Notes on Freud’s
Civilization and Its Discontents
The text was written in 1929 and published in 1930. The First World War was a defining
experience for Freud and his contemporaries. WWI was the first technologically
advanced war, with the use of tanks, poison gas, etc. Death became anonymous in the
trenches; mass killing took place for the first time in this war. This experience generated
a new sense of pessimism about the human being and human nature.
Freud represents a profoundly pessimistic point of view in this treatise. He transfers the
intra-psychic conflict (between ego and id; pleasure principle and reality principle;
unconscious and conscious mind; etc.) that he had analyzed in his psychoanalytical
writings over to the domain of human civilization.
Civilization itself comes to be
defined as a space of conflict
, or as an extension into the cultural community of the
tensions that stigmatize the individual psyche. In this sense Freud shares in a general
cultural pessimism, or anti-modernism, a kind of skepticism about the accomplishments
of civilization, that is typical of this period.
In 1927 Freud published
The Future of an Illusion
, in which he criticized organized
religion and religiosity in general as a mass delusion, a compensatory escape from the
realities of existence.
This text sets the stage for
insofar as it marks a first extension of a
psychoanalytic problematic into the general sphere of shared culture.
Freud also begins
by countering an objection to
Future of an Illusion
by his friend, the French writer and critic Romain Rolland. Rolland agrees with Freud
about the illusory nature of religion, but he maintains that humans share a common
feeling of innate religiosity. Rolland calls this an “oceanic” feeling in which the
individual feels bonded with the entire world and the whole human race. It is a sense of
oneness, boundlessness, limitlessness.
Freud acknowledges the existence of this “oceanic” feeling, but for him it does
not suggest an innate religiosity. Instead, he attempts to explain this feeling by
turning to psychoanalytic experience.
Boundlessness, oneness, a sense of union with the entire world, Freud identifies
. This is the stage which, according to Freud, all infants
go through immediately after birth until about the second or third year of life. In
this stage, the child is pure ego and does not yet distinguish between the
subjective self and an objective outside world.
This state of absolute (infantile) narcissism, in which the ego subsumes the world
in its entirety, is not broken until the infant realizes that it cannot satisfy its own
demands—it recognizes its reliance on others and an objective world on the basis
of lack or the experience of dissatisfaction. The world emerges as an “other,” as a
negative experience for the child: as the impossibility of satisfaction, a disruption