Article Place & Self

Creatures of desire?

This is a story about the development and expansion of human desire in the modern age, where we discover how revolutions in the way we think and behave shape our attitudes and lives today. This is a history of the human being, discovering and experimenting with what makes us human, including sexuality, belief and self-image. These interconnected upheavals of society can be known as the Sexual Revolution, Liberalisation of Religion and the Bourgeoisie Revolution respectively and came after more than one and a half millennia of relative stagnation in which only gradual, minor changes occurred in social structure, attitudes towards belief, and attitudes towards desire. This is a story about visionaries, pioneers and revolutionaries and how their ideas took hold. It is the story of the world that we’re living in today and how we got here. It’s a world where we’re told we have a lot of freedom, where our desires are not only acknowledged and tolerated, but encouraged as critical to the functioning of the capitalist economy. Its a world where wars are fought against those who do not approve of this freedom of desire.

Often, it is difficult to imagine just how different the recent past was. In 1913 attitudes towards sexuality in particular showed a marked contrast to the world today. Vienna at that time, as a snapshot of history, shows a quite remarkable proximity of figures, some later to reach positions of power, and others to have great influence on the course of ideas. Both, overlapping groups set to shape the course of the world.

What was it about that city, in that year that attracted such a fabulous (and infamous) array of personalities? At that time, living but a few miles away from each other, were Trotsky, Joseph Stalin and Hitler. Freud had his offices in Vienna and the entire foundation of the psychoanalysis movement was laid there. There were also many writers, musicians, artists and intellectuals of all flavours and Vienna’s cafe culture provided plenty of opportunities for ideas to ferment and boil. It was this intense communication that fueled an intellectual fervor, that entrenched positions, or brought them to new levels. Vienna was a city where people knew the importance of ideas.

Then in 1914 the First World War broke out. Some were inclined to join in the fighting but most intellectuals are not the type to involve themselves, or else they were foreign nationals with no interest in the sordid affair. They would return to their home countries, spreading the ideas fomented in Vienna throughout the Western world and maintaining their contacts through letter writing. This vastly accelerated the spread and influence of the Viennese intellectual scene and raised the standing of individual writers. In Vienna they were just one voice among many, but back home they might find themselves the bearers of new and exciting ideas in sluggish intellectual circles in need of a kick. In Vienna 1913 culture was transformed, created and in 1914 transmitted at a rate and amplitude never before seen.

In the post war era a tired and tattered Europe entered a period of self-questioning at the barbarity it had unleashed upon itself. Old ideas of authority, empire and divine right were eroded and socialist, fascist and anarchist movements vied with each other to steer the course of history in the confusion.

Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller were two writers, both caught up the psychoanalytic milieu and dispersed by the war, they lived and breathed the ideas that were about to change the world.

What they did back in the revolutionary heyday was bold, romantic and new. The beauty and sweetness of their lives and their many lovers, the courageous championing of expression, of freedom, of pleasure. It was borne along by the philosophy of psychoanalysis which suited them well as it held the source of all evil to be the repression of the erotic drive. In that context Anais Nin’s constant deceit of her husband, in fact of everyone, was the ultimate response to Freud’s ideas, to express her raging desires to the fullest while attempting to protect them all, to avoid causing them ‘pain’ as she put it.

But what was radical and bold in the 1930s suffered through the ages, as all revolutions turn by-and-by into the conventions and tyrannies of a coming age. Today it is the ‘expression’ of big-mouthed talk-show-hosts, or the bohemianism of the gap-year-student, the constant sale of sexuality in all its myriad forms. Its in lines of scarcely decorated women lining up outside clubs in the freezing cold, parading themselves in the meat market in a macabre dance of desire. Our society has gone from repressing desire to saturation of it, of so many desires and temptations that they are no longer ours.

By this I mean that it is no longer within our locus of our control, the form of our desires emerges from marketing teams with advanced psychological weapons to invade our headspace. Even before pubescent girls are sold the image of their love in the form of Justin Bieber or One Direction, through a million images, the form and fantasy of their grown up lovers years later is crafted, a different one for each stage in life, and of course all expressed through the medium of consumer items. This striped vest to accentuate rugged creativity and show off those muscles. This is how he smells and it comes in this bottle. This one drives this car as symbol of libidinous danger. Women are sold an image of themselves as the lover they truly desire to be, and men too are sold their own image.

