LI is truly a sad sack. As we try to find time, in the interstices between our poorly rewarded tasks, for writing our happiness essay, we are discovering a depressingly vast literature that touches on so much we want to say. Not least among which is a gorgeous essay by Roberto Calasso, “The Repulsive Cult of Bonheur’, published in our favorite journal, Common Knowledge, in 2004.
A few months ago, we commented on the movie W., Dusan Makavejev’s film about, among other things, sex-pol, Wilhelm Reich, and the state of orgasmic repression in 70s Yugoslavia. By coincidence, the film was also shown by Kino-Fist, a collective with which one of our favorite bloggers, Infinite Thought, is connected. After reading Calasso’s essay, we feel like revisiting some of those issues.
Calasso begins by quoting from one of Freud’s letters concerning Civilization and its Discontents. Freud, in the letter, talks about a strange serenity – or indifference – that has settled upon him in old age. He is no longer writing with that … surrender, that sense of being swept along by his discoveries. Rather, he has reached a more disengaged point. As Calasso points out, the first section of C and its D. seems to bear out Freud’s point – it is, above all, banal. Yet it builds into a great, mythic insight:
“In Civilization, Freud in fact arrives at a paralyzing conclusion: “What began in relation to the father is completed in relation to the group.” That is: the process of civilization is destined inevitably to increase the sense of guilt to the point where it is intolerable. This is the final perspective that Freud presents in
a flash and then hides. But it’s enough to reveal the grand, dark basis of Civilization: the final, funereal celebration of our founding myth, the nature/culture opposition. Freud keeps faith with that myth to the last, while its consequences push him to the breaking point. On the one hand, he reaffirms a thesis worn out
by use, from the Greeks to us: that the raison d’être of civilization is to defend us from nature. On the other hand, he follows the inflexible course of his own thinking, which has led him to subsume into nature the entire life of the psyche, and so the birth and the persistence of society appear to him fatally as a wound that can never be closed up.”
This sets up Calasso’s great second section, on Reich, which begins – I’m going to quote largely – like this:
“The mystical marriage of Marxism and psychoanalysis, reports on the crimes of the family, the rehabilitation of schizophrenics, the orgasm as panacea: all these themes, which for years have been debated and redebated, pedantically, in feminist weeklies as well as in seminars at the École Normale and Berkeley, were introduced and developed in the twenties by a Galician doctor, a follower of
Freud before becoming a feared apostate of psychoanalysis—Wilhelm Reich.
Prophet, scientist, social critic, cosmic charlatan—Reich was above all a visionary desperately in thrall to a single vision, which he considered the obvious key to the universe. Yet he had one of the most serious defects that a visionary can have: literal-mindedness, a devotion to facts, to the real thing, to quantitative
measurement, to the determining formula. Thus he wasn’t satisfied with introducing an unseemly notion like orgasm into the midst of psychoanalysis. He wasn’t satisfied with stubbornly circumventing psychoanalysis, with the help of some dazzling intuitions that allowed him to elaborate categories—orgasmic impotence, character armor, emotional plague, fear of pleasure, blocked libido— no less indispensable than the classic Freudian ones. He wanted to go beyond, like a buffalo. He capitulated to the belief that the word biology or some crude measuring apparatus would in itself guarantee a more secure approach to the secrets of the world, allowing him to touch, to see, to quantify the phantom,
ungraspable “orgonic energy” that he thought he had discovered.”
I’m going to quote some more from this essay in my next post, in relation to a movie of Bela Tarr’s, The Outsider, from 1979. The Tarr movie is set in a small Hungarian town, among hospital workers, a factory, various pubs, a disco. Everything is garishly shabby, with that special air of Marxist command and control neglect, the result of the spectacularly faulty notion that one can both create and nurture and industrial society and abolish the market. This is a society that has decided to substitute the production of monuments for the production of commodities – and thus, every ugly product, every pathetic car, every motorcycle, even every factory tool, has the ugliness of a monument, of something put out in a park to commemorate an utterly forgettable personage or event, something that accumulates bird shit and the urine of tramps. Like every Tarr movie I’ve seen, this one implacably grinds its way into the viewer’s heart and rips at the indifference accumulated as a necessary buffer from the day to day suicide, the overwhelming evidence that we can only stand our lives if we avoid looking at them too closely. Get close enough, and one’s life explodes in one’s face – every brief flash of joy or happiness exposing a vulnerability that will be mercilessly exploited by others, and that one will regret in tears and loathing on down the years, until one has hardened into the usual happy monster, a character armor without any inhabitant, a plug-in voluptuary with a distressingly limited range of nervous routines.
“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears
Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads