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.