Navigation – Plan du site

Myths of Civilization in Freud and Lawrence

Michael Bell
p. 9-26

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, trans. Lysander Kemp (Harmondsworth: Penguin (...)

1Writing around 1950 the Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, attributed the defeat of the Aztecs to what he called “imperial fatigue.”1 This might have seemed a poet’s phrase, too fanciful for a serious historian, until a startlingly apt contemporary instance was provided by the sudden collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989. More specifically, Paz attributed the Aztecs’ defeat to their belief, even before the arrival of Hernán Cortés, that their gods had deserted them (Paz 85). Whether or not historical effects can be attributed to mythic causes it would seem likely that the end of an empire might expose its underlying myths and bring them into question. Certainly, the modernist generation of the early twentieth century provided a critical illumination of such strains some decades before the formal dismantling of the British empire in the mid century; a process that continued through the rest of the century with the gradual uprooting of the mental and psychological underpinnings of colonialism. It was no accident, therefore, that for several modernist writers myth was not just a literary means but a focus of philosophical self-examination; as it was also in other fields of enquiry such as the new modern disciplines of anthropology and psychoanalysis. The study of myth provides insight into the mental and affective structures of a given culture including, as Freud was astute enough to realise, one’s own. So modernist writers sought not just to use myth but to understand the mythopoeic impulse as such. They had begun to realise that man is an inescapably mythopoeic animal.

2Accordingly, this was a period in which the anthropological project of enquiring into the myths of others, a project deeply intertwined with colonialism, was increasingly transformed into a means of critical self-reflection. Anthropology was internalised as psychology. But this process was, in the first instance, partial and ambivalent: for the analysis of myth can always lend itself to self-deception as much as to self-understanding. How does a mythopoeic animal go about the business of self-understanding? Freud’s way of approaching this question was different from that of contemporary creative writers such as Joyce, Yeats or Lawrence.

  • 2 I see such moments, for example, in the following: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychologi (...)

3To examine this more closely, it is fruitful to distinguish two different levels at which myth can operate. Or rather, perhaps, to understand the workings of myth we have stretched the term a little beyond its common usage. For, as well as the evident content and structure of specific stories or rituals, there lies the more suffusive, less tangible, level of a Weltanschauung, an overall dispositional view of the world at a level too encompassing, and usually too unselfconscious, to become an object of justification in itself. The world view contains the more evident myths and can be illuminated by them. Freud speaks readily enough of the Weltanschauung of primitive peoples, and indeed that of psychoanalysis itself, and yet it is not clear that he can fully see into his own.2 The Weltanschauung, then, is a governing level of life disposition which escapes attention for the same reason that it most urgently requires it and it is this level of myth behind the conscious study of myth that I wish to examine. More specifically, I am concerned with a fundamental opposition, at the level of Weltanschauung, which secretly governs much modern literature and cultural analysis.

  • 3 Letter to A.W. McLeod, 4 October 1912. The letters of D.H. Lawrence, vol. 1, ed. James T. Boulton (...)

4There are two mutually opposed world views for which Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche provide the classic formulations with Lawrence, of course, in the Nietzschean camp. This dispositional opposition governs the rival conceptions of civilization in these writers. In contrast to Freud’s tragic conception of civilization as based on the necessary repression and sublimation of instinct, Nietzschean tragedy was an affirmation of life; or as Lawrence was to put it, “tragedy should be a great kick at misery.”3

5Civilization, it is scarcely necessary to say, is a largely differential term, defined to a significant degree by its own image of its opposite, which is often conceived as the primitive or the barbaric. By the early twentieth century, an internal self-critique of European civilization had developed the radical possibility, already mooted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that civilization was not merely prone to vices and corruption but was in itself a radical form of corruption. Such a conception was expressed by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) in which the Enlightenment ideal of classical civilization, Winckelmann’s “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur,” was revealed to be the Apollonian dream imposed on Dionysian frenzy; an imposition which in the course of time had, if not killed off the Dionysian, then rendered it merely residual, feared and dishonoured.

