Harry Hope's Saloon

This blog takes it's name from the setting for O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh -- a lousy gin-mill; a smoked-out, greasy dive where the habitues have all landed, it seems, permanently. Their lives, in each case, are paralyzed by fear and laziness. Like my own.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Bloody Nuisance, Modern Evil

Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents is, I think, one of the staples of college survey courses on the literature of the "modern crisis" - that loose collection from the western cannon that is taken to chronicle man's complete alienation from ... well, everything, including himself. And college is in fact where I did happen to read this, one of Freud's last works. If someone were to ask me now to describe Discontents, to summarize what Frued has to say therein (which, honestly, pretty much never happens), I would probably think a few seconds and answer something like, "Well it's definitely a cultural critique, particularly of a technology-driven culture, in this nuclear and increasingly electronic and consumerist age, where our values are placed, or I should rather say misplaced, only on the so-called virtues of hard work and self-sacfrifice, in the vague name of progress. It's weird that so many of us toil so constantly, run so hard, after these perceived creature comforts that seem, when you think about it, especially designed to make our toil and running just more efficient - it only encourages us to toil still longer in pursuit of an even greater, and no less elusive, comfort. This dehumanizes us. I think this is what Freud was on about; many others, especially since Freud, have said pretty much the same thing .."

Yes, I really do tend to speak this way.

And at about this point in my discourse I would probably be hoping that my interlocuter might stop me, or better still, help me somehow, by picking up the weave of conversation and knitting their own observations into it. More likely though, they'd just kind of stare at me, and let my speech, inevitably, dissipate into a string of ever more disconnected generalities, frayed by frequent pauses.

See, I don't remember perfectly at all the thrust of Discontents, and this hypothetical courting is based on the one passage that has always remained with me. Here I reach for the old Norton volume I actually used in college, in which I have underlined:

One would like to ask: is there no positive gain in pleasure, no unequivocal increase in my feeling of happiness, if I can, as often as I please, hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away or if I can learn in the shortest possible time after a friend has reached his destination that he has come through the long and difficult voyage unharmed? Does it mean nothing that medicine has succeeded in enormously reducing infant mortality and the danger of infection for women in childbirth, and indeed in considerably lengthening the average life of a civilized man? And there is a long list that might be added to benefits of this kind which we owe to the much despised era of scientific and technical advances

Let me interrupt to point out - in case it needs to be: much despised because considered responsible during the industrial revolution for the displacement of families, for the removal of homes and hearths, for the ashen city streets and blackened landscapes around victorian-era Manchester, for Dickensian villains and mutated factory children, for tenements andrampant consumption (I mean, tuberculosis), for the peppered moth proof of natrual selection.

But here the voice of pessimistic criticism makes itself heard and warns us that most of these satisfactions follow the model of the "cheap enjoyment" extolled in the anecdote - the enjoyment obtained by putting a bare leg from under the bedclothes on a cold winter night and drawing it in again. If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice; if traveling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing infant mortality when it is precisely that reduction which imposes the greatest restraint on us in the begetting of children, so that, taken all round, we nevertheless rear no more children than in the old days before the reign of hygeine, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for our sexual life in marriage, and have probably worked against the beneifts of natural selection? And finally, what good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?

Well thank goodness for this, anyway: we have since engineered such techniques of birth-control as makes its exercise cheap and almost universally accessible - so that a little care allows us virtually to "beget children" as often as we please without begetting any we don't want.
so hooray for progress!

On the other hand, there is something to this cost-beneifts analysis of Freud's, and it is, a few antiquated variations aside, I think, a kind of timeless caveat. I think of that sequence in Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11. We see an actual television ad for some communications company. It seems they are working hard in Iraq to provide the telephone and computer link-ups for soldiers to keep in touch with their families. "Here at XYZ Corp, we're making sure our brave troops lose none of the experiences of being at home!" Or on a more quotidian level - I think of the evening recently when I watched three young ladies sitting at, but not sharing, a table in a pizza joint. Each of them spent the entire meal engaged in private conversations over their separate cell phones. Distance is stressed and warped. These gadgets make it easier for us to get away just so we can reach longinly back or something. Weird.


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