Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Narcissism and the Pathologies of Civilization

Echoing the sentiments of the philosopher Aristotle, Freud says that it is impossible to reach a state of complete happiness. One would have to be a god, Aristotle said, to live a fully contemplative and thus happy life. Happiness, in the Freudian/hedonist sense of maximizing pleasure and minimizing displeasure, is the ultimate goal—“that towards which every good aims,” we could say. Yet this principle is at “loggerheads” with the whole world. The individual’s subconscious strategy is to believe that he is happy, and in the potentialities—or expectations (p.34)—of his happiness, while in fact his belief in the attainability of happiness is futile. There is no possibility that this should be carried through except for the occasional, “episodic” paroxysms of something best understood in terms of psychoanalysis.

Throughout Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud offers us several possibilities as to the problem of happiness, that is, the problem of its unattainability. If we are to be good hedonists, as Freud assumes us to be, we should consider this problem as having something to do with the “economics of the individual’s libido”. To say that this is an economic problem is to say there are “opportunity costs” involved, and that put simply, we have to choose among various competing uses of our time and energy. Freud clearly outlines the sources of the pleasures, and contrasts them with the displeasures and its mitigating factors. Such clear choices should make it fairly easy to choose among competing uses, and yet Freud does not carry his own argument to a logical end. We must choose that which maximizes pleasures and mitigates displeasures, which according to Freud’s program, the unexpected answer is the life of the narcissist.

One of the central theses of Freud’s book is that what we call civilization is in fact “the greatest source of our miseries.” It appears that at this point in the argument the most rational hedonistic activities would include giving up the program of civilization and returning to more primitive conditions. “I call this astonishing,” Freud says, “because in whatever way we may define the concept of civilization, it is a certain fact that all the things with which we seek to protect ourselves against the threats that emanate from the sources of suffering are part of that very civilization.”

What are the sources of suffering? Freud outlines three directions from which we are under attack: bodily decay, natural evil, and “our relations to other men.” Although most assume that relations with other people is in fact a great boon to the problem of their loneliness, much like a Robinson Crusoe character Freud says this is the greatest source of displeasure and pain. It is very important that the entire book Civilizations and Its Discontents is devoted to the category of “relations with other people” alone, because Freud wants to reconcile the happy man in an unhappy society. We should keep Crusoean attitude in mind for what Freud tells us next about the strategies of pursuing happiness.

On page 27 Freud categorizes strategies about the negative programs of the pleasure principle, that of avoiding displeasures. Some, he says, are extreme and some are more moderate. At this point he has no Aristotelian basis for choosing moderate forms over extreme forms, but he nonetheless continues: the readiest safeguard, we are told, is voluntary isolation. This is the path of turning away from the world and human communities in order to seek the “happiness of quietness.” We were told earlier that human relations are the greatest source of unhappiness, to which Freud replies that isolating oneself from human relations is not best answer. In fact, he says that a “better path” is that of becoming a member of the human community. The reasons Freud gives us are because of its progress with regards to science and art. The next line reads strikingly, “Then one is working with all and for the good of all,” to which our hedonists friend might reply that Freud is prescribing to us something paradoxical. Freud appears to be contradicting the hedonist’s pleasure principle calculus.

I want to dwell for a moment on this notion of paradoxical narcissism. According to Freud, narcissism is a pathological condition which occurs when the libido withdraws from objects outside of the self. Freud regarded all libidinous drives as fundamentally sexual and suggested that ego libido (libido directed inwards to the self) cannot always be clearly distinguished from object-libido (libido directed to persons or objects outside of ourselves). Freud further claimed that it is an extreme form of the narcissism that is part of all of us.

An individual’s internal struggles first result from the opposition between the unifying force of love, Eros, and the impulse to find release from the troubles of life through death, the Death-Instinct. Freud’s overarching vision of humankind is bleak: we are bound up in civilization, which is necessary for the survival and happiness of our species, but that same civilization appears to undermine our survival and happiness as individuals.

Each individual must identity the type of happiness most important to him as well as the capacity of his own mental constitution to experience happiness. Freud identifies three common types of men who have particular dominating dispositions and drives. This may be thought of as an objection to our narcissistically-bent hedonist friend. The erotic man, for example, finds his pleasures in the emotional interactions with other people. However, our hedonist responds, he is doomed to unhappiness because his interactions with other people will be the greatest source of his unhappiness. As Freud tells us, “It is that we are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly happy as when we have lost our loved object or its love.”

Another man, the man of action, will never give up the external world because he finds his pleasures in acting upon and expressing his talents within the world. However, our hedonist friend responds by saying the same thing he said to the erotic man. These are nothing but distractions, he says. Happiness, and its maximization, is in fact the purpose of life. By engaging in the world, your greatest source of unhappiness, the hedonist says, you are making yourself less happy than you would if you were inclined to be “self-sufficient” and seek your satisfaction in your “internal mental processes.” Adaptation to the external environment, Freud echoes Darwin, is a key part of maximizing pleasure. Perhaps if you are not naturally disposed to being internally and mentally self-sufficient, then you might adapt.

What gives the narcissistic man the advantage over the others? That the narcissistic man is by nature disposed towards avoiding the greatest source of unhappiness in man makes him better able to cope with the harshness of the world, and to avoid its greatest pains and sorrows. Freud devotes much of this work to elucidating that which only the narcissistic man is psychologically capable of doing. He contends that although the narcissist is better suited to his environment, his condition is nonetheless pathological. That Freud tells us that there are merely unfavorable constitutions that cannot be helped by individuals is not an objection to the superiority of our hedonist friend’s claim. One may not have the choice as to whether one is a man of action or a man of eroticism. Freud agrees that these dispositions are deterministic, and so, more happily at least, does our hedonist friend.

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