Saturday, December 20, 2008


I love Sigmund Freud's Civilization and its Discontents (1931). Modern psychiatrists may eschew Freud's theories, but I still admire Freud's lucid writing. He may not be a scientific authority anymore, but he remains a superb essayist. Civilization and its Discontents encapsulates Freud's thought on pleasure, unpleasure, happiness, unhappiness, religion and neurosis. In our world, we struggle to find happiness and avoid unhappiness. Freud discussed these issues at length. To that extent, Freud's words have abiding resonance.

Today I examine only a tiny wrinkle from Civilization and its Discontents: The role of alcohol in securing human happiness in civilized life. In adulthood--and even before--human beings in our society seem always to yearn for Friday night because that is their first opportunity to become intoxicated. Why this yearning? Why do human beings in civilization yearn to escape the reality of which they are otherwise so proud? What accounts for this desire to flee the world? We attempt to flee situations that are dangerous, frightening, threatening, depressing, maddening or harmful. If human beings in civilization want to flee their everyday lives through alcohol, does that mean "real life" is dangerous, frightening, threatening, depressing, maddening and harmful? When I see people flocking to bars, pubs and alehouses, or when I see people heading home from work with 12-packs and wine bottles under their arms, or when I hear people at work say: "Don't make me stay past 5; you're cutting into my drinking time," I answer that question in the affirmative.

Freud discusses human beings' natural responses to "real life" in Chapter 2. He writes: "Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures." Civilization and its Discontents (Norton 1961) at p. 23. In other words, life heaps external pressures upon us. They make "real life" both dangerous and depressing. Recognizing that, Freud suggests that human beings seek to overcome these pressures by adopting three major "palliative measures:" "(1) Powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; (2) substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and (3) intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it." P. 23-24. Intoxication, then, ranks among the three ways in which human beings struggle to reduce their misery in life. Freud reserves special praise for intoxication when he continues: "Something of the kind is indispensable...[i]ntoxicating substances influence our body and alter its chemistry." P. 24. He recognizes that "real life" besieges our bodies every day, and that one of the best ways to nullify the pain is to "alter our chemistry" through alcohol.

Freud understood that human beings want "happiness" in their lives. He also understood that achieving "happiness" implicates two divergent goals. He observes that the "endeavor" toward happiness "aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and unpleasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure." P. 25. Happiness, then, requires us to "avoid unpleasure" at the same time we "experience pleasure." After all, if life brings us pain and unpleasurable sensations, happiness would be impossible. Avoiding unpleasure, then, is the prerequisite to happiness. It is a condition precedent to happiness.

But avoiding unpleasure is no easy task, for Freud writes: "Unhappiness is much less difficult to experience" than happiness. P. 26. He goes on to identify three main causes of unhappiness: (1) Our own bodies, "which [are] doomed to decay and dissolution;" (2) "the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction;" and (3) "our relations to other men."

Freud is absolutely right about the "external world's" capacity to inflict "overwhelming and merciless" destruction on human beings. In today's society, most people worry about their jobs, their money, their homes and their economic futures. They worry about whether they will be able to pay their rent, or send their children to college, or even to afford food. If they work, they long to leave the office and have some time to themselves. If they do not work, they worry about going homeless. The "real world--with all its pressures and anxiety--quickly drives them to unhappiness. Rather than experiencing pleasure, most human beings in civilization find themselves crushed under unhappiness. They experience pain, anxiety, fear, depression and unrequited longing every day. These negative emotions bar their way to true happiness, for "an absence of unpleasure" is the prerequisite to happiness. And these negative emotions stem merely from the "external world," not "relations to other men." I will address the heartbreak, disappointment and frustration that stem from "relations to other men" in a later essay. Here, it is enough to say that "the external world" piles untold unhappiness upon us.

How, then, do we cope with "real life?" If the external world produces anxiety, depression, unpleasure, disappointment and difficulty, how do human beings "palliate" their negative emotions? Alcohol is the readiest weapon. Freud acknowledges this: "The service rendered by intoxicating media in the struggle for happiness and in keeping misery at a distance is so highly prized that individuals and peoples alike have given them an established place in the economics of their libido." P. 28. In other words, human beings in civilization know that the "external world" will besiege them with anxiety, so they regularly resort to alcohol; they give it an "established place" in their mental lives. More to the point, Freud observes that alcohol gives us: "[a] greatly desired degree of independence from the external world. For one knows that, with the help of this 'drowner of cares' one can at any time withdraw from the pressure of reality and find refuge in a world of one's own with better conditions of sensibility." Id. In essence, alcohol tempers the "pressures" implicit in the "external world." Although "real life" may make us feel powerless, alcohol gives us a fleeting "independence" from its unhappy grip.

All this theoretical rumination means little without tangible examples. Earlier this week, I encountered a friend who appeared visibly downcast and exhausted. I knew that he worked almost every day and that he was not satisfied with his living situation. I, too, had not had a good day. I felt unhappy and anxious. Negative emotions clung to me and it did not seem that anything could break their hold on me. The "external world" had done its work on us both. It had "maddened, frightened and depressed us" with ceaseless labors, uncertainties and obligations. We worried. We did not feel good at all. And we definitely were not "happy."

But then I had an idea: "Would you like to come up to my apartment and have drink?" He accepted my invitation. For the next two hours, we drank vodka and all the negative emotions melted away. Rather than stare off in anxious reflection about the future, we laughed, smiled and felt good about our lives. I remember wondering why I ever felt unhappy in the first place. Of course, the alcohol had "altered my chemistry" and "drowned my cares," but while under its influence, everything truly felt "all right." During those moments, "unhappiness was absent." I had only positive mental energy, even if it was intoxicated mental energy. I slept soundly that night, even if it me made me feel groggy and sluggish the next morning. When I awoke, the unhappiness was back. But at least for a few hours, alcohol had freed me from its grip.

How many other people do this? What does it say about our civilization? Are we all doomed to be unhappy except in those fleeting hours when we chemically disable our minds from care? If so, we inhabit a depressingly unfulfilling world. Even the wealthy--whom the "external world" ostensibly touches less harshly than the rest of us--never seem to be happy, either. Human beings always seem to create their own mental impasses, which in turn lead to anxiety and unhappiness. Alcohol appears to be the only sure way to ward off those negative emotions. And it is a crude method at best, for it only keeps them away for a few hours at a time.

Perhaps it is a quixotic adventure to pursue happiness. After all, if the "external world" is bound to heap insuperable pressures upon us, and if our "relations to other men" are similarly bound to create disappointment and despair, how can we ever experience predominantly positive feelings? In other words, good feelings come upon us far less often than bad ones, and until we cast out the bad ones, we can never be truly happy. Yet we all plod ceaselessly forward in the (vain?) hope of one day banishing those bad feelings once and for all. Perhaps it is only alcohol that keeps our hope alive. And that is rather pathetic in itself.

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