Civilization and Its Discontent : metaphor

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Nature metaphors

Nature may be beautiful, but for Freud, it is hostile to human life. The superior power of nature and the weakness of the human body is given as a reason for human suffering. Humans have constantly been modifying their environment to be comfortable and safe, but “We shall never completely master nature” (Chapt. III, p. 33). Freud describes primal man in an effort to understand the evolution of society. His description of primal man makes man appear as an animal in terms of instinct and behavior. He speaks of man's “animal ancestors,” (Chpt. III, p. 36) calling up the image of apes. He explains the formation of family in terms of the cycles of sex fitting into nature, and the smells of the body that excite the desire for sex. These physical and animal factors precede later, more complex psychological developments in human behavior. The use of fire by primal man is connected to the fire of his sex urge, which he learned to control, creating home and hearth. The invention of tools extended the organs and senses. Modern motor power makes humans a “prosthetic God” (Chpt. III, p. 39) by adding auxiliary organs. In godlike power, humans have tamed flooding rivers and created canals. Wild and dangerous animals have been killed, and vegetation cultivated. Freud paints a picture of how control of nature is a foundation of civilization. Order and cleanliness are traits of civilization that lead to the possibility of mental refinement. Finally, animal instinct is replaced by sublimation of instinct. The human turns from being an animal in nature to a civilized person. After describing the elaborate evolution of civilization, Freud concludes that civilization itself has led to even more suffering than nature and that we might be happier in primitive conditions. In some ways, civilization has been a mask for human brutality. Freud quotes the Roman Plautus that man is essentially a wolf to other men. Freud shows that wildness has never been tamed in human nature.


Family metaphors

Freud's whole psychology is built around the family drama, and family figures become metaphors for parts of the human psyche. What happens during growth from infancy to adulthood is accumulated in mind and body like strata of archaeological rock that can be read and deciphered. The first relationships in the family continue to fuel the psychological dynamics of the adult, though they may be unconscious.

The child's first love affairs are with parents. In the Oedipal complex, named for the Greek king who killed his father and married his mother, the boy sees the father as a rival for the love of the mother. He has a primal sex urge for the mother that must be sublimated in order for him to grow up and be socialized. His desire for aggression toward the father must also be tamed. An Electra complex describes a woman's rivalry with her mother for the love of her father. Father and mother thus become permanent fixations and major metaphors for psychic activity. An authority figure is always a father substitute. A woman can be a sex object to a man, but also a mother substitute. The desire to melt into a lover is described as the oceanic desire to be in the womb again, undifferentiated from the mother. Society is essentially a band of brothers who come together to kill the tyrannical father (authority) keeping them from fulfilling their desires.


History and civilization metaphors

Freud compares the development of the human psyche to a city. He chooses Rome for an example, saying that in modern Rome there are vestiges of earlier phases of the city—Roma Quadrata, a fenced settlement on the Palatine, then the Septimontium, settlements on the hills, also the later walls of the Emperor Aurelius, and the excavation of the Servian wall can be seen in modern Rome. Like this, the human psyche has a long past “in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one” (Chpt. 1, p. 17). Freud shows not only a symbolic comparison, but asserts that mind and civilization have gone through similar transformations, with analogous layers. It would seem to imply that civilization thus suits human nature, but later he shows that there are great differences, because the earlier or primitive contents are always there demanding satisfaction and disrupting the later additions. It is not as though the animal nature becomes transcended or evolved. The primitive and sophisticated exist side by side in every psyche. The drive of the individual to pursue his or her own path as well as to be part of civilization is compared to the planets in their orbits. Planets or individuals revolve around the sun (civilization), while also revolving on their own axis (individual life). In nature this is harmonious, but not in human civilization.

The father and mother are projected into the structures of civilization. The houses of cities are a substitute for the safety of the mother's womb. The father figure of God, in Judaism for instance, is so strong that even though Jews feel they are the chosen people and favorite children of God, they account for their misfortunes in history through the accusations of their prophets that they are paying for their sins. Guilt is a way to explain misfortune, and religion is a longing for the father who protects and forgives sin. Freud uses other historical figures and groups as metaphors for his points. The inherent violence of the human race is demonstrated through the examples of the invasions of the Huns and Mongols under Jenghis Khan, by the capture of Jerusalem by crusaders, and by World War I. Thus, all races and religions share the taint of aggression because it is part of human nature. 

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