On ‘The Ego & The Id’

The first statement, from “The Ego & the Id” (on the ego being primarily a bodily ego), makes the point that the ego is dependent on the external world, ie. the conscious self that observes, processes and responds cannot exist without the constant stimulation presented to it. It must rationalize whatever it receives from the real world. But then again, the self should also view itself separate from the outside world so as to preserve itself and not ‘dissolve’ into it. The ego, thus, an organization of the mental process, must arise from the Id itself.

Since the ego forms the interface from where an individual responds to and gets stimulation from the outer world, consciousness could be considered to be what covers this interface. All of this, as it rests on the Id, is in fact the part of it that has modified itself after interacting with the external world. Though ego’s development comes from the nucleus which is the perception system – the development of Id from the instinct, and ego being built on the Id, introduces some room for unconscious to exist within the ego’s reach. Since the consciousness which ego puts forth to the outer world is indeed standing on the boundless unconscious, it affects whatever the Id eventually responds to. Though the ego feels that it is an independent entity, its actions and desires are always in line with that the Id wants. The ego must also operate according to the reality principle, working out realistic ways of satisfying the Id’s demands, often also compromising on satisfaction to avoid negative consequences. It stands on a middle ground between the Id and the outside world (and its stronger manifestation existing within as the superego), trying to make the Id conform to societal rules, while also trying to make the world conform to the Id’s innermost passions. This conflict often leads ego to an anxious place, if not a guilt ridden one. For the human race, our instincts work to preserve oneself, survive and procreate – these are hard wired into our unconscious. Put simply, when we assume that we have made a rational choice, several layers below, it is nothing but a primal desire we are responding to by assigning a rational meaning to it.

The perception here refers to external input and whatever the ego has tried to understand of it. Any lack of such, that is, an ego which leans more toward the super-ego or is unable to explain these actions to itself results in psychological problems and/or coping mechanisms. I feel that the implications of this claim are a validation to Darwin’s then-recent work from a psychoanalytical perspective.

Through the oral and anal stages of the psychosexual development of an individual, the faces of superego and the ego show up and cause early conflicts with what the Id has set up for itself up until then. These have been observed by Freud as the Oedipus/Electra Complex where the parent is seen as a competition for what provides pleasure and even preservation.

At the very beginning, all the libido is accumulated in the Id which in itself is driven purely by the pleasure principle – the early stages are the years where the Id is ‘testing the waters’, ie. it could be considered to be reaching out, knowing and setting its outer layers (consciousness) accordingly to what works and what does not. The pleasure comes from the outside world to serve the Id, thus the pleasure arising from a satiated Id is what paves the way to the narcissism observed in children. But Freud does state that auto-eroticism precedes the formation of the ego – this is the point when the child views his or her body as a source of pleasure. Since narcissism is defined as an investment of libido in the ego, the ego and narcissism must take birth at the same time. The Id sends part of this libido out into erotic object-cathexes, whereupon the ego, now more mature than ever, tries to gain control over the object-libido and tries to force itself on the Id as a love-object. The narcissism of the ego is thus a secondary one, which has now been withdrawn from objects.

Narcissism is analyzed through examples which discuss the early hold of an ego-libido in homosexual men, how children address to the object libido demands of the parents and how love (which is an object-libido investment in an another individual) between men and narcissistic women plays out for both the parties in an imbalanced and often conflicting way; a strong emphasis on either one depletes the other and is definitely not healthy when paired against the opposite, as in the myth of Echo and Narcissus. What Freud does make clear is that love, when reciprocated back, makes up for the disappointments and vulnerabilities that come with it.

In the two essays discussed here, the development of Freud’s ideas pertaining to the structural model of the human psyche can be clearly seen to take form. Conflict is a core pillar being universal to all of Freud’s work so far. Whether it is the conflict between the individual and the herd (in Civilization & its Discontents) or the individual’s invisible war against their own self, conflict is what Freud might as well present as the element of being human. Another interesting aspect of these essays is the exploratory yet a ‘surer’ dialogue than the hypotheses Freud presents, doubts and contradicts often in his later work. The impact of Darwin’s work can also be seen where the primal Id could be the common connection to the compounded conscious experience of our ancestors. Or maybe it is another father-son conflict for yet another essay.

Originally written as a critical response paper for a course.

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On ‘Civilization & Its Discontents’

Freud’s opinion on art and beauty in context to the culture and the civilization comes from a place of pure reason which does sound sensible at first but then later exposes the biases and assumptions which Freud himself is vulnerable to as a human being. For example, though Freud largely dismissed art and beauty, he used to keenly study the life of artists from his psychoanalytical lens – he studied, appreciated and even critiqued the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Dostoyevski. This stance softens in his statement on the description of beauty and the importance it holds to civilization – it is almost like a surrender of a very rational man to something which he cannot explain. That, and the fact that he had travelled and collected art gives, in a way, a look at how pained yet fascinated by art the man was. But, that is something which applies to all of us too at an individual level – a person who claims to appreciate the beauty in the world around themselves would have as sensible a definition of it as someone who is always dismissive of it and or is cynical about it.

He also mentions in the second chapter of Civilization & its Discontents the difference in the working of art for the creator and the viewer. While art has the tendency to sway the artist in a direction away from ‘unpleasures’ (often to places of delusion if left unchecked), the viewer experiences it from behind the safety of its temporariness. I would add to this by stating that any change in the way either of these roles work, that of the creator and the viewer, results in bad art or cult-like obsessions.

For me, all art is sourced in religion, or at least inspired from an unachievable ideal that is beyond our reach – this might be a godlike father figure for which it is created as form of reverence, or it might just be a state the artist wishes to see the world as or himself in – whether it is political in nature or a means of rebellion against the existing systems, it is an aspiration for the better even when it is showing the grim face of the society (shock art). Through Freud’s lenses, both these scenarios are states of delusion where an alternate explanation of reality aids the individual to avoid the ‘unpleasures’ offered by this world. Though initial idea of art was completely dependent on religion of that time, art has now become a tool that competes with religion in certain cases – this separation and shift in the attitudes of the societies is observable where art which exists within and without religion becomes aimed at it when it is on the outside. Though this might be because of historic events which have made art a tool to  express concerns and achieve higher levels of self awareness as a culture – one must remember that all the great works of art have arisen amidst suffering and in case that ideal is ever achieved, there will be nothing to dream of nor anything to create towards. This is similar to the example Freud presents with respect to religion, where the unpleasure needs to be for an alternate watered down path of religion to exist for the masses.

The point about art being accessible to a few is indeed a true one, though anyone can create with almost anything available as a raw material or a tool – only a few enjoy the act of this creation. The phenomenon of being in a flow state shows very clearly as to how the process of creation can be meditative. An example that immediately comes to mind, arising from the common task of writing, is shuji or Japanese calligraphy where no stroke is alike and every stroke captures the mood and emotion of the calligrapher. Though an activity requiring a high level of skill, it is described as something which is highly meditative for both the creator and the observer. As said, even when art is accessible to anyone who wishes to create, it is accessible to viewing and appreciation only to a few who can afford – I see it as something which only holds value once the bottom layers of the Maslow’s hierarchy are satisfied. An example of this is the presence of public art spaces in my city, which is the capital of the country India – these brilliant and at times expensive installations stand unnoticed, unappreciated and often vandalized. This is very much different from how public art exists in developed countries where the primal needs of the vast majority are fulfilled. Art is best appreciated when the viewer has a full stomach, a comfortable home to go back to and someone with whom he/she can discuss its meaning – only then would they stop and smell the roses. I have yet another example to back this opinion of mine, there is a huge difference in people opting for fine art education in developed countries versus the developing countries where the focus is primarily above what interests the self in fields that provide job security. Even if not wished for, this brings in the aspect of class into art and design – within these societies, art remains exclusive to the ones who have ‘self-actualized’ while outside these regions, the creative works from these societies are either often outright dismissed or presented with a blanket that keeps them separate (and at times beyond criticism – a positive bias).

But this difference also brings to mention the concept of beauty. Freud looks at beauty as an extension of the sexual, he looks at beauty positive sexual traits which we assign to objects and secondary sexual characteristics even if the primary sex organs themselves are not really considered beautiful (which does explain the development of object-fetishes for many individuals) but doesn’t fully explain the oceanic feeling of oneness in countless other situations. This explanation might just be the weakest among his attempts at explaining this beauty.

Looking away, the complexity and subjectivity of beauty and art in itself explains their purpose. Beauty is subjective not just at an individual level but at a cultural level as well. This subjectivity also influences what the art of that society addresses and considers important – in a way art does find a purpose as a documentation of history, an interpretation free from what the writers of history see the same events as, where the dreams frozen in time can be stared at long enough to view the aspirations and the spirit of those times.

Originally written as a critical response paper for a course.

Cities & Sunsets

I look at images of big influential cities slowly embracing the evening with sunsets that turn the sky into a painting of a holy battle between the cold and the warmth. The glare of the day’s dying god bounces off the colossal glass structures diffusing into a mellow orange. I can’t help but drift off and think of the lives of the people out on those streets in that moment, holed up in their apartments, coming home from work early, putting on their shoes to go somewhere else, feeding the cats, returning from funerals, studying for an exam the next day – I try to see them all. I consider the story of each and every one of them and feel like a benevolent crease of the universe experiencing itself but then my head begins to hurt which makes me quickly stop. All of them so precious but all of them will someday cease to be. Limited and occupied, I realize, I am just like them.

And there is something very special about sunsets. People write about mornings all the time but to me, mornings feel limited – they have a single direction and purpose and are generally the same for everyone. Sunsets are where one sees possibilities. If you need to really study humans, look at them during sunsets – the variance in their plans for the remaining hours will overwhelm you. It is the time when people start getting fidgety at work, it is when the self-enforced monotony starts losing its grip. And at a particular moment, not a fixed time though, it breaks – as if it were waiting for that one streetlamp to turn on earlier than usual.

Looking far into the future, these buildings that proudly reflect the evening will also fade away into new structures of either either man or nature. Only the orange hue of days like these would probably remain. I wish it does. It is all that matters.