Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

Civilization and Its Discontents

Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

Civilization and Its Discontents

Article excerpt

In 1930 Sigmund Freud published the essay "Civilization and Its Discontents" in the shadow of the terrible carnage of the First World War. But what if he were to walk among us today? Would he wish to recast the powerful five questions he posed 75 years ago--about culture and violence, civilization and innate aggression, religion and guilt? Would he have faith that humanity can acquire the "antibodies" needed to save us from ourselves?

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SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS have passed since Freud wrote the famous essay "Civilization and Its Discontents." Despite all the enormous social and spiritual revolutions to which mankind has been subject since then, it would appear that it has lost none of its impact. In 1930, civilization had already experienced a number of severe shocks unique to the twentieth century--but there were much more ghastly "discontents" in the very near future. At the start of the twenty-first century, we are seeing many alarming phenomena that seem very familiar indeed. And so, perhaps more than ever, this essay merits our close attention.

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Let us examine the matter of civilization and its discontents, using Freud's essay as our starting point, focusing our thoughts around five questions:

1 What is the value and what is the nature of that "contentment" that civilization (or culture) is supposed to provide?

2 How is it that in the last century some civilizations that were wealthy and highly developed--such as those of Germany, Japan, Russia, Spain and (to a certain extent) Italy--failed so miserably in immunizing themselves against a terrible inherent aggression that was directed both against other nationalities and towards themselves? And permit me to refer here to the period in which Freud wrote his essay--that period of storm and twilight between the two world wars--when, both as a German intellectual and surely as a Jew, Freud was himself becoming aware of the mounting horror within the very heart of civilized Europe. But I am sure that even his profound pessimism vis-a-vis the nature of mankind could not have foreseen the depths of depravity to which civilized society could descend.

3 The third question is a logical offshoot of its predecessor. Is civilization as we know it better equipped to cope with man's aggression? Is mankind's global, pluralist, democratic character better able now to protect him from dreadful events like those that occurred during the twentieth century? And this leads us to a further question, one which is of personal interest to me: by providing more "contentment," according to Freud's definition, is modern civilization required to pay a certain aesthetic price in its complexity and depth?

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4 Another very relevant question that demands urgent attention in any discussion of the current cultural situation is: what role does religion play in the cultural fibre of society, and why is it enjoying such a renaissance in recent years among its billions of followers?

5 We shall sum up by addressing the issue of guilt. According to Freud, guilt is a powerful fuel for setting culture in motion. Let us, then, take a look at our own level of guilt. How high is its octane? Has it undergone any change recently--and, if it has, why?

NOW to the first question--what kind of contentment is culture, in its artistic manifestations, supposed to supply? Is contentment even the right word, or is this term too diminishing, too minimalist for the important responsibility with which we are entrusting culture?

Consider that if culture is responsible for sublimating human urges--sexual urges, the death urge, and man's inherent aggression--if it is culture's job to give man an in-depth look into his unconscious, then its mission is greater than mere "contentment," as Freud put it. Was it an obvious understatement on Freud's part when he tried to say that, in the end, even when appearing to touch the deepest reaches of a man's heart, art and culture are still too weak to achieve all that is expected of them? …

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