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Lecture 3:

Nietzsche, Freud and the Thrust Toward Modernism (2)


If the development of civilization has such a far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual and if it employs the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization -- possibly the whole of mankind -- have become "neurotic"? (Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930)

As a thinker, Nietzsche attacked the conventional opinions of his day because these opinions served as so many barriers to a fuller and richer human experience. He had no faith in social reform, he hated parliamentary government and universal suffrage. He hated liberals, conservatives, communists and socialists. He did not share in the vision of progress so characteristic of the western intellectual tradition for the past two hundred years. He condemned Christian morality. He mocked the liberal notion that man was inherently good. He hated Socrates!

What Nietzsche realized was that man must understand that life is not governed by rational principles. Life is full of cruelty, injustice, uncertainty and absurdity. There are no absolute standards of good and evil which can be demonstrated by human Reason. There is only naked man living alone in a godless and absurd world. Modern industrial, bourgeois society, according to Nietzsche, made man decadent and feeble because it made man a victim of the excessive development of the rational faculties at the expense of human will and instinct.

Against the tendencies of bourgeois society, Nietzsche stressed that man ought to recognize the dark and mysterious world of instinct -- the true life force. "Du sollst werden, der du bist," Nietzsche wrote. "You must become who you are." Excessive rationality, an over-reliance on Human Reason, does little more than smother the spontaneity necessary for creativity. For man to realize his potential, he must sever his dependence on reason and the intellect and instead, develop his instincts, drive and will. Christianity, with all its restrictions and demands to conform, crushes the human impulse to life. Christian morality must be obliterated because it is fit only for the weak and the slave.

Nietzsche said that the reason Christianity triumphed in the Roman world was that the lowest orders -- the meek and the mild -- wanted to inherit the earth from their aristocratic superiors. The lower orders were trying to strike back and subdue their superiors. They did this by condemning as evil those traits which they lacked: strength, power and the zest for life. Instead, the Christians made their own low and wretched lives the standard of all things to come. If you deviated from this standard, you were shackled with guilt. In his book, The Anti-Christ of 1888, Nietzsche wrote that:

Christianity has waged a war to the death against this higher type of man. . . . Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted, it has made an ideal out of opposition to the instinct of strong life. . . . Christianity is a revolt of everything that crawls along the ground directed against that which is elevated.

The philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century, attacked Christianity because it was contrary to human reason. Because they wanted to make Christianity more reasonable, they retained Christian ethics. Nietzsche attacked Christianity as well -- but he did so on the grounds that it gave man a sick soul. It was life-denying. It blocked the free and spontaneous exercise of human instinct and will. In short, Christianity extinguished the spark of life.

With the PARABLE OF THE MADMAN, Nietzsche has established that Christian morality is dead and we ourselves are responsible. There are no higher worlds, no morality derived from God or Nature because "God is dead." There are no natural rights and the idea of progress is a sham. All the old values and truths have lost their vitality and validity. Such an opinion is called nihilism. There are no moral values. Nietzsche said man could rise above nihilism. How could this be done? Well, first, one had to recognize the nihilism produced by everyday life. One had to become a nihilist. One could then rise above and go beyond nihilism by creating new values: man could then become his own master and be true to himself rather than to another. "Du sollst werden, der du bist." Man can overcome uniformity and mediocrity, he can overcome socialism, democracy, trade unionism, progress, enlightenment and all the other ills so consistent with western civilization.

According to Nietzsche, man could be saved by a new type of man, the "�bermensch," the Superman. These are the men who will not be held back by the hogwash of modern-mediocre-industrial-scientific-bourgeois-Christian civilization. The superman creates his own morality based on human instincts, drive and will. He affirms his existence not by saying, with the Christian, "thou shalt not." No. Against the Mosaic law, the new man shouts, "I will." The new man dares to be himself and as himself, traditional, Christian ideals of good and evil have no meaning and he recognizes them as such. His "will to power" means, for Nietzsche, that he has gone "beyond good and evil." The enhancement of the will to power brings supreme enjoyment. The Superman casts off all established values and because he is now free of all restraints, rules and codes of behavior imposed by civilization, he creates his own values. He lives his own life as one who takes, wants, strives, creates, struggles, seeks and dominates. He knows life as it is given to him is without meaning -- but he lives it laughingly, instinctively, fully, dangerously.

