From Civilization of Pessimism to Culture of Compassion
Self Psychological Reflections on Freud’s essay
Civilization and its Discontents
What I intend to unfold in this talk, emanates from an amalgamation of a great, persisting love to Freud, this intellectual giant who had changed our fate as individuals and as civilized persons, and at the same time of a progressively increasing philosophical distancing from his initial teachings.
Ludwig Binswanger, one of the first existential psychoanalysts, a disciple and friend of the great master, used to mail to Freud New Year greeting cards, to one of which Freud wrote thus: “Unlike so many other people, you have not allowed your intellectual development, which you have increasingly removed from my influence, to destroy our personal relationship, and you have no idea how much good such refinement does for a person.” (11 January 1929. In: Fichtner, 2003, p. 195). I dare not, of course, put myself in Binswanger’s place, nor pretend to be of equal stature, but I do hope that in what I am about to present here I, too, shall be worthy to some extent of Freud’s distilled reflection about his friend.
The small book, “Civilization and Its Discontents”, which is the focus of this study, was published in 1930 in a 12,000 copies edition that was sold out within less than a year. During that year Freud was shocked and flabbergasted at the Nazis’ increase in parliamentary representation, rising from 12 to 107 delegates in the German Reichstag. To his friend Arnold Zweig he says: “we are moving toward bad times; I ought to ignore it with the apathy of old age, but I can’t help feeling sorry for my seven grandchildren” (Gay, 1988, p. 553).
He changed nothing in the second edition of his book, published in 1931, only adding a single final line to the original ending, one additional portion of pessimism reserved to us ever since in the authorized edition.
These were the book’s final lines in the first edition: “The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction … and now it is to be expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers’, eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary” (Freud, 1930 , p. 145).
To this cautiously hopeful conclusion Freud adds this line: “Butwho can foresee with what success and with what result?” (ibid.), and leaves us with utter pessimism. The events of the following years were indeed particularly evil, witnessing what horrific atrocities human kind can afflicts and experiences, leaving no doubt about man’s capacity for nihilistic contempt toward himself and his fellow-man; but does this phenomenology indeed attest to the correctness of the Freudian thesis concerning man’s fate within the culture that he himself had built?
To answer this crucial question this study has a two fold intention: (1) To pose vis-à-vis Freud`s pessimistic thesis regarding man’s fate within the matrix of civilization an optimistic alternative: one that dares offer anew – even in an era that seeks at all costs to avoid illusion and utopia – the abandonment of evil as the explanation of man’s nature, and the return to a vision of human solidarity, ethical responsibility and the faith in good. (2) To discover Freud’s struggle against his own optimism. In this spirit I would like to read his essay in a somewhat subversive fashion to its own task in order to illustrate the existence of a vertical split within the core of the essay, which reflects Freud’s own emotional and intellectual distress between his world-view and what I’m going to propose as the author’s profound understanding of existential tenets, against which he struggled with all his might within himself.
What, then, is the task of the essay?
It seems that Freud’s great daring in this essay is an attempt to put his entire theory regarding questions of man and world to a final test, and he ventures upon this mission, via a heroic move of confirming the psychoanalytic theory by testing its applicability to issues transcending the boundaries of its original discipline.
The essay at hand is well worthy of being the subject of a full-length seminar and although this task is beyond the scope of this work, I will present, at least, its skeletal platform on which I will lay the essentials of my proposal.
The two central pillars of psychoanalytic theory achieve in this essay a state of distilled clarity: on the one hand there is the hegemony of drive theory that here, after long years of stormy evolution, reached a philosophical calm in the dual structure of life and death instincts. Life instinct, that which gathers individuals into communal life, and death instinct which dismantles life patterns and thus undermines man’s communal life.
But this calm, accomplished by Freud after many years of struggle with himself and against others, had been won at the cost of hermetically-sealed theoretic imperviousness which, though impressive substantially and aesthetically, left psychoanalysis very deficient: Freud’s uncompromising struggle to establish a basic thesis of a single life force, the libido energy of Eros, derived primarily from a two-channeled position, that of biological reductionism encompassing any human occurrence, and that of a deterministic conception which observed in man nothing but a driving force. This outlook prevented the inclusion in psychoanalytic theory of the concept of teleological energy, which pulls and directs man, and branded such a spiritual possibility as a religious deviation from scientific thought.
No less decisive for psychoanalysis was the choice – which according to Freud himself necessitated the greatest effort while building the psychoanalytic meta-theory – to recognize the existence of death instinct as one of two independent fundamental instincts of man. Thus did psychoanalysis become an exceptional philosophy, perhaps the only one known to us, that positions death not as an occurrence intrinsic to nature and affecting man from without, but as a psychological occurrence that arises from man’s intrinsic Self. In spite of the heroism of such a daring statement, it alienated psychoanalysis from any known cultural domains of contemplation.
The second pillar of psychoanalytic theory, which in the essay under discussion reaches the pinnacle of its refinement, is embodied in the theory of the mental apparatus, where the chief work of structuring the human psyche is entrusted to the ego and the superego. These two agencies of the psyche are the essence of reason’s reign, whose deployment over the psychic space expresses the development and health of the individual’s psyche, as well as the suitable evolutionary course of the human species as a civilized being.
