Reality principle

The previous post highlighted some of Freud’s post-World War I speculation about the reality principle and the death instinct. In short, the pleasure principle is not a debauchery principle but a reality check that makes the self or organism strive for balance, stability, and equilibrium, avoiding excitation — the opposite of what pleasure is usually considered to be. The pleasure principle is here revised by Freud to be the reality principle.

If this is the unconscious goal of the natural organism, then what we witness in society and culture is not a striving for pleasure but for something else. The sexual instinct is largely sublimated by society into rituals and symbolic actions, but a large element is no longer natural (compared to, say, animals) and is the result of frustration, repression and what might be termed cultural excitation or even peer excitation. Here enters the element of narcissism, aggression, and violence, which Freud considers products of the sexual instincts gone wrong.

If the reality principle otherwise governs the human psyche, then the natural emergence of the instincts is what Freud calls Eros, a larger sense of creativity from individual creativity to the creation of civilization. We cannot be too hasty in condemning civilization as a whole insofar as it is the macro vehicle for the preservation of our smaller and more modest creative efforts: poetry, art, music, thought, etc. To condemn civilization outright risks the destruction of these products of human ingenuity so vital to our individual understanding of reality.

But as individual creativity unfolds, overlapping with society and culture, the individual encounters serious obstacles to his or her efforts, until the creative product is largely absorbed by the demands and structures of culture. The flowering of art and intellectual work witnessed in grand epochs of history is a confluence of cultural forces working together, regardless of class or power — at least for a little while, during, say, the 5th-century B.C.E. Greek or the Renaissance eras. Otherwise, Eros hovers around our easel, workbench, writing desk, lab, shop, but never gets too far in influencing the rest of hapless society.

The mystic’s quest, ironically, is not for equilibrium but for excitation. It makes its quest an analogy of the sexual instinct. Though this is denied by scholars as a mere parody, there is a strange and unconscious venality when one reads the works of mystics and poets from the Song of Songs to Rumi to Teresa of Avila, who make their relationship with God (or equivalent) to be a courtship, seduction, and intercourse.

One is tempted to think that these individuals have the wrong vocation, what Freud would call transference. One suspects that psychological substitution or repression is at work. Despite our desire to find the poetry or prayer or analogy ennobling, it is somewhat tawdry and earthbound. William James (in Varieties of Religious Experience) quotes a number of such examples from the writings of minor religious figures that are painfully awkward to read today. Indeed, if these writings were broadcast today, the edifice of conventional mysticism might collapse.

This is not to say that mysticism is false or contrived, but that it is unnatural — at least in Freud’s sense, and his sense can be extrapolated to a rational argument. For if Eros is the “preserver of all things” at the individual and cultural levels, the individual must find a creative outlet, and ought not to be left to analogies of the sexual instinct. Culture must provide these creative channels, or the individual becomes either frustrated (neurotic) or aggressive (psychotic) or uncommonly creative.

(In Western and Hindu religion, the object of mysticism is a personification, and this further complicates the instinct for identification, leading to a too literal concept of God, who becomes a surrogate love partner. Contrast this psychology to that of the East where the Tao cannot even be named, let alone psychoanalyzed.)

We are expecting support for creativity from society, but, of course, society is the very structure or circumstance or confluence of behaviors that stokes the antithesis of the natural trajectory Freud speaks of. Society stokes competition, rivalry, xenophobia, hatred, aggression, violence, and war. So there is little to look for there unless we have a discerning mind to appreciate the products of Eros and of the sages along the way.

As Freud puts it, the primary process of the mental apparatus is to “convert their [the instincts’] freely mobile cathectic energy into a mainly quiescent (tonic) cathexis.” In other words, our instincts are inherent energies but our consciousness and reason need to channel these energies fruitfully.

To deliver ourselves to the confluence of society is to deliver ourselves to a whirlwind of oppression, control, aggression and violence, to what Freud ultimately describes as the “death instinct.” Death will have its natural place in the order of creativity, but as a natural flow or trajectory, not as an aberration.

Whether the mystic analogy is a flirtation with death as reality principle or an excitation derived from a frustrated expression of the pleasure principle is in neither case a true path. In contrast, mysticism differs significantly from enlightenment, which is precisely an equanimity, equilibrium, a stability — and yet a union with the universe as well.