Near the end of a most interesting essay on “Art, Will, and Necessity,” Lionel Trilling has a brief summary of one of the many insights Freud had into human psychic development. It deserves serious reflection because regression is a phenomenon of increasing familiarity. As Trilling notes:
“According to Freud, in the very earliest stages of infancy, the self is not experienced, let alone conceived, as separate from its environment. In the first months of life the universe is, as it were, contained within the infant’s sensory system. Only by gradual stages in the process of maturation does the infant come to perceive that the world is external to it and independent of it, and learns to surrender the omnipotence of its subjectivity. Recognizing the imperative nature of the objectified universe, the infant acquires the ability to deal with the external world in individual acts of will. Thus it survives, and to the agency of its survival, to that element of the psychic economy which has guided the infant in making this necessary differentiation between itself as subject and the world as object, Freud gave the name of ego.
“The development of the ego is a process of infinite complexity, of which one aspect is its periodic reluctance to go forward in its growth. Sometimes it is tempted to regress to a less active and effectual stage, even to turn back to the comfortable condition of subjective omnipotence, to the megalomania of infantile narcissism.”
Freud called this the development of the “reality principle,” the slow and at times painful awareness that the self is not all, that there are cruel necessities “out there” that are separate from us and demand our attention. To the extent that the world becomes more threatening, to the extent that our attention turns back upon itself and dwells on its own immediate pleasures and desires, to that extent is growth and maturity stunted. And it is this phenomenon that demands our attention, because today we demand that the world be of our own liking and to the extent that it is not, to that extent is its objectivity denied and the truths that are painful twisted into “alternative facts” and “false news.” The phenomenon of “regression” is of particular interest.
Recently ours is a world of immediate gratification, a world in which our desires are satisfied as soon as they are felt — like those of the infant who cries and is fed or changed. Indeed, increasingly we seem to lack the ability to mature, to grow as adults and face the demands of a world not of our own making. Instead we retreat into our world of things which we have “bought” on time — because we want them now, not later, a world of pleasure where everything is as we would have it be. If our world is not as we would have it be, we reject it and refuse to allow that it is real. We seem to have developed a very weak reality principle, as Freud would have it, and prolonged our infancy well into old age. As Trilling notes, in the normal maturation process the infant as he ages “comes to perceive that the world is external to it and independent of it.” We seem to struggle with that realization, to fight against it. Triggered, perhaps, by our growing fear and uncertainty we submerge ourselves in a world of entertainment — including, but not restricted to, the electronic toys that allow us to prolong the illusion that we are in total control of the world around us. This supports Trilling’s contention that many of us may be regressing to a stage of “infantile narcissism.”
What to do? It would seem that until or unless we address the matter head-on it will simply grow worse. We need to come out of ourselves, admit that the world is not of our own making, that things are not always as we would have them be, in order to begin to grow as human beings. Above all else, though Freud pays little attention to this feature of human development, we need to become aware that others are often, though not always, deserving of our sympathy and even our love. Awareness of others is hand-in-glove with awareness of the objective world. This involves attachment to that world, including other people. And this entails the awareness of its independence of us, including its determination at times to thwart our deepest wishes — while at the same time acknowledging that so much of it deserves our attention, affection, and attachment. These are key ingredients to developing a healthy reality principle, an adult relationship with the world around us.
The alternative, as Freud would have it, is to continue to wish, unconsciously no doubt, to return to the womb where it was safe and warm and all our needs were immediately gratified. That’s not the “real” world; that is the world of “subjective omnipotence,” the “megalomania of infantile narcissism.”