In the lecture that closed the 1933 New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, which Freud challengingly titled The Question of a Weltanschauung, he offered a statement that today may seem either embarrassing or touching in its naïveté: “Our best hope for the future is that intellect – the scientific spirit, reason – may in process of time establish a dictatorship in the mental life of man.” (Freud, 1933 , Vol. xxii p. 171). And thus, in the spirit of pure objectivism and of rationality as the core of enlightenment, Freud positions psychoanalysis as a science devoid of a weltanschauung.
By the side of the ego there stands the structure of the superego’s reign as an authority thoroughly harnessed to the domestication of archaic, atavistic drives, a drive-domesticating and civilizing judicial authority, a kind of hegemony of all-embracing prohibition and guilt. In the essay under discussion Freud had thus markedly distanced himself from the beginning of the psychic agency of the superego, which, in its initial appearance in his seminal 1914 paper On Narcissism, was the locus of psychic ideality, that which guides and directs: not a persecutory entity but a teleological being.
The ambivalent dialogue of the ego and the superego with man’s instincts – which are liable to endanger his personal existence and destroy his collective achievements – creates a sophisticated renunciation of instincts, a unique process that underlies both the creation and preservation of man’s communal life in the space of civilization. This, then, is a Hobbesian civilization whose neurotic quality is intrinsic to it, and the discontent stemming from it is built-in, perpetual and irresolvable.
But beyond Freud’s manifest task of a virtuoso presentation of the psychoanalytic theory in its full application for painting the picture of `man and his civilization` development, the essay reflects the duality orientation which lies at the basis of Freud’s teachings in all its ramifications. Freud is totally committed to an outlook of the human condition as a colliding condition underlying the orientation of separateness, from which all else is derived – the duality of instinct, the duality of structure and the duality of relation between oneself and one’s other; This duality dictates any psychoanalytic observation of man with himself and with his world, and is an example, both touching and chilling, of the western rupture-culture which is based on the hegemony of epistemology; namely, on the definition of `being` as the revelation of being to consciousness. According to this rupture, intrinsic to the epistemic dimension, any being, including human being, whether I or my Other, does not exist as a being-subject but only as an object-for-observation by the consciousness. This rupture was Freud’s philosophic foundation.
The task of the essay, then, is not limited only to a daring attempt of applying psychoanalytic theory to the understanding of the questions of man, society and world. The essay seeks to turn psychoanalysis itself into a cultural-scientific building-block that buttresses the world-conception of duality.
I intend to propose that it is Freud’s reliance on a dual structure of being and thought, deriving from a western epistemic position, which leads him inevitably to an attitude of pessimism, reaching extremely severe dimensions in this perturbing essay. In the same vein, I intend to argue that discontent springs organically not from intertwined philogenetic and ontogenetic developmental processes, but from the epistemic hegemony that creates a malignant rupture between man and himself, between man and his fellow-man, and between man and his world.
What is the subversive reading of Freud’s task?
I shall, therefore, try to show that alongside the dual depth-pattern that exists in Freud’s oeuvre and that is initially manifested between conscious and unconscious, or between Eros and Tanathos, or between my self and my fellow-man, there started appearing both a conceptual understanding and a psychic empirics that signify a different, non-dualistic orientation, in which it is not separateness that is hegemonic, but rather a state of whole-unified totality.
This is a transition from the myth of individuality, defined by its separateness from any other being, to a profound recognition of a web-state of merging in which every being in the world including the human being resides. Under the visible and manifest phenomenology of separateness, determining the unique occurrence of each individual, exists a hidden web which physicists call quantum twinship or entanglement, and which the Buddhists call inter-being. It is a unified fabric in which bodies that externally seem as separate events are actually not even different expressions of the same reality, but the occurrence of one being.
My quasi-subversive task, then, is an attempt to show that in this monumental piece of Freud’s writing the recognition of a merging orientation, an orientation of non-duality, is already present. I’m going to present this work of deconstruction through three areas of a vertical split in Freud, namely, a proclaimed stance and by its side, conscious and openly-admitted but in a split manifestation, the other stance.
A. The personal-emotional atmosphere
Civilization and Its Discontents was written with epic momentum and Freud’s brush strokes in this piece are broad in scope and intensely expressive. The air of supreme self-confidence with which his ideas unfold is so resolute and uncompromising that the eloquent philosophical flow seems to be pervaded by intellectual hauteur which nullifies any philosophical stance different from Freud’s.
In contrast to the sensation of self-worth bordering on spiritual exaltation which characterizes the writing, it is very surprising how dejected and depleted, weak and worthless Freud felt after completing the composition. At the time of publication of the essay, he confessed to his friend and confidant, Ernest Jones, that it “consisted of `an essentially dilettantish foundation` on which `rises a thinly tapered analytic investigation‘” (Gay, 1988, p.543).
