Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 6, No. 3, 2007
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
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Bernard Dubé
Diane Gordon
Robert Rotondo
Dan Stefik
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
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Emanuel Pordes
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Emanuel Pordes
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Evelyn Lau
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Robert Fisk
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Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward





According to Freudian analysis, the man in the movie who has raped and killed the father’s only daughter is expressing a death wish, which Charles Bronson, at the end of two hours, is only too happy to oblige. Since the guilty party about to receive his comeuppance is prepared to kill in self-defense, Mr. Bronson is expressing his own death wish, to which Freud would answer with a sniff and shrug: no surprise there. The Death Wish films, beyond the edifying entertainment they provide, offer not so subtle glimpses of Freud’s theory in full operation.

Sigmund FreudIn Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1922), Freud postulated that all humans entertain an unacknowledged death wish or wish to return to “the inanimate,” which he sums up as the universal desire to commit suicide. Freud, the Columbus of the mind’s deep, who was also inordinately fond of cocaine, goes on to say that “the aim of all life is death,” that the latter forces an appreciation of the transient former with the death wish supplying the connective tissue.

Of all Freud’s theories, the majority of which have been rejected, the death wish in particular strikes us as pretty far-fetched as we pursue our Saturday night bowling careers and Sunday afternoon picnics in the park. But what if these activities aren’t as innocent as they seem, that their universal appeal reveals states of mind that in fact support Freud’s claim, especially if what are enjoyable in bowling, picnicking and the weekend rave party are not so much the activities in themselves but their diversionary agency and pleasurable deadening effects on the mind.

All of us, in varying degrees, are uneasy when in the presence of the unknown, which is why when we succeed in making something known, the mind is allowed to rest easy, which is its reward. This is how it has always been, and since death is unknowable, all cultures, in turn, are obsessed with with making it known -- the fact of which does not necessarily translate into a death wish. One could plausibly argue that our curiosity about death is in fact our disguised fear of it (the unknown), and we flirt with it not because we long for it but want to make its acquaintance in order to allay our fears.

When we deliberately undertake (or enjoy attending) life-threatening pursuits such as high speed events or violent contact sports, are we, as some Freudians propose, expressing a subconscious death wish? The sport of boxing satisfies the death wish only in the sense that we subconsciously hope to witness ‘someone else’s’ death, and beyond that, the fallen boxer’s miraculous resurrection, which satisfies our longing for immortality. That all cultures indulge in some form of lethal sport speaks only to the fact that we are incurable as it concerns our curiosity about death, and we countenance high risk behaviour because it allows us precious glimpses into the acts and facts of dying and death.

If there is a Freudian death wish that operates through all of us, it is revealed in our universal desire to temporarily seek out non-subjective, quasi-mammalian states of (un)consciousness. The reasons for this bear directly on the kind of intelligent life we are and persistent inability to deal with the implications of self-consciousness.

The discomfiting effects of being self-aware issue from a locus of feelings that are directly related to how we are affected by the gaze of the other. Much of our behaviour is determined by the other from whose judgment there is no formal escape, which is why we dress one way in public and another in private. In our quotidian we are constantly negotiating societies (workplace, the mall, restaurant dining), whose codes and protocols allow no respite from self-consciousness -- and to such a degree our constitutions eventually revolt because, in the long consideration of the evolution of life, being self-aware is a very recent development and we simply haven’t had enough evolutionary time to adapt. On top of which humans are the only species that can call itself into judgment (which can give rise to shame), that requires a purpose in life ( which can cause despair). André Malraux, in The Voices of Silence, writes: “when we see a meadow ablaze with the flowers of spring, the thought that the whole human race is no more than a luxuriant growth of the same order, created to no end by some blind force, would be unbearable, could we bring ourselves to realize all that the thought implies.”

It is self-consciousness and all that it implies that is too much with us, which accounts for our universal attraction to the opposite state, that led Freud to hypothesize a universal death wish, which, incidentally, does not contradict the pleasure principle since we all enjoy being relieved of our subjectivity.

In light of the fact that humans have never been comfortable in their self-conscious skins, they learned very early in the game that if they could knock out the neo-cortical functions responsible for self-consciousness they would revert back to non-subjective states of being. To this end, humans have been brilliantly inventive in providing for the activities and ingestibles which facilitate this marvellous short circuiting, for there is no apparent cure for self-consciousness other than to desensitize the area of the brain responsible for it. Which is why when humans, if only fortuitously, manage to catch glimpses of themselves in the truth of their being, they rudely discover that “the will to power” seamlessly accommodates the “will to lobotomy,” – which the facts on the ground bear out: from time immemorial Man has arguably been at his happiest when surrendering to the DNA-deep, anti-ipseity impulses that reside within.

What unites all cultures in a common cause are the socially sanctioned customs and institutions that offer relief from self-consciousness. From the consumption of alcohol and drugs to the obliteration of the other in the darkness of the cinema or atavistic setting of the sports arena, we are uncompromising in the ‘wish’ to anaesthetize those faculties of judgment upon which, ironically, our very humanity is grounded. Even the arts, presumably serving our edification, have been bent to serve mind-numbing ends. The sharpest mind will shut down after being exposed to the high octane, one-note pounding that characterizes Rap music or the endless, one-note drone that distinguishes India’s songbook. In the visual arts, monochromatic painting, otherwise known as Minimalism, serves the same narcoleptic end.

In Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (2007), Barbara Ehrenreich reports that in medieval France one in four days was given over to Saints’ Days -- religious celebrations which were in fact excuses to glut out on food, alcohol and dance in order to achieve the bliss of unselfconsciousness. In our time, we only have to think of Mardi Gras, the Mexican Day of Dead, The Rio Carnival and the all-night rave party to be reminded that the burden of self-consciousness remains the same from one culture to the next. It’s not for nothing that we turned Dionysus into a God for all seasons and that his unacknowledged devotees number in the billions.

So if we don’t literally harbour a death wish that is supposed to culminate in the act of suicide, we are profoundly and transparently attracted to states of mindlessness that prefigure death, the remarkable insight of which secures Freud his highest ranking among the great geniuses of the 20th century.


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