boredom / happiness studies: adorno on the fetishism of suntanning & schopenhauer

An archetypal instance is the behaviour of those who grill themselves brown in the sun merely for the sake of a sun-tan, although dozing in the blazing sunshine is not at all enjoyable, might very possibly be physically unpleasant, and certainly impoverishes the mind. In the sun-tan, which can be quite fetching, the fetish character of the commodity lays claim to actual people; they themselves become fetishes. The idea that a girl is more erotically attractive because of her brown skin is probably only another rationalization. The sun-tan is an end in itself, of more importance than the boy-friend it was perhaps supposed to entice. 

Adorno on the evils of suntanning:

The act of dozing in the sun marks the culmination of a crucial element of free time under present conditions – boredom. The miracles which people expect from their holidays or from other special treats in their free time, are subject to endless spiteful ridicule, since even here they never get beyond the threshold of the eversame: distant places are no longer – as they still were for Baudelaire’s ennui – different places. The victim’s ridicule is automatically connected to the very mechanisms which victimize. At an early age Schopenhauer formulated a theory of boredom. True to his metaphysical pessimism he teaches that people either suffer from the unfulfilled desires of their blind will, or become bored as soon as these desires are satisfied. The theory well describes what becomes of people’s free time under the sort of conditions of heteronomy, and which in new German tends to be termed Fremdbestimmtheit  (external determination). In its cynicism Schopenhauer’s arrogant remark that mankind is the factory product of nature also captures something of what the totality of the commodity character actually makes man into. Angry cynicism still does more honour to human beings than solemn protestations about man’s irreducible essence. However, one should not hypostatize Schopenhauer’s doctrine as something of universal validity or even as an insight into the primal character of the human species. Boredom is a function of life which is lived under the compulsion to work, and under the strict division of labour. It need not be so. Whenever behaviour in spare time is truly autonomous, determined by free people for themselves, boredom rarely figures; it need not figure in activities which cater merely for the desire for pleasure, any more than it does in those free time activities which are reasonable and meaningful in themselves. Even fooling about need not be crass, and can be enjoyed as a blessed release from the throes of self-control. If people were able to make their own decisions about themselves and their lives, if they were not caught up in the realm of the eversame, they would not have to be bored. Boredom is the reflection of objective dullness.

Adorno on DIY (home improvement?):


‘Do it yourself ’, this contemporary type of spare time behaviour fits however into a much more far-reaching context. More than thirty years ago I described such behaviour as ‘pseudo-activity’. Since then pseudoactivity has spread alarmingly, even (and especially) amongst those people who regard themselves as anti-establishment. Generally speaking there is good reason to assume that all forms of pseudo-activity contain a pent-up need to change the petrified relations of society. Pseudo-activity is misguided spontaneity. Misguided, but not accidentally so; because people do have a dim suspicion of how hard it would be to throw off the yoke that weighs upon them. They prefer to be distracted by spurious and illusory activities, by institutionalized vicarious satisfactions, than to face up to the awareness of how little access they have to the possibility of change today. Pseudo-activities are fictions and parodies of the same productivity which society on the one hand incessantly calls for, but on the other holds in check and, as far as the individual is concerned, does not really desire at all.


—excerpted from Adorno’s essay “Free Time,” in his The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture (1991).


Read "Free Time," IF YOU DARE!

long-forgotten american decadence: the book of jade

Pronounced “brilliant” by William James — one of his professors at Harvard — David Park Barnitz (June 24, 1878 – October 10, 1901) was an American poet, known for his one and only volume of poetry, a homage to the decadent writers of European letters, The Book of Jade. Within weeks of its publication Barnitz would be dead, a rumoured suicide.


From Wikipedia: 

Barnitz adop[ed] the decadent style to create a monument of unrelieved and unrelenting oblivionist verse, fit to take its place alongside the works of such other gothic and macabre anti-luminaries as Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Count Stenbock, James Thomson (B.V.), H. P. Lovecraft, and the German Bonaventura. A classmate of fellow poet Wallace Stevens, Park Barnitz was a visionary who prefigured modernism in his adoption of new paradigms and literary styles as a form of mask. And the mask which Barnitz adopted, that of the decadents, fitted his intellectual cynicism and misanthropy precisely. The decadents, Barnitz wrote, though they “do not lecture at Harvard”, “seem to me the most delightful of contemporary French writers.” “All these slaves of the opal,” Barnitz goes on, “as one of their obscurest members proclaims them, with their one great man (Verlaine) and their hundred pathetic poets, it is surely a fitting thing to admire. ‘How nice of them,’ one feels like saying, ‘to be so dear!’ They have not produced a new art, but they have amused.”


For more, see the comprehensive — a real labour of love (although “love” may not be the correct word to employ in connection with Barnitz’s milieu of decadence) — and this great post, too, at the wonderful rare books site,

An example of Barnitz’s ontology:



They do not know that they are wholly dead,
Nor that their bodies are to the worm given o’er;

They pass beneath the sky forevermore;

With their dead flesh the earth is cumbered.