6Nietzsche’s diagnostic view that Dionysos should be restored to honour is a double affirmation, both philosophical and psychological. Philosophically, it affirms the importance of the mythopoeic as such and he insists that the gods, as myths, cannot be reduced to an idea. Psychologically, it affirms a radical trust in the instinctual nature of man. Nietzsche put the latter point directly and practically in The Gay Science, a title which Lawrence, of course, echoed in Le Gai savaire, his original title for Study of Thomas Hardy:

  • 4 The Gay Science, trans. Water Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), 236.

I find those people disagreeable in whom every natural inclination immediately becomes a sickness, something that disfigures them or is downright infamous: it is they that have seduced us to hold that man’s inclinations and instincts are evil. They are the cause of our great injustice against our nature, against all nature. There are enough people who might well entrust themselves to their instincts with grace and without care; but they do not, from fear of this imagined “evil character” of nature. That is why we find so little nobility among men; for it always the mark of nobility that one feels no fear of oneself.4

7Rupert Birkin puts the same view to Gerald Crich in their opening argument about spontaneity in Women in Love:

  • 5 Women in Love, ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pr (...)

“[…] I think it was perfectly good form in Laura to bolt from Lupton to the church door. It was almost a masterpiece in good form. It’s the hardest thing in the world to act spontaneously on one’s impulses—and it’s the only really gentlemanly thing to do—provided you are fit to do it.”
“And I,’ said Gerald grimly, “shouldn’t like to be in a world of people who acted individually and spontaneously, as you call it. We should all be cutting everybody else’s throat in five minutes.”
“That means you would like to be cutting everybody else’s throat,” said Birkin.5

  • 6 I think of moments such as “In the realm of the mind, on the other hand, what is primitive is so c (...)

8This exchange indicates very clearly how a temperamental disposition, below any level of proof or demonstrability, forms itself into a world view and then hardens into self-fulfilling dogma. As is well known, Freud came to the view, espoused here by Gerald, that the primordial instincts of man are intrinsically destructive and must be subjected to civilized repression and sublimation. The impact of this world view can be felt throughout Freud’s œuvre not just at the level of explicit argument, as in the foundational myth of patricide in Totem and Taboo, but in the rhetoric of his exposition and the premises he does not feel it necessary to argue.6

9It is understandable that Freud should have kept a wary distance from Nietzsche for he recognised how much Nietzsche had anticipated his own insights and one may speculate whether a closer engagement on his part with Nietzsche might usefully have enforced a recognition both of their actual difference and of the dispositional level at which it was formed. But probably not, for temperamentally-based world views are usually unshaken by rival conceptions; indeed, they are actively reinforced. For they always include their own pre-emptive version of the opposition. So here, for example, Gerald’s phrase “as you call it” indicates just such a radical incommunicability in which each “understands” the other for his own purposes. Lawrence’s special genius as a novelist lay in his recognition of these fundamental dispositional differences and the recurrent critical charge that Gerald is over-determined as a character may have some substance but as a dismissive judgement it typically comes from readers blind to this aspect of the Lawrencian conception. Likewise, throughout the novel it is Birkin, the “Lawrencian” character, who has the deepest sense of the futility of argument.

  • 7 Freud develops this point in “On ‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness” [Die “Kul (...)

10So too, on the grander scale of intellectual history, both Freud and Nietzsche acknowledged the element of truth in the view to which they were opposed. Freud recognised that the instincts are frequently distorted by civilized repression: that was the very premise and point of psychoanalysis.7 In an extended version of the “as you call it” formula, Freud’s The Future of an Illusion is structured as an abortive dialogue in which an opposed view is ventriloquised by Freud not really to challenge so much as to expound his own view.

11For their part, both Nietzsche and Lawrence, in the passages quoted, concede much to what I will call the “Freudian” myth. Strictly speaking, they offer no positive view of the instincts only a refusal to assume that they are dangerous as such. And this refusal is in turn heavily qualified by their mutual specification that the ability to live spontaneously from instinctual impulses is a difficult achievement likely to be encountered only in rare individuals. Analytically considered, or in their objectifiable truth claims, therefore, these world views may not be so far apart, yet their attitudinal opposition is radical and pervasive. It could be objected here that the remarks quoted from Nietzsche and Lawrence bear on a different level of the question: they are concerned with attitudes towards instinctual impulse in modern human beings whereas Freud is concerned with the remote origins of the civilizing process. But that is precisely where the power of myths has to be acknowledged for the mythic account reflects, and endorses, present day attitudes.

