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The prior post in this series may be found here. 

Rieff, pp. 23-27

There are two interrelated issues which run through this section of his discussion of Freud. The two issues are not unrelated, but they are also not coterminous. One issue concerns the function of culture vis-à-vis impulse (the inherent desires of the human being). These two, the Superego and Id, are in conflict with one-another.

In wildly simplified terms, the ego is the negotiation and expression of this conflict. Freud’s work was to make plain the nature of this conflict and allow the individual who had obtained “maturity” (Rieff’s term) was to become aware of this conflict and to set the relationship between the two oneself: “Maturity, according to Freud, lay in the trained capacity to keep the negotiations from breaking down.” (24)

There is a related issue concerning, culture, religion and the superego. The superego functions as the cultural representative. The requirements and limitations of the culture become effective in the individual. The tools developed by Freud permit the individual to keep these tools at a distance.

It is for this reason, the “modern intellectuals” (26) find Freud appealing. His tools provide one a way to read and thence to disarm the culture’s effect upon the individual. Although not discussed here, this explains why Freud was so valuable in the literature departments in cultural criticism because his critique – even if not considered scientifically valid as a psychology – was practically valuable as a means of putting cultural limits at bay.

Essentially, one could critique moral standards as merely archaic residue of an earlier commonly held superego.

Concept of culture is tightly related to the concept of religion in this thinking. Adherence to cultural understanding permitted one to have “meaning.” But Freudian analysis sidesteps this issue and simply does not permit the question of “meaning” to arise. Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless. This is the religious question.

Freud held that to ask the question concerning “the meaning and value of life he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence.” (27)