Fromm on Spinoza, Marx and Freud, in relation to determinism vs. choice of alternatives and the nature of good and evil

Beginning on page 181 in Erich Fromm’s book The Heart of Man: Its Genius For Good and Evil (1964):

Hitler had a real possibility of winning the war—or at least, of not losing it so disastrously—if he had not treated the conquered populations with such brutality and cruelty, if he had not been so narcissistic as never to permit strategic retreat, etc. But there were no real possibilities outside of these alternatives. To hope, as he did, that he could give vent to his destructiveness toward the conquered populations, and satisfy his vanity and grandiosity by never retreating, and threaten all other capitalist powers by the scope of his own ambitions, and win the war—all this was not within the gamut of real possibilities.

The same holds true for our present situation: there is a strong inclination toward war, caused by the presence of nuclear weapons on all sides and by the mutual fear and suspicion thus engendered; there is idolatry of national sovereignty; a lack of objectivity and reason in foreign policy. On the other hand, there is the wish, among the majority of the populations in both blocs, to avoid the catastrophe of nuclear destruction; there is the voice of the rest of mankind, which insists that the big powers should not involve all others in their madness; there are social and technological factors which permit the use of peaceful solutions, and which open the way to a happy future for the human race. While we have these two sets of inclining factors, there are still two real possibilities between which man can choose: that of peace by ending the nuclear arms race and the cold war; or that of war by continuing the present policy. Both possibilities are real, even if one has greater weight than the other. There is still freedom of choice. But there is no possibility that we can go on with the arms race, and the cold war, and a paranoid hate mentality, and at the same time avoid nuclear destruction.

In October, 1962, it seemed as if the freedom of decision had already been lost, and that the catastrophe would occur against everybody’s will, except perhaps that of some mad death-lovers. On that occasion mankind was saved. An easing of tension followed in which negotiations and compromises were possible. The present time—1964—is probably the last time at which mankind will have the freedom to choose between life or destruction. If we do not go beyond superficial arrangements which symbolize good will but do not signify an insight into the given alternatives and their respective consequences, then our freedom of choice will have vanished. If mankind destroys itself it will not be because of the intrinsic wickedness of man’s heart; it will be because of his inability to wake up to the realistic alternatives and their consequences. The possibility of freedom lies precisely in recognizing which are the real possibilities between which we can choose, and which are the “unreal possibilities” that constitute our wishful thoughts whereby we seek to spare ourselves the unpleasant task of making a decision between alternatives that are real but unpopular (individually or socially). The unreal possibilities are, of course, no possibilities at all; they are pipe-dreams. But the unfortunate fact is that most of us, when confronted with the real alternatives and with the necessity of making a choice that requires insight and sacrifices, prefer to think that there are other possibilities that can be pursued; we thus blind ourselves to the fact that these unreal possibilities do not exist, and that their pursuit is a smoke-screen behind which fate makes its own decision. Living under the illusion that the non-possibilities will materialize, man is then surprised, indignant, hurt, when the choice is made for him and the unwanted catastrophe occurs. At that point he falls into the mistaken posture of accusing others, defending himself, and/or praying to God, when the only thing he should blame is his own lack of courage to face the issue, and his lack of reason in understanding it.

We conclude, then, that man’s actions are always caused by inclinations rooted in (usually unconscious) forces operating in his personality. If these forces have reached a certain intensity they may be so strong that they not only incline man but determine him—hence he has no freedom of choice. In those cases where contradictory inclinations effectively operate within the personality there is freedom of choice. This freedom is limited by the existing real possibilities. These real possibilities are determined by the total situation. Man’s freedom lies in his possibility to choose between the existing real possibilities (alternatives). Freedom in this sense can be defined not as “acting in the awareness of necessity” but as acting on the basis of the awareness of alternatives and their consequences. There is never indeterminism; there is sometimes determinism, and sometime alternativism based on the uniquely human phenomenon: awareness. To put it differently, every event is caused. But in the constellation previous to the event there may be several motivations which can become the cause of the next event. Which of these possible causes becomes an effective cause may depend on man’s awareness of the very moment of decision. In other words, nothing is uncaused, but not everything is determined (in the “hard” meaning of the word).

The view of determinism, indeterminism, and alternativism developed here essentially follows the thought of three thinkers: Spinoza, Marx, and Freud. All three are often called “determinists.” There are good reasons for doing so, the best being that they have said so themselves. Spinoza wrote: “In the mind there is no absolute or free will; but the mind is determined to wish this or that by a cause, which also has been determined by a cause, and this last by another cause and so on to infinity.” Spinoza explained the fact that we subjectively experience our will as free—which for Kant as for many other philosophers was the very proof of the freedom of our will—as the result of self-deception: we are aware of our desires but we are not aware of the motives of our desires. Hence we believe in the “freedom” of our desires. Freud also expressed a deterministic position; belief in psychic freedom and choice; he said indeterminism “is quite unscientific. . . . It must give way before the claims of a determinism which governs even mental life.” Marx also seems to be a determinist. He discovered laws of history which explain political events as results of class stratification and class struggles, and the latter as the result of the existing productive forces and their development. It seems that all three thinkers deny human freedom and see in man the instrument of forces which operate behind his back, and not only incline him but determine him to act as he does. In this sense, Marx would be a strict Hegelian for whom the awareness of the necessity is the maximum of freedom.

Not only have Spinoza, Marx, and Freud expressed themselves in terms which seem to qualify them as determinists; many of their pupils have also understood them in this way. This holds particularly true for Marx and Freud. Many “Marxists” have talked as if there were an unalterable course of history, that the future was determined by the past, that certain events had necessarily to happen. Many of Freud’s pupils have claimed the same point of view for Freud; they argue that Freud’s psychology is a scientific one, precisely because it can predict effects from foregoing causes.

But this interpretation of Spinoza, Marx, and Freud as determinists entirely leaves out the other aspect in the philosophy of the three thinkers. Why was it that the main work of the “determinist” Spinoza is a book on ethics? That Marx’s main intention was the socialist revolution, and that Freud’s main aim was a therapy which would cure the mentally sick person of his neurosis?

The answer to these three questions is simple enough. All three thinkers saw the degree to which man and society are inclined to act in a certain way, often to such a degree that the inclination becomes determination. But at the same time they were not only philosophers who wanted to explain and interpret; they were men who wanted to change and to transform. For Spinoza the task of man, his ethical aim, is precisely that of reducing determination and achieving the optimum freedom. Man can do this by self-awareness, by transforming passions, which blind and chain him, into actions (“active effects”), which permit him to act according to his real interest as a human being. “An emotion which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a distinct and clear picture thereof.” Freedom is not anything which is given to us, according to Spinoza; it is something which within certain limitations we can acquire by insight and by effort. We have the alternative to choose if we have fortitude and awareness. The conquest of freedom is difficult and that is why most of us fail. As Spinoza wrote at the end of the Ethic:

I have thus completed all I wished to set forth touching the mind’s power over the emotions and the mind’s freedom. Whence it appears how potent is the wise man and how much he surpasses the ignorant man who is driven only by his lusts. For the ignorant man who is not only distracted in various ways by external causes without ever gaining the true acquiescence of his spirit, but moreover lives, as it were, unwitting of himself, and of God, and of things, and as soon as he ceases to suffer [in Spinoza’s sense, to be passive], ceases also to be.

Whereas the wise man, in as far as he is regarded as such, is scarcely at all disturbed in spirit, but, being conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, by a certain eternal necessity, never ceases to be, but always possess true acquiescence of his spirit.

If the way which I have pointed out as leading to this result, seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered. Needs must it be hard, since it is so seldom found. How would it be possible, if salvation were ready to our hand, and could without great labour be found, that it should be by almost all men neglected? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.

Spinoza, the founder of modern psychology, who sees the factors which determine man, nevertheless writes an Ethic. He wanted to show how man can change from bondage to freedom. And his concept of “ethic” is precisely that of the conquest of freedom. This conquest is possible by reason, by adequate ideas, by awareness, but it is possible only if man makes the effort with more labor than most men are willing to make.

If Spinoza’s work is a treatise aiming at the “salvation” of the individual (salvation meaning the conquest of freedom by awareness and labor), Marx’s intent is also the salvation of the individual. But while Spinoza deals with individual irrationality, Marx extends the concept. He sees that the irrationality of the individual is caused by the irrationality of the society in which he lives, and that this irrationality itself is the result of the planlessness and the contradictions inherent in the economic and social reality. Marx’s aim, like Spinoza’s, is the free and independent man, but in order to achieve this freedom man must become aware of those forces which act behind his back and determine him. Emancipation is the result of awareness and effort. More specifically, Marx, believing that the working class was the historical agent for universal human liberation, believed that class-consciousness and struggle were the necessary conditions for man’s emancipation. Like Spinoza, Marx is a determinist in the sense of saying: If you remain blind and do not make the utmost efforts, you will lose your freedom. But he, like Spinoza, is not only a man who wants to interpret; he is a man who wants to change—hence his whole work is the attempt to teach man how to become free by awareness and effort. Marx never said, as is often assumed, that he predicted historical events which would necessarily occur. He was always an alternativist. Man can break the chains of necessity if he is aware of the forces operating behind his back, if he makes the tremendous effort to win his freedom. It was Rosa Luxemburg, one of the greatest interpreters of Marx, who formulated this alternativism thus: that in this century man has the alternative of choosing “between socialism and barbarism.”

Freud, the determinist, was also a man who wanted to transform: he wanted to change neurosis into health, to substitute the dominance of the Ego for that of the Id. What else is neurosis—of whatever kind—but man’s loss of freedom to act rationally? What else is mental health but man’s capacity to act according to his true interest? Freud, like Spinoza and Marx, saw to what degree man is determined. But Freud also recognized that the compulsion to act in certain irrational and thus destructive ways can be changed—by self-awareness and by efforts. Hence his work is the attempt to devise a method of curing neurosis by self-awareness, and the motto of his therapy is: “The truth shall make you free.”

Several main concepts are common to all three thinkers: (1) Man’s actions are determined by previous causes, but he can liberate himself from the power of these causes by awareness and effort. (2) Theory and practice cannot be separated. In order to achieve “salvation,” or freedom, one must know, one must have the right “theory.” But one cannot know unless one acts and struggles. It was precisely the great discovery of all three thinkers that theory and practice, interpretation and change are inseparable. (3) While they were determinists in the sense that man can lose the battle for independence and freedom, they were essentially alternativists: they taught that man can choose between certain ascertainable possibilities and that it depends on man which of these alternatives will occur; it depends on him as long as he has not yet lost his freedom. Thus Spinoza did not believe that every man would achieve salvation, Marx did not believe that socialism had to win, nor did Freud believe that every neurosis could be cured by his method. In fact, all three men were skeptics and simultaneously men of deep faith. For them freedom was more than acting in the awareness of necessity; it was man’s great chance to choose the good as against the evil—it was a chance of choosing between real possibilities on the basis of awareness and effort. Their position was neither determinism nor indeterminism; it was a position of realistic, critical humanism.18

This is also the basic position of Buddhism. The Buddha recognized the cause of human suffering—greed. He confronts man with the choice between the alternative of retaining his greed, suffering, and remaining chained to the wheel of rebirth, or of renouncing greed and thus ending suffering and rebirth. Man can choose between the two real possibilities: there is no other possibility available to him.

We have examined man’s heart, its inclination for good and evil. Have we reached the ground that is more solid than we were on when we raised some questions in the first chapter of the book?

Perhaps; at least it may be worthwhile to sum up the results of our inquiry.

1. Evilness is a specifically human phenomenon. It is the attempt to regress to the pre-human state, and to eliminate that which is specifically human: reason, love, freedom. Yet evilness is not only human, but tragic. Even if man regresses to the most archaic forms of experience, he can never cease being human; hence he can never be satisfied with evilness as a solution. The animal cannot be evil; it acts according to its built-in drives which essentially serve his interest for survival. Evilness is the attempt to transcend the realm of the human to the realm of the inhuman, yet it is profoundly human because man cannot become an animal as little as he can become “God.” Evil is man’s loss of himself in the tragic attempt to escape the burden of his humanity. And the potential of evil is all the greater because man is endowed with an imagination that enables him to imagine all the possibilities for evil and thus to desire and act on them, to feed his evil imagination.19 The idea of good and evil expressed here corresponds essentially to the one expressed by Spinoza. “In what follows, then,” he says, “I shall mean by ‘good’ that which we certainly know to be a means of approaching more nearly to the type of human nature which we have set before ourselves [model of human nature, as Spinoza also calls it]; by ‘bad’ that which we certainly know to be a hindrance to us in approaching the said type.” Logically, for Spinoza, “a horse would be as completely destroyed by being changed into a man, as by being changed into an insect.” Good consists of transforming our existence into an ever increasing approximation to our essence; evil into an ever increasing estrangement between existence and essence.

2. The degrees of evilness are at the same time the degrees of regression. The greatest evil is those strivings which are most directed against life; the love for death, the incestuous-symbiotic striving to return to the womb, to the soil, to the inorganic; the narcissistic self-immolation which makes man an enemy of life, precisely because he cannot leave the prison of his own ego. Living this way is living in “hell.”

3. There is lesser evil, according to the lesser degree of regression. There is lack of love, lack of reason, lack of interest, lack of courage.

4. Man is inclined to regress and to move forward; this is another way of saying he is inclined to good and to evil. If both inclinations are still in some balance he is free to choose between alternatives which in themselves are determined by the total situation in which he finds himself. If, however, his heart has hardened to such a degree that there is no longer a balance of inclinations he is no longer free to choose. In the chain of events that lead to the loss of freedom the last decision is usually one in which man can no longer choose freely; at the first decision he may be free to choose that which leads to the good, provided he is aware of the significance of his decision.