Each day they drink of wine and eat of bread,

And do the things that they have done before;

And yet their hearts are rotten to the core,

And from their eyes the light of life is fled.


Surely the sun is weary of their breath;

They have no ears, and they are dumb and blind;

Long time their bodies hunger for the grave.


How long, O God, shall these dead corpses rave?

When shall the earth be clean of humankind?

When shall the sky cease to behold this death?


If you’ve ever had to read Hegel, then you’ll appreciate Barnitz’s take on the great German nineteenth century metaphysicist:


Because my hope is dead, my heart a stone,

I read the words that Hegel once did write

An idiot gibbering in the dark alone

Till on my heart and vision fell the night.


Both poerms are from David Park Barnitz’s The Book of Jade (1901), which may be downloaded here.


an autibiographical story from blanchot on bearing witness

"The Instant of My Death"

By Maurice Blanchot


I remember a young man—a man still young—prevented from dying by death itself—and perhaps the error of injustice.

The Allies had succeeded in getting a foothold on French soil. The Germans, already vanquished, were struggling in vain with useless ferocity.

In a large house, (The Château, it was called) someone knocked at the door rather timidly. I know that the young man came to open the door to guests who were presumably asking for help.

This time, a howl: "Everyone outside"

A Nazi lieutenant, in shamefully normal French, made the oldest people exit first, and then two young women.

"Outside, outside." This time, he was howling. The young man, however, did not try to flee but advanced slowly, in an almost priestly manner. The lieutenant shook him, showed him the casings, bullets; there had obviously been fighting; the soil was a war soil.

The lieutenant choked in a bizarre language. And putting the casings, the bullets, a grenade under the nose of the man already less young (one ages quickly), he distinctly shouted: "This is what you have come to."

The Nazi placed his men in a row in order to hit, according to the rules, the human target. The young man said, "At least have my family go inside." So it was: the aunt (ninety-four years old); his mother, younger; his sister and his sister-in-law; a long, slow procession, silent, as if everything had already been done.

I know—do I know it—that the one at whom the Germans were already aiming, awaiting but the final order, experienced then a feeling of extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude (nothing happy, however)—sovereign elation? The encounter of death with death?

In his place, I will not try to analyze. He was perhaps suddenly invincible. Dead—immortal. Perhaps ecstasy. Rather the feeling of compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal. Henceforth, he was bound to death by a surreptitious friendship.

At that instant, an abrupt return to the world, the considerable noise of a nearby battle exploded. Comrades from the maquis wanted to bring help to one they knew would be in danger. The lieutenant moved away to assess the situation. The Germans stayed in order, prepared to remain thus in an immobility that arrested time.

Then one of them approached and said in a firm voice, "We’re not Germans, Russians," and, with a sort of laugh, "Vlassov army," and made a sign forhim to disappear.

I think he moved away, still with the feeling of lightness, until he found himself in a distant forest, named the "Bois des bruyères," where he remained sheltered by trees he knew well. In the dense forest suddenly, after how much time, he rediscovered a sense of the real. Everywhere fires, a continuous succession of fires; all the farms were burning. A little later, he learned that three young men, sons of farmers—truly strangers to all combat, whose only fault was their youth—had been slaughtered.

Even the bloated horses, on the road, in the fields, attested to a war that had gone on. In reality, how much time had elapsed? When the lieutenant returned and became aware the young chatelaine had disappeared, why did anger, rage, not prompt him to burn down the Château (immobile and majestic)? Because it was the Château. On the facade it was inscribed, like an indestructible reminder, the date 1807. Was he cultivated enough to know this was the famous year of Jena, when Napoleon, on his small gray horse, passed under the windows of Hegel, who recognized in him the "spirit of the world," as he wrote to a friend? Lie and truth: for as Hegel wrote to another friend, the French pillaged and ransacked his home. But Hegel knew how to distinguish the empirical and the essential. In that year 1944, the Nazi lieutenant had for the Château a respect or consideration that the farms did not arouse. Everything was searched, however. Some money was taken; in a separate room, "the high chamber," the lieutenant found papers and a sort of thick manuscript—which perhaps contained war plans. Finally he left.
Everything was burning, except the Château. The Seigneurs had been spared.

No doubt what then began for the young man was the torment of injustice. No more ecstasy; the feeling that he was only living because, even in the eyes of the Russians, he belonged to a noble class.

This was war: life for some, for others, the cruelty of assassination.

There remained, however, at the moment when the shooting was no longer but to come, the feeling of lightness that I would not know how to translate: freed from life? the infinite opening up? Neither happiness, nor unhappiness. Nor the absence of fear and perhaps already the step beyond. I know, I image that this unanalyzable feeling changed what there remained for him of existence. As if the death outside of him could only henceforth collide with the death in him. "I am alive. No, you are dead."