This is the deep experiential expression of a split that I wish to portray to you as embodied in Freud’s paper: had he enjoyed the proud satisfaction of accomplishing his philosophical task, why, then, was the sense of completing this essay so partial and tormented? Freud exposes to us a picture of the vertical split existing in the deepest level of his being, between a philosophical conviction about the existential state of man as an individual for himself and as a civilized creature, and the profound knowledge that there is no possibility of touching an ultimate understanding concerning man. Freud reached the conclusion that his pessimism stemmed from the results of his analytic investigation of man in civilization, but he failed to understand the vertical split within himself, which I regard as the source of his pessimism.
B. The leading ideational stance – the issue of the title and its translation
Several split-moves occurred around the name of the piece that we are discussing: its title consists of two parts, civilization (and its) discontent(s), and both were a source of unrest for Freud and for those who accompanied the translation of the essay from German into English. Were these merely linguistic and semantic problems, or did the conversion of the text from German to English serve as a kind of furnace that facilitates an in-depth scrutiny into the clefts of meaning that never ceased to haunt Freud?
Unhappiness or Discontent: At the beginning Freud wanted to title his essay Unhappiness in Culture, by which he put the concept of happiness in its relation to culture at the focus of his piece; but on second thought he seemed to have recoiled from dealing directly with the profundities of this existential issue when he proposed the title ‘Man’s Discomfort in Civilization‘, suggesting the rather softened and distancing English word ‘Discomfort’ for the translation. The word finally chosen, Discontent, was proposed by the translator, Joan Riviere, and was accepted by Freud as conveying the meaning of his second choice.
Instead of adopting a daring psychoanalytic approach of metaphysical quality in order to deal openly with the being-state of happiness, Freud finally settled for sexual pleasure as man’s pattern for the pursuit of happiness, even though this, he thought, will always reward man with nothing but pain and anguish. Freud knew, then, that happiness and pleasure are definitely not overlapping states of being, and therefore the problem of the unresolved relation between the pleasure principle and human happiness continued to trouble him. Even the well known distinction that Freud had drawn between neurotic suffering and the suffering which, according to the conception of the essay, is inherent to us all as civilized creatures, a suffering that elsewhere he calls “common unhappiness” (Freud, 1935), did not provide an answer to this issue and only strengthened his pessimistic stance that man was not created for happiness.
I propose, then, that the relinquishment of the original word happiness in the essay’s title reflects the vertical split that existed within Freud around the being-state of happiness and the optimistic daring to place this state of being within the legitimate sphere of investigation of psychoanalysis.
Culture or Civilization: if the change of the original title with regard to the choice between unhappiness and discontents can barely be explained as relating to metaphysical spheres, with which psychoanalysis supposedly should not necessarily concern itself, the replacement of Freud’s original intention in the latter half of the essay’s title by choosing ‘Civilization’ instead of ‘Culture’ cannot in any way be dismissed as insignificant.
The term Freud had chosen for the essay’s title in the original was ‘Kultur‘, but in his proposal for the title’s translation into English he himself proposed the term Civilization – Man’s Discomfort in Civilization. The question of what happened during the transition from the first version to the final decision remains a puzzle. Strachey, Freud’s close friend and legendary editor, insists that one should not dwell too much upon the issue of translating ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’, pointing out a note Freud wrote in The Future of an Illusion, to the effect that he is indifferent to the distinction between the two concepts. (Freud, 1927, p. 6).
Was Freud truly indifferent to the decisive distinction between these two modes of human communal state so as to use the two meaning-laden terms as merely synonymous concepts? I’m convinced that a positive deconstruction leads us to the very core of the vertical split that underlies the piece we are discussing.
At the outset of his important essay On the Essence of Culture (In: Man`s Face, 1962) Martin Buber formulates a critical statement that touches upon our current issue. According to Buber, the word culture consists of the process of civilization, which is primarily “the enforcement of reason over all being“, and of the movement of culture, which is “the movement of the human soul for the sake of its expression” (pp.377-378). Buber suggests that while the civilization-dimension in culture is the element of consciousness, the culture-dimension in culture is the space of psychic truth. This basic distinction leads Buber to the crucial quantum-like insight that while the process of civilization is based on discovering reality, the movement of culture is a continuous process of its creation.
The climactic difference between the `process` and the `movement` makes civilization the carrier of the finiteness of man’s communal life, while culture carries the infinitude of collective human state. Summing up his philosophical thesis, Buber concludes that our civilization is what we use, whereas our culture is what we are, presenting to us a philosophical version of the well known psychoanalytic stance that makes the distinction between doing and being, or between materialism and idealism, a distinction from which Freud was as far away as the distance in evolution that psychoanalysis has been making from his time to ours.
And yet, by relying on Buber’s thought we can say without a doubt that Freud’s own fluctuation between the original German word “Kultur”, and the English word “Civilization”, clearly tells us about Freud’s tremendous effort to remove man’s soul from the space of psychoanalysis, which he wanted to regard as a scientific discipline devoid of a Weltanschauung; but this very movement from the initial statement to the final translation provides evidence that already within Freud himself there occurred a complementarity of pure realism and of a much more spiritual stance, that only its existence in a state of vertical split caused him to abandon the optimism which it embodied.
C. Three content-focuses of vertical split
The main link between the pessimistic notion of a discontented civilization and the optimistic possibility of a culture of compassion is embodied in Freud’s essay in three areas of content, whose underlying vertical split delineates the ideational watershed between the two options. Surprisingly, or maybe this is no surprise at all, the three issues seem to be marginal digressions in Freud’s orderly-structured thought, but at the same time they are the ones which open and close his great essay.
