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Culture Wars: Are we allowed to be unhappy?

asks Antony Easthope, professor of English and cultural studies at Manchester Metropolitan University

Why is Blind Date the television programme most likely to produce deep and lasting misery? Because it never hesitates for a moment in its absolute conviction that there is always somebody for everybody, that you will find them sooner or later, and that setbacks are trivial because, underneath, life is endlessly and unremittingly happy.

The same message of the quick fix is pressed upon us from all sides - from films, pop music, newspapers, magazines and advertising. Consumer society must keep on denying that anything could ever seriously go wrong. A hopelessly exaggerated idea of personal happiness is set up as duty for everybody, often a painful duty: are you getting it now, and if not why not? The more they insist, the more we feel doubts.

This is strange in 1999, because our century has been awful and we should be glad to get shot of it. It has witnessed the killing fields of Verdun and Passchendaele; the Nazi-Soviet war of 1941-45 which left at least 27 million Russians dead (mostly women and children); the 'Final Solution'; the carpet bombing of Germany by allied airforces (over 600 000 dead); and the firestorm bombing of Tokyo on 10 March 1945, which killed over 120 000 people. In the past decade there has been genocide in Rwanda and 'ethnic cleansing' in former Yugoslavia. So instead of imagining people have twinkling eyes, good intentions and kindly hearts, we should now know that, as the old song says, there's nothing you can do that can't be done.

Religion always offered to allow you to be unhappy, but only at the price of buying into the idea of an eternally smiling world after you were dead. If you want an up-to-date version of unfashionable pessimism, probably the best recommendation today is psychoanalysis. Of course you don't have to go all the way with the idea of the unconscious to appreciate the rich resources of pessimism (or realism) it offers - enough, at least, for our century.

The Museum of Fine Arts opened in Vienna in 1889 and Sigmund Freud was a frequent visitor. At the top of the main entrance there is a huge statue of Theseus killing a centaur. It symbolises civilisation vanquishing barbarism - though using the methods of barbarism to do so. In 1889 Europeans could still believe in the goodness of human nature and the triumph of civilisation.

Psychoanalysis cuts against this optimism because of its view that we cannot neatly separate the civilisation in us from the barbarism. It demands humility, that we take human and inhuman together, as equal possibilities. And it discourages sentimental idealism and utopianism because it relieves us of the obligation to believe our species is better than we know.

Freud follows Darwin when he compares us with what he refers to as 'the other animals', more like some than others. He asks how the species could ever develop beyond simple animal instinct. We could only do it, Freud concludes, by being effectively torn apart, between Theseus and the centaur in us. Civilisation is brought about by marshalling for itself energies greater than those of the original aggression and selfishness. Its main engine for doing this is the relentless power of conscience, which is able to turn against the individual 'the same harsh aggressiveness' as there is in our own primitive feelings. In Freud's vision we are locked in a war between instinct and renunciation, drive and the superego. Civilisation is not a harmonious, once-and-for-all achievement but a continuing effect of the repression of violence. And an unreliable one.

Freud escaped from Nazism the year before he died in London in 1939. If he had lived to 1945 he would have been profoundly saddened but not, I think, surprised by anything that happened in that period. In some lectures he gave the year before another Austrian, Adolf Hitler, took over as Reichschancellor, Freud said that 'there is life as well as death' and that death is part of life for 'the two are mingled in the process of living'.

But Freud was certainly not advocating a surrender to irrationalism. Far from it. His whole methodological commitment was to a positive idea of science - whether psychoanalysis actually achieved it or not. He did see that there had been progression in the headway made by civilisation through history, but recognised that it was much slower than most people like to think. And as members of a species we would be deceiving ourselves if we hoped we could ever entirely leave behind our animal inheritance. A perfectly happy world is out. Here Freud was uncompromising: 'belief in the "goodness" of human nature is one of those evil illusions by which mankind expect their lives to be beautified and made easier while in reality they only cause damage.'

Psychoanalysis is fully democratic - nobody's unconscious is better or more interesting than anybody else's. It is not a licence for some kind of postmodern flight into a free-floating world without responsibility and choice. Freud sees no escape from the ego and the decisions it imposes, though he does claim this is only part of what an individual is.

Perhaps that might help towards not being quite so moralistic about other people's self-deceptions. Poor old Bill Clinton told his friend Dick Morris, 'Ever since the election I've tried to shut my body down, sexually, I mean'. That was his idea but it didn't work out as he imagined, for he was forced to add, 'But sometimes I slipped up' (Sunday Times, 13 September 1998).

It would be better if contemporary culture could admit how often things go wrong. In 1996 David Cronenberg's film Crash was refused a certificate for release in this country. Rumours about the film caused a huge moral panic in the press from people who thought that seeing people on the screen enjoying car crashes would make everybody rush out to kill themselves on the M25 (which happens too often anyway). In an interview Cronenberg said:

'When people talk about movies that could console you, I think this movie could do that. When you're feeling despairing or suicidal, or feel like you're dying, you don't want to see a movie like Mrs Doubtfire. A film like Crash, Dead Ringers or Naked Lunch will console you because they're dealing with this stuff. Mrs Doubtfire will kill you.' (Guardian, 2 November 1996)

Surely happy fictions that tell us it will all come right are actually very depressing, because they try to conceal unhappiness?

In his case history of the patient referred to as 'Ratman' because of his peculiar fantasies about rats, Freud records what Ratman told him:

'On the day of [his lover's] departure he knocked his foot against a stone lying in the road, and was obliged to put it out of the way by the side of the road, because the idea struck him that her carriage would be driving along the same road in a few hours' time and might come to grief against this stone. But a few minutes later it occurred to him that this was absurd, and he was obliged to go back and replace the stone in its original position in the middle of the road.'

The idea of the unconscious is a permanent reminder that nobody can ever finally get the stone in the right place. As Freud put it drily, 'experience teaches us that the world is no nursery'.

Antony Easthope's book The Unconscious is published by Routledge in June

Reproduced from LM issue 121, June 1999

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