5. Man is responsible up to the point where he is free to choose for his own action. But responsibility is nothing but an ethical postulate, and often a rationalization for the authorities’ desire to punish him. Precisely because evil is human, because it is the potential of regression and the loss of our humanity, it is inside every one of us. The more we are aware of it, the less are we able to set ourselves up as judges of others.

6. Man’s heart can harden; it can become inhuman, yet never nonhuman. It always remains man’s heart. We all are determined by the fact that we have been born human, and hence by the never-ending task of having to make choices. We must choose the means together with the aims. We must not rely on anyone’s saving us, but be very aware of the fact that wrong choices make us incapable of saving ourselves.

Indeed, we must become aware in order to choose the good—but no awareness will help us if we have lost the capacity to be moved by the distress of another human being, by the friendly gaze of another person, by the song of a bird, by the greenness of grass. If man becomes indifferent to life there is no longer any hope that he can choose the good. Then, indeed, his heart will have so hardened that his “life” will be ended. If this should happen to the entire human race or to its most powerful members, then the life of mankind may be extinguished at the very moment of its greatest promise.

[Footnote 18: The position of alternativism described here is essentially that of the Hebrew Bible. God does not interfere in man’s history by changing his heart. He sends his messengers, the prophets, with a threefold mission: to show man certain goals, to show him the consequences of his choices, and to protest against the wrong decision. It is up to man to make his choice; nobody, not even God, can “save” him. The clearest expression of this principle is expressed in God’s answer to Samuel when the Hebrews wanted a king: “Now therefore hearken unto their voice; howbeit ye protest solemnly unto them, and show them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.” After Samuel has given them a drastic description of Oriental despotism, and the Hebrews still want a king, God says: “Hearken to their voice and make them a king” (I Sam. 8:9, 22). The same spirit of alternativism is expressed in the sentence: “I put before you today blessing and curse, life and death. And you chose life.” Man can choose. God cannot save him; all God can do is to confront him with the basic alternatives, life and death—and encourage him to choose life.]

[Footnote 19: It is interesting to note that the word for the good and evil impulse is Jezer, which in biblical Hebrew means “imaginings.”]

[Italicized emphases his; bold mine. Original footnotes included.]

Stopping on page 195 (end of book).

Since my internet went down for a few days, I used my spare time to do some transcribing, this being the first excerpt out of two completed.

On witch-hunts, hysteria, and modern psychiatry (an excerpt from the book “The Manufacture of Madness”)

Decided a few weeks ago to look through my books for information contained therein about “hysteria” or “histrionics” after recognizing the latter as an updated term loosely referencing the former which does indeed span back several centuries. Helps to keep in mind that one reason among many for why feminism originally sprang into existence had to do with combating that very label (hysteria) and the interventions used to “cure” witches (in this case, primarily women) of it.

Looking to Dr. Thomas Szasz’ book The Manufacture of Madness: A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement (1970), beginning on page 69:

Perhaps unintentionally and unwittingly, the new vocabulary of psychoanalysis was thus combined with the traditional vocabulary of psychiatry, generating a rhetoric of rejection of hitherto unparalleled popularity and power. The result was that everyone’s conduct—living or dead, primitive or modern, famous or infamous—became a fit subject for the psychopathologist’s scrutiny, explanation, and stigmatization.

To be sure, by adopting this approach, psychoanalysts threw fresh light on certain important similarities between dreams and mental symptoms, the behavior of primitive man and his civilized descendant, myth and madness. In these ways, the psychopathological perspective enriched and extended our understanding of human nature and personal conduct. There was, however, a serious danger in this approach, which soon manifested itself. Because the observers and interpreters were psychiatrists, and because there were impressed by a need to make psychopathological diagnoses, all kinds of human behavior tended to be perceived and described as manifestations of mental illness; and various personalities, historical and living, tended to be seen and diagnosed as mentally sick individuals. The view that witches were mentally ill persons is an integral part of this psychiatric perspective.

The possibility that some persons accused of witchcraft were “mentally ill” was entertained already during the witch-hunts, notably by Johann Weyer. In his dedication of De Praestigiis to Duke William of Cleves, Weyer writes: “To you, Prince, I dedicate the fruit of my thought . . . none so agrees with my own [view on witchcraft] as does yours, that witches can harm no one through the most malicious will or the ugliest exorcism, that rather their imagination—inflamed by demons in a way not understandable to us—and the torture of melancholy makes them only fancy that they have caused all sorts of evil.”

Is it a coincidence that the suggestion that witches are mentally deranged comes from a physician opposed to their persecution? Or is this hypothesis itself a weapon in the struggle against the witch-hunts? The evidence strongly suggests that it is the latter: that, in other words, madness is an excuse for wrongdoing (witchcraft), put forth by an authority (Weyer) on behalf of oppressors (inquisitors) deaf to all pleas but this one (insanity). Many contemporary psychiatrists openly profess this aim. Instead of protesting against the death penalty itself, they promote the concept of insanity as a “humanitarian” protection for defendants who, without the insanity defense, might be put to death.

This ostensibly lofty aspiration of saving the defendant from execution was the motive behind the important M’Naghten decision, in 1843. Known as the M’Naghten rule, this decision has ever since provided the medicolegal basis for the insanity plea, the insanity defense, and the insanity verdict. In modern psychiatric texts the insanity defense is thus invariably attributed to the “discoveries” of “scientific” psychiatry; and its recent burgeoning popularity, in this and other Western countries, to the long-overdue legislative and judicial appreciation of the supposed “contributions” of psychiatry to the administration of the criminal law. This view is completely at odds with the facts. More than three hundred years before M’Naghten, when there was no such thing as “modern medicine,” much less anything that could even remotely be called “psychiatry,” the insanity defense was an accepted plea in witch trials before the Spanish Inquisition.

“The insane were recognized as irresponsible,” writes Lea, “and were sent to hospitals. . . . In the enlightened view taken by the Inquisition regarding witchcraft, instructions of 1537 indicate a disposition to regard reputed witches as insane . . . Barcelona at the time had on hand a witch named Juanita Rosquells, whom the physicians and consultors considered to be out of her mind; not knowing what to do they referred to the Suprema, which ordered her discharge . . .” This outcome, however, was unusual. As a rule, persons declared insane were incarcerated in a monastery or hospital.

The physicians most responsible for classifying witches as mental patients were the celebrated French psychiatrists Pinel, Esquirol, and Charcot. They were the founders not only of the French school of psychiatry but of all of modern psychiatry as a positivistic-medical discipline. Their views dominated nineteenth-century medicine.

Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) believed that witches were mentally sick individuals, but he did not dwell on this subject. In his Treatise on Insanity (1801), he asserts, without discussion or demonstration, that “In a word, demoniacs of all description are to be classed either with maniacs or melancholics.” And he dismisses Weyer as a victim of the belief in witchcraft: “The credit attached to the impostures of demoniacal possessions in the writings of Wierus [Weyer] are not to be wondered at, when we consider that his works were published towards the middle of the seventeenth century, and bear as much reference to theology as to medicine. This author . . . appears to have been a great adept in the mysteries of exorcism.”

Jean Etienne-Dominique Esquirol (1772-1840), Pinel’s student and intellectual heir, did more than any other man to establish the view that witches were mentally deranged persons. The most influential psychiatrist of his age, Esquirol believed not only that witches and sorcerers were mentally ill but also that (all or most) criminals were similarly afflicted; and he advocated that lawbreakers be treated by incarceration in mental hospitals rather than prisons. Modern psychiatric historians and forensic psychiatrists have borrowed these ideas from him. “These conclusions,” writes Esquirol in 1838, “may appear strange today; some day, we hope, they will become popular truth. Where is the judge today who would condemn to the bonfire a deranged man or gypsy accused of magic sorcery? It has been a long time now that the magistrates have sent the sorcerer to an insane asylum; they no longer cause them to be punished as swindlers.”

Esquirol’s views on witches were widely accepted by nineteenth-century scholars. Thus, Lecky, his his classic History of European Morals, repeats Esquirol’s diagnoses as if they were self-evident truths. He characterizes witches as “decrepit in body and distracted in mind,” and attributes their frequent suicide to “fear and madness [which] combined in urging the victims to the deed.” Describing a victim of the Spanish Inquisition in 1359, Lecky writes: “The poor lunatic fell into the hands of the Archbishop of Toledo and was burnt alive.” Commenting on the witch mania and on “epidemics of purely insane suicide,” such as occurred sporadically in Europe between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, even Lecky blandly asserts that these problems “belong rather to the history of medicine than to that of morals.” Nothing, in my opinion, could be further from the truth.

In the hands of Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), witchcraft became a problem of “neuropathology.” In his obituary of his great teacher, Freud writes: “Charcot . . . drew copiously upon the surviving reports of witch trials and of possession, in order to show that the manifestations of the neurosis [hysteria] were the same in those days as they are now. He treated hysteria as just another topic in neuropathology . . .” Like Esquirol, Charcot took the witches as he found them defined by their tormentors, and proceeded to study their “neuropathology.” And so did Freud. In his hands, however, witchcraft becomes a problem of “psychopathology.”

In his obituary of Charcot, Freud proposes “the theory of a splitting of consciousness as a solution to the riddle of hysteria,” then reminds his readers that “by pronouncing possession by a demon to be the cause of hysterical phenomena, the Middle Ages in fact chose this solution; it would only have been a matter of exchanging the religious terminology of that dark and superstitious age for the scientific language of today.” This is an astonishing admission: Freud acknowledges that the psychoanalytic description of hysteria is but a semantic revision of the demonological one. He thus tries to legitimize his metaphors by claiming that they form a part of the language of science when, in fact, they do not.

The demonological conception of hysteria, and Charcot’s quasi-medical reinterpretation of it, made a profound impression on Freud. He returned repeatedly to this theme. “What would you say,” he asks Fliess, in a letter dated January 17, 1897, “. . . if I told you that the whole of my brand-new primal theory of hysteria was well-known and had been published a hundred times over—several centuries ago? Do you remember how I always said that the medieval theory of possession, held by the ecclesiastical courts, was identical with our theory of a foreign body and a splitting of consciousness? . . . incidentally, the cruelties make it possible to understand some symptoms of hysteria which have hitherto been obscure.”

We see Freud here taking the decisive leap into psychopathology: he accepts the officially identified patient as a patient and proceeds to examine her for symptoms. First, he lays proprietary claims on the psychopathological interpretation of possession developed by the French school of psychiatry; then, he proceeds to disregard the cruelties inflicted on the witches as indications of the human character of the persecutors, and of the social nature of the times, and interprets them instead as part of the symptoms exhibited by the “patients.”

Thirty years after publishing his obituary of Charcot, Freud returns to the similarities between the demonological theory of possession and the psychoanalytic theory of hysteria. “We need not be surprised,” he writes in his essay on “A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis,” “to find that that, wheras the neuroses of our own unpsychological modern days take on a hypochondrical aspect and appear disguised as organic illnesses, the neuroses of those early times emerge in demonological trappings. Several authors, foremost among them Charcot, have, as we know, identified the manifestations of hysteria in the portrayals of possession and ecstasy that have been preserved for us in the productions of art. . . . The demonological theory of those dark times has won in the end against all the somatic views of the period of ‘exact’ science. The states of possession correspond to our neuroses . . . In our eyes, our demons are bad and reprehensible wishes, derivatives of instinctual impulses that have been repudiated and repressed.”

Here Freud asserts that the cultural climate in which people live determines the overt symbolic form of the “neuroses” they develop; but he stops short of entertaining the possibility that they also determine which persons assume dominant roles as persecutors, and which are cast into submissive roles as victims. He thus shuts the door on a broader, cultural-historical perspective, not only on “mental illness,” but on psychiatry itself; and on the view that society not only shapes the symbolic forms of the madness it creates, but determines the very existence, direction, force, and output of this manufacturing process itself.

[Italicized emphases his; bold mine. Footnotes omitted.]

Stopping there on page 75 today.

“Mass culture is enlightenment in reverse gear.”

“Rick Roderick on Philosophy and Postmodern Culture,” this video being the 8th in the 8-part lecture series Philosophy and Human Values (1990).

I’ve come to adore listening to Rick Roderick’s explanations and speculations.

Becker’s take on Freud’s claims about childhood and sexuality — an excerpt from the book “The Denial of Death”

Picking back up on page 34 in Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death:

The Oedipal Project

Freud often tended to understand human motives in what can be called a “primitive” way. Sometimes so much so that when disciples like Rank and Ferenzci pulled away from him they accused him of simple-mindedness. The accusation is, of course, ludicrous, but there is something to it—probably what they were driving at: the doggedness with which Freud stuck to his stark sexual formulas. No matter how much he changed later in life, he always kept alive the letter of psychoanalytic dogma and fought against a watering-down of the motives he thought he uncovered. We will understand better why in a later chapter.

Take the Oedipus complex. In his early work Freud had said that this complex was the central dynamic in the psychic life. In his view, the boy child had innate drives of sexuality and he even wanted to possess his mother. At the same time, he knew that his father was his competitor, and he held in check a murderous aggressiveness toward him. The reason he held it in check was that he knew the father was physically stronger than he and that the result of an open fight would be the father’s victory and the castration of the son. Hence the horror of blood, of mutilation, of the female genitals that seemed to have been mutilated; they testified that castration was a fact.