Is our ethical existence only a secondary byproduct, genetically reducible to a primary starting point which is essentially different from spiritual existence based on ideal, or perhaps ethics is nonetheless an intrinsic aspect of human being? Or psychoanalytically phrased – is a life of value attainable only through the secondary internalization of an external prohibition, or can a life of worth spring forth from a primary existence of merging with an ideal?
It is fascinating to discover that the small book in front of us opens with an empirical observation which Freud admits had caused him a great philosophical discontent: the “admiration” given by the masses to individuals who follow a life-ideal different from the ones guiding the multitude – power, success, and material wealth. Relying on a suggestion made by Romaim Rolland, a friend admired by Freud himself, he hypothesizes that the thrilled esteem felt by the masses towards these select few stems from a natural connection to a sense of “eternity” embodied in those admired figures. The awareness of something higher than myself, unlimited and infinite, and the process of merging with it – this is the essence of the human phenomenon of idealization. The common psychoanalytic custom of defining idealization as painting reality in rosy colors and prettifying it in a kind of a denial process, ignores the original meaning of the word, which actually denotes the human act of creating ideals and of an existence within them; this act of ignoring the term’s actual meaning should be corrected in the psychoanalytic space.
So Freud realized the amazing fact that people seek an ideal as a primary need, and when they cannot find it in their own life, they look to the figure of one who puts himself at their disposal for self-need which they themselves are unable to carry on their own shoulders – the need for an idealized selfobject. And yet, he was unable give humans the spiritual credit that this is an authentic, intrinsic, need. Though understanding man’s needs for ideals, he refused to see these as expressions of primary needs, considering them, instead, as only secondary occurrences oscillating on a continuum between infantile defenses and products of sublimation processes. Tragically, it seems, that in spite of his own selfobject experience with an idealized selfobject in the figure of Romain Rolland, Freud`s acceptance of a primary spiritual explanation for the unique phenomenon of idealization, remained an essentially split off acceptance which never healed in his mind.
Freud understood intuitively that processes of idealization underlie the experience of oceanic merger. Thus, it is no wonder that his pondering about the place which idealization has in the life of man serves as infrastructure to the derivate issue of oceanic experience.
It is only natural that a philosophical essay, aiming at buttressing separateness-orientation as defining all wings of psychoanalytic theory, has to cope with an issue that requires deciphering – does the self have a holistic relation to the world or does it not. Confessing that he was not familiar within himself with an experience of unity with the world, Freud remained with the split off acceptance of the phenomenology of oceanic feeling, continuously convinced that it signifies either a developmental defect involved in regressive states within the individual and in the evolution of mankind, or a defensive stance aimed at preventing the separate development of human species and of the individual. Again, as concerning idealization, the very authentic existence of a human experience of merger with something which is `not me`, is no evidence for Freud of the primacy of the oceanic experience as a human entity in itself.
And just as the issue of man’s merger with his fellow-man and with the universe troubles Freud at the opening of his book, so ends the first chapter of the essay, where he confesses that: “Let me admit once more that it is very difficult for me to work with these almost intangible quantities” (Freud, 1930 , p. 72). And immediately, in close proximity to this, he speaks of another friend of his, who specializes in eastern philosophies of yoga, breathing methods and concentration practices, who told him that feelings of wholeness surpass any other feeling and are evidence of higher dimensions of psychic existence. The mere mentioning of this friend shows that although Freud knew that in order to expand the scope of psychoanalysis it was imperative to approach those magnitudes which he himself admitted were inexplicable to him, he was adamant in his adherence to the non-spiritual dimensions of the psyche.
A moving human miniature may add further evidence to the split in which Freud lived vis-à-vis the merger issue as a primary being-capacity of man; In Ferenczi`s letter-collection there is a touching comment added by the editors on Buber’s impressions of his rare meeting with Freud: “Although Buber remained very skeptical about psychoanalysis, in this meeting he was charmed by Freud’s personality, and especially `by the oceanic stillness of the soul`” (Falzeder, Brabant & Gianpieri-Deutsch, 1996, 178-179). The man who fought so resolutely with the issue of oceanity is defined by a towering intellectual humanist, as a person endowed with that Zen trait of the soul which he opposed as a man and as a scientist.
Egocentricity and altruism
No less fascinating than the opening is the way Freud chooses to end his essay; and thus, as at the outset, it is in the final chapter that Freud touches – and, again, seemingly in a casual way – upon what in my view is the nucleus of Freudian contemplation in this piece – upon the split between egoism and altruism. I propose to call this issue the narcissistic equation between emergence and dissolving (Kulka, 2005, 2010 in press), a conceptualization that will be discussed further later.
Freud calls the narcissistic equation “an expedient accommodation – one, that is, that will bring happiness – between this claim of the individual and the cultural claims of the group.” (Freud 1930 , p.96), and considers it as another layer in the dualistic conception of collision, but this time not between Eros and Thanatos but within life instinct itself in the distribution of the libido between myself and my Other, between the quest for personal happiness and the quest of uniting into communal life. Indeed by this Freud almost immediately turns altruism also into a sophisticated form of egoism, but one can hardly fail to see here the manifestation of Freud’s vertical split distress: in a divided way and contrary to his declared goal, the issue of the individual vis-à-vis civilization all of a sudden takes on a non-deterministic and non-biological dimensions, thus becoming a pure existential issue that does not depend upon instinct and drive requiring domestication; In one stroke Freud replaced his classical perspective with a primary existential dilemma between personal and collective – the problem of egoism versus altruism. Thus, definitely, for a rare moment unconscious of its magnitude, Freud departs from his drive and structural teachings and, in a brief glimpse, passes to the possibility of looking at the narcissistic equation through existential concepts of ethics.
The three content focuses which structure the essay under discussion – between the opening that recognizes the primacy of a unified being, and its ending that recognizes altruism as an intrinsic element of man – characterize this philosophical composition as exceeding its own boundaries by describing the history of psychoanalysis – the one which Freud initially shaped and then struggled for its preservation, and the one which he himself knew, by intuitive knowledge existing within him in a vertical split, would rise and appear as its next evolutionary step.
A culture of compassion
Between idealization and oceanity of the essay’s beginning, and the altruism of its ending, exactly in its center, in the fourth chapter, there lies hidden, even if not by its explicit name, the issue of compassion, and of course it too is presented in its vertical split form: Freud understands its immensity as a phenomenon of human spirit, whose manifestation within the select few validates its psychic feasibility in man; yet he again demolishes both its primacy and its non-drive origin: he defines the transition from the thirst to be loved to a stance of loving fellow-man, and the transition from passionate love for a single object to an all-embracing spiritual love, as aim-inhibited processes and as defensive moves against the suffering involved in mature love-life. Freud`s summarizing statement of his resolute objection to compassion as a supreme spiritual state truly stands to reason, but it also acutely unbearable to the heart: “…this readiness for universal love of mankind and the world… a love that does not discriminate seems to me to forfeit a part of its own value by doing an injustice to its object; and … not all men are worthy of love.” [emphasis added] (Freud, 1930  p.102).
As opposed to Freud, who assumes that there is no possibility of escaping the discontents causality since the very foundation of civilization requires the relinquishment of instincts and begets the discontents of frustration and guilt, the thesis I am putting forward proposes that the tangential point between the innovations of the last generation in psychoanalysis and the going-on-being wisdom of Buddhism can definitely untie this Gordian knot between culture and discontent.
The matrix of egocentricity and altruism provides the bridging link to the second part of my presentation – my proposal regarding the replacement of civilization of discontents with culture of compassion. The narcissistic equation enables me to posit a model of man’s existential condition as based not on duality but on complementarity that oscillates between emergence into an individual existence separate from the world, and dissolving into a supra-individual existence of participating in the world. This model, based on the Kohutian`s legacy, facilitates the understanding of culture in a different way: not as a super-structure for the continuous domestication of the sexual and aggressive personality and for conveying the message of domestication via continuous internalizations throughout the generations, but as a contextual opportunity for the appearance of the narcissistic equation in its entirety, namely, the establishment of the emergent self for itself and its dissolving into transcendent existence of participating in the establishment of fellow-man and world.
This is a model that maintains smoothly the combination of culture and civilization, not by nullifying the difference between them as Freud does, but by maintaining the process and movement according to Buber’s division as a complementary super-position. According to this proposal civilization is the process of emergence, which always originates in instinct, and culture is the movement of dissolving, which always originates in transcending the dimension of instinct. I propose, then, that there is a possibility that existence is not a turbulent collision between Eros and Thanatos but an organic oscillation between emergence, which includes the two `Heavenly Powers`, to use Freud’s words, and dissolving, which transcends both these instinctual domains of power.
As a confirmed admirer of the spirit and practice of science, if Freud had been only slightly aware of the wondrous advance in human knowledge in his time, namely the courageous formulation of quantum physics which laid a revolutionary foundation to subjective science, thus, summoning psychoanalysis towards its Quantum future. If Freud could have opened up to the twentieth century’s Copernican complementarity idea, he would not have been pushed so hard to defend his theory so strenuously against the findings of his own observations and, based on his recent discoveries, he could have started creating on his own the double, complementary structure of psychoanalysis: this is a structure that vibrates between the psychoanalysis of the individual who is separate unto himself, the individual emerging in the world via instinct – via any instinct either constructive or destructive – and struggling for a continuous and linearly developing personal existence, and the psychoanalysis of the `unified man`, that individual who chooses to dissolve into a supra-individual existence of participating in the universe as a not-me, as a being that transcends its own being.
What is the factor that determines whether the system of human existence remains in its dualistic split or moves to the stage of complementarity? I propose compassion as the factor holding the system in its quantum super-position state. It contains the existential vibration between the two states not as a split within a constant-collision-structure but as the paradox of complementarity. A culture of compassion will contain both sides of the equation as a whole being, not a split-of-being like the one which Freud sought to convince us was the only one accessible to humanity.
What is compassion?
