed in a literalization of the phrase “mother earth.” Subtending each of these generative principles, Spenser’s poetry throughout Canto 6 establishes a series of parallel polar concepts: male and female, seed and soil, form and substance, sun and earth, light and dark, change and stasis.
But perhaps the key polarity associated with these principles are Self and Other--Self identified with that masculine thrusting, a kind of assertion of self against the world and against all that is in the world; Other identified with feminine enclosure, embrace. The first is a kind of ego principle, a sexuality of egoistic self-assertion and (therefore) dominance, the second a similarly powerful drive, yet not just to sexual coupling (which by itself, as mere ego assertion, can never be, no matter what name one gives it, anything more than a rape of the other—whether literally as in the Jove tapestry described in Canto 11, or figuratively in Canto 7 and 8’s parable of the masculine invention and carryings off of the Snowy Florimell) but to a more complete sense of union—Love, in fact. In a way, these correspond to what Freud called “ego-libido” and “object-libido”—love of self versus love of something or someone else. What is different in The Faerie Queene is that Spenser seems to identify the principle of Self (mere ego-assertion) with human destructive power. More often than not villainy begins in Spenser’s Book 3 with ego-centric, self-asserting (“proud” in Spenser’s vocabulary) attempts to subordinate the world to one’s own will, and good begins with the transformation of that ego energy into alter-centrism, a willingness to redirect that self-assertive energy that would dominate others into a sharing of Self with Other.
And that leads to the really big difference between the way Spenser seems to understand the world of the mind and the way Freud does. For though human physiology for Spenser emblematizes these parallel polarities, the antitheses it projects are neither the limit of human behavior nor its ideal. Rather, Spenser seems to see at work in chaste sexuality a principle of transformation to a state of being beyond that of mere primal, phallic transformation or monsian stasis, and that larger principle he represents through the Venus and Adonis myth underlying the entirety of Book 3’s narrative and thematic logic. For in Spenser’s telling Venus is comically ignored by a male (Adonis) whose erotic energies want no sexual object, even if it is the goddess of love herself. But in a departure from Ovid’s version (Spenser’s source), in which Venus has no choice but to accept Adonis’ self-destructive pursuit of the boar, Spenser’s Venus has somehow exercised some undescribed power in order to become the relation’s active force, holding, binding, protecting Adonis, himself similarly transformed, not here into the flower of Ovid’s myth, but out of his earlier ego-centric, narcissistic state (where he follows his OWN will, rejecting any other demands upon his attention) and into a (paradoxically) productive stasis (where his will is still active in its mutability [figured in a sexual image of the ever-changing phallus] but while also forever enclosed in Venus’ sexual garden).
So, like Britomart, Venus and Adonis here each go beyond either “masculine” or “feminine” to become psychically hermaphroditic: she is active but receptive; he is static, but ever-changing. Whatever the character of particular men and women in the world (like you and me) actually turns out to be, it is clear that in Spenser’s model of mind every one of us is potentially a transformed synthesis of masculine and feminine principles, of active with passive—imagistically speaking, phallic with monsian. For neither male nor female by itself is enough. Untransformed, males chase and females are chased (with a characteristic Spenserian pun). But when Britomart imagines Artegall as her goal, and then in order to find him transforms herself by putting on masculine armor and taking up the magic spear, she initiates a series of transformative actions in which her power forces those she encounters to chasten their self-directed sense of motive by recognizing an Other. (And is it the imagination, then, that in Spenser’s mythology is where the action starts? does the use of the imagination and the intelligence to transform narcissistic self-reflection into love—ego-libido into object-libido, in Freud’s terms--constitute the means by which we begin the move from a primitive level of masculine or feminine into a higher stage of male-female?)
One might say, then, and now we turn to the third concept I borrow from Freud, sublimation, that Spenser sees the blending of feminine with masculine or of masculine with feminine as not just a possible transformation of innate psychic dynamics, but as a necessary one if the world is not to be destroyed by the uncontrolled thrustings on of man’s primitive “salvage” nature. The parallel is to Freud’s notion of society’s interest in taming human psychic forces by sublimation, a kind of discipline which redirect energies in socially productive ways. Britomart’s acts of “direction” (Spenser might have called them acts of “chastening”) are figured pretty directly: in Canto 1 she unseats Guyon, Marinell, Paridell—each an emblem of not-yet-chastened (and therefore incomplete, though not necessarily evil) male energies. But the end of those acts of “chastening” is NOT simply repression. It is transformation, the exertion of pressure to force rethinking, relearning, reknowing the world around you. Chastity, the disciplinary power, is finally here also a process of psychic and emotional education, forcing the Self to re-see itself in conjunction with an Other—to become as one by seeing two, a goal represented in the hermaphrodite which ends the original version of Book 3.
As such it is obvious that Chastity cannot be for Spenser anything so narrow as simply saying no to sex. Rather, Spenser rather fully metaphorizes literal chastity to imagine it as an emblem of any process by which one learns to control and direct the primal energies of one’s otherwise helplessly egocentric self. Indeed, at one level, “chastity” is the disciplined and disciplinary process of reading and interpreting The Faerie Queene itself.
I’m not sure the correspondence between Freud’s sublimation and Spenser’s pyschic mythology is very exact. For where Freud sees the effect of sublimation as a process in which one’s primitive love of self undergoes a transformation to love of another object, something that is NOT-self, Spenser seems to see sublimation (“chastening”) as a more fully educative process of change. As becomes clear in Canto 6 of Book 4, the end of Britomart’s quest is a moment of first blindness and then insight, when she and Artegall begin by trying to destroy each other, but end by reforming, reseeing, restructuring their outlooks upon the world. Spenser represents this sense of transformation in various ways. In one, Artegall enters the canto both without a real name and in most ways we can see to have been defined by the opening cantos of the book socially and civilly inferior to Britomart. He is as Canto 6 opens only “The Salvage Knight.” But in the process of that canto he changes, and after having become in an important sense the “egall” of both Arthur (conceived as one already touched by love and remotivated by his vision of the Faerie Queene) and Britomart herself, he leaves as “Artegall.” I’m not sure I’ve worked out very well the difference I think I see between Spenser’s myth and Freud’s on this point, but I think Spenser’s is different. In particular, if Freud’s sense of things would leave one with a sense of the world held in cosmic struggle between the forces of Good and Evil, Spenser seems to imagine the possibility of moving beyond that struggle to a different sense of motive altogether. In Spenser one is not just forced to harness and channel energies, but one can somehow redefine them altogether. Or at least, that’s a hypothesis to be tested.
In any event, something like such a process is, I think, what Spenserian Chastity finally entails: both the need to enforce discipline upon the otherwise destructive powers of the human psyche, that is to “discipline” them, “bind” them, “chasten” them, and the resultant, newly defined civilized (no longer savage) power of those individuals and groups who prove themselves capable of doing so.