But the first few were not interested in a magazine cut-out, no they were seeking something rather more natural and archetypal. They made themselves for sure, but the material items of their making were secondary to their sculptor’s hand in the creation of their personality.

Competition is stark conformity, it is to see what others are doing and do it only a little better. In fact if you have only to trip them up and make them appear worse and you have your hollow victory. True progress, if we can talk about it today without titters of laughter, is to transcend the competition as it stands, to head off on the Z axis to a point your peers cannot even see.

And you might well ask, if the fate of every revolutionary overhaul of conventionality, expectation, politics, economy, belief or worldview is no sooner accomplished than its inevitable degeneration can be predicted as sure as night follows day, then what is the point? Had they known on the eve of the October revolution that they would one day be so sick of Communism that they would welcome back Capital with open arms, would they have bothered?

Such questions fester at the back of the mind of every leftist, radical and revolutionary today. We cannot forget the terrible successes of the past; terrible for the fact that they were successful and successful for the fact that they were terrible.

Take the bourgeois revolution that ejected us so forthrightly from the middle ages, for all those small shop owners who fought and won alongside the peasants only to surreptitiously pick up their H’s and marry into the old aristocratic bloodlines. Of course the official religion changed from the religion of blood, that is the blue for the few and the rest of us just plain old red, to the religion of toil. Of course the main tenet of this new orthodoxy being that however hard you toil in Mr Top Hat’s factory you didn’t work as hard as He. Work, of a kind, filtered through the green tinted spectacles of the new masters, became the final saving grace and salvation of mankind.

And today we have the extreme result of that revolution in the form of the bourgeois-capitalist-consumerist society characterised by the super-rich and the ultra-poor and an ever dwindling ‘in-between’.

But I’m sure you know enough about the society we’re living in today with its payday loans and betting shops on every corner, where every poor sod is milked for each drop of profit to spend the meagre earnings of their zero-hour contract, minimum wage job on food not fit for human consumption, in over-priced under-repaired shoeboxes not fit for human habitation.

This you see is the punishment, the price paid, for not being one of the radical ones ever-constantly fighting their way to the top of the pile. This is the punishment for being humble, for being ‘ordinary’, for not dreaming grand dreams of plush office palaces risen high on the city skylines. It is the punishment for settling for less, for favouring friends and family over social climbing and brown-nosing, for being one of that vast majority of the world’s population that is happy with relatively little.

All that this vast majority wants is food on the plate, a roof over their heads, a little comfort, a little warmth, a friendly neighbourhood, safe streets, not to be treated like a dog at work or to live in fear of getting the sack. In short, not having to run as fast as they can to stay in one place is all that they desire.

And for this they are punished.

Its funny how history plays out. Initially the bourgeoisie removed the barriers between them and the coveted rank of the aristocracy. How exhilarating it must have been to topple those privileged fat birds from their perches as the cats came marching in, eyes and claws gleaming, licking their lips. They cannibalised the aristocracy, gloriously.

If the birds had large houses then the cats would have them too, if they had fine wines and Venetian blinds then these too could be bought. The cats, with the rising wealth of industry, bought every trinket and charm of wealth and status, lordship and domain. If the birds sat in the opera then so would the cats, if they acquired paintings and libraries then so would they too.

In time, with the flagging fortunes of the aristos, the bourgeois could acquire even blood. It was the highest aspiration for the grandson of a Parisian small shop owner to intermarry with a blue-blood so that the blood of his children could run a rich purple. And if they couldn’t, well then, they would make every effort to ensure that their children would, and this is where the seeds of Freud and his comrades are sown.

The bourgeois then were highly fussy creatures, the demands of constant social climbing made them so. If they wanted to infiltrate the ranks of high society then they would not only have to adopt their manners, they would have to be ten to the power more exacting in them than the aristos themselves. Everywhere a lord or a lady eyed them suspiciously, waiting for them to slip up.

The result was a manner of raising children which imposed harsh restriction on their self-expression. Manners were obsessed over, as if terrified that their offspring, for whom they had invested such hopes for the future, would revert to hulking troglodytes, dropping their H’s, swilling beer, farting and belching shamelessly. Repression was the paramount concern of the bourgeois, repression of the past and projection of the ideal forms of virtuous propriety. And of course what terrified them most was that little Sally, or little Edgar would grow up to fall head over heels in love with their social inferior, that after all that striving and toil, all that educating and disciplining that they would simply revert to ancestral habits, drop a litter, and be done with it.

It is this toxic cocktail that provided Freud with a constant supply of emotionally disturbed young men and women in turn of the century Vienna. They were a mystery, tucked away, a source of confusion. Why were the sons and daughters of wealthy, well-to-do Viennese socialites coming into Freud’s office reporting all sorts of suffering and pain? They had everything they wanted after all; food, drink, a glittering social life, virtuous parents, good jobs, large homes and status. If this pinnacle of achievement didn’t produce happiness, then what had it all been for?

So it was not talked about. If they were unhappy, they smiled for the cameras, for their friends, for their parents, for all those toiling to rise to their position. But then, once and while, the cracks would start to show. Hysteria, melancholy, madness, perversity. Whether by coercion, enticement, or choice, they sought out Freud.

Freud told them they were repressed, that they were trying to act as if they didn’t have sexual or aggressive impulses, and that they had forgotten traumatic experiences from their childhood. Through talking therapy he gradually gained their trust, and soon they began remembering, or admitting, their socially unacceptable impulses, as well as any events that in the confines of the bourgeois household were simply hushed up and ignored.

Wilhelm Reich went further, he suggested that sexual energy needed to be expressed through full orgasms for a human being to be healthy. For him, it wasn’t just that repression was bad, it was that sex was good and a fully expressed sexuality inseparable from overall psychological health.

Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin were part of the same milieu as Freud, Otto Rank, Wilhelm Reich and Carl Jung. While these men of science would form various understandings of the mind ultimately it was transmitted through culture by the artists, commentators and writers who took the ideas and ran with them. They not only lived their lives by these ideas, this new religion, but wrote about them, and it would not be long before these early pioneers would spawn the next generation, the beat poets and later the hippies.

Its no exaggeration to say that Sigmund Freud led directly to Rock and Roll. In the space of 30 years repression went from good to bad, and self-expression, spontaneity and sex became both the means, and the surest sign of a healthy, happy person.

The bourgeois revolution made it okay to desire more status, to want to be the top of the heap. Freud’s revolution, which culminated in the sexual revolution of the 1960s made it okay to desire just about everything else. It was the age of Kerouac and Ginsberg, of drugs and sexual experimentation.

What happened between when Freud, Reich and Jung formulated their theories and the upheavals of the 1960s was the acceleration of popular culture. A century before, such ideas would have circled around a few learned men, specialists, and gentlemen enthusiasts and would have been kept from the general population for fears that they would misinterpret them and run amok. In the intervening time, popular media had expanded to a degree that would have been impossible to imagine prior to that.

While before, mass media was limited to a few plays, books, popular magazines and the like, between 1920 and 1930 there was a boom both in the quantity and the variety of media. The first entertainment radio broadcast was in England 1920 and steadily expanded from there. The movies ‘moving pictures’ were packed every night as the population embraced the new craze, where a production could reach vastly more people than the stage plays that had preceded. These also gave way in the late 1930s to the talkies ‘talking pictures’ where speech and music accompanied the images.

Since 1901 there had been gramophone records but the expansion of movies and radio, as well as a boom in literacy and print publication, was different. The new commercial media could transmit complex ideas.

Towards the 1960s, the psychoanalysts had not only been read about by university students, their ideas had been conveyed to the masses through films, books, newspaper articles, radio broadcasts and music. The music of the 1960s was the culmination of the psychoanalysts’ ideas about how to be a healthy human being. In the 1950s Elvis caused uproar, but he was nothing more than a very public model of healthily expressed libido and he was to set the pattern for every rock and roll star to come after him.

We celebrated the revolutionary upheaval of our sexuality, but consolidation to changes in human behaviour was to be ongoing. Family breakdown, low marriage rates, high divorce rates and high incidences of paternal abandonment were to give the conservative ‘counter-revolution’ plenty of fodder as was the emergence of HIV/AIDS.

Despite the association between HIV and homosexuality, God’s wrath and the downfall of western civilisation, liberalisation of attitudes towards homosexuals increased in the cities following the repeal of antiquated and persecutionary laws during the sexual revolution. Hysterical and misinformed campaigns about the disease were to have wide coverage leading to a somewhat fearful attitude towards sex, despite the new freedom.

Today, although there are very few legal or cultural restrictions on our sexuality, the anglo-saxon world retains something of a confused and contradictory attitude. Women may routinely be targeted for misogynistic abuse either for being too sexual, or for not being sexual enough, and intense fears about men’s sexuality hover alongside intense pressures to conform to male standards.

As with all revolutions of the past, the world created was not quite the utopia dreamed of, but a compromise, an approximation. Just as the October Revolution didn’t result in the Communist utopia but a Stalinist society with some aspects of Socialism and some of Imperialism, the sexual world today is no utopia but contains deep undercurrents of repression and violence often justified by a harsh sexual morality. Objectification is further compounded by a vast consumer-capitalist apparatus that uses associations of sex, attractiveness, dominance and violence to sell us the products we use to define ourselves.

There is one more great upheaval that occurred to complete the trifecta; the revolution in attitudes towards religious and spiritual belief, culminating in post-modernity, New Age religion and Secular society.

This change undoubtedly began when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517, signalling the start of the reformation. This was the beginning of the end of the Catholic Church’s thousand year monopoly on religious thought and belief. It had successfully crushed Manicheans, Arians, Cathars, Antinomians, Bogomils and any other sect or belief that might challenge or resist it, but the Lutherans had accused the Pope of being the Antichrist and won support for their strong stance against corrupt church practices. At that time expressing your own thoughts and beliefs freely on religious matters would have serious and fatal consequences.

Several centuries of bloody fighting between Protestants and Catholics at every level, from wars between states to clashes between neighbours, gradually settled into a more or less acceptance of religious differences, including the right to choose between the different Christian churches. With the coming of the Age of Reason in the mid 17th century, some declared themselves Agnostic or Atheist, and other more ‘rational’ forms of belief asserted themselves such as Panentheism and Deism.

Tellingly, both the Declaration Of The Rights of Man and Citizen in France, and the Bill Of Rights of the United States Constitution contain clauses pertaining to the protection of religious freedom and separation of Church and State. These were drafted in the same year 1789 at the height of French Revolution and coming soon after American Independence, both colossal breaks with the past that prompted the ascendance of the bourgeoisie to power.

In the 21st century Religious liberalism, which had begun with the reformation, reached its logical conclusion with many young people leaving the churches of their parents and embracing the eastern religions, many African-Americans embraced Islam, and a variety of beliefs flourished which are today described as New Age, although that term didn’t enter mainstream usage until 1981.

And if the origin of rock and roll and the sexual revolution can be attributed to Freud and Reich, then the origin of the revolution in belief can be attributed, in part, to Carl Jung, Freud’s wayward protege. Jung was not so interested in Freud’s focus on neurotic sexual repression, or Reich’s emphasis on healthy sexual expression, he was more interested in the deep mythological commonalities in the psyche of all people. Jung’s lasting influence was to psychologise religion, without reducing its potency. While later psychologists were to denounce it as neurotic, delusion, or irrational, a ‘paternal fixation’ and so on, Jung saw human beings as fundamentally religious, and what’s more he saw symbols, gods, goddesses, myths and religions as originating from a single source, archetypes in the collective unconscious, a kind of hidden mind for the whole of humanity.

Jung was to turn away from what he saw as his teachers excessive focus on sexuality, but he shared all psychoanalysts interest in dream interpretation. He became fascinated with the symbols that appeared in dreams, he didn’t think they could be explained as mere wish-fulfillment fantasies, as Freud did. Where Freud was reductionist, Jung was expansive, he certainly wanted to treat the mind as a subject fit for scientific study but he often worked in an intuitive manner. He delved deep into mysteries like synchronicity, when symbols in the mind and occurrences in real life happen at the same time.

Many of Jung’s ideas are ones we will later become familiar with in counter-cultural thought and the main stream. His concept of individuation, the drive of the psyche to expand to encompass all of its opposing facets, will later form general ideas about ‘fulfilling your potential’, ‘finding yourself’ and legitimise experimentation and spiritual discovery as healthy processes of a mind seeking its wholeness and maturity.

If all religion was to be understood as a result of archetypal forces common to everyone then it stood to reason that Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and so on were all variations of expression, or even just cultural interpretations of a common reality. Whilst religious liberalism had paved the way for a flight from orthodoxy, Carl Jung and his contemporaries opened up the possibility of worshiping in your own, unique way. In other words his ideas lead directly to the popularisation of personal religion. By the 1970s we could choose; to worship in a church with others, to worship alone, to be atheist, to be agnostic, to make our own personal religion, to change our beliefs as and when it suited us. What we call New Age religion can perhaps be best be understood as the most visible aspect of a general fluidity and flexibility of spiritual thought and practice, alongside the ‘hidden’ European majority, who describe themselves as secular or atheistic, but none-the-less describe spiritual beliefs and experiences when pressed.

I focus on New Age belief in particular because it represents the most extreme stance, the apex if you will, of freedom to believe what you most desire. A common identifier is ‘beliefs or thoughts make reality.’ an idea from the New Thought and Positive Psychology movement and echoed in various aspects of occult and ancient tradition. This is beyond Rationalism which discovers truth by observation, or Postmodernism which is skeptical about the idea of truth at all, this is ‘I believe what I desire, and furthermore that makes it true’ with no further explanation needed.

And this is not just an attitude that can be casually attributed to dreadlocked hippies with crystals and djembes, you can walk into any large high-street bookstore and find books of modern day magic such as ‘The Secret’. This placement suggests that is has become, or is becoming, a mainstream belief. In some ways that is very liberating, very exciting, but in other ways deeply worrying. While the utopian counter-culture seeks a new world based on new values, the mainstream is happy with more of the same. They ‘believe’ their way into bigger houses and better paid positions, they use their Freedom of Belief in the original bourgeois vein, to advance and consume conspicuously and to ignore the objective problems of the world.

These three threads of Desire spin together one cloth. Not mentioned here are the other ‘threads’ such as the Suffragettes uprising, Abolition and the Slave revolts. In fact this cloth has an infinite number of threads, history is like that, the more you look the more you will find. There are infinite significant events, infinite connections, infinite conclusions to be drawn.

If, throughout the course of this his-story I’ve been a little harsh and pessimistic about the struggle for change, the modern continuation of which I happen to be part of, its not to dissuade any would be revolutionaries or to spread hopelessness about the future. Rather, I would like to destroy the myth of the ‘happily ever after’ revolution or social change, and remind people that there is still a great deal of work left to do. While responsible for a greater degree of freedom than was enjoyed in previous ages, the unfettering of human desire through the three revolutions has unleashed some very dark byproducts; rampant atavism, short-sighted plundering of the world’s resources, dizzying social inequality and hyper-rationalised high-technology warfare. We continue to live in a world of gender and racial discrimination, religious persecution and still hold a confused, fearful and ultimately immature attitude towards sexuality.

As certainly as there will be revolution, there will be counter-revolution. Change, even during periods of relative stagnation, is certain. What we are seeing today is a particularly virulent form of that bourgeosie impulse to get to the top of the heap, of the neoliberal agenda which clears the way for the ambitious to rise at the expense of everyone else. In the fashion of historical circularity, the new bourgeois super-rich are relegating everyone else to the position of feudal peasants, a situation that is untenable and will result in greater and greater backlashes. Already we have seen the first signs of this in the Occupy movement, Indignados and the Greek anti-austerity party Syriza.

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