  • 8 See Totem and Taboo, 1 and 3–4, note 3.

12This can be seen in one of the classic expressions of what I am calling the “Freudian” myth in modern literature, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which starkly reveals the self-reinforcing totalisation of a dispositional world view. The psychic model of the id and the superego maps directly on to the colonial relation as well as on to an elite view of social order. With vicious circularity, each of these orders lends a naturalised authority to the others; each is an image of necessary, restraining authority. Moreover, all parties accepted the contemporary assumption, as in Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s How Natives Think (orig. 1910), that tribal peoples around the world represented the distant past of modern Europeans. Freud would warn of possible misreadings here since such peoples were themselves at some unknown distance from their origins but he did not question the underlying assumption that they represented an earlier rather than a different line of development.8 And so Conrad, for all his devastating insight into the workings of the contemporary colonial psyche, does not deny the underlying claim, and perhaps the necessity, of the colonial order as a dutiful protectorate. Indeed, the perceived evil in the novella lies in the dereliction of this duty. And even when Marlow ponders why the hungry African crewmen on the boat did not kill and eat their European passengers it is their assumed, quasi-civilized, “restraint” that arouses his puzzled admiration. Actually, in the evolutionary view it is precisely their primitive nature that requires a powerful restraint such as the arbitrary absolutism of taboo. So the African stoker performs his duty with a superstitious terror of the hungry demon in the furnace.

13The contrast with Lawrence is especially clear in the episode in The Rainbow in which Skrebensky returns from Africa to tell Ursula of its special darkness. This amounts to a corrective allusion to Conrad’s novella. It is Skrebensky’s voice which particularly excites Ursula, just as Kurtz’s does Marlow, but the horrified fascination with which Marlow, and Conrad, look on the supposed outbreak of instinctual energy is now placed diagnostically by Lawrence as a projection of Skrebensky’s own repressive personality. In Skrebensky’s exoticising of Africa Lawrence anticipates the essential recognition within much postcolonial critique: the supposed “other” is a projection of the repressed self. And likewise, of course, Lawrence’s interest in tribal and ancient peoples was directly opposite to Conrad’s or Freud’s. For him, they offered possible examples of alternative life forms in which the relation to the instincts is precisely not one of restraint. If Civilization and its Discontents, along with The Future of an Illusion, may be taken as a final summary of the Freudian view of civilization, then Lawrence’s de facto equivalent is Etruscan Places and it is instructive to compare the guiding assumptions of these works with respect specifically to science, religion and art for all three of these categories function in significant measure as rival modes of mythical world creation. Each of them constitutes a potential world view governing the meaning of the others.

  • 9 “The Novel and the Feelings,” in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele (Cambrid (...)
  • 10 Freud’s “Preface to the Hebrew Translation” of his works may, for example, be understood as using (...)

14Freud, of course, was committed to a scientific view of the world. Where Lawrence complained that “We have no language for the feelings,” Freud remarked: “It is not easy to deal scientifically with the feelings” (Freud’s emphasis).9 Freud’s concern that psychoanalysis should be accorded scientific respectability was understandable but notoriously problematic. At times he wished to claim empirically demonstrable results comparable to those of the natural sciences yet he also recognised that the id and the superego were no less mythical entities than Dionysos and Apollo. Much of the time, he sought scientific status in a broader sense which no doubt gets blurred by the familiar problem of the German word Wissenschaft meaning both “science” and “scholarship.”10 Whereas “scholarship” denotes institutionalised and consensual modes of enquiry, “science” requires demonstrable and disprovable hypotheses. Myth is a legitimate object of scholarly enquiry but hardly of scientific proof. Yet Freud wanted to turn myth into knowledge and, as a medical practitioner, he felt the need for something more scientifically authoritative than historical scholarship. Maybe there is an internal psychological motive here too. For Freud sought to give the impersonal authority of science to a model of the psyche which was in itself a statement of authority and control. Once again, one may speculate how it might have affected his thought if he had accepted more readily its own peculiar status but the present context rather requires asking how far his conception of science was itself an unconscious myth.