Later, having returned to Paris, he met Malraux, who said that he had been taken prisoner (without being recognized) and that he had succeeded in escaping, losing a manuscript in the process. “It was only reflections of art, easy to reconstitute, whereas a manuscript would not be.” With Paulhan, he made inquiries which could only remain in vain.


What does it matter. All that remains is the feeling of lightness that is death itself, or to put it more precisely, the instant of my death henceforth always in abeyance.


—Maurice Blanchot, The Instant of My Death. Originally published in French as L’instant de ma mort (1994).

hegel, levinas & kojève: understanding the novels of maurice blanchot



Literature, scepticism, nihilism: Blanchot after Kojève

 The opening pages of Faux Pas make it clear, then, that for Blanchot nihilism is a form of naïvety in relation to the negative that is to be radically distinguished from the experience of the negative in literature.

 That this conception of nihilism as a naïve calculation is no passing whim in Blanchot’s theorization of the literary becomes evident as soon as one turns from this 1943 text to his next major general essay on the literary, ‘Literature and the Right to Death’, first published in 1948 and then included as the final essay in the collection The Work of Fire (1949).4 Here, Blanchot establishes what will remain a fundamental distinction between two conceptions of the negative in his work. On the one hand, there is the negativity of the Hegelian dialectic; that is, negation as a power ( pouvoir) for the production of being in its meaning and truth. It is through this labour of the negative that ‘existence is detached from itself and made significant’ (Blanchot 1995: 343). The figure for this meaning- and truth-producing negativity, which Blanchot draws from the preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), is death in its possibility:

that an accident as such, detached from what circumscribes it, what is bound and is actual only in its context with others, should attain an existence of its own and a separate freedom – this is the tremendous power [ungeheure Macht] of the negative; it is the energy of thought, of the pure ‘I’. Death, if that is what we want to call this non-actuality, is of all things the most dreadful, and to hold fast what is dead requires the greatest strength. Lacking strength, Beauty hates the Understanding for asking of her what it cannot do. But the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. It is this power, not as something positive, which closes its eyes to the negative, as when we say of something that it is nothing or is false, and then, having done with it, turn away and pass on to something else; on the contrary, Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being. (Hegel 1977: 19)

As glossed by Blanchot: ‘Death ends in being; this is man’s hope and his task, because nothingness itself helps to make the world, nothingness is the creator of the world in man as he works and understands’ (Blanchot 1995: 344).

Combining Hegel – read by way of Alexandre Kojève’s commentaries on the Phenomenology in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1947) – with Mallarmé, Blanchot argues that this power is the negativity of language as naming, and again it is a matter of the feminine, although this time as that which is stripped of being:

For me to be able to say, ‘This woman,’ I must somehow take her flesh-and-blood reality away from her, cause her to be absent, annihilate her. The word gives me the being, but it gives it to me deprived of being. The word is the absence of that being, its nothingness, what is left of it when it has lost being – the very fact that it does not exist. . . . when I say, ‘This woman,’ real death has been announced and is already present in my language; my language means that this person, who is here right now, can be detached from herself, removed from her existence and her presence, and suddenly plunged into a nothingness in which there is no existence or presence. (Blanchot 1995: 322–3)

This negation of being effected by language goes for the speaking as well as the spoken being: ‘When I speak, I deny the existence of what I am saying, but I also deny the existence of the person who is saying it’ (Blanchot 1995: 324).

As we have seen, this Hegelian form of negation has for its end the production of being in its meaning and truth, and just such a negation constitutes what Blanchot terms one of literature’s two slopes (pentes, versants): ‘One side of literature is turned toward the movement of negation by which things are separated from themselves and destroyed in order to be known, subjugated, communicated’ (Blanchot 1995: 330). In short, negation of this kind produces ‘meaningful prose’ (Blanchot 1995: 332). In so far as it is governed by negation in this Hegelian sense, literature’s ‘only concern is true meaning; its only preoccupation is to safeguard the movement by which this meaning becomes truth’ (Blanchot 1995: 333). For Blanchot, Mallarmé is the ‘master of this art of negation’ (Blanchot 1995: 333). Continue reading

the squirm-inducing prose of j.g. ballard—and others

"When had they last bathed their genitalia, did small grains of faecal matter still cling to their anuses as they prescribed some antibiotic for a streptococcal throat, did the odour of illicit sex acts infest their underwear as they drove home from the hospital, the traces of smegma and vaginal mucus on their hands marrying with the splashed engine coolant of unexpected car-crashes?"

Explained to a friend today that J.G. Ballard’s Crash is one of the few books I’ve read with scenes that made me physically squeamish; indeed, discomfiture to the point where I thought I might vomit (the scene of the anal rape of the male acting student in Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge had a similar effect on me. Then again, so did the section on contract in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right).



