Sense from nonsense


1930s front cover of the German edition

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In 1930 Sigmund Freud published Civilization and Its Discontents. It’s a complex book that addresses some of the key paradoxes of civilisation, which can be summarised simply (and inadequately) as the conflict between personal instinct and the demands of society. For me the key section of the book is the third, where Freud directly addresses these incompatible elements. We have contrived a society – a civilisation – whereby we look to moderate the worst excesses and control the baser elements within it. ‘Civilisation’ is in effect a normalising imposition on how we live our lives – subject to laws, to authority, to cultural mores, to morals, even, ultimately to cultural trends. One can see the necessity of civilisation as such, but in ‘averaging’ out society it represses much of our natural instinct – and expression – and in so doing negates much of the individual. Not surprisingly this causes instances of frustration, meaninglessness, and discontent. (Apologies to Sigmund for this very potted summary of a serious piece of work).

In 1933 Jung published a book of essays, Modern Man in Search of a Soul. He explores different themes in different essays, but underlying most is the concept that over time man has become overly-rational (civilised?) at the expense of the soul (instinct?). There is a quote that goes to the heart of the conflict:

“The great decisions of human life have as a rule far more to do with the instincts and other mysterious unconscious factors than with conscious will and well-meaning reasonableness. The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases. Each of us carries his own life-form – an indeterminable form which cannot be superseded by any other.”

Though Jung put it in different terms, and each had very different theories, both Freud and Jung are addressing pretty much the same state of being. For Freud it was couched in terms of discontent; for Jung it was the soul. In both instances what was ailing, or lost, was wrapped up in the march of civilisation and the suppression of instinct, the movement away from the primitive, and the lack of a collective life. In essence (and apologies to both guys), we are each alone in a civilisation that provides us with some comforts, security, order, but for which we have sacrificed or suppressed the instinctive, and moved away from our inner-selves. In my terms, we have lost the meaning of our own lives.

Both these books were written during a volatile time in history. Hitler was coming or already there. The depression was in full swing, anti-semitism on the rise, and in Germany at least (and lets not forget both Jung and Freud were German speakers) a world of decadent and aimless excess was being transplanted with the rigid ideology of National Socialism. These were books for the time. People were discontent, lost, and searching for something – hope and meaning. Ultimately many – in Germany – would find its fraudulent cousin in the words of Hitler, but that’s a conversation for another time.

I’m drawing attention to these works by Freud and Jung today because I think there are parallels between their times and today. We’ve moved on a lot of course, and at first glance perhaps there seems little in common. These theories are timeless though, and consistent with much I believe and have written of here in these pages. If we search for meaning for what has happened in England over the last 7 days then I think both Freud and Jung have something to say.

There are a thousand different theories about why the conflagration in London occurred. Most are probably valid I think, but are practically rooted – it’s because this happened, or that happened, or this failed to. They are causes, but they do not go to the state of being that transforms a person from a respectable part of the civilisation to one who takes pleasure in destruction, theft and anarchy. Many have said that what we have seen in London and the other cities is simple opportunistic thievery, with no ideological genesis. That’s how it ended, no doubt. But how did it start, and why? And why did allegedly ‘normal’ people with seemingly no axe to grind choose to get so happily involved?

I’ve been on this for a while. The events in London don’t greatly surprise me. I think there is a malaise through society which has been building to a climax. As a people I think we have become disconnected from each other and from our society. Ironically I think the social media which has us online and sharing 24/7 is a large factor in that. We now share at one remove. We type a few works and click enter. We surf a little more and contribute something elsewhere sitting at home or on our iPhone. We may be more open these days, but it is in an artificial environment. It’s an environment that is self-referencing, and self-affirming. We take our cues from each other without searching outside; ‘individuality’ is rarer now now than before. We join the throng sharing on Facebook, or watching MasterChef; we follow the same trends, have the same conversations. At the same time our children play Xbox or Wii sitting in their lounge room competing against kids sitting in their lounge room around the corner. As parents we have become friends rather than role models, coddling our children and spoiling them to the point our kids know no different, and expect nothing less. We are breeding a generation who exist on a different plane from us, a generation largely removed from the rough and tumble of life as we knew it; a generation with less curiosity I think, more self absorbed, and with less social flexibility; a generation with a sense of entitlement that is both unhealthy and illusory; a generation another step removed from the grit of our forefathers.

That’s fine I guess if it works, though it doesn’t work for me: I don’t want to forget the value and heft of things. I want to believe there is more to life than my sensations being satisfied. And I never want to lose sight of the spiritual and intellectual journey I think my life is all about – but that’s just me. And I’m of another generation (and doesn’t it show).

While it works the life I’m describing is fine, but it’s fine – in my opinion – in the same way taking a pill makes things fine. It is life dulled, and I don’t believe that it’s sustainable. Ultimately people need more, and will begin to demand it. Society isn’t stagnant, it moves, and we’ll move on from this too as the wheel turns and people begin to question.We’ve already seen the beginning of that in extreme form, but there will be other voices, more moderate and reasoned, which will begin to ask the necessary questions,

Where’s the pay-off? What’s really in this for me? Though few could articulate it I think there is a deep-seated sense in most that there’s meant to be more to life than this. Is this all there is? It accords, I think, with the conflict that both Freud and Jung wrote of. We have built such a civilisation that everything is accounted for, that everything is available for the right price, a civilisation that in our striving to make it safe, secure and orderly has instead made it banal. We have lost ourselves in the process, become disconnected with the raw instincts that brought us here, have muted the inner person that needs to be expressed. Superficially there is much to clap ourselves on the back about. Look how far we’ve come. Look at the advances we’ve made. Aren’t we good to each other? It is empty though, because life is more than a sexy iPad or something good to watch on the teev, or even earnest UN resolutions. We are seduced by the rhetoric and blinded by the sparkle, but have lost something in the process – and know it.

Who is me? What do I have to say? What is me? These are the questions not being asked anymore, or hardly. Instead they tumble out when they do in other ways, as we have seen in London. Many will disagree, but I think what we have seen in London is an existential outpouring. Sure, many are thugs and thieves taking advantage of the opportunity, but many more I think are those who have unconsciously opted out of the equation that promised so much, but delivered so little. This life doesn’t work. I want one that does, and if I can’t then I’ll torch this car and rob this shop and fuck you all.

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What would Kant think?


Immanuel Kant developed his own version of the...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been reading bits and pieces of the great philosophers lately, particularly the Germans. It’s interesting and sometimes provocative, though most philosophers seem incapable of communicating in anything but abstractions and dense prose. It’s as if clear exposition is against the key principles of modern philosophy.

I’ve often thought that philosophy is sort of pointless because it seems impractical. Why lock yourself in a room to postulate and pontificate about something you can actually do if you leave the room – it seems the very definition of navel gazing . In my muscular perspective the philosophy of life is expressed through the living of it. ‘Philosophy’ is not a tangible reality after all, but a perspective, and often a description of something that ‘just is’. It’s like a bunch of people looking to describe something – a platypus say – in abstract terms, defining it in arcane terms while the marsupial frolics in its billabong. As Freud might have said, sometimes a platypus is just a platypus.

Yet that is to take a simplistic and wrong-headed sense of the discipline, of which I’ve been guilty. Gravity just is, and no amount of analysis is going to change its essential qualities – and yet understanding it means more than just scientific enlightenment. Once we measure gravity, understand how it works and why, then we can begin to work with it ourselves. Understanding opens many more avenues to us. So too, I think, can philosophy.

Philosophy is not so much an explanation of how we live and interact, but why. It becomes more than a dry abstraction when it moves into how we might live. It’s a search for enlightenment.

For every philosopher there is a different philosophy, though many take from their predecessors and build upon it. Each has their own perspective, in part due to their education, their cultural inheritance, their teachers, their passions, the tenor of the times.

Marx is one of the more contentious, and influential figures in history. He certainly couldn’t be accused of sitting quietly in a room thinking. His was a kind of economic philosophy that led directly into social philosophy, and consequently, the rights of the ‘proletariat’. His was a philosophy that demanded action as outcome, which chickens came home to roost (and have been crowing since) at later times in different places.

There’s much to admire in Marx and Engels.  Smart cookies both and extremely erudite, much of what they struggled for then seems pretty tame these days, such has society advanced (though almost in contradiction to his predictions). Everyone has an opinion, especially when the outcomes have been so spectacularly historical. Marx is a bogeyman, and for much of the last hundred years communism, socialism and Marxism have either been rallying cries for social progress or descriptors for evil. That’s a big discussion with a lot of misinformation both ways. As a died in the wool western capitalist I’d have to suggest that most of it doesn’t really work, even when purely applied (which is to say, practically never). But then I’d also have to admit that there’s nothing inherently evil in communism et al, except that it seems to attract and propagate opportunist dictators or hard line fanatics. In either case the centralised state tends to the totalitarian, and much evil has been done. But I digress.

Getting back to pure philosophy I can agree and disagree with much of what the headline philosophers say – Hegel, Fichte, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard etc (Nietzsche is in his own box) – but the one philosopher I find myself most sympathetic to is Immanuel Kant. We live in a different time from his, 18th century Germany, there’s been a lot of history since and we’ve progressed far, and so we can come at understanding his concepts much easier now than we might have then. I think it’s valid to consider Freud and Jung and the like as philosophers, and it is their investigations which have helped open the door to philosophical understanding within the context of human psychology. Man may exist within the world, but he also exists within himself. Kant understood that, and Freud, Jung, as well as most philosophers, have expanded upon that since as pretty well the central principle of the discipline.

My reading confirmed one abiding disappointment in modern society. We don’t think about these things anymore. We live and consume. There’s no interest in understanding, the conversation and level of thought has been reduced to the tabloid. Indeed, intellectuality is actively frowned upon as being elitist in great sections of society. How destructive is that? This is one of my great beefs of the time. Man, I can live and do as much as society does, and at times I can do it in spades, yet intellectually, and perhaps philosophically, I feel out of step with all but a few.

It’s perhaps now more than ever that we need public intellectuals and philosophers to step forward to make sense of our world, to bring some order and understanding to how we have come to live. I wonder what some of the great intellectuals of the past would make of the world today with gen Y in the ascendancy?