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Articles > Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness

Eugenio Trías

For Eugenio Trías, in the current world evil tends to be consistently removed from reality. In this article, he attempts to show that, in order to become ontologically reconciled with the darker side of our beings ─that "heart of darkness" masterfully described by Joseph Conrad─ one should turn to Freud. Trias reminds us that no one else has been able to walk through the infernal realm of the subject's Dantean subconscious. He dares to delve into human beings' darkest dungeons. His findings continuously make the reader bristle; talking about horror does strike fear into us ─and underlining its all─ encompassing effect is not exactly gratifying. Nevertheless, Freud is a classic and, despite his reasoning is reflected in some unpleasant and antiquated scientific prose, nowadays it is impossible to live in a modern world without appreciating Freud's irresistible way of thinking, his highly speculative tendencies, his greatness, and his astonishing transparency.

The agenda is to get Freud written off as a figure of the past. Yet all attempts end up the same way: back in some mental space that antedates him. There is a narrow-minded theory of knowledge, blind to any principle exceeding the bounds of observed nature, logic, language or mathematics-a theory too rigid to accommodate the human sciences-that has always abhorred the great Viennese physician and writer. Even the highest exponents of that current of thought, Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein, seemed to rival one another in misunderstanding the inventor of psychoanalysis.

The same might be said of the psychological theories that posit a return to a biological foundation, allowing no distinction between nature and culture or purporting to subsume the latter in the former. The same can be said of behaviorism and its variants. But Freud endures.

His language may have become antiquated. Perhaps he is difficult to read, under that thick positivistic tegument that encases him. The prejudices of an Enlightenment mindset are the armor he needs to foray into the world of shadows in which his great discoveries take shape. He retreats behind a somewhat old-fashioned concept of reason so as to have all precautions in place when handling the deadly instincts that his enquiries aim to capture and dissect.  

No one has travelled the circles of Dante's Inferno, the human unconscious, like Freud has. No one's achievement is greater. First, he aroused outrage. Today, he continues to discomfit. To speak of the horror that keeps us in awe-and point out that no one is above it-is not a pursuit calculated to win friends.  

What is one to say of his way of finding equivalents for the penis, excrement, gifts, money, the child... ? What of his incursions into anal eroticism, sadomasochism, the pleasure of punishment, the cruelty of the superego, the masochism inherent to the human sense of guilt? What of the Manichaean fight to the finish between the life urge, or Platonic Eros, and the death drive, fueled by a demonic "repetition compulsion" and each living being's propensity to disintegrate?  

Freud dared descend to the dungeons of the human being, her darkest oubliettes, her most sinister garrets. He met with instant sympathy in the arts: literature, painting and sculpture, music, film. Scientific theory, meanwhile, handed down its disappointingly adverse verdict. The medical brotherhood distrusted and rejected his insights.  

All too often this still happens today, in the name of the self-help doctrine that lies behind the worst of cognitive psychology and brain research. Freud remains a cause for outrage, but no one can gainsay his status as a classic: a classic undergirding modern health institutions (the modern approach to the Socratic "know thyself"); a classic inspiring the best of philosophy (Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Adorno, Walter Benjamin), even if philosophy is duty-bound to oppose and criticize him (yet always from a position of recognition of what he achieved and of having trained in his school).  

Freud was a pathfinder. In a work written in around 1920, in the shadow of the Great War, he ventured Beyond the Pleasure Principle. At the culminating point of that book, he presents a meta-psychological scenario, a metaphysical challenge: two opposing forces, Eros and the death drive. Eros in its Platonic sense, holding all things together; the death drive as the inner cause of the disintegration of living beings, of bodies, even of sentient things.  

The horizon of his thought was the unconscious, upon which he wove a dualistic scheme that modified and clarified it. He sought a counterpoint to the pleasure principle that appears to govern psychic processes, especially in the realm of dreams. He inched forward, making out the outlines of an increasingly deep and subtle enemy. From the "reality principle," he descended to the abyssal roots of the ego, the source of primitive narcissism, and from thence to that relentless death drive that puts a stop to the whole "life instinct," to all of Eros, to any possible pleasure principle.  

Freud remains an essential guide in a world in which the sinister (das Unheimliche, in its Freudian sense) is taking over an increasing number of reality's compartments, and the principles of evil mesh with the principles of life itself. The better works of cinema bear witness to an inevitable and necessary engagement with the death drive so as to beckon forth a drastic catharsis.  

For an ontological enquiry into the dark side of our condition, the Freudian lesson is vital. Today, it is unfeasible to coexist with modernity and be ignorant of Freud; one must encounter him in a multiplicity of realms, not excluding psychoanalytical cure. In Conrad's novel, the Heart of Darkness inhabited by Kurtz had its baneful source in the human heart, and this was first charted by Freud.  

Freud, as a classic, is immune to dismissal. He must inevitably be visited, understood and discussed. This is not to say he is to be read literally; rather, he should be considered with an alert, floating attention that searches between the lines to draw out his flawless reasoning. Sometimes, such as in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he sheathes himself in a harsh scientific prose that sounds archaic to modern ears. What matters, though, is the irresistible current along which his speculative thought flies on, displaying astonishing lucidity and power.

His fearless spirit eventually brings him face to face with the major philosophers, from whom he always remains aloof: Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Plato. This book, together with other works of his in which he leaps from his own research to a reflection on first principles, is perhaps one of the centerpieces of the philosophy (yes, philosophy) of the twentieth century, however much Freud refused to be treated as what he neither wished to be nor was: a philosopher.  

Nevertheless, in the twentieth century canon, works such as Beyond the Pleasure Principle, mentioned above, or the Ego and the Id, Grief and Melancholy, Inhibition, Symptom and Anxiety, or Culture and its Discontents are some of the more specifically philosophical books of the time, and their radiance burns brightly even today.  

Philosophy has its own ways of reaching those truths it is capable of attaining; it has its own paths and methods, albeit complicated by variety and discord. Its responses are never final; one must stay open to a fresh perspective, if compellingly put. Hence the wealth of theories that philosophy has offered history, from the Greeks to our own day.

And philosophy is enriched by those contributions in which a great scholar rises above his own research, ventures beyond his own special field, and advances into the domain of Ideas in which philosophy builds its eyrie. The Idea is the stuff of philosophy, and such is the stuff that fills the works of Sigmund Freud.          

ABC, March 06, 2010

Translated by Mike Escárzaga

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