Freud modified his views all through his life, but he never got a full distance away from them. No wonder: they kept being “confirmed” in some intimate way by the people he studied. There was indeed something about the anus and the genitals, the physicalness of the family, and its copulations that weighed on the psyche of neurotics like an age-old stone. Freud thought that such a heavy weight must date from time immemorial, from the first emergence of humans out of primate ancestors. He thought that the guilt we each feel deep down is connected with a primal crime of patricide and incest committed in the dim recesses of prehistory; so deep is guilt ingrained, so much is it confused with the body, with sex and excrement, and with the parents. Freud never abandoned his views because they were correct in their elemental suggestiveness about the human condition—but not quite in the sense that he thought, or rather, not in the framework which he offered. Today we realize that all the talk about blood and excrement, sex and guilt, is true not because of urges to patricide and incest and fears of actual physical castration, but because all these things reflect man’s horror of his own basic animal condition, a condition that he cannot—especially as a child—understand and a condition that—as an adult—he cannot accept. The guilt that he feels over bodily processes and urges is “pure” guilt: guilt as inhibition, as determinism, as smallness and boundness. It grows out of the constraint of the basic animal condition, the incomprehensible mystery of the body and the world.

Psychoanalysts have been preoccupied since the turn of the century with the experiences of childhood; but, strangely enough, it is only since “just yesterday” that we are able to put together a fairly complete and plausible commonsensical picture of why childhood is such a crucial period for man. We owe this picture to many people, including especially the neglected Rank, but it is Norman O. Brown who has summed it up more pointedly and definitively than anyone else, I think. As he argued in his own reorientation of Freud, the Oedipus complex is not the narrowly sexual problem of lust and competitiveness that Freud made out in his early work. Rather, the Oedipus complex is the Oedipal project, a project that sums up the basic problem of the child’s life: whether he will be a passive object of fate, an appendage of others, a plaything of the world or whether he will be an active center within himself—whether he will control his own destiny with his own powers or not. As Brown put it:

The Oedipal project is not, as Freud’s earlier formulations suggest, a natural love of the mother, but as his later writings recognize, a product of the conflict of ambivalence and an attempt to overcome that conflict by narcissistic inflation. The essence of the Oedipal complex is the project of becoming God—in Spinoza’s formula, causa sui. . . . By the same token, it plainly exhibits infantile narcissism perverted by the flight from death. . . .

If the child’s major task is a flight from helplessness and obliteration, then sexual matters are secondary and derivative, as Brown says:

Thus again it appears that the sexual organizations, pregenital and genital, do not correspond to the natural distribution of Eros in the human body: they represent a hypercathexis, a supercharge, of particular bodily functions and zones, a hypercathexis induced by the fantasies of human narcissism in flight from death.

Let us take these technical gems and spread them out a bit. The Oedipal project is the flight from passivity, from obliteration, from contingency: the child wants to conquer death by becoming the father of himself, the creator and sustainer of his own life. We saw in Chapter Two that the child has an idea of death by the age of three, but long before that he is already at work to fortify himself against vulnerability. This process begins naturally in the very earliest stages of the infant’s life—in what is called the “oral” stage. This is the stage before the child is fully differentiated from his mother in his own consciousness, before he is fully cognizant of his own body and its functions—or, as we say technically, before his body has become an object in his phenomenological field. The mother, at this time, represents literally the child’s life-world. During this period her efforts are directed to the gratification of the child’s wishes, to automatic relief of his tensions and pains. The child, then, at this time, is simply “full of himself,” an unflinchable manipulator and champion of his world. He lives suffused in his own omnipotence and magically controls everything he needs to feed that omnipotence. He has only to cry to get food and warmth, to point to demand the moon and get a delightful rattle in its place. No wonder we understand this period as characterized by “primary narcissism”: the child triumphantly controls his world by controlling the mother. His body is his narcissistic project, and he uses it to try to “swallow the world.” The “anal stage” is another way of talking about the period when the child begins to turn his attention to his own body as an object in his phenomenal field. He discovers it and seeks to control it. His narcissistic project then becomes the mastery and the possession of the world through self-control.

At each stage in the unfolding discovery of his world and the problems that it poses, the child is intent on shaping that world to his own aggrandizement. He has to keep the feeling that he has absolute power and control, and in order to do that he has to cultivate independence of some kind, the conviction that he is shaping his own life. That is why Brown, like Rank, could say that the Oedipal project is “inevitably self-generated in the child and is directed against the parents, irrespective of how the parents behave.” To put it paradoxically, “children toilet train themselves.” The profound meaning of this is that there is no “perfect” way to bring up a child, since he “brings himself up” by trying to shape himself into an absolute controller of his own destiny. As this aim is impossible, each character is, deeply and in some way, fantastically unreal, fundamentally imperfect. As Ferenczi so well summed it up: “Character is from the point of view of the psychoanalyst a sort of abnormality, a kind of mechanization of a particular way of reaction, rather similar to an obsessional symptom.”

The Castration Complex

In other words, the narcissistic project of self-creation, using the body as the primary base of operations, is doomed to failure. And the child finds it out: this is how we understand the power and meaning of what is called the “castration complex,” as Freud came to develop it in his later writings and as Rank and Brown have detailed it. In the newer understanding of the castration complex it is not the father’s threats that the child reacts to. As Brown so well says, the castration complex comes into being solely in confrontation with the mother. This phenomenon is very crucial, and we must linger a bit on how it happens.

It all centers on the fact that the mother monopolizes the child’s world; at first, she is his world. The child cannot survive without her, yet in order to get control of his own powers he has to get free of her. The mother thus represents two things to the child, and it helps us understand why the psychoanalysts have said that ambivalence characterizes the whole early growth period. On the one hand the mother is a pure source of pleasure and satisfaction, a secure power to lean on. She must appear as the goddess of beauty and goodness, victory and power; this is her “light” side, we might say, and it is blindly attractive. But on the other hand the child has to strain against this very dependency, or he loses the feeling that he has aegis over his own powers.  That is another way of saying that the mother, by representing secure biological dependence, is also a fundamental threat.

The child comes to perceive her as a threat, which is already the beginning of the castration complex in confrontation with her. The child observes that the mother’s body is different from the male’s—strikingly different. And this difference gradually comes to make him very uncomfortable. Freud never tried to ease the shock of the revelations of his theory, and he called this discomfort “horror at the mutilated creature,” the “castrated mother,” the sight of genitals “devoid of a penis.” Freud’s shock effect seemed to many people to partake of caricature. The horror in the child’s perceptions seemed too contrived, too pat, too much designed to fit into Freud’s own addiction to sexual explanations and biological reductionism. Others, too, saw Freud’s way of thinking as a reflection of his own ingrained patriarchy, his strong sense of masculine superiority, which made the woman seem naturally inferior if she lacked male appendages.

