Thursday, June 24, 2010

Amazing May 18

Being and Non-Being 3

A Note on Freud’s Structural Model of the Psyche

Freud’s structural model of the psyche has long been doing the rounds, and has been taught widely in psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy courses over the last hundred years or so. This is the model where he divides the psyche into three separate areas, i.e., the Id, the Ego and the Superego. I have discussed this structural model in these posts before – see this link here. The Id basically was/is a vast cesspit of repressed instincts, drives and desires. Then there is the Superego which was/is that section of the psyche which is formed by all the norms and rules of society, and so it acts as a sort of moral conscience. Then, I suppose the Ego is a sort of “jockey” or “arbiter” or “referee” which seeks to balance the other two contrary and contradictory forces. In a nutshell, that is the structural model of the psyche. As anyone can see, the task allotted to the Ego is huge and almost insurmountable.

May’s insight into this model

Freud proposed a view of the Ego that was relatively weak, and that it was mostly buffeted about by the instinctual powers of the Id. May argues that this view was in Freud “a profound symbol of the fragmentation of man in the Victorian period and also a strong corrective to the superficial voluntarism of that day.” (Op.cit., p. 105) However, the major error arises, May argues when the Ego is elaborated as the basic norm. Even, within the Freudian structural model, it was never elaborated as such. I suppose we today have allowed the ego to take charge, to ride the wild horse of the Id especially without much attention to the slow work-horse of the Superego. Again the era of the Celtic Tiger in Ireland, and that of the uncontrolled international speculation between banks which in effect was gambling on a gigantic level are good examples of the wild stallion of the Id having been given almost free rein by the Ego. It is worth repeating May’s important words here:

The sense of being, the ontological awareness, must be assumed below ego theory if that theory is to refer with self-consistency to the human being as human. (Ibid., p.105)

Being itself is the fundamental reality we are. It is whole, authentic, real and total. These are all my terms, not May’s. I just want to get at the “irreducibility” as it were of Being, which I feel is so important than I am capitalizing the first letter of the word. Both people in any human encounter are irreducible beings. They are not merely a list of symptoms or a collocation of drives or instincts.


It is now time to reflect upon the other side of the coin to Being, namely Non-Being. I have hyphenated and capitalized this term, May does neither. In a sense, I suppose the theory of opposites is at play here. For instance how can we have a sense of the whiteness of something unless we have the blackness of something else with which to contrast it? It would seem that we have thousands of such necessary pairs: day/night, bright/dark, sweet/sour, love/hate, soft/hard, high/low, rich/poor. It’s impossible to envisage one without its necessary partner as it were. It would appear to me to be the same with life/death, living/dying, or as the ontologists would have it, Being/Non-Being.

This is essentially the reason for May’s “and” in the title “To Be and not To Be” of this very chapter we are reflecting on here. In short Non-Being is an inseparable part of Being. Let us quote more fully from our learned and wise author here:

To grasp what it means to exist, one needs to grasp the fact that one might not exist, that he treads at every moment on the sharp edge of possible annihilation and can never escape the fact that death will arrive at some unknown moment in the future. Existence, never automatic, not only can be sloughed off and forfeited but is indeed at every instant threatened by nonbeing. Without this awareness of nonbeing – that is, awareness to the threats to one’s being, in death, anxiety, and the less dramatic but persistent threats of loss of potentialities in conformism – existence is vapid, unreal and characterized by lack of concrete self-awareness. But with the confronting of nonbeing, existence takes on a vitality and immediacy, and the individual experiences a heightened consciousness of himself, his world, and others around him.

The above quotation is profound and wise and must be contemplated several or more times to assimilate the wisdom the author is both exploring and communicating. It is profound and philosophically consistent in an ontological sense. It is also wise on a lived-life level, at a meditative and contemplative level, at a Buddhist level as it were.

I find it hard to come up with my own reflections on this passage, but what follows is a small attempt at so doing. Life involves risk, and without risk it just simply would not be living at all or Being at all. Or, put it another way, life would be simply no fun without risk, and risk by definition implies the possibility of injury, even extinction. Take the young child who wishes to learn to ride a bicycle, to learn to swim, to learn to play any sport that involves physical contact – he or she needs to take risks, or engage with Non-Being. Take any person who wishes to learn to drive. Then, say take the risk of driving in another country where they drive on the opposite side of the road. Without risk, there simply would be no living, in fact no Being at all in the deep sense. So to live means to embrace risk, and risk essentially presupposes the possibility of failure, pain and even possible extinction. If there were no risks, no fear of possible extinction, if we could do everything automatically without the risk of pain, there would then be no real life, no real living, and no real Being. We would be little more than machines or automata.

All art, all literature, all music, in fact all the cultural characteristics of various societies have all come about due to the polar tension of opposites, that is, due to the essential, or perhaps more correctly the existential interplay of the polar opposites of Being and Non-Being. It is in the interplay of both Being and Non-Being that all the creative arts and all the creative sciences and even the natural sciences, which I assume to be also creative, have emerged.

Freud was fundamentally aware of both these poles in our lived existence. He called Being by the name Eros or more correctly Libido and Non-Being by the name Thanatos (Death). For him there were two drives, one the drive to life, i.e., Eros or Libido and two, its polar counterpart, the drive to death or the death drive, namely Thanatos. May is once again interesting on Freud’s concept of the death instinct. Let’s listen once again to his wise words:

The concept of the death instinct is an excellent example of the point that Freud went beyond technical reason and tried to keep open the tragic dimension of life. His emphasis on the inevitability of hostility, aggression and self-destructiveness in existence also, from one standpoint, has this meaning. (Ibid., p.106)

In summary, then, we may say with all the existential analysts that they hold that confronting death gives the most positive reality to life itself. It makes my individual existence real, absolute and concrete. In the end of the day I am aware of one stark certainty and that is that I am going to die, and this awareness is never something morbid, morose or creepy. Rather, it is, in fact, liberating and freeing of the soul in a great and profound sense. In fact, it gives my everyday existence a new and deeper value, or as May puts it “an absolute value.” (Ibid., p. 107)

As I have stated before in these pages, it is death and not sex that is the big repression of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. Or to put it in Marcel’s or May’s more philosophical terms, the great repression is that of ontology itself or of Being and its necessary counterpart Non-Being.

I will finish this post with a quotation May takes from his friend the great existential theologian Paul Tillich. It is a sobering but rewarding thought to reflect on daily. One could do worse than adopt it as a personal motto:
“The self-affirmation of a being is the stronger the more nonbeing it can take into itself.” (Quoted ibid., p. 108)

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