15There may be several senses in which modern science could be seen as mythic but the most important for present purposes arises from the paradigmatic status often accorded to science in modernity. Modernity is sometimes defined, as in Auguste Comte’s positivism, as the scientific age and Freud quite reasonably wished to develop an understanding of the psyche that would be compatible with the scientific world view. But when natural science becomes the presumptive paradigm of all knowledge and understanding it shades into myth and it was a crucial motive in several major modern writers to resist this assumption and to relativise the claims of science. Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Lawrence’s The Rainbow all present man, in a post-Nietzschean spirit, as a mythopoeic, world-creating being for whom natural science is just one of the modes in which the world can be ordered. In these writers science itself is placed under the sign of myth. This, of course, has nothing to do with New Age rejection of science, or a questioning of its truth status within its own domain, it merely seeks to place scientific understanding within a more inclusive sense of the humanly created world. Freud’s scientism was truly mythic, we might say, because he did not know it was: by contrast, these writers recognised the mythic dimension of science.

16At the same time, however, the continuing impact of nineteenth-century positivism in the culture at large was to define science as the final phase of human culture not just following, but displacing, the mythic and religious world views. From the positivist viewpoint, myth and religion, whatever cultural wealth they may involve, were ultimately forms of superstition. Comte himself, of course, recognised that science could not of itself provide the direction of human life, particularly on the social scale. So while he sought to turn social life into an object of science, thereby becoming in effect the French founder of sociology, he at the same time proposed an institutionalised religion of Humanity as a secular version of medieval Catholicism. This has generally been found not just absurd but intrinsically contradictory, comparable in that regard to Lawrence’s fictional model of a revived religion in The Plumed Serpent. But the underlying problem, in either case, was not absurd and it was differently addressed by the relevant modern writers. Ulysses, The Magic Mountain, Joseph and his Brothers, and The Rainbow all acknowledge their own status as mythopoeic but no longer in the naïve archaic sense. These works subsume both religion and science into a self-consciously aesthetic understanding of mythopoeisis. So in Ulysses, as various disciplines are invoked by succeeding episodes, the effect is to indicate a standpoint which can entertain them all, including science. Unfortunately, however, the word “aesthetic” is so confused, limited and diluted by its nineteenth-century history that its philosophical thrust is commonly lost. The intellectual standpoint of these books is essentially what Friedrich Schiller defined as the “aesthetic” and passed to modern thought most notably through Nietzsche.

  • 11So übt Natur die Mutterplicht/ […]/ Erhält sie das Getriebe/ Durch Hunger and durch Liebe.Civil (...)

17In this connection it is, I think, revealing that, in section six of Civilization and its Discontents, Freud introduces his claim that there is a “special, independent aggressive instinct” by quoting, as if appealing to classical authority, the concluding line of Schiller’s poem Die Weltweisen: rendered in James Strachey’s translation as “Hunger and love are what move the world.”11 Actually what Freud, further abetted by the translation, quotes as a bald statement of these primary human drives, is more complexly contextualised in Schiller’s poem. We don’t need to make much of this in itself: English usage constantly makes use of Shakespearean phrases such as “the milk of human kindness” with meanings remote from their original contexts. But it is nonetheless suggestive that in Schiller’s poem it is a motherly nature who uses hunger and love to animate and hold together human life until man’s capacity for philosophical thought has developed sufficiently for him to do this for himself. On this model, the primary natural instincts do indeed await the creation of a civilized order but they are seen in themselves as benign, while the whole poem looks with some irony on philosophical thought which always follows, rather than creates, the complex spontaneity of human achievement. This is, after all, the Schiller who honoured the “naïve” condition of pre-modern culture.

18The complex impact of the line comes from its literary contextualising and if Freud ignores, or is blind to, this dimension of it then this is in keeping with a blindness to the larger strain of thought on civilization and culture for which Schiller was not just an eloquent, but a philosophically cogent, spokesman. In his treatise On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters (1795), Schiller also proposed a speculative model of human cultural evolution but one in which the crucial, foundational stage was what he called the aesthetic. This was not necessarily associated with beauty or with the realm of art. It was, in the first instance, the capacity of human beings to escape the compulsions of their condition and to reflect freely on their values. Art is important because it allows this capacity to be exercised in its purest form on a potential infinity of human possibilities. And so for Schiller, the aesthetic was not only the foundation of human development, from which science itself would develop, but also its final phase as a conscious appreciation of art and beauty in a properly aesthetic spirit enables the expression, expansion and critical understanding of the human world including the realm of scientific knowledge. Beauty is important in the examination or celebration of values because it affects us by exciting desire rather than exercising restraint.