The fact is that the “horror of the mutilated creature” is contrived, but it is the child who contrives it. Psychoanalysts reported faithfully what their neurotic patients told them, even if they had to pry just the right words into their expressions. What troubles neurotics—as it troubles most people—is their own powerlessness; they must find something to set themselves against. If the mother represents biological dependence, then the dependence can be fought against by focusing it on the fact of sexual differentiation. If the child it to be truly causa sui, then he must aggressively defy the parents in some way, move beyond them and the threats and temptations they embody. The genitals are a small thing in the child’s perceptual world; hardly enough to be traumatic just because they lack protuberance. As Brown so well put it, the horror is the child’s “own invention; it is a tissue of fantasy inseperable from his own fantastic project of becoming father of himself (and, as fantasy, only remotely connected with actual sight of the female genitalia). Or, put another way, we can say that the child “fetishizes” the mother’s body as an object of global danger to himself. It is one way of cutting her down to size, depriving her of her primary place in creation. Using Erwin Straus’ formula, we would say that the child splits the mother’s genitals off from her totality as a love-object; they then come to be experienced as a threat, as decay.


The real threat of the mother comes to be connected with her sheer physicalness. Her genitals are used as a convenient focus for the child’s obsession with the problem of physicalness. If the mother is a goddess of light, she is also a witch of the dark. He sees her tie to the earth, her secret bodily processes that bind her to nature: the breast with its mysterious sticky milk, the menstrual odors and blood, the almost continual immersion of the productive mother in her corporeality, and not least—something the child is very sensitive to—the often neurotic and helpless character of this immersion. After the child gets hints about the mother’s having babies, sees them being nursed, gets a good look at the toiletful of menstrual blood that seems to leave the witch quite intact and unconcerned, there is no question about her immersion in stark body-meanings and body-fallibilities. The mother must exude determinism, and the child expresses his horror at this complete dependency on what is physically vulnerable. And so we understand not only the boy’s preference for masculinity but also the girl’s “penis-envy.” Both boys and girls succumb to the desire to flee the sex represented by the mother; they need little coaxing to identify with the father and his world. He seems more neutral physically, more cleanly powerful, less immersed in body determinisms; he seems more “symbolically free,” represents the vast world outside of the home, the social world with its organized triumphs over nature, the very escape from contingency that the child seeks.

[Author’s footnote: Penis-envy, then, arises from the fact that the mother’s genitals have been split off from her body as a focalization of the problem of decay and vulnerability. Bernard Brodsky remarks about his female patient: “Her concept of woman as fecal greatly stimulated her penis envy, since the lively erectile penis was the antonym of the dead, inert stool.” . . . Phyllis Greenacre—outstanding student of the child’s experiences—had already remarked on this same equation in the child’s perception: penis = movement, therefore life; feces = inertia, therefore death. . . . This makes penis-envy very natural. Greenacre even used the apt idea of “penis-awe” to refer to the spell that the large male appendage can cast in the child’s perceptions of the father. The child, after all, lives in a world of body-power predominantly—he doesn’t understand abstract or symbolic power. So, more body equals more life. A grown woman might well experience a lingering of the same feeling. An indentation and lack of protuberance, with all that goes on inside, is different from an aggressive extension that must give less of a feeling of vulnerability. . . .]

Just have to chime in to say that I laughed the first time I read this. The thought that an extension of this sort, along with the accompanying scrotum, might be associated with less vulnerability is rather odd when one stops to consider all the tales we’ve heard of these appendages being accidentally damaged, due largely to their external placement and position on the male body. I knew a guy once who somehow managed to get his nut slammed in a school locker, leading to it having to be surgically removed. Met one other man who lost a testicle in a horrible accident, though I no longer remember what happened in that story. Then there’s always stories of men landing on the dreaded bicycle bar, or the female lover who comes down wrong when riding a man from above, or the rudeness of pets who trample on men’s laps, or the spilling of hot liquids in such a sensitive place, etc. Anyway, the penis and balls don’t strike me personally as a symbol of invulnerability, at least no more so than the woman’s physique. Darn dangling fleshy bits are always getting in the way and winding up hurt, so far as I can tell, and men don’t tend to take it very well.

Quick TMI story: I have an early memory, probably from around the age of 5 or 6 though possibly younger, when I first noticed a male family member’s genitalia after walking in on him taking a bath. All I remember is laughing hysterically and pointing, thinking it was such a funny sight, before my Grandma removed me from the room. So yeah, the “awe” didn’t come along until much later.

Returning to Becker’s book, picking back up on page 40:

Both the boy and the girl turn away from the mother as a sort of automatic reflex of their own needs for growth and independence. But the “horror, terror, contempt” they feel is, as we said, part of their own fantastic perceptions of a situation they can’t stand. This situation is not only the biological dependency and physicalness represented by the mother, but also the terrible revelation of the problem of the child’s own body. The mother’s body not only reveals a sex that threatens vulnerability and dependency—it reveals much more: it presents the problem of two sexes and so confronts the child with the fact that his body is itself arbitrary. It is not so much that the child sees that neither sex is “complete” in itself or that he understands that the particularity of each sex is a limitation of potential, a cheating of living fulness in some ways—he can’t know these things or fully feel them. It is again not a sexual problem; it is more global, experienced as the curse of arbitrariness that the body represents. The child comes upon a world in which he could just as well have been born male or female, even dog, cat, or fish—for all that it seems to matter as regards power and control, capacity to withstand pain, annihilation, and death. The horror of sexual differentiation is a horror of “biological facts,” as Brown so well says. It is a fall out of illusion into sobering reality. It is a horror of assuming an immense new burden, the burden of the meaning of life and the body, of the fatality of one’s incompleteness, his helplessness, his finitude.

And this, finally is the hopeless terror of the castration complex that makes men tremble in their nightmares. It expresses the realization by the child that he is saddled with an impossible project; that the causa-sui pursuit on which he is launched cannot be achieved by body-sexual means, even by protesting a body different from the mother. The fortress of the body, the primary base for narcissistic operations against the world in order to insure one’s boundless powers, crumbles like sand. This is the tragic dethroning of the child, the ejection from paradise that the castration complex represents. Once he used any bodily zone or appendage for his Oedipal project of self-generation; now, the very genitals themselves mock his self-sufficiency.

This brings up the whole matter of why sexuality is such a universal problem. No one has written about the problem of sexuality better than Rank in his stunning essay on “Sexual Enlightenment.” As I am going to talk about it in some detail in Chapter Eight, there is no point in repeating that discussion here. But we can anticipate it by showing how sexuality is inseparable from our existential paradox, the dualism of human nature. The person is both a self and a body, and from the beginning there is the confusion about where “he” really “is”—in the symbolic inner self or in the physical body. Each phenomenological realm is different. The inner self represents the freedom of thought, imagination, and the infinite reach of symbolism. The body represents determinism and boundness. The child gradually learns that his freedom as a unique being is dragged back by the body and its appendages which dictate “what” he is. For this reason sexuality is as much a problem for the adult as for the child: the physical solution to the problem of who we are and why we have emerged on this planet is no help—in fact, it is a terrible threat. It doesn’t tell the person what he is deep down inside, what kind of distinctive gift he is to work upon the world. This is why it is so difficult to have sex without guilt: guilt is there because the body casts a shadow on the person’s inner freedom, his “real self” that—through the act of sex—is being forced into a standardized, mechanical, biological role. Even worse, the inner self is not even being called into consideration at all; the body takes over completely for the total person, and this kind of guilt makes the inner self shrink and threaten to disappear.

