The Fundamental Mistake of Civilized Life
by Jay Edson
In view of the evidence of history it would seem naive to question the dogma that is here being presented as the fundamental mistake of civilized life. Is not history, to quote James Joyce, the “Nightmare from which we are trying to awaken”? How are we to reconcile this fact with the idea that the essential nature of human beings is anything other than bestial and brutal, and in urgent need of being brought under the painful yoke of civilized restraint?
In his preface to “The Mass Psychology of Fascism,” Wilhelm Reich points out that “on the surface layer of his personality the average man is reserved, polite, compassionate, responsible, conscientious.” If this were the essential person, there would be no problem. The interpersonal sphere of life on all levels – from intimate contacts to large scale political arrangements – would be characterized by reasonableness, trust, kindness, and compromise. However, such is not the case. In reality we live in a world dominated by selfishness, deceit, exploitation, cruelty and war. One is forced to concede that beneath this surface level one can always discern a second level which, as Reich suggests, consists of “cruel, sadistic, lascivious, rapacious and envious impulses.” It is one this second level, then, that we find the true essence of human nature, right?
According the Reich, beneath this “secondary” level of human reality – which is in fact, cruel and sadistic – there is a more basic level which he calls the “biological core.” Of this biological core he says “under favorable social conditions, man is an essentially honest, industrious, cooperative, loving and, if motivated, rationally hating animal.” The anti-social aspects of human reality are, Reich believed, “a result of the repression of primary biologic urges.” The terminology that I will develop in this editorial is a bit different from Reich’s, probably because my metaphysics are a bit different from his. Also I am convinced that his notion of “full orgiastic potency” was narrow and simplistic, and that this ultimately led him down a number of blind alleys. Nevertheless, it seems to me that his fundamental intuition with regard to the origin of the anti-social, sadistic and untrustworthy aspects of human nature is exactly right. These “secondary” aspects of human nature do not reflect the essence of human reality but are the direct result of repression. Because the repression of the natural impulses of human beings has been endemic since the beginning of recorded history, and one presume for some time before then, history has indeed been a nightmare. To awaken from this nightmare will require a radical shift in our way of understanding who we are. One aspect of this new understanding has to do with the interplay between the psychological and the political levels of reality.
Depth psychology, whether Freudian, Jungian, Reichian, or of any other flavor, has been accused of being myth rather than science. This is not the place to debate the nature and limitations of scientific truth. Let us concede for the moment that in-depth descriptions of our inner realities always take on a mythological character. Perhaps the deepest truths of our inner experience can be expressed in no other way. It can also be admitted that the mythologies of the soul by which we bring our inner experience into language are always oversimplifications so some extent. Even so, without such mythologies we find ourselves lost in a confusing plethora of impulses and perceptions. So I would suggest that a mythology of the soul in which there are five primary characters might help clarify our situation. In this mythology we begin with the essential self – the exploring, growing, relationship seeking, loving self that comes into existence at birth. In the book “Schizoid Phenomena, Object Relations and the Self” the psychotherapist Harry Guntrip uses the term, “the libidinal self” to designate of this aspect of the person. It is his understanding that “libido,” the most basic desire-energy in human beings, strives not just for biological release and pleasure, but even more centrally for sustaining and loving relationships. Given this understanding of libido, it would be hard to improve upon his term.
The libidinal self is invariably frustrated by the reality s/he encounters. But an important distinction needs to be made here. It is inescapable, and even necessary, that external reality should frustrate us to some extent. Indeed, growth is dependent upon our effortful responses to such frustrations. But over and above the necessary level of frustration, the libidinal self invariably finds itself assaulted by a totalitarian social structure – mediated through the parents and other care-givers – that seeks to fully crush many aspects of its infantile motivational structure – of its “libido.” Notably sexuality and curiosity find themselves under attack and become saturated with shame. It is this surplus frustration that eventually separates the self from its libidinal mainsprings, and that leads to the creation of the sadomasochistic self – a self that is profoundly alienated from the libidinal self, but which still retains, as it were, at least a memory of the libidinal self.
The sadomasochistic self is the internalization of the conflict between the libidinal self and the social agents of repression – parents, teachers, and other authority figures. The sadomasochistic self is driven by eroticized images of this conflict – images of beatings, repressions and torture. Actually, what we are calling the sadomasochistic self is composed of two sub-personalities – the bad child who is being punished and the stern parental figure who does the punishing. In the jargon of depth psychology the internalized punisher is know as the “sadistic super-ego.” A person may identify with the one doing the torturing, with the one being tortured or with both. An illustration from the writing of Guntrip provides a good example:
One patient, a single woman in her early forties, in whom ‘the illness’ so seriously sabotaged her capacity to carry on normal relationships that it was only with great difficulty that she could keep a job, revealed this internal self-persecutory situation naïvely and without disguise. She would rave against girl children and in fantasy would describe how she would crush a girl child if she had one, and would then fall to punching herself (which perpetrated the beatings her mother gave her). One day I said to her, “You must feel terrified being hit like that.’ She stopped and stared and said, “I’m not being hit. I’m the one that’s doing the hitting.” Guntrip, pg. 191.