A young, blond-haired doctor with a callous face examined the wounds on my chest. The skin was broken around the lower edge of the sternum, where the horn boss had been driven upwards by the collapsing engine compartment. A semi-circular bruise marked my chest, a marbled rainbow running from one nipple to the other. During the next week this rainbow moved through a sequence of tone changes Mice the colour spectrum of automobile varnishes. As I looked down at myself I realized that the precise make and model-year of my car could have been reconstructed by an automobile engineer from the pattern of my wounds. The layout of the instrument panel, like the profile of the steering wheel bruised into my chest, was inset on my knees and shin-bones. The impact of the second collision between my body and the interior compartment of the car was denned in these wounds, like the contours of a woman’s body remembered in the responding pressure of one’s own skin for a few hours after a sexual act.

On the fourth day, for no evident reason, the anaesthetics were withdrawn. All morning I vomited into the enamel pail which a nurse held under my face. She stared at me with good-humoured but unmoved eyes. The cold rim of the kidney pail pressed against my cheek. Its porcelain surface was marked by a small thread of blood from some nameless previous user.

I leaned my forehead against the nurse’s strong thigh as I vomited. Beside my bruised mouth her worn fingers contrasted strangely with her youthful skin. I found myself thinking of her natal cleft. When had she last washed this moist gulley? During my recovery, questions like this one obsessed me as I talked to the doctors and nurses. When had they last bathed their genitalia, did small grains of faecal matter still cling to their anuses as they prescribed some antibiotic for a streptococcal throat, did the odour of illicit sex acts infest their underwear as they drove home from the hospital, the traces of smegma and vaginal mucus on their hands marrying with the splashed engine coolant of unexpected car-crashes? I let a few threads of green bile leak into the pail, aware of the warm contours of the young woman’s thighs. A seam of her gingham frock had been repaired with a few loops of black cotton. I stared at the loosening coils lying against the round surface of her left buttock. Their curvatures seemed as arbitrary and as meaningful as the wounds on my chest and legs.

This obsession with the sexual possibilities of everything around me had been jerked loose from my mind by the crash. I imagined the ward filled with convalescing air-disaster victims, each of their minds a brothel of images. The crash between our two cars was a model of some ultimate and yet undreamt sexual union. The injuries of still-to-be-admitted patients beckoned to me, an immense encyclopedia of accessible dreams . . .




"I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess."                                                  

Stock Photo

 "When philosophy paints its grey on grey it 
  then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s
  grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only
  understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings
  only with the falling of dusk."


But the big thing about Ballard is how he takes Freudian depth psychology as uses it as an engine to generate psychological horror: in Ballard-land it’s as if Freud opened a Pandora’s Box of the very worst of human impulses and Ballard—or his narrators, at least—revel in showing how the ploymorphous perverse rules all—and to the degree that even if we could close the lid on that proverbial Pandoran box, none of us would want to . . .

Apart from Crash, the next weirdest thing Ballard did was a short story, written in the form of a psychiatric evaluation, entitled "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," which some pranksters photocopied and handed out at the 1980 Republican Convention, claiming it to be a psychological case study why Reagan should receive the nomination instead of George Bush.


. . . SEXUAL FANTASIES IN CONNECTION WITH RONALD REAGAN. The genitalia of the Presidential contender exercised a continuing fascination. A series of imaginary genitalia were constructed using (a) the mouth-parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, (b) a Cadillac rear-exhaust vent, (c) the assembly kit prepuce of President Johnson, (d) a child-victim of sexual assault. In 89 percent of the cases, the constructed genitalia generated a high incidence of self-induced orgasm. Tests indicate the masturbatory nature of the Presidential contender’s posture. Dolls consisting of plastic models of Reagan’s alternate genitalia were found to have a disturbing effect on deprived children.




Faces were seen as either circumcised (JFK, Khrushchev) or uncircumcised (LBJ, Adenauer). In assembly-kit tests Reagan’s face was uniformly perceived as a penile erection. Patients were encouraged to devise the optimum sex-death of Ronald Reagan.




REAGAN’S HAIRSTYLE. Studies were conducted on the marked fascination exercised by the Presidential contender’s hairstyle. 65% of male subjects made positive connections between the hairstyle and their own pubic hair. A series of optimum hairstyles were constructed.




Slow-motion film of Reagan’s speeches produced a marked erotic effect in an audience of spastic children.



