What is it to be human?

     According to Freud when the libido gets caught up with the ego, personality leads to narcissism, which has a stong correlation to fantasy and delusion. Narcissism evolves around extreme self-consciousness and a belief that life must be lived around one’s own desires [survival]. A normal part of psychosexual development is the overcoming of early childhood narcissism, but increasingly in today’s society we see strong elements of narcissism functioning as a major charisma, not just in individuals, but in the cultural temper that encourages competitives and ruthlessness in the capitalist markets. Narcisism is prevalent in art. The primal self or those components that are linked purely to ancient survival instincts are active in the most discursive and complex social systems to create impacts that are perplexing and harmful to species survival.

     Everyone has dreams that are linked to desires. ‘Both healthy dreams and unhealthy symptoms follow a similar logic when confronted with repression.’ Freud wrote a lot about the contents of dreams. Freud calls the dream we remember upon waking the ‘manifest dream’; this can be a reaction formation or a substitute formation that hides the secred thoughts and desires and creates a natural repression. ‘Repression, which Freud sometimes calls the ‘dream-censor’ in his discussion of dreams, is continually re-working the latent dream-thoughts, which are then forced to assume toned-down, distorted or even unrecognizable forms.’ Freud maintains ‘the two main ways that repression re-works the primitive impulses of the latent dream-thoughts is by way of condensation [1] or displacement [2].’

1] In condensation, multiple dream-thoughts are combined and amalgamated into a single element of the manifest dream; according to Freud, every situation in a dream seems to be put together out of two or more impressions or experiences.

2] In displacement, the affect [emotions] associated with threatening impulses are transferred elsewhere [displaced], so that, for example, apparently trivial elements in the manifest dream seem to cause extraordinary distress while ‘what was the essence of the dream-thoughts finds only passing and indistinct representation in the dream’. For Freud, ‘Displacement is the principle means used in the dream-distortion to which the dream-thoughts must submit under the influence of the censorship.]

     Freud gives us an inkling of how fantasies, in this case dreams, serve to offset the realities we do not wish to face in our daily lives; or perhaps those very real thoughts which might be so primitive and anti-social we are compelled to repress them.

     A lot of Freud’s ideas have been challenged, however, it is easy to see how many of the ‘condensations’ and ‘displacements’ have become so ingrained in what we take to be the ‘inherited human knowledge’ that they take on a life of their own by creating a symbolic order within which everyone is compelled to comply. Trying to fathom how this symbolic order activates human behaviour is no simple task. These rigid symbols hold idenitical meanings for all humans and they become codified into various insitutions and orders that we take as given, right, appropriate and normal, but are they normal? Or is it that they have been contrived over such a long period of time that we have forgotton what normal is? Is it normal to live our lives through mythologies, ceremonies, rituals, literatures, films, advertisings and consumerisms? Can we safely take pleasure in these modern idioms while at the same time distancing ourselves from the psychosexual and reflexive aspects?

      Freud writes about how in the ancient marriage ceremony of the Bedouins, the bridegroom covers the bride in a special cloak called an ‘aba’ and at the same time states the following ritual words: ‘Henceforth none save I shall cover thee! The statement is not straight forward it has multiple meanings and multiple implications. Are humans similarly covered by a semiology embedded into everyday language frames?

    Freud’s aim was to translate the manifest dream back into its constituent form to reveal the hidden thoughts. We do this today in a discipline called  psychotherapy which is said to include these same techniques for exposing and mitigating trauma. It cannot change the society, but it can change individuals who can then participate in social change. However, do people participate in social change?

     Freud’s form of interpretation of symptoms follows the goal of determining the repressed sexuality and/or traumatic events that cause abnormal fantasies and abarent behaviour, but not all fantasies are bad, many have a very useful purpose. There would be no great art or literature without fantasies so how do we sort the good from the bad?

     In a small volume called Self-Deception Unmasked Alfred R Male raises complex questions about the nature of belief and the structure of the human mind. Mele addresses four of the most crucial questions for understanding humanity.

1] What is it to deceive oneself?

2] How do we deceive ourselves?

3] Why do we deceive ourselves?

4] Is self-deception really possible?

     Mele breaks down the nature of self-deception into five chapters. Chapters 1 and 3 offer common forms of self-deception and puts social expectations at the forefront of self-deception, which makes the art of self-deception a highly rational organised action although the sub-text might be quite irrational. Another reason for self-deception is to avoid pain. In Chapter 4 the author goes on to show how the deceiver comes to believe his proposition. Chapter 5 recounts links to motivation and emotion.   How the emotions and pain play a crucial role in determining fantasy, delusion and the motivation to act on self-deception is revealed in numerous forms of creativity, especially Outsider Art. Only recently have we gained an appreciation for this genre and it has opened up a can or worms on what it is to be human.

Leave a Reply