mass culture and the age of anxiety in wasserstein’s barbarism and civilization

‘There is no document of civilization’, writes Walter Benjamin, ‘that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism.’


… Whether from the state or the market, pressures for cultural uniformity grew throughout European society. Contemplating this development with some distaste, the Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gasset defended an elitist, or, as he called it, ‘radically aristocratic’ version of liberalism against the celebration of vulgarity and elevation of mediocrity that he saw in the collectivisms of the age, Fascist and Marxist alike. In The Revolt of the Masses (1930), he lamented that ‘the mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated. . . .


The age of anxiety


The apparent breakdown of capitalism, the discrediting of bourgeois social norms, the challenges to Christian moral verities, large-scale refugee movements, the palpable failure of the system of international law based on the League of Nations, as well as the looming shadow of a new world war—all this fed a pervasive public mood of insecurity and lost bearings in the 1930s, what Auden called ‘the Age of Anxiety’.


One symptom of the emotional climate was a rise in the suicide rate, registered in much of the continent. It was highest in Hungary, which even had a special ‘suicide anthem’, the song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ (Szomoru Vasárnap), composed by Rezső Seress, who used to play it in the Kis Pipa restaurant in Budapest in the early 1930s. The song, which allegedly inspired several suicides, was banned on that account on many radio stations. (Seress killed himself in 1968.) Sigmund Freud is said to have regarded the song as a representation of his theory of the ‘Sonntagsneurose’.


Foremost interpreter of the sources of human neuroses, discoverer of the primacy of the unconscious in the determination of human behaviour, Freud enjoyed a fashionable reputation that was now at its peak. He had coined the term ‘psychoanalysis’ in 1895 and, in the decade before 1905, had published his pathbreaking works on hysteria, on the interpretation of dreams, on jokes and the unconscious, on the psychopathology of everyday life, and on infantile sexuality. But he initially encountered hostility from the medical establishment and it was not until 1920 that he was appointed a professor at the University of Vienna. In 1930 he was awarded the Goethe Prize for literature but his ideas remained controversial and were often fiercely contested. Yet his concepts of traumatic repression, of displacement, sublimation, and regression, and of the oedipus complex laid the basis not merely for a new therapy but for a revolution in human self-understanding.


By the 1930s psychology, although divided into warring schools, had become the modish social science of the period. Although fashionable as a treatment for many forms of mental illness, some hitherto unrecognized, as well as for generalized anxiety, psychoanalysis reached almost exclusively a narrow segment of upper bourgeois society in central and western Europe. The Bolsheviks opposed it and it made few inroads in the USSR. Under Nazism it fared little better, although many ‘Aryan’ psychoanalysts, headed by Carl Jung, tried to ingratiate themselves with the New Order. By the end of the 1930s the centre of gravity of the movement had shifted to the United States. The social and cultural impact of Freud’s ideas in Europe, however, was far-reaching, extending into social work, the social sciences, religious thought, the arts, and literature. Like Darwinism half a century earlier, Freudianism permeated the public mind and, in the process, was vulgarized, distorted, and misrepresented. Although primarily concerned with the individual, Freudian concepts were loosely applied to collective behaviour and to ‘mass-man’.


In Civilization and its Discontents (1930), Freud himself ventured into the territory of social psychology. ‘Civilization’, he maintained, was ‘built up on renunciation of instinctual gratifications’. The repression of sexuality had reached a high water mark in contemporary western civilization. ‘The standard which declares itself in these prohibitions,’ he wrote, ‘is that of a sexual life identical for all.’ As a result, the sexual life of civilized man was

‘seriously disabled’. The consequences of the inherent human tendency to aggression had led society to restrict sexuality and, further, by means of what he termed a ‘narcissism in respect of minor differences’, to channel hostility against other collectivities, such as Jews or neighbouring states. Given the sacrifices of both sexuality and aggressiveness that civilization demanded, it was hardly to be wondered that civilized man should be unhappy. The aggravated anxiety that seemed to afflict contemporary men, ‘their dejection, their mood of apprehension’, he attributed to the fact that ‘men have brought their powers of subduing the forces of nature to such pitch that by using them they could now very easily exterminate one another to the last man’. Freud was a pessimist who had no faith in the inherent goodness of man but even he could not know how soon, and with what wild abandon, Europeans would cast aside all civilizing inhibitions.


—from Bernard Wasserstein, Barbarism And Civilization: A History Of Europe In Our Time (2007)