The influence of Nietzsche's philosophy today is difficult to assess. I can say that much of what he had to say has had some relevance for myself. While I would not call myself a Nietzschean, there is little doubt that his style of philosophy -- "philosophizing with a hammer" -- has had a direct impact on my own way of thinking. Even when he is downright wrong or incoherent, Nietzsche never fails to incite the mind to new levels of thought.

As an intellectual historian of the European mind, however, I think Nietzsche grasped one of the fundamental problems which faced the twentieth century. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Nietzsche saw only decay and decline. Such a statement, coming as it did in an era of progress, is enough to draw our attention to Nietzsche. With the death of God, a death quickened by the Scientific Revolution, middle class individualism, Marxism, Darwinism, positivism and materialism, traditional moral values have lost their value and meaning. In a world where nothing is true, anything goes. Nietzsche was a critic. Better yet, Nietzsche was a physician and his patient was western civilization. He had no concrete solution. His diagnosis was perhaps more astute than his proposed treatment. But what Nietzsche served to do was to further erode the rational foundations of western civilization. In this respect, he can be both blamed and congratulated.

Such ideas as Nietzsche developed, as Modris Eksteins clearly shows (The Rites of Spring), were bound to appeal to European intellectuals and artists who saw Nietzsche's philosophical ramblings as a means to liberate man's inner energy. In the last analysis, Nietzsche's philosophy was a philosophy of liberation.

Click here for Dostoevsky biographical details and linksLike Nietzsche, the Russian novelist FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY (1821-1881) attacked the fundamental world view of the Enlightenment, that great age of human reason. In all his novels, Dostoevsky viewed man as innately depraved, irrational and rebellious. In his novella, Notes From the Underground (1864), the narrator rebels against all plans or schemes for social improvement. He is critical of rationalists, liberals, positivists, humanists and socialists in their endeavor to improve the lot of mankind by fashioning a society based on abstract principles of human happiness. The Underground Man rebels against both science and reason. For the Underground Man, there are no absolute, universal or timeless truths to which all men ought to conform.

The world, for Dostoevsky, is a terrifying world of naked wills all engaged in conflict with one another. All men do not seek happiness, says Dostoevsky. There are some, like the Underground Man, who choose suffering because it gratifies them. These individuals are repelled by peace, wealth, security and happiness. They do not want to be robots in some sterile, positivist world in which everything fits into one box or another. For the Underground Man, by following irrational impulses and engaging in irrational acts, human beings assert their individuality. In essence, they prove that they are free. The man who is truly free defines his existence according to his own needs and not those needs or standards that have been culturally created by society. As the Underground Man admits, "the rational faculty is simply 1/20th of all my faculties of life; life is more than reasoning, more than simply extracting square roots."

Well, so far we have looked at two late nineteenth century thinkers: one a philosopher-poet, the other a philosopher-novelist. Both men struggled with the knowledge that human existence was replete with irrationality. Their approach was similar in that it was personal, emotive and immediate. It should be clear then, that Nietzsche and Dostoevsky had great disdain for excessive rationalizing -- in other words, they detested the scientific frame of mind to which Europeans had clung since the seventeenth century.

Brief Freud biography and Internet linksLike the philosophers of the 18th century Enlightenment, SIGMUND FREUD (1856-1939) identified civilization with Human Reason and regarded science as the sure path to knowledge. Freud was a child of the Enlightenment. But, unlike the philosophers of Reason, Freud concentrated on the power and influence of non-rational drives and impulses in human thought and behavior. In the 1840s, Karl Marx had argued that people believe they think freely. The truth, as Marx demonstrated, is that their ideas only reflect those ideas of the ruling class, the dominant ideology, and are therefore false. Marx called this "false consciousness." Freud also believed that our conscious thoughts are determined by something hidden: our unconscious impulses.

