The famous conclusion of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents was that civilization is, by necessity, coterminous with repression–that, in a certain sense, civilization simply is repression. The theory contains a certain theoretical prior plausibility: civilization as such simply wouldn’t be if we all enacted what Frued believed to be the basic human desires: to engage in orgiastic pleasure and to kill. Indeed for Freud, the very reason, as he suggests in Totem and Taboo, that societies prop up rules against such activity is that they are our most basic instincts: we would have no necessity for them otherwise. The law, in fact, recapitulates the basic structure of the super-ego, a structure which circumscribes the id, the basic carnal instincts. Therefore, insofar as a a society’s level of civilization can be measured by its adherence to the rule of law, it must be to that extent, repressed–by definition.
Yet we are concerned here, in our attempt to place Jesus somewhere in the ancient agon between the philosophical and the poetic, to establish what these Freudian theories mean as regards power. Where in the Freudian forumla–civilization and repression–we might ask, does power fit in? The answer all but stares one in the face: just as civilization is coextensive with repression, so is civilization coextensive with power, and power with civilization–they are all, in the final analysis, presupposed in the other. Civilization is power, or to be precise, the power of some alien entity–the state, for example, or in the Freudian model the superego–to constrain–might we not say repress?–its anti-social instincts. The relationship between power and repression is just as straightforward, as even the language employed in disparate discourses of power point us in the same direction. If we take the term ‘political repression’ for example, we see here that political repression is repression in the truest (Freudian) sense of the word–a superegoic function: harmonization. Here we may begin to ask the question: why is it that philosophers are always fundamentally apologists of power.
In it precisely in this function–harmonization–that philosophy has deep, though often unacknowledged, political commitments, for insofar as harmonization is constitutive of the project of philosophy (I have in mind, the Platonic), it is already a repression, as we have earlier established. I find it no coincidence that the philosophers are, among all people, the most sexually-frustrated lot, and it would come as little surprise to me if philosophy were merely the sublimation of an internalized repressive function, an instinctual cathexis of sublimated sexual energies into cognitive ones, where unfulfilled sexual energies seeking release in a cathexis but unable to release sexually, must sublimate into the cognitive. Voila, philosophy! The annals of philosophical giants reads like the history of sexual deprivation, and my own suspicion is that this is not coincidental. Nietzsche, as a pre-Freudian psychologist, I think, most keenly sensed this, this unhealthy tendency in the ‘philosophical type’–he caught the scent of something evil in their ‘subaltern hatred.’ ‘How malicious philosophers can be!’ he wrote. Indeed.
Philosophy is everywhere filled with death, the death instinct, to be precise, what Freud never himself called ‘Thanatos.’ Philosophy is pervaded by Thanatos–and it is easy enough to sense this, as Nietzsche did, with the gut. The Holy Scriptures, however, couldn’t be more different. The very first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, is almost archetypally Erotic–in the sense of the Freudian Eros: it is suffused with creative and, to the extent that the creative is sexual, sexual energies–the reality principle and the libido. The all-too-human Yahweh, as the literary critic Harold Bloom points out, in a certain sense, simply is the reality principle–made nowhere clearer than in his wilful self-assertion: I am that I am.
Inasmuch as this can be asserted as true, the religious falls more clearly within the domain not of the philosophical (Thanatos) but of the poetic (Eros). If philosophy is sexual enervation, then the poetic is sexual vitality, perhaps even sexuality as such. The hyper-sexual Byron once described Keats’ poetry as a kind of mental masturbation, and the assertion confronts us as almost too obvious, for is not the poetic pen, through which is channeled his creativity, all too phallic? Its structure is phallic; its function is erotic (creative). Is not the poet poetically impotent without it? Byron’s suggestion that Keats’ poetry is, moreover, not simply sexual, but masturbatory, is prescient since literature is pure, gratuitous pleasure, the sort of pleasure which a writer like Flaubert makes a point of in Madame Bovary, or Nabokov in his critical writings. And perhaps this Erotic capacity of the poetic more precisely accounts for why poets are able to sustain what John Keats calls ‘Negative Capability’: “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…” In a certain sense, we might describe the philosophic as simply the neurotic absence of any such capacity, always forcing some confession some grave and serious justification for itself.
It is also in the foregoing analysis that we contrast between power and the poetic is heightened. Power is, with its chief apparatus (philosophy), a closing down on being–a repression, as we established earlier, by necessity. The poetic is, on the contrary, the extension and intensification of being. They–the philosophic and the poetic–move in ontologically diametric directions: the philosophic is repression; the poetic is expression. One is a closing down on being; the other, an opening up of it.
There is another basic structure which recapitulates the ontological difference between the poetic and the philosophical: the question of meaning, the general disposition of each toward the world, as a mode of being-in-the-world. Just as the philosophical is a closing down on being, it is a closing down on meaning. Just as the poetic is an opening up of being, it is an opening up of meaning. The similarity in the basic structures of the philosphic and the poetic in terms of both being and meaning, I think, are accounted for by the basic Freudian logic: Eros and Thanatos. In any case, the philosophic asks questions of the world and demands answers from it; the poetic, with its negative capability is able to ask questions of the world without any such obsessive grasping after an answer: rather than demand answers as the philosophic does, the poetic explores possibilities for meanings in the spaces opened up by these questions–and here is revealed the essential nature of the tragic. The tragic hinges on its relation to the question: whether or not it is able to answer the question.
to be continued…