This is why a woman asks for assurance that the man wants “me” and not “only my body”; she is painfully conscious that her own distinctive inner personality can be dispensed with in the sexual act. If it is dispensed with, it doesn’t count. The fact is that the man usually does want only the body, and the woman’s total personality is reduced to a mere animal role. The existential paradox vanishes, and one has no distinctive humanity to protest. One creative way of coping with this is, of course, to allow it to happen and to go with it: what the psychoanalysts call “regression in the service of the ego.” The person becomes, for a time, merely his physical self and so absolves the painfulness of the existential paradox and the guilt that goes with sex. Love is one great key to this kind of sexuality because it allows the collapse of the individual into the animal dimension without fear and guilt, but instead with trust and assurance that his distinctive inner freedom will not be negated by an animal surrender.

[Bold emphasis mine — italics his.]

Okay, let’s leave off there on page 42.

Dualism within the human being, beginning soon after birth — an excerpt from Ernest Becker’s book “The Denial of Death”

Time for some transcribing this afternoon, this time turning to Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death (1973), starting on page 28:

In order to understand the weight of the dualism of the human condition, we have to know that the child can’t really handle either end of it. The most characteristic thing about him is that he is precocious or premature; his world piles up on him and he piles up on himself. He has right from the beginning an exquisite sensory system that rapidly develops to take in all the sensations of his world with an extreme finesse. Add to it the quick development of language and the sense of self and pile it all upon a helpless infant body trying vainly to grab the world correctly and safely. The result is ludicrous. The child is overwhelmed by experiences of the dualism of the self and the body from both areas, since he can be master of neither. He is not a confident social self, adept manipulator of symbolic categories of words, thoughts, names, or places,—or especially of time, that great mystery for him; he doesn’t even know what a clock is. Nor is he a functioning adult animal who can work and procreate, do the serious things he sees happening around him: he can’t “do like father” in any way. He is a prodigy in limbo. In both halves of his experiences he is dispossessed, yet impressions keep pouring in on him and sensations keep welling up within him, flooding his body. He has to make some kind of sense out of them, establish some kind of ascendency over them. Will it be thoughts over body, or body over thoughts? Not so easy. There can be no clearcut victory or straightforward solution of the existential dilemma he is in. It is his problem right from the beginning almost of his life, yet he is only a child to handle it. Children feel hounded by symbols they don’t understand the need of, verbal demands that seem picayune, and rules and codes that call them away from their pleasure in the straightforward expression of their natural energies. And when they try to master the body, pretend it isn’t there, act “like a little man,” the body suddenly overwhelms them, submerges them in vomit or excrement—and the child breaks down in desperate tears over his melted pretense at being a purely symbolic animal. Often the child deliberately soils himself or continues to wet the bed, to protest against the imposition of artificial symbolic rules: he seems to be saying that the body is his primary reality and that he wants to remain in the simpler physical Eden and not be thrown out into the world of “right and wrong.”

In this way we realize directly and poignantly that what we call the child’s character is a modus vivendi achieved after the most unequal struggle any animal has to go through; a struggle that the child can never really understand because he doesn’t know what is happening to him, why he is responding as he does, or what is really at stake in the battle. The victory in this kind of battle is truly Pyrrhic: character is a face that one sets to the world, but it hides an inner defeat. The child emerges with a name, a family, a playworld in a neighborhood, all clearly cut out for him. But his insides are full of nightmarish memories of impossible battles, terrifying anxieties of blood, pain, aloneness, darkness; mixed with limitless desires, sensations of unspeakable beauty, majesty, awe, mystery; and fantasies and hallucinations of mixtures between the two, the impossible attempt to compromise between bodies and symbols. We shall see in a few pages how sexuality enters in with its very definite focus, to further confuse and complicate the child’s world. To grow up at all is to conceal the mass of internal scar tissue that throbs in our dreams.

So we see that the two dimensions of human existence—the body and the self—can never be reconciled seamlessly, which explains the second half of Pascal’s reflection: “not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.” Here Pascal proves that great students of human nature could see behind the masks of men long before scientific psychoanalysis. They lacked clinical documentation but they saw that the coolest repression, the most convincing equanimity, or the warmest self-satisfaction were accomplished lies both toward the world and to oneself. With the clinical documentation of psychoanalytic thought, we got a fairly comprehensive picture of human character styles—what we can now call “styles of madness” after Pascal. We might say that psychoanalysis revealed to us the complex penalties of denying the truth of man’s condition, what we might call the costs of pretending not to be mad. If we had to offer the briefest explanation of all the evil that men have wreaked upon themselves and upon their world since the beginnings of time right up until tomorrow, it would be not in terms of man’s animal heredity, his instincts and his evolution: it would be simply in the toll that his pretense of sanity takes, as he tries to deny his true condition. But more of this vital idea later.

The Meaning of Anality

A sensitive thinker in the age of Freud has had to live a tortured intellectual life—at least this is an autobiographical reflection. There seems to be so much truth in the Freudian world view, and at the same time so much of it seems so wrong-headed. The ambiguities of Freud’s legacy were not in the wrong ideas that he had, since it has been relatively easy to lay these aside; the problem has been in his brilliantly true insights, which were stated in a way that they fell just to one side of reality; and we needed an immense amount of work and clarification in order to bring the two into line. Actually what was needed was a framework into which to fit the corpus of psychoanalytic insight, so that the truth of it could emerge clearly and unambiguously, free of the nineteenth-century reductionism, instinctivism, and biologism that Freud fettered it with. This framework is the existential one; reinterpretations of Freud within an existential context give his insights their full scientific stature. This goal was recently achieved brilliantly by Norman O. Brown in his reinterpretation of the idea of “anality” and its central role in psychoanalytic theory; probably the main value of that book historically is that it has reclaimed the most esoteric and inverted of the Freudian ideas and has made them the property of the human sciences.

I am tempted to quote lavishly from the analytic riches of Brown’s book, but there is no point in repeating what he has already written. Let us just observe that the basic key to the problem of anality is that it reflects the dualism of man’s condition—his self and his body. Anality and its problems arise in childhood because it is then that the child already makes the alarming discovery that his body is strange and fallible and has a definite ascendancy over him by its demands and needs. Try as he may to take the greatest flights of fancy, he must always come back to it. Strangest and most degrading of all is the discovery that the body has, located in the lower rear and out of sight, a hole from which stinking smells emerge and even more, a stinking substance—most disagreeable in everyone else and eventually even to the child himself.

At first the child is amused by his anus and feces […]. With anal play the child is already becoming a philosopher of the human condition. But like all philosophers he is still bound by it, and his main task in life becomes the denial of what the anus represents: that in fact, he is nothing but body so far as nature is concerned. Nature’s values are bodily values, human values are mental values, and though they take the loftiest flights they are built upon excrement, impossible without it, always brought back to it. As Montaigne put it, on the highest throne in the world man sits on his arse. Usually this epigram makes people laugh because it seems to reclaim the world from artificial pride and snobbery and to bring things back to egalitarian values. But if we push the observation even further and say men sit not only on their arse, but over a warm and fuming pile of their own excrement—the joke is no longer funny. The tragedy of man’s dualism, his ludicrous situation, becomes too real. The anus and its incomprehensible, repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death.

We now understand that what psychoanalysts have called “anality” or anal character traits are really forms of the universal protest against accident and death. Seen in this way a large part of the most esoteric psychoanalytic corpus of insights achieves a new vitality and meaningfulness. To say that someone is “anal” means that someone is trying extra-hard to protect himself against the accidents of life and danger of death, trying to use the symbols of culture as a sure means of triumph over natural mystery, trying to pass himself off as anything but an animal. When we comb the anthropological literature we find that men everywhere have been anal in some basic levels of their cultural strivings; and we find that primitives have often shown the most unashamed anality of all. They have been more innocent about what their real problem is, and they have not well disguised their disguise, so to speak, over the fallibilities of the human condition. We read that men of the Chagga tribe wear an anal plug all their lives, pretending to have sealed up the anus and not to need to defecate. An obvious triumph over mere physicalness. Or take the widespread practice of segregating women in special huts during menstruation and all the various taboos surrounding menstruation: it is obvious that man seeks to control the mysterious processes of nature as they manifest themselves within his own body. The body cannot be allowed to have the ascendancy over him.

Anality explains why men yearn for freedom from contradictions and ambiguities, why they like their symbols pure, their Truth with a capital “T.” On the other hand, when men really want to protest against artificialities, when they rebel against the symbolism of culture, they fall back on the physical. They call thoughts down to earth, mannerisms back to basic chemistry. A perfect example of this was in the recent “anal” film Brewster McCloud, where speeches, official badges, and shiny manufactured surfaces were pummeled from the sky with obliterating excrement. The message was one that the modern filmmakers are making with great daring: calling the world back from hypocrisy by stressing basic things about life and the body. Stanley Kubrick jarred audiences when he showed in 2001 how man stepped out into space like an ape dancing to schmaltzy Strauss waltz music; and again in A Clockwork Orange he showed how naturally and satisfyingly a man can murder and rape in tune with the heroic transcendence of Beethoven’s Ninth.

The upsetting thing about anality is that it reveals that all culture, all man’s creative life-ways, are in some basic part of them a fabricated protest against natural reality, a denial of the truth of the human condition, and an attempt to forget the pathetic creature that man is. One of the most stunning parts of Brown’s study was his presentation of anality in Jonathan Swift. The ultimate horror for Swift was the fact that the sublime, the beautiful, and the divine are inextricable from basic animal functions. In the head of the adoring male is the illusion that sublime beauty “is all head and wings, with no bottom to betray” it. In one of Swift’s poems a young man explains the grotesque contradiction that is tearing him apart:

Nor wonder how I lost my Wits;
Oh! Caelia, Caelia, Caelia shits!

In other words, in Swift’s mind there was an absolute contradiction “between the state of being in love and an awareness of the excremental function of the beloved.”

Erwin Straus, in his brilliant monograph on obsession, similarly earlier showed how repulsed Swift was by the animality of the body, by its dirt and decay. Straus pronounced a more clinical judgment on Swift’s disgust, seeing it as part of the typical obsessive’s worldview: “For all obsessives sex is severed from unification and procreation. . . . Through the . . . isolation of the genitals from the whole of the body, sexual functions are experienced as excretions and as decay.” This degree of fragmentation is extreme, but we all see the world through obsessive eyes at least part of the time and to some degree; and as Freud said, not only neurotics take exception to the fact that “we are born between urine and faeces.” In this horror of the incongruity of man Swift the poet gives more tormented voice to the dilemma that haunts us all, and it is worth summing it up one final time: Excreting is the curse that threatens madness because it shows man his abject finitude, his physicalness, the likely unreality of his hopes and dreams. But even more immediately, it represents man’s utter bafflement at the sheer non-sense of creation: to fashion the sublime miracle of the human face, the mysterium tremendum of radiant feminine beauty, the veritable goddesses that beautiful women are; to bring this out of nothing, out of the void, and make it shine in noonday; to take such a miracle and put miracles again within it, deep in the mystery of eyes that peer out—the eye that gave even the dry Darwin a chill: to do all this, and to combine it with an anus that shits! It is too much. Nature mocks us, and poets live in torture.

[Bold emphases mine]

We’ll stop there on page 34. The topic of the anal character and all that goes along with it is a rather odd and funny subject to me. Maybe growing up I didn’t thoroughly internalize some of these notions of cleanliness and the separation of animal functions from human ideals, and to be quite honest such complexes strike me as a fixation within bourgeois culture, as opposed to peasant culture, despite recognizing its emergence within many tribal cultures as well. Much of the literature produced and studied are products of learned persons belonging to classes above the common riffraff, so it is their ideas that wind up passing forward while unrecorded common experiences of the many are lost to antiquity. The reason I feel this way has a lot to do with what I was raised around and how people of lower class standing spoke so much more openly about bodily functions, even if they strove to project a civilized air in their own ways. In my experience, it is those striving to be the most civilized among us who concern themselves to such a great extent with compartmentalizing their animal natures separate from their human ideals. The key word here being “civilized,” a notion I ponder frequently.

But, that aside, such talk also forces me to reflect on the double-standards commonly held when it comes to assessing the character and value of women. It’s forever troubled me how common it is to expect, on one hand, for women to present ourselves as if untouched by the nastier sides of our animal natures when it comes to defecating and other bodily matters, as well as full expression of our sexuality; yet, on the other hand, we’re categorically deemed closer to animals than men, argued as evidenced by a lack of control over our emotions and, some would argue, a lesser inclination toward intellectual pursuits. The real problem with this schizoid set of expectations is it’s created the notion of woman as doll — pretty to look at, smell and touch, best to be controlled externally because we seem unable to “properly” control ourselves, while deemed morally above following our lusts in the same manner men often do. And when we fail at the role of doll or some similar ideal, we’re cast down into the designation of boorish tramp. To be viewed as civilized as a woman requires nearly complete negation of our animal natures, instincts (aside from the motherly instincts that continue to be valued) and drives to an even greater extent than that expected among supposedly properly civilized males. Which leads me to wonder if this “anal” fixation and the need to categorize, separate off, and compartmentalize isn’t, at bottom, more of a male preoccupation that was foisted upon womankind over time. Pure speculation there and nothing more, but it’s something I wonder about sometimes.

“The Century of the Self”

This film is one of my personal favorites, offered by the BBC and titled “The Century of the Self”:


Key name to take away from this video: Edward Bernays, the grandfather of American public relations (a.k.a. propaganda) and nephew of Sigmund Freud. Very important information there that tells us so much about the last American century and how we as a people have wound up where we now sit.