Nietzsche glorified the irrational as only a poet could. Freud, on the other hand, recognized the irrational as a potential danger. He wanted to understand it scientifically. He also wanted to regulate irrationality in the interest of human civilization as a whole. As he told one of his friends, irrationality was a "comprehensible object of science." Freud was convinced that man is not a rational being. Man's behavior, guided as it was by inner forces, was sometimes irrational. Within the mind there is mental activity that is independent of consciousness. This is the unconscious mind. For Freud, the implications of such a discovery were profound: it meant that man's actions are not always rational. And such an idea flew in the face of the ideals of the Enlightenment in no less a way than had Nietzsche's notion that "God is dead."

Freud did not discover the unconscious mind. The European Romantics of the late 18th and early 19th centuries had already utilized the unconscious mind as the focus of their artistic energies. So too had the ancient Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. Freud paid tribute to these thinkers and went on to describe Nietzsche as "a philosopher whose guesses and intuitions often agree in the most astonishing way with the laborious findings of psychoanalysis." But unlike Nietzsche, Freud was a man of scientific temper. His object of study and his entire life's work was destined to be the exploration of man's unconscious mind.

As a medical doctor Freud specialized in the treatment of nervous disorders or neuroses. He concluded that disordered thinking was the result of fears experienced in childhood. These neuroses take several forms but can be categorized as: hysteria, anxiety, depression and obsession. To treat neurotic behavior, Freud argued that these childhood experiences must be brought to the surface so that the patient could confront himself with them. Freud treated his patients in two ways. The first technique was free association: say whatever comes to mind. This is spontaneous and uninhibited and sometimes the patient would indeed reveal something hidden. The second method was the interpretation of dreams. Dreams reveal the secret wishes and sometimes perverse behavior (to Freud, of course). Because some memories are painful we lock them up. We unconsciously make them hidden and only the skilled psychoanalyst could bring them to the surface.

The "id" according to Freud, is the home of the instincts. The id constantly demands gratification and in this respect it is primitive and irrational. The id knows no values, only wants and desires. It has no awareness of good or evil. It demands sexual release and the termination of pain. When the id is denied, the individual is frustrated, angry and unhappy.

Freud argued that there was a conflict between our id or instinctual nature and the requirements of civilization. He developed this thesis in his short book of 1930, CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS. Influenced as he was by the horrors of WWI and its aftermath, the main theme of this book was developed before 1914. Man derives the highest pleasure from sexual fulfillment, says Freud, but unconstrained sexuality drains the individual of psychic energy needed for a creative and intellectual life. Hence, it was society, working through the family, the priest, the teacher and the police, who imposes rules and restricts our animal nature which, because it is animal, demands release. Such an existence is painful and so causes anxiety and frustration. But the violation of the rules of civilization also gives us guilt. Either way, we suffer torment and pain. Civilized life simply entails too much pain for people. It seemed, for Freud, that the price we pay for civilization is neuroses.

Not a very happy predicament! People are not good by nature, Freud argued. The individual is a creature whose instincts often provoke aggressiveness. The first inclination is not to love one another as brothers or sisters but to "satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him." Freud knew this by studying human neuroses and like Marx before him, by understanding that history is a story of conflict. Whereas Marx saw a dialectical conflict between social classes, Freud saw a dialectical conflict within the human mind itself. Civilization tries to combine individuals into families, races, peoples and nations -- into one great unity. "But man's natural aggressive instinct," wrote Freud, "the hostility of each against all and of all against each, opposes this program of civilization."

From what has been said you may think that Freud broke his faith with the Enlightenment. Not so. And the reason is clear: Freud did not celebrate nor did he glorify the irrational as did Nietzsche at the end of the nineteenth century. Civilization is a burden but people must bear it for the alternative is much worse. In this respect, Freud's social theory, if we can call it that, is pessimistic to the core. Civilization, because it consistently thwarts our most basic human needs, has made man into something in-human. We all suffer neuroses. Some individuals can cope with this behavior, others cannot. Those who fail to cope require therapy and for Freud this meant psychoanalysis. But what of those individuals who have learned to cope with their own neuroses -- how do they cope with this? Religion, art, drugs, alcohol, wanton sexuality, music, politics, crystals. All of these are little more than crutches, Freud tells us, because they divert us from our genuine role to become fully human.