19In a later manifestation of this tradition, indeed contemporaneously with the modernist generation, the neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer proposed in his three-volume The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-5-9) another tripartite model of human development comparable to the positivist except that in his account the mythic, the religious and the scientific phases were gathered into a more inclusive, and internally relativistic, sense of symbolic world making. For him, scientific objectivity, while indeed a crucial gain at the level of objective knowledge, is a great loss at the level of affective participation in the world such as was apparently enjoyed in archaic myth. On this model, taking science as the paradigm of knowledge was a fundamental error, and an epistemological trap. Cassirer saw the aesthetic as a crucial achievement of the modern world view because it combines inward affective participation with cognitive objectivity. Again, it is evident that the aesthetic on this model represents a modern Aufhebung, or sublation, of archaic myth. It is myth infused with philosophical self-consciousness, or, if you like, philosophical self-consciousness defined as myth.

  • 12 Civilization and its Discontents, 135, note 3.
  • 13 Complete Works, vol. XXI, 6.

20The early twentieth century, then, inherited two fundamental world views, the scientific and the aesthetic, which suggest in turn different models of civilization. To appreciate the mutual jostling of these terms it is helpful to pause on James Strachey’s rendering of Freud’s title Das Unbehagen in der Kultur as Civilization and Its Discontents. The translation significantly modifies the original by moving the theme into a more conscious register. “Discontent” may suggest a possibility of articulation, as in political discontent, whereas Unbehagen suggests a rumbling unease below the level of articulate consciousness, an implication that the translator himself acknowledges elsewhere.12 And in accordance with this, the distinction between civilization and culture is even more loaded. On the face of it, Freud in his slightly earlier, but closely related work, The Future of an Illusion seems to have justified the translator in advance when he “scorn[s] to distinguish between culture and civilization.”13 But this is a little misleading as Freud was refusing here to accept a specific use of these terms.

21The distinction in question had been notably, if not notoriously, developed by Thomas Mann in his Reflections of an Unpolitical Man (1918). Mann used the term “civilization” contentiously as a pejorative term in opposition to “culture.” Following a long-standing, nationalistically imbued argument, he opposed the traditional hierarchical culture of Germany to the democratic and rationalised politics associated with the rest of Europe and especially France. The text is painful to read although, like Comte’s religion of Humanity, it reflects the anguished recognition of an authentic problem: the quasi-religious deficit in modern political orders. Can a society be maintained without shared values beyond those of political rationality itself? Over the next decade, Thomas Mann distanced himself from these views and espoused the cause of European civilization; most notably by the conscious mythopoeia of his biblical tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers. And it is understandable, indeed creditable, that Freud should wish to distance himself from the political implications of this German preoccupation, yet the distinction has a bearing on Freud’s argument in so far as the translator’s use of “civilization” rather than “culture” is actually very appropriate. If Freud, quite rightly, sees culture and civilization as two sides of the same coin, they nonetheless have an aspectival difference which, for that very reason, affects how the whole is seen. Although both terms imply induction into an impersonal order or set of forms, the word “culture” privileges the internal processes of custom and feeling while “civilization” privileges the visible forms of law and political organization. In this regard, the translator’s choice reflects very accurately the underlying tendency of Freud’s thought. For in dismissing this distinction Freud was not collapsing civilization into culture but absorbing culture into civilization. The translator’s choice reflects how for Freud what is at stake is ultimately an imposed order for that, after all, is the basis of the discontents. Discontent is the product of restraint.

