Civilization's Obscene Ghost

by Peter Brooks


Peter Brooks is Sterling professor of comparative literature and French at Yale University and is the author of several books, including "Reading for the Plot" and "Troubling Confessions." This piece appeared in the Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2003.
The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 was a terrific shock to European intellectuals, many of whom spoke several languages, traveled widely and felt themselves equally citizens of French, English, Italian and German cultures. War had come to seem unthinkable in a world marked by rapid economic and social progress, a world in which European values had apparently spread across much of the globe.

Sigmund Freud, lover of Sophocles and Shakespeare, trained in Paris and Vienna, was one of these intellectuals. Deeply disillusioned and depressed by the war, he sat down at his desk in early 1915 and wrote an essay he called "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death."

"We cannot but feel that no event has ever destroyed so much that is precious in the common possessions of humanity, confused so many of the clearest intelligences, or so thoroughly debased what is highest," he wrote. Europeans had come to believe they'd discovered peaceful ways to settle conflicts, so they were astonished at the savagery unleashed by the war. States now seemed to want to monopolize violence "like salt and tobacco," he wrote. "A belligerent state permits itself every such misdeed, every such act of violence, as would disgrace the individual."

But for Freud, the upsurge of violence, deceit and inhumanity brought by war was also grist for his studies of the human psyche. The basic principles of psychoanalysis held that civilized human beings and well-ordered societies were based on the renunciation of more "primitive" forms of instinctual satisfaction. What war brings, then, is a collapse of the renunciation and repression on which civilization is reared -- and on which its future accomplishments depend. It's as if "all individual moral acquisitions are obliterated, and only the most primitive, the oldest, the crudest mental attitudes are left."

Some of Freud's observations are deeply unsettling, especially what he writes about the changed attitude toward death brought by war. Civilization, he says, is in some measure founded on consideration for the dead, on an attitude of deference and awe, no doubt primevally derived from experiences of losing someone loved. Civilization thus creates a place for what we all wish to make vanish in our individual lives: the reality of our own deaths. But the coming of war destroys our social constructions for dealing with mortality. War "strips us of the later accretions of civilization," Freud wrote, "and lays bare the primal man in each of us. It compels us once more to be heroes who cannot believe in their own death; it stamps strangers as enemies, whose death is to be brought about or desired; it tells us to disregard the death of those we love."

The disillusion and depression of war moved Freud to ask finally whether we may not be forced to give in to this return to an emotional primitivism. "Should we not confess that in our civilized attitude toward death we are once again living psychologically beyond our means, and should we not rather turn back and recognize the truth?"

This was a bitter thought for any apostle of modern European civilization. And indeed the Great War gave a new, darker inflection to Freud's thinking, causing him to pay greater attention to aggression and sadism, and to explore the death-drive as a basic component of human instinctual life. The war was a tragedy of civilization, in Freud's view, but it at least shed new light on human psychology -- in its more tragic aspects.

America's war with Iraq in the tender years of the 21st century comes as a shock to many of us. Like Europeans in 1914, we had come to believe that our country had to a large extent renounced war as an instrument of national policy.

This may be a short and efficient war. But already there has been death, in limited numbers among our own troops, doubtless in far greater numbers among those we call our enemies. Homes, buildings and infrastructure have been destroyed and will continue to be, however precisely aimed our bombs; there will be hunger and disease; there will be the misery of refugee camps and orphanages.

What one misses in most talk about the current war is any sense of its human cost. What is wholly lacking in current political discourse is any recognition of the obscenity of war. It's as if we'd reverted smoothly to that primitivist thinking about death identified by Freud: We must be heroes, and the death of our enemies is greatly to be wished. I don't doubt our leaders' desire to minimize casualties and to control, to the extent possible, "collateral damage" -- our nice euphemism for the inevitable killing of civilians by mistake. But it would be more honest if our death-dealing were discussed openly and fully.

War may be a failure of conflict resolution by peaceful means. It is also a kind of failure of civilization.