At the same time as Nietzsche and Freud broke away from the Enlightenment tradition which specified that man was inherently good, artists and writers rebelled against traditional forms of artistic and literary expression. Their work created a great cultural revolution which we call modernism. Modernism can be characterized by the heightened awareness of the Self. It is intense introspection. For the modernist artist or writer, intellect had become a barrier to creativity and the expression of human emotion. Human reason, rather than man's liberator, had now fashioned itself as man's captor. The modernist artists abandoned all artistic traditions and literary conventions and began to experiment with new modes of expression. They destroyed history in order to create their own history.

Writers such as Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Marcel Proust (1871-1922), D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), James Joyce (1882-1941) and Franz Kafka (1883-1924) explored the inner, psychic life of the individual. Their novels, plays and poems dealt with the theme of modern man and woman -- men and women who reject the values of their own day. Their intense introspection forced them to come to grips with their anxiety caused by a guilt imposed by society, their awakened sexuality, their cravings for self-destruction and in general, their overwhelming feelings of isolation, drift, meaninglessness and alienation. (See Lecture 8 on modernism.)

For the modernist, there was no one reality. Reality was personal -- it was individual and therefore subjective. As a general rule, modernism was less concerned with reality than with how the artist or writer could transform reality. In this way, the artist made reality his own. Whereas the middle class industrial society of the nineteenth century valued reason, industry, thrift, organization, faith, norms and values, the modernists were fascinated by the bizarre, the mysterious, the surreal, the primitive and the formless. In a word, the modernist fashioned a world shaped by the Irrational. In this way, the modernist artist and writer reflected the concerns of a Dostoevsky, a Nietzsche and a Freud. A similar motif can be found in music. Around the turn of the century, composers began to experiment with atonality, dissonance and primitive rhythms. When Igor Stravinsky's (1882-1971) ballet The Rites of Spring was first performed in Paris in 1913, the audience rioted. The work had broken with all past conventions. It was too much to bear. Too much innovation, too quickly.

And, of course, the most tangible evidence of modernism -- or at least the one with which we are most familiar -- is in the world of art. The Impressionists, centered in Paris, broke with a tradition stretching back centuries. As one of them wrote: "Don't proceed according to rules and principles but paint what you observe and feel." Impressionist painters like Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Claude Monet (1840-1926), �douard Manet (1832-1883), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), tried to capture movement, color and light as it appeared to the mind at one specific moment. It is, in other words, the representation of a brief moment of time and space as perceived by the artist.

By 1900, artists attempted to penetrate the deep recesses of the unconscious mind. The unconscious was the true source of creativity and so these artists tried to portray their own mind in their art. In a way, they tried to visually represent what could not yet be given verbal expression. Cubists, like Picasso and Georges Braque (1882-1963), attempted to show the interplay between a one dimensional canvas and the three dimensional world of reality. One can only know the nature of an object by seeing it from many angles. So, cubist art presents objects from multiple points of view at one and the same time.

Of course, our discussion of modernism has barely scratched the surface. But, we can make a few general claims at this point. First, the modernists rejected the traditional view that the world was a rational and orderly place. Such a world view was first expressed during the Renaissance and had become a ruling idea, of sorts, right down through the nineteenth century. By breaking away from this tradition, the modernist artist opened up completely new possibilities as well as completely new problems associated with those possibilities. Second, modernism in art and literature is also a reflection of the growing power and appeal of the irrational side of human existence. With this in mind, modernism is part of the same European experience which produced Nietzsche and Freud. Third, Nietzsche and Freud did not "make" modernism. They did not coin the term. But, they were keen observers of their own age and each, in their own way, served as the physician of that great entity: western civilization. Their diagnosis was not good. Civilization seemed to be changing before the eyes of every European. Indeed, change was everywhere. But change had its price. "Disintegration characterizes this time, and thus uncertainty," wrote Nietzsche in 1884:

nothing stands firmly on its feet or on a hard faith in itself; one lives for tomorrow as the day after tomorrow is dubious. Everything on our way is slippery and dangerous, and the ice that still supports us has become thin: all of us feel the warm, uncanny breath of the thawing wind: where we still walk, soon no one will be able to walk.

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