Freud And The Poets

Late in his life, as he was dying from the agonies of cancer and insisting that he only be treated with an occasional aspirin, Sigmund Freud noted that his “discovery” of the human unconscious mind was down to the poets.  As he wrote, “Not I,  but the poets, discovered the unconscious.” By the word “poet” he meant artists who work with words, such as Shakespeare and Dostoevsky — the latter having written what Freud regarded as the greatest novel ever. Indeed, Shakespeare, as we all acknowledge, provides innumerable insights into the human condition and Dostoevsky not only explores the human unconscious mind but can be said to have discovered the duality in the human mind. His first novel, The Double, depicts a man who gradually loses his mind and goes to work to find he is already there.

But we might do well to pay attention to what Freud says, despite the fact that few read him any more and he has been dismissed by so many — even a great many of those who owe their profession to him. He was correct about so many things and even when he was wrong he had important things to say about the human mind and about the struggles we all have to make to maintain what we call “civilization.”

Ernst Cassirer said that poets create culture, which is the intellectual and emotional shell we surround ourselves with in order to help aid us in our struggle to maintain civilization — “the will to live in common,” as Ortega y Gasset would have it. It takes determination, according to Freud, because it requires restraint and even repression of the basic impulses to violence that dwell at the center of the human psyche. And this is an everyday struggle. Civilization, according to Freud, is the result of the sublimation of those instincts and the redirection of them outward in the form of the creations and discoveries that make our world larger and more interesting. And who better to lead us in this struggle than those creative artists, including the poets, who bring us out of ourselves and take us into a wider and deeper world, the world of imagination that enriches what we like to call the “real world”?

What is required, of course, if we are to join the poets and artists in their journey, is what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” This requires what he called “poetic faith,” an effort of imagination that is becoming increasingly difficult for growing numbers of people whose sensibilities have been dulled by an entertainment industry requiring no effort of any kind, much less an effort of the human imagination. These days it’s all “out there” and we need only sit and tune in. But we miss so much and in the process we become less human in so many ways because our interactions with others require an active imagination and without interaction with others we become lost within ourselves. Some, including myself, would say this ship has already sailed.

In any event, we have become less and less interested in “the will to live in common” and increasingly, as Ortega would have it, “hermetically sealed” from the real world and unable to use our imaginations to build a bridge and walk with the poets and artists into a world which is truly rich and full of delight — all of which we miss in our preoccupation with our selves.

The place of the poet is to aid us in the effort to save culture, while at the same time we are urged to question it and wrestle with the deeper questions about the worth of our culture as we struggle to achieve true selfhood;  and in the process we strengthen and preserve civilization itself by enlarging our world and ourselves enabling us to engage something greater than ourselves. Freud warned us early in the last century that the preservation of civilization requires effort and it appears that as we increasingly ignore the help of the poets he admired so much that effort is becoming increasingly difficult for a great many people to make. It is easier to simply turn on the television or check out social media; and we are well aware that as humans we dearly love to take the path of least resistance.


5 thoughts on “Freud And The Poets

  1. Hugh, I saw a great piece on PBS Newshour by a Black poet who was using this vehicle to get more young Black males to read. He saw it as an easier way to engage the reader. Glad to hear of Freud’s admiration. Keith

  2. There is a problem with poetry today that few people may realize: it is hard to get your poetry published UNLESS you are part of the “in” poetry movement. I don’t write much poetry anymore, except for myself, because I ran into nothing but arrogant publishers who told me what I wrote either wasn’t interesting, or in some cases it was not even poetry. While I begged to differ, saying either that while my poetry may not be interesting to them, it was definitely interesting to others; or that they had no right to judge what was or was not poetry if the poet (me) says it is poetry. But enough about that.
    Do we have, in addition to our conscious minds, an unconscious mind, or a subconscious mind, or both? I ask this question because I believe we have all three, and each level of consciousness has a different purpose. Let me quote you 3 poems 0 I wrote many years ago, as best I can remember them…

    Sometimes I wonder
    Is it really worth it
    To spend my time on rhyme and verse
    To curse the world and all its faults
    To write the beauty I can see
    And then I answer,
    It is
    To me.
    To wrap myself
    In a ball of words
    Is a please of
    Uncommon delight.

    That is my conscious mind at work. I know what I am wondering, I know what I am feeling, and I know what I am doing about it.

    But then, I write something like…

    pen poised or paper
    runways of the mind
    trying to find

    thoughts stream on like lemmings
    hurtling o’er a cliff
    dashing themselves to death
    upon the rocks beneath

    till every once in a while
    a thought runs round and round
    plaguing the poor poet
    to write the circle down

    as words appear on paper
    he hesitates his hand
    and wonders at the wisdom
    of the poem he didn’t plan.

    My apologies to lemmings, who do not really do suicide runs, but media agents falsified videotape to make everyone think they did, and everyone believed it. That is another story, but it demonstrates the power of the media.

    But now to give you one more poem, one to demonstrate the power of the unconscious mind. I am actually debating between two examples, but the one I am about to give you truly demonstrates what the unconscious mind is capable of, if only given the chance. It started by writing two words on a piece of paper in my typewriter (I knew nothing about word processors at the time, computers were still too big to allow just about anyone to own one, lol)… Nor did I have any idea where those two words might lead…
    any en
    aany en
    bany ben
    ceny cen
    dany den
    eany ean
    fany fen
    iany ien
    jany jen
    kany ken
    lany len
    many men
    nany nen
    oany oen
    pany pen
    qany qen
    rany ren
    sany sen
    tany ten
    uany en
    vany ven
    wany wen
    xany xen
    yany yen
    zany zen

    any en can lead many men to zany zen

    I admit, I had to add the last line consciously, but really when I looked at the words on the page, I had no idea at first I had written what could be conceived by any stretch of the imagination as a poem. But, to name drop for just a moment, when Margaret Atwood saw this piece of work when I was studying an English class with her at the University of Winnipeg many years ago, she thought it was one of the most imaginitive poems she had ever read. Meanwhile, she ignored other pieces that I had written, such as the others above, as not worthy of her time or words. Go figure!

    Now, I’m truly sorry for taking up so much of your blog space, but as I read your blog I thought these works might be relevant to what you were saying about Freud, while, of course, adding a little twist of my own,. I hope you enjoyed my words.

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