22In this regard it is apt that Thomas Mann in the Reflections defined his own position as “aesthetic.” He did so with some self-irony because he was aware of the common overtones of the word in the wake of nineteenth-century aestheticism. But he also knew that it was the correct term. Although his immediate theme was a different one, political rather than artistic or philosophical, his use of this term bears upon that of the present argument. As has already been remarked, in the line of thought stemming from Schiller through Nietzsche, the essential index of aesthetic culture is the individual who does not require restraint. The passages quoted from Nietzsche and Lawrence are squarely in this tradition: Nietzsche speaks of those who might trust themselves to their instincts “with grace”; Schiller having made “grace” a term of art to denote this inner harmony of impulse and moral form. So too, Lawrence’s Birkin uses the artistic term “masterpiece” for the bride’s action and sees it as encompassing “good form” in the social arena. The outer form of civilization is made meaningful here by the inner force of aesthetic culture. But at this point it is equally necessary to note the emphasis both authors place on the rare or noble individual for this suggests the strain placed on the notion of the aesthetic since Schiller’s time.

23Schiller had proposed an optimistic Enlightenment project of education with an ultimately national impact. But by Nietzsche’s time a damaging inner dynamic of institutionalised culture had become apparent; and most articulately so in Germany where there had been the greatest investment in the idea of culture. Unfortunately, although culture represents in principle the inner spirit as opposed to the outer forms of civilization, culture itself is constantly subject to empty externalisation. Indeed, this is a further reason why Freud’s Kultur could be so readily translated as “civilization”: for Kultur is ultimately only another French loan word representing an institutionalised order. The Germanic word Freud does not use here is Bildung. Whereas “culture” tends to refer to a collective and reified phenomenon, the word Bildung, the primary term for both Schiller and Nietzsche, emphasises an individual process of formation.

24It is no accident that the long-standing German concern with this process should find expression not just in the novel, but in the artistically self-conscious sub-genre known as the Bildungsroman; or that this term should lose much of its meaning when taken over as a European-wide loan word. The Bildungsroman follows the highly individual process whereby a pre-existing body of high cultural and aesthetic experience is meaningfully absorbed. For only within the individual can it be truly meaningful. Otherwise, indeed, it can be a corrupting element pandering to the worst vices. So for Nietzsche, the worst philistine was not the Arnoldian figure who lacked culture, and would possibly be ennobled by acquiring it. Early in his career he coined the term Bildungsphilister, or culture philistine, to denote that the truest philistinism arises from within the very process of cultivation. This philistine is not ennobled, but is disastrously enabled, by culture. For such a person, Nietzsche says, in Schopenhauer as Educator,

  • 14 R.J. Hollingdale, trans. Untimely Meditations (Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1997), 168.

To be cultivated means: to hide from oneself how wretched and base one is, how rapacious in going for what one wants, how insatiable in heaping it up, how shameless and selfish in enjoying it.14

25At the same time, of course, Nietzsche’s contempt for institutionalised culture was only possible from a highly cultured individual and that surely points to one of Lawrence’s most remarkable qualities. Lawrence was highly cultured in any terms: he reviewed books across several European languages; wrote a ground-breaking study of American literature; and had a formidable knowledge of European painting. Yet many of his contemporaries were notoriously blind to this and indeed to describe him as “cultured” tout court does seem to miss the point. For it was not a matter of what he knew, but of what he was. The fact that he never acquired a personal library may be largely a result of his peripatetic life, but it also suggests something essential: that his reading existed only as part of him. Although he both absorbed and produced many remarkable works of art, maybe the greatest of his aesthetic achievements, in the full Schillerian/Nietzschean sense of the word, was the way he lived his life. In this tradition, the aesthete is not the languid connoisseur of nineteenth-century legend, but the figure who lives most fully within the world. Lawrence’s flame was not gem-like, it burned more unevenly, fed on many materials, and responded to momentary changes of atmosphere or currents of air. But the moment by moment intensity of existence which Walter Pater recommended, and thought to find predominantly in great art, Lawrence lived out in reality.

  • 15 Totem and Taboo, 36. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, ed. Rush Rhees, trans. (...)

26And so in Etruscan Places Lawrence writes not of Etruscan art as such but of the Etruscan life quality as deduced from their artefacts and paintings. It would be hard to say, using our own later categories, what mixture of practical, affective, aesthetic or religious motivations may have gone into the creation of the underground tombs but, in Lawrence’s treatment, these categories are inconsequential in so far as they all embody a single mode of life. And so religion, which for Freud’s scientific protocols can only be an illusion, is for Lawrence an expression of fundamental life feeling inseparable from the art. Understood in this spirit, religion is not threatened by science as it has a different order of significance. Indeed, it is only when religion is understood to be objectively untrue as history, or as a statement about the afterlife, that it acquires its true force as an image of the present life. Religion is then understood in a properly aesthetic spirit. By contrast, Freud seemed unable to enter imaginatively the world view of religion. He admired James Frazer, and one could apply to him Wittgenstein’s comments on Frazer’s The Golden Bough: Frazer, he said, could not understand his primitive peoples because he could only think of them within his own world view as superstitious and misled.15

  • 16 Civilization and its Discontents, 82–83.
  • 17 As for example Totem and Taboo, 65, note 2.