Subjects were required to construct the optimum auto-disaster victim by placing a replica of Reagan’s head on the unretouched photographs of crash fatalities. In 82% of cases massive rear-end collisions were selected with a preference for expressed fecal matter and rectal haemorrhages…

…It is hoped to construct a rectal modulus of Reagan and the auto-disaster of maximised audience arousal.



wishing & questing: norman o. brown’s freud, the history of western thought, and the essence of man

“…this amounts to saying that the essence of man is contemplation. But ambiguously juxtaposed with this doctrine of man as contemplator is the Platonic doctrine of Eros, which, as elaborated by Plato in the Symposium and the Phaedrus, suggests that the fundamental quest of man is to find a satisfactory object for his love. A similar ambiguity between man as contemplator and man as lover is to be found in Spinoza and Hegel. The turning point in the Western tradition comes in the reaction to Hegel, Feuerbach, followed by Marx, calls for the abandonment of the contemplative tradition in favor of what he calls ‘practical-sensuous activity’; the meaning of this concept, and its relation to Freud, would take us far afield. But Schopenhauer, in his notion of the primacy of will—however much he may undo his own notion by his search for an escape from the primacy of the will—is a landmark, seceding from the great, and really rather insane, Western tradition that the goal of mankind is to become as contemplative as possible. Freudian psychology eliminates the category of pure contemplation as nonexistent. Only a wish, says Freud, can possibly set our psychic apparatus in motion…”





The entry into Freud cannot avoid being a plunge into a strange world and a strange languagea world of sick men, a diagnostic language of formidable technicality. But this strange world is the world we all of us actually live in.




The Disease Called Man


There is one word which, if we only understand it, is the key to Freud’s thought. That word is "repression." The whole edifice of psychoanalysis, Freud said, is based upon the theory of repression.1 Freud’s entire life was devoted to the study of the phenomenon he called repression. The Freudian revolution is that radical revision of traditional theories of human nature and human society which becomes necessary if repression is recognized as a fact. In the new Freudian perspective, the essence of society is repression of the individual, and the essence of the individual is repression of himself.    


The best way to explore the notion of repression is to review the path which led Freud to his hypothesis. Freud’s breakthrough was the discovery of meaningfulness in a set of phenomena theretofore regarded, at least in scientific circles, as meaningless: first, the "mad" symptoms of the mentally deranged; second, dreams; and third, the various phenomena gathered together under the title of the psychopathology of everyday life, including slips of the tongue, errors, and random thoughts.                 


Now in what sense does Freud find meaningfulness in neurotic symptoms, dreams, and errors? He means, of course, that these phenomena are determined and can be given a causal explanation. He is rigorously insisting on unequivocal allegiance to the principle of psychic determinism; but he means much more than that. For if it were possible to explain these phenomena on behavioristic principles, as the result of superficial associations of ideas, then they would have a cause but no meaning. Meaningfulness means expression of a purpose or an intention. The crux of Freud’s discovery is that neurotic symptoms, as well as the dreams and errors of everyday life, do have meaning, and that the meaning of "meaning" has to be radically revised because they have meaning. Since the purport of these purposive expressions is generally unknown to the person whose purpose they express, Freud is driven to embrace the paradox that there are in a human being purposes of which he knows nothing, involuntary purposes,2 or, in more technical Freudian language, "unconscious ideas." From this point of view a new world of psychic reality is opened up, of whose inner nature we are every bit as ignorant as we are of the reality of the external world, and of which our ordinary conscious observation tells us no more than our sense organs are able to report to us of the external world.3 Freud can thus define psychoanalysis as "nothing more than the discovery of the unconscious in mental life."4                


But the Freudian revolution is not limited to the hypothesis of an unconscious psychic life in the human being in addition to his conscious life. The other crucial hypothesis is that some unconscious ideas in a human being are incapable of becoming conscious to him in the ordinary way, because they are strenuously disowned and resisted by the conscious self. From this point of view Freud can say that "the whole of psychoanalytic theory is in fact built up on the perception of the resistance exerted by the patient when we try to make him conscious of his unconscious." 5 The dynamic relation between the unconscious and the conscious life is one of conflict, and psychoanalysis is from top to bottom a science of mental conflict.                  


The realm of the unconscious is established in the individual when he refuses to admit into his conscious life a purpose or desire which he has, and in doing so establishes in himself a psychic force opposed to his own idea. This rejection by the individual of a purpose or idea, which nevertheless remains his, is repression. "The essence of repression lies simply in the function of rejecting or keeping something out of consciousness."6 Stated in more general terms, the essence of repression lies in the refusal of the human being to recognize the realities of his human nature. The fact that the repressed purposes nevertheless remain his is shown by dreams and neurotic symptoms, which represent an irruption of the unconscious into consciousness, producing not indeed a pure image of the unconscious, but a compromise between the two conflicting systems, and thus exhibiting the reality of the conflict.        