Not under a single tree did the Buddha sit. He reached enlightenment while sitting one long night under a Boddhi tree in Boddhgaya, and ascended to the rank of Arhat, the enlightened one who had reached Nirvana. But this did not terminate his journey to awakening. From there the Buddha proceeded to sit under a tree in the deer garden in Sarnat, where he sat for twenty-one days tormented by a great struggle: should he be satisfied with his personal achievement, or, instead, respond to the external-internal call and accept the mission of accompanying people in their way to awakening and enlightenment. From this dilemma the Buddha rose and wandered among men until his death, fully devoted to showing them their inner Buddha nature.
The life story of Sidharta Gautama as a two-event epic, one of withdrawal from the world, the second of participating in the world, later evolved into the very history of Buddhism; some five hundred years after its inception, a period during which the Buddha followers engaged in refining his teaching and in the rise of the individual man to the rank of Arhat, there occurred an immense change in the course of Buddhism: the core of this gigantic change was the replacement of the personal ideal by the Bodhisattva ideal, this is the man who upon reaching Nirvana chooses not to abandon the world but to remain in it and to participate in accompanying his fellow-man to enlightenment. This was the move that led to the establishment of the figure of the Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, and its positioning at the center of the great stream of Mahayana Buddhism.
The double-phased course of Buddhism, then, reveals that compassion is founded on two tenets:
· The abolition of any duality between myself and my Other, between myself and the world.
· The ethical decision concerning my personal responsibility for my Other and for the world.
An in-depth contemplation into the roots of these tenets of compassion reveals two enigmatic obstacles on the way to reach this noble state of mind:
Compassion is not an interpersonal state, but a supra-personal state:
In its strict definition compassion does not mean understanding my Other or pitying him, but the repeal of individuality partition between man and man. Compassion is not identifying with my Other, it is being my Other. The state of compassion, therefore, does not represent an interpersonal interaction but precisely man’s transcendence toward a supra-individual state. In this context, the ultimate goal of compassion is reaching to a state of awareness that does not split between being and the revelation of being to consciousness – a state of awareness that is not reflexive and yet is totally one of awareness. The removal of the partition between subject and subject is, then, the definer of compassion as the highest degree of a non-dual state of awareness. Overcoming reflexivity as the sole definition of our awareness is a spiritual task whose core is the narcissistic relinquishing of our separate existence.
Compassion is not a feeling but an ethical commitment:
I know how repulsive this may seem, both intellectually and emotionally, since how is it possible that the supreme feeling is a non-feeling, but what is called in Buddhist thought, Karuna, a state of opening the soul, one of the sublime abodes of supreme awareness? Man’s transcendence from his hold onto any feeling epitomizes the ethical task embodied in compassion, since it is this clinging onto feeling that fixates the judgmental quality of our dualistic consciousness. The definition of compassion as an ethical commitment is also at the heart of the narcissistic question that moves between self fulfillment and giving oneself up for a fellow-man, a standing which the Jewish-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas named the individual’s renunciation initiative. This wondrous oxymoron of a paradoxical state of being, based on the ostensibly negative gesture of restraint, is not less than an ultimate definition of a totally new ontology – open ontology; a being-state that is open toward the total responsibility for the Other (Levinas, 1961, 1974).
Thus, Western renunciation initiative meets Asian definition of compassion as the emptiness of the self of itself, an existential transcendence that turns man into a pure presence.
Cultivating the capability of compassion
How do we nurture the state of mind of compassion? I truly believe this is a metaphysical and a concrete duty for which we, psychoanalysts, are primarily responsible. Each one of us has her or his way to expand our psyche and to return to the transformative soul-mode of compassion ingrained in our being. I request to present two modest clinical examples, the aim of them is to demonstrate the motion occurring between emergence and dissolving, and I hope that something of the mysterious mixture between a new theoretical channel I am proposing for an alternative development of psychoanalysis, and my personal way of ethically applying it in meeting suffering people, will find its way from the clinical examples into your hearts.
In the first example the motion between dissolving and emergence involves the tragedy of trauma and recovery.
A woman and an ambulance:
A young woman, in analysis for several years. One day she gets up from the couch, and stands at attention facing the window. She makes no response to my inquiry, leaving her action an unsolved puzzle. Since that day, she has repeated the same ritual in front of the window, until one day I imagine I understand the meaning of it. “Is it the ambulance?” I ask, and she nods in the affirmative.
The woman’s husband died in one of the wars: having been injured in combat, it was impossible to evacuate him from the battle field, where he was left to his death.
For several months, whenever we hear the siren of an ambulance on the highway nearby, she stands up. Slowly, I get her to reveal her emotions: “It is impossible to go on living when someone else is fighting for their life, or have died just now. There is no meaning for private life.”
The genetic and dynamic interpretations I offer, tells my patient nothing new about her life or about the traumatic effects of the death of her spouse. Only after really accepting in my heart her acted out ritual, I feel very calm and we both solemnly become mute whenever we hear ambulance sirens heralding news of disaster, as if suspending our life in consecration of our Other`s. She stands up in front of the window, while I sit closed-eyed in my chair meditating for a few moments, until I hear the rustle of her sitting down again. One day, during this joint ritual, while I contemplate the ambulance and the people in it, I feel a great deepening of my emotions of empathy and compassion, and I undergo an unfamiliar internal tremor. I get up from my chair, and stand mutely next to my patient. And so I do in the following times. Between one ambulance and another, one siren and another, we conduct the analysis in its regular manner. One day, as we hear the siren commanding us to stand up, she says to me in a quiet voice: “I no longer need to stand up“.
In this expression of our standing up, and symbolically suspending our private, individual life, we seemed to have removed the separateness between us and the other, and an event of dissolving occurred. Only once we reached the saturation point of the ethical experience of standing up for the Other, that was the moment when my patient could return to the private, individual, existence of emergence.
In the second example the motion between emergence and dissolving involves painful clinging and recovery.
A patient and a dog
I have a sort of neighbor, a large and overly energetic dog who lives near my clinic. When his owners go out for their daily occupations, the dog is left alone in the house, and – being resourceful – he often succeeds in escaping from his house arrest, and starts roaming the neighborhood. Being a friendly creature, he is exceedingly glad to meet any patient of mine, and he excitedly accompanies all newcomers to my doorstep – always hoping that this time I will permit him to enter my sanctum.
One morning, a patient arrives, a man who leads a life of hardship, going through it with much pain. As I open the door for him, that dog, Gooly, is on the doorstep, tempestuously pushing to get in ahead of the man. I stoop to grasp his collar, talking to him affectionately and explaining apologetically that now is not the proper time for his visit, and then I pull him out gently by the collar leading him out. When I reenter the room my patient is already lying on the couch, crying uncontrollably like a child. Not having seen him sad or tearful upon his arrival a moment before I become moved with concern: “What’s wrong?” I ask. And he replies: “You’ll never welcome me as you just welcomed the dog, I’ll never have that from you. What warmth, what a smile, you arecompletely open.” And he cries harder.
Into his weeping I say: “If it is so, then it’s me who should cry, not you.”
Two days later he comes again, lies quietly on the couch, and for a few moments is silently occupied in a sort of finger play, examining some intertwining motion of the fingers, first pressing them strenuously and then letting go. I watch him, enchanted, not yet realizing what the magic is, and then I hear myself saying simply: “Yours and not yours”. As if not having heard me, he starts talking, in uncustomary calm, about the latest meeting he had with an arbitrator who is vainly trying to reconcile between him and his business partner, in an attempt to agree on the dissolution of the partnership and the division of their assets, following an ambivalent relationship of many years. “I don’t know what happened to me, but suddenly I had no need to fight and to argue, to retaliate and injure, it went absolutely smoothly, and both of them actually asked me what had happened to me. So you think that this is my finger play, that I can see him and not just think of him as my possession, that I can let him go? But I feel that this is not what you talked about, because you couldn’t know about thatmeeting yesterday. So what did you say? What is ‘yours and not yours’?You actually meant me, didn’t you? That I am mine and not mine?” And I, choked with tears, succeed only in mumbling: “Now that you are saying this, that’s probably what I said.” Later, when we part, he completes the magic when he asks me, smiling, at the door: “I missed him today on thedoorstep, how is he?” And I, the blockhead that I am, need two or three seconds to understand that he is referring to the dog.
And what about discontent?
The word that designates the first noble truth of Buddhism concerning the fundamental characteristic of existence is the well known word ‘Dukkha’, which is commonly translated into western languages by the word ‘suffering’, but its exact meaning is ‘discontent’, no more no less. At the basis of my proposal lies the belief that in a culture of compassion discontent can be abolished. By transcending an orientation of separateness and adopting unified wholeness, and via transformation from an epistemic civilization of inherent rupture between being and consciousness, to non-dual contemplation, the way is paved to a culture of compassion. This is a culture which believes that the ubiquitous phenomenology of discontents in our lives indeed stems from the embedded duality within reality, yet provides no evidence of the inner nature of being, and that man’s intrinsic possibility for a unified merger and an ethical stance can abolish discontents from man’s life with himself and with his fellow-man.
A final reflection
Philosophically and meta-theoretically I think that psychoanalysis has taken great strides from its initial origins at the very heart of the project of modernity. A discipline that can be called epistemic psychoanalysis, one founded on the centrality of consciousness and confronting man with the very exacting demand – ‘Know thyself`’, had undergone transformations that led it to totally different regions; regions that are not epistemic but ontological, and these are paving the way for the evolutionary journey of the whole discipline toward what may be called ethical psychoanalysis, one founded upon existential encounter and summoning man to accept responsibility for the selfhood of his Other. In this respect, the transition to a culture of compassion is a transition from metaphysics of knowledge to metaphysics of presence.
In April 1957 Martin Buber gave a series of lectures in the school of psychiatry in Washington. A bare few of these were written down and published. In one of them, bearing the title The Unconscious, Buber raises the fascinating idea concerning cosmic maturation, complementing personal maturation and social maturation. Will it be correct to say that it was difficult for Freud to complete the cosmic maturation of psychoanalysis? I hope that I have succeeded to some extent in showing that the monumental piece Civilization and its Discontents is a moving moment in this maturation process, and that a compassionate retrospective look at the enigmatic vertical split embodied in it, positions psychoanalysis as an organic landmark in the cosmic maturation of contemporary man.
And what about us, where are we? At least we know that it is not sufficient to sit idly under a couple of trees in order to reach cosmic maturation, so as to deserve the rank of a man fully present in compassion. Much more than that is needed.
Thank you for your generous attention
Buber, M. (1957). The unconscious. Hope for the Present Hour. 236-256. Tel Aviv: Am
Oved Publishers, 1992. (Hebrew).
Buber, M. (1962). On the essence of culture. Man`s Face. 375-393. Jerusalem: Bialik
Binswanger, L. (1958). Sigmund Freud: Reminiscences of a Friendship. New York:
Grune & Straton.
Falzeder, E., Brabant, E., & Giampieri-Deutsch, P., (1966). The Correspondence of
Sigmund Freud and Sandor Ferenczi, Vol. 2, 1914—1919, pp. 178–179. Psychoanalytic
Electronic Publishing, 2006.
Freud, S. (1914). On narcissism: An introduction. S. E., 14: 73–102. London: Hogarth
Freud, S. (1927). The future of an illusion. S. E., 21: 1–56. London: Hogarth Press, 1961.
Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and its discontents. S. E., 21: 57–145. London: Hogarth
Freud, S. (1933 ). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. The question of a
Weltanschauung S.E., 22: XXXC, 158-182. London: Hogarth Press, 1964.
Freud, S. (1935). A letter to the mother of a homosexual. The American Journal of
Psychiatry, 107: 786–787, 1951.
Freud, S. (1940 ). Splitting of the ego in the process of defence. S.E., 23: 271-278.
London: Hogarth Press, 1964.
Gay, P. (1988). Freud. A Life for Our Time. New York & London: W.W. Norton &
Kulka, R. (2005). Between tragic and compassion. Introduction essay in: Kohut, H. How
Does Analysis Cure? Tel Aviv: Am Oved Publishers. (Hebrew).
Kulka, R. (2010). Between Emergence and Dissolving: Contemporary Reflections on
Greatness and Ideals in Kohut’s Legacy. The 33rd International Conference of self
Psychology, Antalya, Turkey.
Levinas, E. (1961). Totality and Infinity. Translated by: Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania: Duquesne University, 1969.
Levinas, E. (1974). Otherwise than Being. Translated by: Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania: Duquesne University, 1981.
Strachey, J. (1961). Editor`s note. In: The future of an illusion. S. E., 21: 1– 56. London:
Hogarth Press, 1957.
 The psychoanalytic term ‘vertical split’ was introduced by Heinz Kohut, the founder of psychoanalytic self psychology, in his book ‘The Analysis of the Self’ (1971) in order to characterize the fragmented, or even the non-existent, Self. This, in contradistinction to the ‘horizontal split’, which Kohut wished to reserve to repression processes and other classical defenses that determine the level of consciousness in the ways outlined by Freud. It is worth noting that in some of his later papers of the last decade of his life, Freud hesitantly touches upon a process wherein the psyche is fragmented not by processes that divide the mind into conscious and unconscious areas, and he opens his paper ‘Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defense‘ (1940 ) that deals with the principal distinction between disavowal and repression, with the moving words: “I find myself for a moment in the interesting position of not knowing whether what I have to say should be regarded as something long familiar and obvious or as something entirely new and puzzling. But I am inclined to think the latter” (p. 275).
It seems that, on the verge of leaving the world, Freud himself was on the threshold of his own transcendence from familiar epistemological psychoanalysis of levels of consciousness, toward a different and still enigmatic psychoanalysis of ailments of the psyche and the soul, and that the colossal discovery of the unconscious – ‘the horizontal split’ – did not suffice to meet them adequately.  What is a selfobject and what are selfobject relations? Even after more than four decades of theoretic and clinical research into the essence of the concept we are still only at the beginning of recognizing its potential expanses, and I will therefore propose here what, in my view, is the very heart of the matter: any Other whose presence toward me is experienced by me as generating my self and establishes-constructs it is my selfobject: this unique word signifies the fact that a selfobject can be anything – a person, an environment, a phenomenon, an idea, a creation, an event, an object, but in spite of the infiniteness of who or what can function as a selfobject, there is one criterion that this Other must meet: it must be itself, clearly distinct from me, but at the same time, in an almost mysterious way and via osmotic processes of his devoted immersion in me, it must be me. A kind of external-me without it I do not exist, and only via processes of merger with it I become, and I myself.  I am indebted to Yechezkiel Cohen, a dear friend and colleague, for having acquainted me with this fascinating material.  The concept of complementarity originates from quantum theory and it represents quantum reality’s ontological position. According to the complementarity principle, there is no neutral reality, objective and existing by, and on its own: the particular occurrence of reality at any given moment is a complementary event: even though it is an absolute, whole and single state for this moment it is only one being option of reality that materialized from a supra-state of infinite potentiality. At another moment reality’s potentiality will collapse and emerge into another particular state that exists in a relation of complementarity to its former; namely, they forever cannot appear together in any form even if they are the different facets of realistic feasibility and do not constitute contradiction to each other. Complementarity, then, presents to man’s mind an ontology in which concepts familiar to us from Newtonian world experience, such as integration, dialectics, and even relativism, to name a few, are not valid in the quantum-being of reality.