It is this level of the personality that tends to emerge when the shackles of society are removed. We see this most clearly in the “Lord of the Flies” movie in the beating of the naked boy that is overseen by Jack.
Although created by society, the sadomasochistic self feels the need to hide from others. Except in socially approved forms – such as war or in the tormenting of a scapegoated group in society – the sadomasochistic self acts in secret. Its existence is seldom admitted. What is presented to society is a “persona” – a mask that hides the underlying confusion, sadism and unfulfilled or secretly fulfilled lust. This mask is the “false self” – a compliant and often depressed marionette enacting a prescribed social role which is of little or no real interest to the person. This is the “reserved, polite, compassionate, responsible, and conscientious personality” of the average person of which Reich speaks. The false self is a harmless person – and easy to get along with – until someone puts a gun in his hand and tells him its OK to kill enemies, or until she votes for a Hitler or a George Bush and has him carry out the obscene and forbidden but exciting sadomasochistic fantasies in an Auschwitz or an Abu Ghraib, or just at one of the ordinary prisons in this country. Often the false self has forgotten even the memory of the essential self.
Perhaps the connection between the psychological and the political begins to become more clear. The child who has been repressed and broken by the original righteous authority figures that have been internalized, then seeks the love and approval of new representations of that same authority figure. That authority figure shows up as the vindictive, repressive and punishing Sky God who is to rule all of society, as the Fuhrer, as the President, or as any of the repressive authority figures one meets in the daily round of activities. The Fuhrer, however he or she might be embodied, is the fourth character in our drama.
But where has the rage gone? These authority figures, after all, are external representations of the internalized primary persecutor of the young child. But the rage and frustration that a person may have once felt against that authority figure has been re-directed toward an enemy. It is, after all, simply too painful to hate the most important adult figures in one’s life. This “enemy” – the eternal scapegoat – is the fifth major character in the sadomasochistic fantasy as it is enacted on the political level.
Together, these five characters – the essential self, the sadomasochistic self, the false self, the Fuhrer, and the scapegoat enact the continuing drama by which all human institutions – families, schools, places of business, armies, churches, and governments – are established on a totalitarian and fascist template. The sadomasochistic self is at the very heart of this drama. It is this aspect of the self that bridges the gap between the psychological and social, and that hold the entire nefarious process together.Several dramas can be scripted and enacted based on the characters we have described. Unfortunately most of these dramas turn out to be variations on a theme. At birth the essential self immediately begins to reach out for loving relationships – first with the mother, and then with an expanding circle of people in his or her immediate environment. In so far these people respond in a loving manner, most children will bond with them. But then, at some point, the child will show an interest in sex. S/he will be caught masturbating, looking at “dirty” pictures, engaging in sex play with a neighbor, running around naked in an “inappropriate” place, trying to sneak peeks at naked people, or whatever. This will typically be responded to in an aggressively negative manner. At times the response will be quite hysterical. Good children don’t do those things. They don’t even have those feelings. Indeed, they aren’t even curious about such matters. The attack on the child’s sexuality is almost always also an attack on his or her curiosity.
When the child goes to school the attack on any residual sexual expression continues, and the child is further weaned away from his or her natural curiosity. What will be learned is dictated by the adults – not by the child’s natural interests – not even by the child’s “innocent” natural interests. Learning itself become a chore and is pursued only for rewards that are extrinsic to the natural joy of discovery. In this way the alienation of the person from his or her essential self is deepened. The few who continue to rebel are diagnosed with socially constructed “disorders” and are medicated into submission. By the time a child is six or seven a rigid and sadistic super-ego has been internalized, and the child has learned to present an entirely false self to the adult world. Life is then, except in the few nooks and crannies where children manage to escape from adult supervision, unimaginably dull. For whatever reason, some children seem to adapt to this regime better than others. But for virtually all children the sadomasochistic self and the false self have become the dominant forces in the child’s life. The character structure needed by totalitarian social orders has been established. The above scenario helps us understand why “nice” people keep electing ruthless, cruel and repressive leaders to rule over them, and to deal with “enemies.” The false self is, remember, only a thin veneer. The false, complaint self wishes to escape the wrath of the sadistic super-ego, who is now embodied in the politicians, judges, teachers, preachers, police officers, and bosses of society. The same harsh super-ego is also embodied in a generalized form in public opinion. But the false compliant self does not wish only to escape the scorn and punishment of the sadistic super-ego. The false self has an insatiable appetite for witnessing “criminals” and “enemies” hunted down, humiliated, and punished – an appetite that is pandered to on a daily basis in newspapers and on TV. The criminals are people who who have helped themselves to some forbidden pleasure (drugs or sex mostly), who have defied the authorities, who have rebelled against the American Empire, or who have simply lost control of themselves in some interpersonal conflict. Those who display these eroticized violent enactments for public entertainment are the true pornographers in our society.
Although this article is not about therapy, it might be noted in passing that the healing process for people alienated from their essential selves by a totalitarian society must reverse the steps by which the alienation was achieved. This means in some symbolic or non-destructive manner the person must descend from the compliant false self to the sadomasochistic self, and only from there can the reality of the lost libidinal self be perceived.
Because we feel so oppressed by civilization as we know it, many of us find the writings of archo-anarchists quite appealing, and one must admit there is truth in much of their critique of civilization. Yet civilization has also brought us real benefits and has opened doors to new possibilities. It is not civilization in its entirety that is the problem. Rather it is specifically the repression of childhood wishes, desires and sensibilities – including but not limited to childhood sexuality – that is the source of the lion’s share of psychosocial and interpersonal suffering that is experienced by us, individually and collectively. This repression is justified by the assumption that the second level of human nature – the sadomasochistic level – is the essential level. It is not. The essential level – the lost heart of the self – is the libidinal self. In our essential self we want fulfillment of our biological needs and urges, including sexual/erotic ones, we want loving relationships with others, and we want to explore new ways of being in the world. The essential self is social from birth. It need not be broken as though it were a wild horse. The myth of the innocent child is an essential aspect of the mass psychology described by Reich – the one that naturally leads to fascism. By “innocent,” “asexual” is meant. We know as a matter of documented fact that children are not asexual. If one is not persuaded by his or her own memories, or by observing actual children, there are many studies that substantiate the point. No informed observer of child psychology believes children are asexual. And yet, amazingly, the myth persists. We hear it affirmed by people who purport to be protecting the child from harm. Yet affirming the asexuality of a child is not, in fact, a prelude to protecting the child. It is, rather, the prelude to an attack. If we deny the very existence of another person’s essential nature with the intention of preventing it from ever finding any self-chosen expression, are we not attacking the person?
In the United States it is common to define anyone under 18 as a child. It is actually illegal for anyone under 13 to have any kind of sex life at all. That is an astonishing state of affairs. But between 13 and 18 society continues to affirm the right to micromanage the person’s sex life. Then, when society releases the repression at the age of 18, is it reasonable to expect that the essential libidinal self will simply spring forth, unscathed by years of denial, shame, repression and punishment? The damage has already been done – at a much earlier age. What springs forth when the repression is removed looks a lot more like the chaotic and unintegrated sadomasochistic impulses that were depicted in the Lord of the Flies.
The “innocent” child is not the asexual child. The innocent child is the essential self before s/he has been twisted and mutilated almost beyond recognition by a society that lives in fear of our natural inclinations.
During the 60’s we almost had a sexual revolution. It was, as one might expect, accompanied by a great deal of confusion and chaos. Significant social shifts generally are. Nevertheless, things were headed in a positive direction. But this created a lot of anxiety in people. That also was understandable. Because of this anxiety, it was possible for those who feared sexual freedom to sound the alarm and basically turn back the sexual revolution. The large quantity and easy accessibility of adult pornography in conjunction with the most stringent control of child and adolescent sexuality imaginable, is creating an overwhelming degree of stress for young people. It is not clear at this point whether the sex-phobic aspects of society will succeed in putting the lid back on adult sexuality as they have for child and adolescent sexuality. But it is clear that putting the lid back on is not the direction in which society needs to go.
In the “Lord of the Flies,” Ralph – the primary advocate for civilized life – is saved by a officer of the English navy. Piggy, representing the scientific accomplishments of civilization, and Simon, representing the spiritual, have already been destroyed by the sadomasochistic forces that were released as a consequence of their being marooned. Clearly the order of civilization will be restored for the survivors. The lid will be put back on. But the vehicle of salvation is a war ship, and the boys will re-integrated into a world society which is engaged in a huge enactment of mutual slaughter. In fact they will be re-integrated back into a society that is always at war – in which the sadomasochistic impulses are always just beneath the surface, and indeed, in which such impulses are regularly channeled into socially acceptable forms of cruelty and violence.
Much of what one sees when repression is lifted is the product of the sadomasochistic imagination. It has to do with sex that has not been integrated into positive and mutually desired human relationships. These negative images are frightening. But it is not sufficient that we simply put the lid back on. We must begin to understand and eliminate the root causes which lead to this nightmare of “civilization” that we are enacting. This must begin with an understanding of the fundamental mistake of “civilized” life: the belief that we are born with impulses and desires that are dirty, intrinsically anti-social, and dangerous. We are born as sexual creatures and as creatures full of curiosity. That is true. But there is nothing dirty, guilty or impure about that. We become anti-social and dangerous to one another only through a process of “socialization” that seeks to crush our essential desires, inclinations and impulses and to replace them with motivational schemes more to the liking of the ruling elites. As we become aware that this sadomasochistic self is not the essential heart of who we are will become equipped to demand a new kind of social order
We can attempt to undo the negative effects of early repression in our own lives. This should enable us to become more accepting of who we are, freer in our relationships, and less violent in our attitudes. The patterns, however, are deeply ingrained. Most of us will be only partially successful. On a political level the most important thing is to raise our children free from the guilt, fear and repression that was forced upon us. To the extent we are able to do this we will have children who know what they want and what interests them, who are capable of choosing whatever loving relationships are most satisfying to them, and who have the capacity to enact scripts that they themselves author.