27It is perhaps no great harm for a modern secularist to be imaginatively insensitive to religion but that was really the sign of something more important: the whole realm of the aesthetic was notoriously problematic for Freud. In Civilization and its Discontents he has a melancholy view of beauty and thinks of aesthetics as a science.16 Even his most brilliant insights into works of art were hampered by his inveterate tendency to symptomatic reading and his belief that art was ultimately a form of wish fulfilment. He constantly committed the elementary error of confusing aetiology with meaning.17 Even within the artistic realm he could not see, or credit, what for Schiller was the essential function of the aesthetic, that it was a means of freedom from compulsion, and one that could turn states of feeling into self-knowledge. There is by definition no way of adjudicating between radically opposed world views. But it is important to recognise that the difference between the Nietzschean/Lawrencian world view and the Freudian lies not just in a different attitude to the instinctual bases of human life, but in the radical choice between a positivist or an aesthetic mode of being within which the relation to the instincts, and the very notions of culture and civilization, are understood.

Haut de page


1 The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, trans. Lysander Kemp (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), 86.

2 I see such moments, for example, in the following: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XXI (1927–1931). The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. James Strachey et al. (London: Hogarth Press, cop. 1961), 34; and Vol. XIII (1913–1914). Totem and Taboo (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), 64–65.

3 Letter to A.W. McLeod, 4 October 1912. The letters of D.H. Lawrence, vol. 1, ed. James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 459.

4 The Gay Science, trans. Water Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), 236.

5 Women in Love, ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 32–33.

6 I think of moments such as “In the realm of the mind, on the other hand, what is primitive is so commonly preserved alongside of the transformed version which has arisen from it that it is unnecessary to give instances as evidence.” In my university Library copy a reader has written “why?” beside this sentence. Civilization and its Discontents, 68.

7 Freud develops this point in “On ‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness” [Die “Kulturelle” Sexualmoral und die Moderne Nervosität], Complete Works, vol. IX (1906–1908), 177–204.

8 See Totem and Taboo, 1 and 3–4, note 3.

9 “The Novel and the Feelings,” in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 203; Civilization and its Discontents, 65.

10 Freud’s “Preface to the Hebrew Translation” of his works may, for example, be understood as using “science” in this broader sense. Complete Works, vol. XII, XV.

11So übt Natur die Mutterplicht/ […]/ Erhält sie das Getriebe/ Durch Hunger and durch Liebe.Civilization and its Discontents, 117.

12 Civilization and its Discontents, 135, note 3.

13 Complete Works, vol. XXI, 6.

14 R.J. Hollingdale, trans. Untimely Meditations (Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1997), 168.

15 Totem and Taboo, 36. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, ed. Rush Rhees, trans. A.C. Miles (Hereford: Brynmill Press, 1979).

16 Civilization and its Discontents, 82–83.

17 As for example Totem and Taboo, 65, note 2.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Michael Bell, « Myths of Civilization in Freud and Lawrence », Études Lawrenciennes, 45 | 2014, 9-26.

Référence électronique

Michael Bell, « Myths of Civilization in Freud and Lawrence », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 45 | 2014, mis en ligne le 28 février 2015, consulté le 29 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.207

Haut de page


Michael Bell

Michael Bell is Professor Emeritus at the University of Warwick and Associate Fellow of the Centre for Research in Philosophy and Literature. His principal publication on Lawrence is D.H. Lawrence: Language and Being (Cambridge: CUP, 1992). He has published much else on Lawrence including a chapter in his book Open Secrets; Literature, Education and Authority from J.-J. Rousseau to J.M. Coetzee (Oxford: OUP, 2007).

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Études lawrenciennes est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de Paris Ouest
  • Logo Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense