Sainthood and Sublimation

So I picked up the little, 71 pages book, “Civilization and its Discontents” by Sigmund Freud again to read it as kinda of a procrastination, a means to avoid reading denser books. I’d read this depressing essay by the 73 year old philosopher 15-20 yrs. before, so I thought it would be an interesting re-read given the crap that’s happened since.

freudsed1The thin Dover Thrift Editions paperback was much annotated by a younger me. But as it was in my unreadable scribble, this re-visit was not aided by youthful insights. Except one, this little pencil sketch scribbled at the end of chapter VII. Just for fun I re-drew it in photoshop, to see the redraw, scroll on down.

“Civilized man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security.” (Freud)

Sometimes Freud seems to say love and aggression are separate and opposite other times they are one and the same –the pleasure principle –where one is the repressed expression of the other. Either way, they seem to him to be hard-wired in us and their expression is inevitable. And that civilization developed—was selected for—to moderate both because as he postulates, that to let either have free reign civilization would be destroyed and take humanity with it. This implies survival and “the pursuit of [unlimited] happiness” can’t co-exist, sad, huh?

Happiness, therefore, says Freud, is available only to saints and artists. He says this is so here it’s there for saints by their abandonment of the inevitable disappointment of love and work for unreciprocated altruism. And in his “Introductory Lectures…” he says artists can be “happy” (have “honor, power, riches, fame, and the love of women,” he says there) when they sublimate –not repress–their urges into activity society rewards with such things. But since society is rarely—if at all—kind to members of either calling, least ways when those called are alive, can saints or artists are thought of as happy?

The times have change in the 70+ years since Freud wrote, the great depression played out, Hitler rose and fell and the Cold War and the Middle Class was, then wasn’t. Freud wrote of civilization as monolithic, “tous pour un, un pour tous” so to speak. But I don’t think it was so then and it’s certainly not that way now.  We thrive, survive—or don’t—more by the wills of swarms of corporations than we do by the overlapping governments they own. We pledge more allegiance to assorted sports teams than we do our fractured bureaucracies, elected and not, as both are presented to us equally as zero-sum game-like media events du jour. so even if we can put aside like a saint or appease, sublimate artistically, one “culture” there are still many others looking for a portion of our happiness.

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