Wednesday, August 4

Welcome Back Uncle Sigmund! … Trump, Brexit, Televangelists’ Hang-Ups and the Return of the Repressed


Would a couple of you please carry Uncle Sigmund’s luggage? (I’d do it myself, but this damn sciatica has laid me low for over three years now. OK … good … thanks … ) And, Uncle, please be careful of that first step down from the train. Remember, you’re not as young as you used to be. We have a lot to talk about, now that you’ve returned.  On the way to your hotel, we can discuss some topics I’m sure you’ll be very interested in, specifically Donald Trump, Brexit, and the fabled sexual peccadilloes of conservative American televangelists.  I have a feeling the world is finally catching up with you.  What’s that you say, Uncle? All three phenomena are actually the same, like the heads of Hydra all belonging to a single monster? Fascinating. I guess this is a case of great minds thinking alike, or at least, a case of one great mind, yours, thinking like one mediocre mind, mine! So … yes … let’s explore that.


As I understand it, Uncle, you asserted that human beings regularly engage in the practice of repressing into the unconscious mind a whole spectrum of anti-social, lustful, disruptive, and even outright pathological impulses and desires that, were they consciously pursued and acted out, would make life in anything like a civilized, coherent community impossible.  As one might expect coming from you, you argued that a great many of these impulses were sexual in nature, and not a few were associated with issues clustering around Oedipus and Elektra complexes centered on one’s clandestine sexual desire for one’s opposite-sex parent.  More generally, these repressed desires and impulses were particular expressions of an overarching “pleasure principle,” i.e., the repressed desire to pursue one’s own gratification to the exclusion of any considerations that might be loosely termed “social” or “altruistic”. To the extent that such patterns can be summarized in a single motto, a good rule-of-thumb description might be taken from a recent exhortation by TV's preeminent exotic-foods gourmet, Andrew Zimmern … umm … someone has told you about TV, right, Uncle? … ah! … splendid! … who says “If it looks good, eat it!”. Except that the updated version would be something like “If it feels good, do it!”

But the other side of the coin -- do I have this right so far, Uncle? -- is that, precisely because these impulses are anti-social, disruptive, and inconsistent with life in civilized society, they are interdicted by a whole complex network of taboos, prohibitions, sanctions, and penalties involving ostracism, sometimes even direct criminal prosecution, that force us to, not only repress them, but also to reject acknowledging them by our conscious minds.  As you noted in Civilization and Its Discontents, "civilization is bought at the price of inhibitions", a point you repeated in the first of your Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. We pretend these impulses are not there, and then even repress the pretense of pretending.  We not only forget, we also forget the very act of forgetting. These orphaned and unacknowledged impulses and desires are like stars and planets and gas-clouds that fall past the event horizon of a galaxy's black hole and that consequently get sucked into the singularity at the center.  With one major difference.  Unlike material that falls into a galactic black hole, the tabooed materials -- desires, thoughts, impulses, etc. -- that fall into the black hole of the human id can return, in fact, quite often do return.  (Your contemporary, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of this in his The Gay Science as the "eternal return".) Sometimes, as you wrote of in 1901, Uncle, in your Psychopathology of Everyday Life, as mere quirks -- slips of the tongue, errors in writing, infelicitous metaphors -- and sometimes and in extreme cases as grotesque prejudices and even insensate violence. So perhaps a better analogy would be an unstable, pre-supernova star instead of a black hole. (I realize, Uncle, that you don't know what these things are. We have discovered a lot in the hundred years or so you've been away. I've enclosed several "executive summaries" and a reading list inside the envelope holding the Seattle tourist brochures.) With both an unstable star and the human id, an enormous amount of energy is held inside a very compressed space. If and when that energy escapes, it will occasionally do so with a degree of violence that at times can scarcely be imagined, wreaking vengeance on whatever agency -- gravity or cultural taboos -- that once confined it.


As you may have already read in, e.g., the NY Times and the Seattle Times, we Americans have been going through something like this with the candidacy of Donald Trump.  I realize you are probably not terribly conversant with American politics.  That's OK.  Neither are most Americans.  And they haven't even spent the last century in Vienna.  But on the other hand, you may be more conversant that you realize.  You can, in fact, think, in classically Freudian terms, of Donald J. Trump as the particularized, incarnate personification of your concept of the id ... except that Trump is an id with no ego ... and certainly with no superego. I myself have written about this before -- even using your terminology, Uncle -- from the standpoint of Trump's supporters.  But Trump is also a psychoanalytic phenomenon, in that, as the id incarnate, he provides a channel or an avenue -- probably more like a Santa Monica Freeway -- that facilitates the return of our long-suppressed animus against people who are, in the broadest possible sense, "not like us".

