Saturday, June 19, 2010

Amazing May 11

The cultural situation of the nineteenth century was one of fragmentation and inner breakdown. As humankind had progressed over the preceding several hundred years science itself began to fragment into smaller constituent areas while in the very psyche of the human being there began a compartmentalization which would end up driving him crazy.

Onto this scene came the great Sigmund Freud who described the neurotic personality of the late nineteenth century as one suffering from fragmentation – that is, from the repression of instinctual drives, blocking off his awareness. Before Freud, both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were especially awake to this inner fragmentation and to the blocked nature of humankind’s psyche.

Kierkegaard had written a whole book of the human being’s anxiety in the world, and had written not alone about this angst as he called it, but also about the deep depression and despair which resulted from his self-estrangement.

Somewhat later Nietzsche, and ten years before Freud’s first book at that, had diagnosed the condition of mankind as the fact that “his soul had gone stale.” Nietzsche maintained, foreshadowing the work of Freud that blocked instinctual powers within the individual turn into resentment, self-hatred, hostility and aggression.

Interestingly, Freud did not know of Kierkegaard’s work, but he was well read in Nietzsche’s thought and regarded him as one of the most authentic men of all time. The learned founder of psychoanalysis was to develop his theories and therapy to counteract the blockages to instincts and the fragmentation of the human soul as outlined in Nietzsche and in Kierkegaard.

Victorian man, according to May, represents the ultimate in repression of instincts, denial of the irrational, and certainly the non-rational in man at the very expense of his overall mental health. One remembers here what the English of my childhood and before it called “the stiff upper lip” in dealing with emotions of any kind. Indeed, such was Victorian repression that childhood itself was denied and children were depicted as little adults, and even dressed in miniature adult clothing.

Growing industrialism strengthened this hardening of compartmentalization. A man was taught to keep the different sections of his life separated and to train himself to clock on and off like a machine. Indeed such a predictable man is a very successful one indeed. He is untroubled, or so the Victorians thought, by irrational drives or urges. He is likewise untormented by poetic or romantic visions. Let me return to May’s words here:

As Marx and Nietzsche pointed out, the corollary is likewise true: the very success of the industrial system, with its accumulation of money as a validation of personal worth entirely separate from the actual product of man’s hands, had a reciprocal depersonalising and dehumanizing effect upon man in his relation to others and himself. It was against these dehumanising tendencies to make man into a machine, to make him over into the image of the industrial system for which he labored (sic), that the early existentialists fought so strongly. (Ibid., p. 63)

May points out that even his contemporary scientists were not aware of the compartmentalization of sciences which had happened during the nineteenth century. Ernest Cassirer had called that century the era of “autonomous sciences.” May quotes another scholar, Max Scheler who also declared that today that “we have a scientific, a philosophical and a theological anthropology that know nothing of each other.” (Quoted ibid., p. 64)

In short , then, we can say that the cultural compartmentalization was mirrored at a psychological level in the human psyche in which there was also a fragmentation of self and a radical repression of instincts within the individual personality.

Kierkegaard painted with wonderful colours pictures in words of the results and effects of this fragmentation: endemic anxiety, loneliness, and estrangement not alone from one another but from oneself, an estrangement which would lead to ultimate despair.

Then Nietzsche was to foreshadow the rise of nation states in the pursuit of some collective identity:

“We live,” he said, “in a period of atoms, of atomic chaos,” and out of this chaos he foresaw, in a vivid prediction of collectivism in the twentieth century, “the terrible apparition... the Nation State... and the hunt for happiness ...” (Ibid., p. 65)

What made Freud unique was that he saw the fragmentation of personality, as described both in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and he set about discovering techniques to remedy this fragmentation and restore some wholeness to the psyche. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were good diagnosticians of the soul, if I may put it that way. Their task as they saw it was to describe the sickness of the modern soul, rather than prescribe a cure. Something was radically wrong with man, both at a social and cultural level as well as at the level of his individual psyche.

“This is Europe’s true predicament,” declared Nietzsche, “together with the fear of man we have lost the love of man, confidence in man, indeed the will to man.” (Quoted ibid., p.66)

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