FREUD AND THE DEATH INSTINCT OF CIVILIZATION

The Nazi menace tears asunder the work and family of Sigmund Freud. Renowned Austrian psychoanalyst Freud near the end of his life during this time of Nazi persecution of Jews and non-Aryans considered incompatible with German civilization finally must face the mystery and horror of man’s Fate as an exterminator of his own species with an unmitigated destiny doomed by an aggressive will to power and sustained by a lust for the most powerful weapons of destruction. The confrontation of Western man with “the others” does not leave him unaffected nor does he escape untouched by this clash of traditions. On the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War literally at the end of his rope Freud is persuaded by his daughter Anna to abandon his precious library and flee the Nazi takeover of Vienna. He is, he declares, “a godless Jew” who painfully must forsake any role as prophet. Ultimately, and no less ironic to our story, Freud is saved from the death camps by Roosevelt and his intermediaries and escapes from Europe in the darkness on a night train and ship across the Channel to safety in England where soon thereafter in exile he dies safe and free.

Freud seriously ponders what kind of Europe his seven grandchildren would inherit. During the rise of fascism he dreads the lapse of freedom. “But who can foresee the prospects and the outcome?” The question begs to be answered by us all.

We learn how Freud dreads the repressive and brutal tyrants and faces the challenging questions of responsibility of moral choice living under conditions of fascism. His seminal work Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), – you see reader, we are precisely in our own most relevant time here, – should be perceived as a final testament to his investigation of the human conflict between Eros and Death. Remember Freud is the leading psychoanalyst in the West– he invented the practice! – to investigate myths and symbols in the “alien” worlds of the unconscious to grasp the dynamism of man’s destructive psyche “impelled by historical forces other than those which have shaped the history of Western world”. (M. Eliade, Myths Dreams, and Mysteries, 10)

My courage sinks to stand up before my fellow humans as a prophet,” Freud declares, “and I bow before their reproach that I do not know how to bring them consolation – for that is fundamentally what they all demand, the wildest revolutionaries no less passionately than the most conformist pious believers.” When Freud wrote this a maddening arms race and incessant drive of modern progress and technological innovation did not hold out much promise for the future. With less than a decade to live and with mankind now facing nearly insurmountable hurdles, he sighed, “Men have now gone so far in the mastery of natural forces that with their help they could easily exterminate one another to the last man. They know this, hence a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness, their mood of anxiety.” (Peter Gay, Freud: A Life For Our Time, NY: Norton, 1988, 551-2)

Freud harbored no illusions in the aspirations for the ideal New Proletarian Man (and Woman) construed by the Soviet Russia’s supreme Dictator and the Communist Party, vanguard of the working class and the protagonist of history. “I can recognize its psychological presupposition as an untenable illusion.” As he understood the predicament of civilized humanity when he argues that aggression “was not created by property”, and could not be controlled by it. Aggression, unfortunately, is a peculiar pleasure and man is not inclined to reject it. “They do not feel comfortable without it,”

Freud declares. A compulsion he describes as “the narcissism of small differences” appears to spur men to find certain pleasure in persecuting and torturing others. In another comment he reflects, “all the massacres of Jews in the Middle Ages were not enough to make that age more peaceful and more secure for their Christian comrades.” (P. Gay, Freud, 549)