Thus the notion of the unconscious remains an enigma without the theory of repression; or, as Freud says, ”We obtain our theory of the unconscious from the theory of repression." 7 To put it another way, the unconscious is "the dynamically unconscious repressed." 8 Repression is the key word in the whole system; the word is chosen to indicate a structure dynamically based on psychic conflict. Freud illustrates the nature of psychic repression by a series of metaphors and analogies drawn from the social phenomena of war, civil war, and police action.9                  


From neurotic symptoms, dreams, and errors to a general theory of human nature may seem like a long step. Granting that it is a long step, Freud could argue that he is entitled to explore the widest possible application of a hypothesis derived from a narrow field. He could take the offensive and claim that traditional theories of human nature must be regarded as unsatisfactory because they have nothing to say about these peripheral phenomena. What theory of human nature, except Freud’s, does have anything significant to say about dreams or insanity? And are dreams and insanity really negligible factors on the periphery of human life?                


But the truth of the matter is that Freud maintains that to go from neurotic symptoms, dreams, and errors, to a new theory of human nature in general involves no further step at all. For the evidence on which the hypothesis of the repressed unconscious is based entails the conclusion that it is a phenomenon present in all human beings. The psychopathological phenomena of everyday life, although trivial from a practical point of view, are theoretically important because they show the intrusion of unconscious intentions into our everyday and supposedly normal behavior.


Even more theoretically important are dreams. For dreams, also "normal" phenomena, exhibit in detail not only the existence of the unconscious but also the dynamics of its repression (the dream-censorship). But since the same dynamics of repression explained neurotic symptoms, and since the dreams of neurotics, which are a clue to the meaning of their symptoms, differ neither in structure nor in content from the dreams of normal people, the conclusion is that a dream is itself a neurotic symptom.10 We are all therefore neurotic. At least dreams show that the difference between neurosis and health prevails only by day; and since the psychopathology of everyday life exhibits the same dynamics, even the waking life of the "healthy" man is pervaded by innumerable symptom-formations. Between "normality" and "abnormality" there is no qualitative but only a quantitative difference, based largely on the practical question of whether our neurosis is serious enough to incapacitate us for work.11    


Or perhaps we are closer to the Freudian point of view if we give a more paradoxical formulation; the difference between "neurotic" and "healthy" is only that the "healthy" have a socially usual form of neurosis. At any rate, to quote a more technical and cautious formulation of the same theorem, Freud says that from the study of dreams we learn that the neuroses make use of a mechanism already in existence as a normal part of our psychic structure, not of one that is newly created by some morbid disturbance or other.12


Thus Freud’s first paradox, the existence of a repressed unconscious, necessarily implies the second and even more significant paradox, the universal neurosis of mankind. Here is the pons asinorum of psychoanalysis. Neurosis is not an occasional aberration; it is not just in other people; it is in us, and in us all the time. It is in the psychoanalyst: Freud discovered the Oedipus complex, which he regarded as the root of all neurosis, by self-analysis. The Interpretation of Dreams is one of the great applications and extensions of the Socratic maxim, "Know thyself." Or, to put it another way, the doctrine of the universal neurosis of mankind is the psychoanalytical analogue of the theological doctrine of original sin.     


The crucial point in Freud’s basic hypothesis is the existence of psychic conflict; the hypothesis cannot be meaningfully formulated without some further specification of the nature of the conflict and the conflicting forces. Now Freud made repeated analyses of the fundamental psychic conflict, at several different levels and from several points of view. Let us at this point try to abstract the common core from these various accounts.         


In our first description of Freud’s theory of repression we used the word "purpose" to designate that which is repressed into the unconscious. This excessively vague word conceals a fundamental Freudian axiom. The psychic conflict which produces dreams and neuroses is not generated by intellectual problems but by purposes, wishes, desires. Freud’s frequent use of the term "unconscious idea" can be misleading here. But as Freud says, "We remain on the surface so long as we treat only of memories and ideas. The only valuable things in psychic life are, rather, the emotions. All psychic forces are significant only through their aptitude to arouse emotions. Ideas are repressed only because they are bound up with releases of emotions, which are not to come about; it would be more correct to say that repression deals with the emotions, but these are comprehensible to us only in their tie-up with ideas." 13 Freud is never tired of insisting that dreams are in essence wish-fulfillments, expressions of repressed unconscious wishes, and neurotic symptoms likewise. 

Now if we take "desire" as the most suitably abstract of this series of terms, it is a Freudian axiom that the essence of man consists, not, as Descartes maintained, in thinking, but in desiring. Plato (and, mutatis mutandis, Aristotle) identified the summum bonum for man with contemplation; since the telos or end is the basic element in definition, this amounts to saying that the essence of man is contemplation. But ambiguously juxtaposed with this doctrine of man as contemplator is the Platonic doctrine of Eros, which, as elaborated by Plato in the Symposium and the Phaedrus, suggests that the fundamental quest of man is to find a satisfactory object for his love. A similar ambiguity between man as contemplator and man as lover is to be found in Spinoza and Hegel. The turning point in the Western tradition comes in the reaction to Hegel, Feuerbach, followed by Marx, calls for the abandonment of the contemplative tradition in favor of what he calls "practical-sensuous activity"; the meaning of this concept, and its relation to Freud, would take us far afield. But Schopenhauer, in his notion of the primacy of will—however much he may undo his own notion by his search for an escape from the primacy of the will—is a landmark, seceding from the great, and really rather insane, Western tradition that the goal of mankind is to become as contemplative as possible. Freudian psychology eliminates the category of pure contemplation as nonexistent. Only a wish, says Freud, can possibly set our psychic apparatus in motion.14


