World War I and the unconscious

Posted in Culture, European, Psychology, Reading by Alex L. on April 9, 2011

Photo of an iceberg (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Iceberg_Antarctica.jpg)I was in Barnes & Noble earlier today and, intrigued by the cover of the latest Time magazine (which oddly featured a full-page photograph of Abraham Lincoln), I realized that the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War is coming up in three days (April 12, 2011). Such numerically-significant anniversaries are rare occasions for the national discourse to turn and (briefly) examine the significance of history to contemporary life. I always seem to miss these kinds of precious discussions. Currently, I’m working through Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory and am still on the early-20th-century wavelength (oh! where was the 150th anniversary of the firing on Ft. Sumter when I was reading Paul Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and was on my Civil War “kick”?).

Fussell’s book, though, is yielding too much nutritious food for thought to put aside. In the chapter titled “Adversary Proceedings”, Fussell quotes 20th-century psychologist Carl Jung for whom the First World War was such a such a strong influence that it crept into his dreams after (and, if we are to believe his enigmatic Red Book, even before) the war:

[Jung] dreamed that he was ‘driving back from the front line with a little man, a peasant, in his horse-drawn wagon. All around us were shells exploding, and I knew that we had to push on as quickly as possible, for it was very dangerous [. . .] The shells falling from the sky were, interpreted psychologically, missiles coming from the “other side.” They were, therefore, effects emanating from the unconscious, from the shadow side of the mind [. . .] The happenings in the dream suggested that the war, which in the outer world had taken place some years before, was not yet over, but was continuing to be fought within the psyche.’

Reading this quote by Jung made me think of something that has fascinated me about psychology for some years. Specifically, it’s been a mystery to me how widely the ideas of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and an iconic figure, were taken up by the Western world and how deeply ingrained some of them have become even though many of his theories were not very scientific.

More to the point, I’m referring to the theory of the unconscious mind, which Wikipedia tells me Freud first wrote about in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). The idea that within each person lurks an enigmatic dynamo that secretly controls our desires and actions without us even knowing about it is Freud’s enduring gift to the popular imagination. But this theory and its subsequent adaptation into the “iceberg” metaphor of the id, ego, and superego (90% of our minds, like an iceberg, are below the visible surface, the metaphor goes) are as much a myth about the mind as Plato’s metaphor of the soul represented by a chariot. Wikipedia, at least, tells me that “there is no scientific evidence of… [a] purposeful unconscious.”

And yet this Freudian myth has made a semi-permanent home in our collective worldview. We go to psychotherapists to divine the true motivations for our actions. We use hallucinogenic drugs to draw from the deep well of imagination normally inaccessible to us. We see sexual desire permeating all human intercourse (in an earlier century, Fussell notes, a phrase like ” ‘he ejaculated breathlessly’ was a tag in utterly innocent dialogue rather than a moment in pornographic description”). Movies like the recently-released Limitless and Inception play on this theme of the untapped and unknown regions of our minds.

I was surmising today (to myself first and now to you!) that this adoption of the myth of the unconscious by the scientifically-minded West may have been a consequence of the First World War. Earlier this week, I wrote about how the war incised in the Western psyche the brutal awareness of the irony of life. No one in Europe had expected the war to be as excruciatingly horrible as it was, and those who fought in it would never forget how hopelessly naive they had been before August 1914.

The realities of the war undoubtedly shook the West’s faith in its greatest mental tools: classical reason and the scientific method. Many before 1914 thought that war as a human experience would be eliminated on the path of scientific progress. Even during World War I, some kept this hope alive by calling it “the war to end all wars”. Who could have predicted such wastage and misery beforehand?

Maybe this experience of irony and unpredictability paved the way for the cultural acceptance of the idea of the unconscious. If we never could have conceived of this world-scale savagery before it occurred, what else don’t we know about ourselves?

In a way, the idea of the unconscious is both unsettling and comforting at the same time. It’s disturbing because it implies that we are not altogether in control or entirely aware of our “true” selves. But it’s also a comforting idea because once the unconscious mind is brought into the light of scientific inquiry, we can learn to understand and control it (think of the recent blockbuster Limitless, where the main character eats a pill that lets him access his “entire” brain and become almost superhuman).

I was sufficiently intrigued by these musings (and unlucky enough to be at a Barnes & Noble at the time) that I bought a copy of Morton Hunt’s The Story of Psychology, a popular history of the science. I had to forgive the author for his cursory treatment of the Greek philosophers before I could buy the book. Hunt writes, “Plato came to [the conclusion that the soul consisted of spirit, appetite and reason] without conducting clinical studies or psychoanalyzing anyone, yet to a surprising extent it anticipates Freud’s analysis of character as composed of superego, ego, and id.” Right, much like Plato, Shakespeare and Freud “anticipated” the high art here on HistoryJournal.org.

Yet in a way Hunt is right. We are as much if not more influenced by the stories of psychology as by the (older) stories of philosophy. And inquiring into the origins of the former may help us better understand the ideas that we have inherited as axioms from the world of our parents, grandparents, and (especially) great-grandparents.

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