But beyond even that, Trump is a cautionary tale in what can happen to a society when the inequities, injustices, frustrations, and disappointments of a whole "underclass" of people are continually, habitually, reflexively -- and at  this point, even institutionally -- ignored, neglected, and suppressed by the dominant, political, social, and economic elites.  There is a whole substratum of American society -- in the inner cities (at least, the parts that remain un-gentrified), in the tattered remnants of the middle class, in the disenfranchised who yearn for change but who are repeatedly frustrated by the political-party establishments, in those who feel denigrated by the academic and economic elites, etc. -- that has been repressed for a generation-plus by the overlying echelons of power and privilege. And that long-repressed substratum is now returning.  At times with a vengeance. Because of his prominence as a political candidate and his reputation -- I think vastly over-inflated -- as a successful businessman, Trump, teaching by example, gives his followers blanket permission to give voice and even overt action to all those suppressed, interdicted, and taboo-laden impulses, attitudes, and desires that the dominant society has treated with such genteel disdain and contempt.  The dominant society seems to have made the fatal error of allowing itself to be seduced into believing that, because those impulses were repressed, that they therefore had ceased to ceased to exist. And we are now in the process of discovering that, like all repressive acts, repression does not mean annihilation, merely an abdication of conscious control.

But I believe Americans should be of good cheer. Our European siblings have committed the same fallacy, so we are in excellent company.  European fears of immigrants, cultural "mongrelization," and economic decline -- in large measure as a result of immigration into the EU from the Levant -- have combined with the EU's designedly porous borders to form a veritable autobahn for the release of previously repressed anger, resentment, resistance, and xenophobia, on the part of Europe's middle classes, that Europe's own versions of Donald Trump -- Nigel Farage in the UK, Marine LePen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, et al. -- have used as leverage to begin to push toward a reversion back to a more nation-centric Europe of the 1950s with rigorously enforced borders, competing interests, and -- in the end -- perhaps the kind of interlocking, intra-European alliances that eventuated in two world wars in 30 years. Given the havoc wreaked upon the world for at least 150 years by a Europe comprising a few-dozen pristinely sovereign nations, one has to wonder if a Europe whose economy is run from Brussels, however heavy-handedly, is really not preferable to the traditional model of Europe-as-abattoir. As a victim of anti-Jewish prejudice in late-19th-century Vienna, Uncle, you -- and certainly your father -- are no doubt more thoroughly schooled than I in such considerations. Except that now, the previously repressed impulses being acted out are directed more toward Muslims, though no doubt anti-Jewish prejudice always stands ready, should a Continent-wide plague of brotherhood unexpectedly break out.


In retrospect, of course, we -- especially Americans -- should have seen it coming. We are unique among developed nations in the respect we accord organized religion -- and  its ministers, especially its tele-ministers.  At least, that is true for a significant segment of the American population. The problem is that conservative American Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, are stringently Puritanical when it comes to matters sexual, as the recent and ongoing debates about same-sex marriage, contraception, and abortion eloquently demonstrate.  Per your account of repression, Uncle, we Americans are proficient in sublimating sexual desire into any number of channels, especially specifically religious channels -- song, worship, evangelism, moral exhortations, "chastity pledges," etc., etc. -- and so sexual desire becomes the American equivalent of European anti-Semitism (both Islamophobic and Judaeophobic) and xenophobia.  And as with all such acts of repression, the contents of the id previously repressed by American sexual morality have a way of returning to haunt us. As usual, with a vengeance. Hence the Bill Golthard scandal. Hence the Ted Haggard scandal. Hence the Jimmy Swaggart scandal. Hence the Jim Bakker scandal. Hence the apparently interminable horror of the ongoing pedophilia scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Really, Uncle ... need I go on? I think not. The demons evoked by erotic repression are no less vicious when repressed, and no more clement when they escape confinement.

To what you have written, Uncle, I would only add the following:  perhaps the most insidious aspect of all these examples of "the return of the repressed" -- an aspect they all share, much as the aforementioned Hydra shares a common compliment of heads -- is that the "return" is, in each case, prompted by issues that are real, substantive, deserving of being addressed rationally -- and that are not at all the product of fevered, bloodshot-eyed prejudice and bigotry. Yes, the borders of the US really do need to be secured.  Yes, substantive steps really do need to be taken to address income inequality and the consequent withering of the middle class.  Yes, Europe really does need a much more rigorous system of immigration and border control. Yes, the reluctance of religious minorities to culturally assimilate really is a severe issue -- as even a casual stroll through the Muswell Hill and Crouch End boroughs of London will demonstrate.  The problem is that, in both the US and Europe, the elites who should have been dealing with these issues with solicitude, rationality, and moderation have been so derelict for so long that now -- the people who voted "Leave" in the Brexit referendum do have a salient point here -- the only way for the repressed to return is through action that is radical, at times irrational, and in the long run counterproductive.

So, dear Uncle Sigmund, I leave you with the words of the late Janis Joplin in "Bobby McGee", words that can serve admirably as an anthem of sorts for "the return of the repressed," words you perhaps can appreciate even more than we, her contemporaries:  sometimes indeed "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose".

James R. Cowles

Image credits
Sigmund Freud ... public domain
"Sleep of Reason" ... Goya ... public domain
"Sleep of Reason" "hands" sculpture ... Creative Commons ... Flickr
"The Nightmare" ... Henry Fuseli ... public domain

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