In the 20th century, the horror that had haunted humanity throughout its dubious renaissance and shady enlightenment shifted from the dark heart of Africa to the heartlands of Europe. Prior to this cataclysmic awakening, civilised Europeans had zealously believed in the unstoppable march of progress. Human savagery had apparently been successfully tamed, outcast, exiled to history. It was kept at bay by an elaborate barricade of florid rhetoric, hyperbolic culture and dazzling rationality.
Freud’s immensely influential writings (which ironically gave birth to a feuding brood of new psychologies) perfectly embodied this illusion. Freud’s Id, ego and super-ego were nothing if not a construction, with the primordial Id serving as the subterranean foundation to the precarious edifice of humanity. It was a stratified model of the mind (as opposed to brain) which inadvertently supported the lofty ideals of human progress: the historic achievement of a highly evolved being. Europe played the super-ego with aplomb to Africa’s Id in this riveting psycho-drama. European art, from Romanticism to Surrealism, became an increasingly disingenuous attempt to tap into this rich source of vital, atavistic truth.
Freud’s model of the mind, which was as widely promulgated as the Ford T Model at one point, was graphically spatial in representation. It imbued the human mind with the illusion of depth. The Id was located, so to speak, beyond the civilised fortifications of the ego and super-ego: even the capitalised I of the Id was like a last-ditch attempt at imposing a cordon of civilisation on the untamed wilds of the unconscious.
But Freud was no fool. Like other pioneering explorers of the time who blindly ventured into unknown territory, his mapping of the mind was wildly inaccurate in fact but it resonated with a powerfully mythical quality. His work fused quasi-scientificity with biblical melodrama to create a bleak pathology of civilised humanity. It’s easy to dismiss his quackery in retrospect but it was seductively cogent at the time. Indeed, if we remove the vagaries of intellectual fashion from the equation, Freud is deserving of the utmost respect for his courageous attempts to systematically demystify the Pandora’s Box that was the typical European mind of his time.
Freud’s most precious legacy, however, is also one of his most ignored. While we can safely discard the bulk of his writings as historical curiosities, his crudely sketched notion of the death instinct is perhaps one of the greatest insights into humanity ever gleaned by its glory-seeking students.
Although he gamely tried to conceptualise the death instinct, Freud was surely wise enough to know that, ultimately, it could neither be explained psychologically nor pinpointed neurologically. And yet there it is, the proverbial ghost in the machine. Who among us can honestly say that they have not felt its presence, if only fleetingly?
In a movie I saw about the financial crisis of 2008, a character leans over the edge of the rooftop of a skyscraper. With a cigarette dangling from his mouth (that old accomplice to the death instinct), he muses: “The feeling people experience when they stand on the edge like this isn’t a fear of falling – it’s the fear that they might jump.”
A desire to lose oneself to oblivion isn’t merely a siren song to the suicidal: it betrays a fundamental characteristic of humanity. Self-consciousness is more burdensome than we care to admit: it is the true cross that each of has to bear. We are bound by language to narrate our way through life, through an abysmal ocean of time, against currents that pull us in every imaginable direction. Our thoughts, which we cannot rightly claim as our own, are all that keep us buoyant and give our helpless drifting the illusion of progress.
We always have a hypothetical (and physical) foot in the ever-receding future. We are waiting: for the end of the workday, for the weekend, for the next holiday. For the plane to land, for the train to come, for the traffic to start moving. For things to get better, for prices to come back down to earth, for the sky to finally fall in. We believe that we are autonomous and rational creatures but it is evident from even the most cursory inspection that we are not. We live forever after-the-fact on the crest of consciousness. We are merely the spume of our cerebral swell.
Time is the hardest burden to bear. We try to narrate it. We try to evade it. But time is not merely the pulse of our life: we are a conduit for it. We sense something of its unimaginable immensity – we are aware that our lives barely make a ripple in it. A force greater than anything we know, we reduce it to tidy little units of seconds, minutes and hours. We mechanize it, set our hearts by it. But one moment of real time can swallow our feeble selves whole.
The illusion of progress is integral to our (still Christian) conceptualisation of history. History unravels as a progressive timeline that presupposes an end-time: an end to suffering, misery and the captivity of subjectivity. Lines continuously warp into circles. No one seems to notice though. We push on. As though on really exists. As though history is a story to be told.
Christ offered a way out of time. That was why people flocked in vast numbers to his words and promises. But Christ got left behind by the history he invented, and people moved on to more immediate diversions and bolt-holes from time. Time nonetheless gathered momentum. History overtook itself. The future arrived prematurely.
The death instinct betrays the schism that language opened up like a gaping wound at the heart of humanity. Language, it is true, is a set of skeleton keys to the secrets of the universe. But these secrets start with ourselves. A healthily self-aware person must somehow accommodate an inevitable sense of self-disgust, self-disappointment and self-disillusionment with the self-love, self-belief and self-interest that are the bare necessities of life. This is no easy feat, especially when most people’s idea of selfhood is a rickety castle drawn from popular fairy tales.