With this notion of desire as the essence of man is joined a definition of desire as energy directed toward the procurement of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Hence Freud can say, "Our entire psychical activity is bent upon procuring pleasure and avoiding pain, is automatically regulated by the pleasure-principle."15 Or, "It is simply the pleasure-principle which draws up the programme of life’s purpose."16 At this level of analysis, the pleasure-principle implies no complicated hedonistic theory nor any particular theory as to the sources of pleasure. It is an assumption taken from common sense, and means much the same as Aristotle’s dictum that all men seek happiness: Freud says that the goal of the pleasure-principle is happiness.17


But man’s desire for happiness is in conflict with the whole world. Reality imposes on human beings the necessity of renunciation of pleasures; reality frustrates desire. The pleasure-principle is in conflict with the reality-principle, and this conflict is the cause of repression.18 Under the conditions of repression the essence of our being lies in the unconscious, and only in the unconscious does the pleasure-principle reign supreme. Dreams and neurotic symptoms show that the frustrations of reality cannot destroy the desires which are the essence of our being: the unconscious is the unsubdued and indestructible element in the human soul. The whole world may be against it, but still man holds fast to the deep-rooted, passionate striving for a positive fulfillment of happiness.19    


The conscious self, on the other hand, which by refusing to admit a desire into consciousness institutes the process of repression, is, so to speak, the surface of ourselves mediating between our inner real being and external reality. The nucleus of the conscious self is that part of the mind or system in the mind which receives perceptions from the external world. This nucleus acquires a new dimension through the power of speech, which makes it accessible to the process of education and acculturation. The conscious self is the organ of adaptation to the environment and to the culture. The conscious self, therefore, is governed not by the pleasure-principle but by the principle of adjustment to reality, the reality-principle.   


From this point of view dreams and neurotic symptoms, which we previously analyzed as produced by the conflict between the conscious and unconscious systems, can also be analyzed as produced by the conflict between the pleasure-principle and the reality-principle.20 On the one hand, dreams, neurotic symptoms, and all other manifestations of the unconscious, such as fantasy, represent in some degree or other a flight or alienation from a reality which is found unbearable.21 On the other hand, they represent a return to the pleasure-principle; they are substitutes for pleasures denied by reality.22 In this compromise between the two conflicting systems, the pleasure desired is reduced or distorted or even transformed to pain. Under the conditions of repression, under the domination of the reality-principle, the pursuit of pleasure is degraded to the status of a symptom.23


But to say that reality or the reality-principle causes repression defines the problem rather than solves it. Freud sometimes identifies the reality-principle with the "struggle for existence," as if repression could be ultimately explained by some objective economic necessity to work.24 But man makes his own reality and various kinds of reality (and various compulsions to work) through the medium of culture or society. It is therefore more adequate to say that society imposes repression, though even this formula in Freud’s early writings is connected with the inadequate idea that society, in imposing repression, is simply legislating the demands of objective economic necessity. This naive and rationalistic sociology stands, or rather falls, with Freud’s earlier version of psychoanalysis. The later Freud, as we shall see, in his doctrine of anxiety is moving toward the position that man is the animal which represses himself and which creates culture or society in order to repress himself. Even the formula that society imposes repression poses a problem rather than solves it; but the problem it poses is large. For if society imposes repression, and repression causes the universal neurosis of mankind, it follows that there is an intrinsic connection between social organization and neurosis. Man the social animal is by the same token the neurotic animal. Or, as Freud puts it, man’s superiority over the other animals is his capacity for neurosis, and his capacity for neurosis is merely the obverse of his capacity for cultural development. 25       


Freud therefore arrives at the same conclusion as Nietzsche ("the disease called man"26), but by a scientific route, by a study of the neuroses. Neurosis is an essential consequence of civilization or culture. Here again is a harsh lesson in humility, which tender-minded critics and apostles of Freud evade or suppress. We must be prepared to analyze clinically as a neurosis not only the foreign culture we dislike, but also our own.



—from Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, Wesleyan University Press, 1959






1. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, tr. & ed. A. A. Brill. New York: The Modern Library, 1938 (History), 939.                  


2. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (Dreams), 527.           


3. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (Dreams), 542.           


4. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, tr. J. Riviere. New York: Perma Giants, 1953. Copyright 1935 by Edward L. Bemays. (Quotations from this source by permission of Liveright Publishers, New York, and G. Allen & Unwin Ltd., London.), 397.            


5. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, tr. W. J. H. Sprott. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, no. 24.) London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of PsychoAnalysis, 1933, 92. Cf. The Ego and the Id, tr. J. Riviere. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, no. 12.) London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1927, 12.            


6. Collected Papers, IV, ed. J. Riviere & J. Strachey. 5 vols. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, no. 710, 37.) New York, London: The International Psycho-Analytical Press, 1924-50, 86. Cf. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 304, 358-59; The Ego and the Id, 11; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 25-26.


7. The Ego and the Id, 12.            


8. The Ego and the Id, 12. Cf. Delusion and Dream and Other Essays, ed. P. Rieff. Boston: Beacon Press, 1956, 70.              


9. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (Dreams), 473, 510-11, 540-41; A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 146-47. Cf. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (Dreams), 519; A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 70, 136, 311, 369.


10. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 87, 236, 307, 368, 464; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, tr. W. J. H. Sprott. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, no. 24.) London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1933, 15, 26.   


11. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis,  367-68, 464-65; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 80; Collected Papers, II, 120; Collected Papers, V, 337; Delusion and Dream and Other Essays, 65.


12. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, 1938 (Dreams), 539.


13. Delusion and Dream and Other Essays, 70.              


14. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (Dreams) 510. 


15. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 365. Cf. Collected Papers, V, 339.   

16. Civilization and Its Discontents, tr. J. Riviere. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, ed. E. Jones, no. 17.) London: Hogarth, 1930, 27. 


17. Civilization and Its Discontents, 27, 39.         


18. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 27, 310, 35354, 363; Civilization and Its Discontents, 33, 51, 68, 74; The Future of an Illusion, tr. W. D. Robson-Scott. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, no. 15.) London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1928, 16-17; Moses and Monotheism, tr. K. Jones. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, no. 33.) London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1939; (New York, Knopf, 1939), 182-87.             


19. Civilization and Its Discontents 37; The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (Dreams), 500, 518, 536, 549; The Ego and the Id, 30; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 98; Beyond the Pleasure Principle, tr. J. Strachey. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, ed. E. Jones, no. 4.) London: Hogarth Press, 1950, 56.  


20. Collected Papers, IV, 13-21; The Ego and the Id, 19-33; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 100-101; A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 359, 365, 436.     


21. Collected Papers, II, 114-15, 277-82; Collected Papers, IV, 13; Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, tr. A. Strachey. (International Psycho-Analytieal Library, no. 28.) London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1936, 136. 


22. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 308, 375, 453; Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, 20.                 


23. Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, 2028, 34; Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 7.             

24. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 27, 199, 321, 363; The Future of an Illusion, 16; Civilization and Its Discontents, 74.           


25. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 421; The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (Sex) 622; Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, 134; Moses and Monotheism, 121. 


26. Nietzsche, The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 702.                 


kojève on desire and time

Here’s Alexandre Kojève (planner and drafter of legislation for the European Common Market and allegedly a KGB agent!) interpreting—and correcting—Hegel:

Man is Self-Consciousness. He is conscious of himself, conscious of his human reality and dignity; and it is in this that he is essentially different from animals, which do not go beyond the level of simple Sentiment of self. Man becomes conscious of himself at the moment when—for the "first" time—he says "I." To understand man by understanding his "origin" is, therefore, to understand the origin of the I revealed by speech.

   Now, the analysis of "thought," "reason," "understanding," and so on—in general, of the cognitive, contemplative, passive behavior of a being or a "knowing subject" never reveals the why or the how of the birth of the word "I," and consequently of self-consciousness—that is, of the human reality. The man who contemplates is "absorbed" by what he contemplates; the "knowing subject" "loses" himself in the object that is known. Contemplation reveals the object, not the subject. The object, and not the subject, is what shows itself to him in and by—or better, as—the act of knowing. The man who is "absorbed" by the object that he is contemplating can be brought back to himself" [rappelé à lui] only by a Desire; by the desire to eat, for example. The conscious Desire of being is what constitutes that being as I and reveals it as such by moving it to say "I"… (p 3)

Now, we have seen that the presence of Time (in which the future takes primacy) in the real World is called Desire (which is directed towards another Desire), and that this desire is specifically human desire, since the Action that realises it is Man’s very being. The real presence of Time in the World is therefore called Man. Time is Man, and Man is Time. … Therefore the natural reality implies Time only if it impliesa human reality. Now, Man essentially creates and destroys in terms of the idea that he forms of the Future. And the idea of the Future appears in the real present in the form of a desire directed towards another Desire – that is, in the form of a Desire for social Recognition. Now, Action that arises from this Desire engenders History. Hence, there is Time only where there is History. … On the last page of the Phenomenology, Hegel says, time is history whereas nature is space.… But in his other writings Hegel is less radical. In them, he admits the existence of a cosmic time. But in so doing, Hegel identifies cosmic time and historical time. This, I believe, was his basic error. (pp 133, 147)
—Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969.