Freud lived to see history ostensibly collapse in on itself. He lived to see a horror that was beyond most people’s darkest imagination: a premature ejaculation of apocalyptic over-excitement. And yet, as ever, history picked itself up, dusted itself down and went on. Because history is always perfectly of its time. Right up until it finally meets its end-time. The apocalypse has always been and will always be with us because it is a corollary of the death instinct. For many, it is desired as an impersonal deliverance from life: swift, wrathful and divine. While a great many others hanker after the post-apocalyptic life: they yearn to be liberated from the shackles of civilisation and to roam about the levelled landscape with a shotgun in one hand and a pocket guide to edible plants in the other.
It is always tempting to think that there is a sense of apocalypse in the air like never before. In an interview with The Guardian, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog said: “But when it comes to the end of the human race, there are certain suspects. Microbes can come and wipe us out. It can happen fast. Avian virus or mad cow disease, you name it. Microbes are really after us. Or a cataclysmic volcanic eruption which would darken the skies for 10 years – that’s gonna be real trouble. Or a meteorite hitting us, or something man-made. I don’t believe we’ll see a nuclear holocaust but there are quite a few scenarios out there. […] I’m talking about total extinction. We are not sustainable.”
Martin Rees, the renowned cosmologist, astrophysicist, Cambridge professor and former British Astronomer Royal, wrote a book entitled, A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future in This Century – on Earth and Beyond. Which pretty much says it all really. These are just two random examples that immediately spring to mind from numerous others. There are countless people, all with varying degrees of intelligence, who earnestly expect some shape or form of apocalypse to strike soon. My best friend’s wife, who is otherwise a relatively level-headed woman, is even stockpiling supplies for it. In her opinion, the final coup de grâce will be brought about by a shift in the Earth’s poles.
The longing for a dramatic end is a powerful momentum in human affairs – we might even say it is our Achilles heel (one of many). Humanity craves nothing more than a flatteringly dramatic end to its stories, especially its histories. Our tragedy derives from the fact that all our stories and histories have been flogged to death.
In 1949, Theodor Adorno presciently wrote: “The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter.” Idle chatter has indeed become the dominant discourse of our times, albeit one full of hatefulness, pettiness and ignorance.
Freud bemoaned the insalubrious effects of technology in a charmingly anachronistic passage from Civilisation and its Discontents: “Irreligion, discontent and covetousness have proliferated in broad sections of the population. The enormous expansion of communications, due to the worldwide telegraph and telephone networks, has entirely transformed the conditions of trade and commerce. Everything is done in haste, at fever pitch.” That was in 1929: one shudders to think what he have would made of the haste, fever pitch, discontent and covetousness of the early 21st century.
Every living thing, from squirming cells to lumbering mammals, struggles for its existence. We forget this in the mirror-world that we have created for our species. People live in puerile denial of disease, suffering and death. We have hypostasised happiness as a de facto state of mind. Unbelievable as it is, we are still striving to give history a happy ending.
Words spiral into conflict and unravel into epochs and taper into bridges and swell into cathedrals and stretch into towers and spurt into love and drip with disgust and heave with hate and pulse with tension and whir with invention and crackle with energy and burst with frustration and march in unison and sink in solitude and float in space and ooze with confusion and creak at night because they can never quite bespeak themselves.
Humans can be extraordinary beings. We have the spark of the divine and the drool of the bestial at the same time. But we fell for our own myths. Our downfall was foretold as soon as writing appeared on the (cave) wall. We forget that, above all, we are a host for nature. Humans are its mules, water-carriers and pioneers. We are its protean, able-bodied agents of colonisation. If people want to explore distant planets, it is because nature urges people on to explore distant planets. And if we are razing our own planet, it is because nature impels us to do so. We are 100% natural, after all.
It is a common mistake to place ourselves outside the jurisdiction of Nature. Everything we do is 100% natural. Every toxic chemical compound we invent, every seabed we drill for oil, every forest we fell, and every bomb we manufacture is, ultimately, an act of nature. I have no doubt that other species would behave in much the same way if they had the physiology and technology to enable them to do so.
Here is a conundrum that has always puzzled me: why does destruction seem so much easier than creation? Cities, hundreds of years in the making, can be levelled in a flash by war and earthquake. Ancient trees can be felled in the time it takes to say timber. Life forms that take millions of years to evolve are made extinct in a relative instant by human expansion. And, as for people, it only takes a rash word or action to ruin a reputation or destroy a life. Creation is painstaking, arduous and intricate. Destruction is swift, sudden and undiscerning. Perhaps it is because life goes against the cosmic tide. Life is an aberration; oblivion reigns supreme.
I desperately want to avoid thinking in grandiose terms and sweeping generalisations but it is hard when you are constantly caught up in the vortex of history. Thinking in weeks, alas, is one of my greatest weaknesses. Thinking in years, however, is tantamount to suicide. My friend the fridge is not a great conversationalist. It nervously rumbles and shouts, “The Russians are coming!” My friend the sofa is even worse company. It screams, “Stop oppressing me you devil!” My friend the table is a little more stable. It says, after months of balanced consideration, “I sometimes fear that our burden is too great to bear.” An air of tension prevails in my lonely home. Everything is restless and fidgety. Everything wants out. We sense the end is immanent. So we listlessly sit and wait. Sometimes an insect flies in through an open window and we quietly admire its beauty of form and singularity of purpose. Its harmless buzzing lulls us into a blissful stupor: a vegetable reverie of how things should be.