from Introduction:  The Unconscious ©

In the 19th Century, romantic and Victorian alike bemoaned the withering of mythology in the modern age; some tried rehabilitating old mythologies or fashioning new ones, others gave in to despair.  Their own time, many regarded as a barren present, stripped of the graceful habiliments of belief.  Iron horse, factory, and Eiffel Tower seemed the dreary monuments of the bourgeois world.  Characterizing the malaise of the age, Erich Auerbach writes of Flaubert that, “like so many important nineteenth-century artists, he hates his period; he sees its problems and the coming crises with clarity; he sees the inner anarchy, the manque de base théologique, . . . but he sees no solution and no issue; his fanatical mysticism of art is almost like a substitute religion, to which he clings convulsively, and his candor very often becomes sullen, petty, choleric, and neurotic.[1]

It was Freud’s insight into 19th Century social culture, however, that revealed in what sense it was not after all lacking a mythology of its own, that on the contrary the actual, the concrete, the quotidian, in the service of repression, had itself become a modern mythology.  For reality, in Freud’s estimation, lay not in the conscious appearances of modern life, but in the buried and unconscious emotional life to which the actual referred by a symbolism of displacement and distortion.  This is not necessarily to decry Victorian mores as hypocritical.  For hypocrisy entails conscious deception.  Rather, by a process beyond rational control, Victorian culture had been erected on the foundation of unconscious denial of instinctual wishes intolerable to contemporary moral consciousness.  Men and women for the most part acted out lives distanced from the instinctual by this elaborate symbolism.  The Freudian view is thus an essentially Platonic one.  The actual is merely a shadow of the real; the world as sense relays it is a matrix of symbols for the psyche’s impalpable world of forms.  Put another way, what appeared real, the actual lives of 19th Century men and women, was a projected fiction, beneath which lay true reality, the unconscious life of feelings and drives. 

Freud’s most radical statement of this proposition, asserted in Civilization and its Discontents, was that culture itself is the fundamental neurotic symptom.  Other contemporaries held similarly Platonic views of the world.  The transcendentalists, for example, considered the sensible world a symbol of indwelling divinity.  Freud’s symbolism, however, was more concrete than the mysticism of Thoreau or Emerson.  And his worldview was essentially tragic.  A further distinction was that while the transcendentalists held the inner reality symbolized by the external world to be distinctly higher, that is, celestial, Freud perceived it as lower, viz., unconscious and instinctual.

Corollary with this relation between the higher level of manifest life and the lower level of its underlying reality, in Freud’s view, was the peculiar character of concealment necessitated by repression.  The appearance of everyday life served to deny exactly what psychoanalysis showed it to symbolize.  The nature of literary allegory is to conceal meaning, paradoxically, only in order to reveal it; one thing is said while another is meant.  Like hide-and-seek, though, the game of allegory is pointless if what is concealed cannot (at least by those with eyes to see, ears to hear) be discovered.  So meaning in allegory constructed by the artist is disguised by analogy, not contradiction.  19th Century gentility and earnest striving, however, not only masked but actually symbolized their very opposites:  intolerable sexual and aggressive instincts.  Genteel bourgeois culture was life turned upside down; real life, as Alice found, had gone underground, to be glimpsed in the looking-glass, reversed.[2]

Classical mythologies are enacted in a separate, empyreal world, while the actual life to which they refer occurs on the sublunary level of the earth below.  Modern life viewed as mythology takes place likewise above the level of the real, which we think of as “buried,” or “underground,” not only because it is unconscious, but because it is centered in the organs of sex and elimination situated in the lower regions of the body, as opposed to the organs of thought and communication, indeed the very consciousness of self, located atop the body in the head.[3]  Mythology, which the 19th Century longed so earnestly to resuscitate, was after all never far to seek.  It was under their noses, masquerading as reality.  Not mythology, but real life had gone astray, and the romantics who looked for it in imagination, in mesmeric experiments with the unconscious, and in the ravings of lunatics were nearer the mark than either anachronistic theologians, or rationalistic scholars like the tedious Casaubon in Middlemarch, “a little buried in books,” compiling his encyclopedic “Key to all Mythologies.”  The task now was to descend into the unconscious where the stuff of life had crystallized, and bring it to light.[4]

That exploration of the psychic underground climaxes in the work of Freud, but though he was the first psychoanalyst,[5] Freud did not “discover” the unconscious, nor was his theory of psycho-dynamics entirely unanticipated.  More than a century of scientific inquiry had gone before and prepared the ground for him.[6]  To be sure, it was Freud’s genius to consolidate the insights and intuitions of the earlier research and hypothesis into a systematic theory. 

Still, others had preceded Freud, not only scientists, philosophers, and physicians, but artists, whose insights Freud acknowledged often to have been more readily in touch with the unconscious than his own laborious researches.  E. T. A. Hoffmann and Fuseli, Blake and Coleridge, Poe and Lewis Carroll, and Arthur Schnitzler come readily to mind.  The artist’s tactic is fantasy.  Fantasy creates a world parallel to the sensible world, referring to the same inner reality, only transparently.  The world in which daily life plays out is opaque—normally we do not see that it has inner meaning, much less comprehend it.  We take life for what it appears on its mundane surface to be.

Fantasy, by contrast, erects a world whose unreality invites interpretation, whose magical or fabulous character says:  more is here than meets the eye.  We may fail to understand the relation of the fantasy to reality, but we sense at least that it exists.  We cannot regard it seriously without conceding the necessity of interpretation.  Actual life is an obscure symbol, then, whose meaning lies in the unconscious; the unconscious in turn generates fantasies that render the symbolic nature of actuality transparent.

Beginning with the earliest prose sketch of 1848, The Ring was informed with Wagner’s passion for revolution, whether he happened to be in his “meliorist” phase in which he longed for the destruction of the ancient order from whose ashes would arise a golden age, or in his pessimistic phase (under the influence of co-conspirator Bakunin, whose politics consisted more or less in advocating the immolation of everything except—he confessed in a weak moment—Beethoven’s 9th Symphony).

In April, 1849, one month before the uprising in Dresden, Wagner mythologized his concept of revolution in an article printed anonymously in August Röckel’s radical democratic newspaper, Volksblätter.  Revolution is personified as a mighty woman.  Ernest Newman characterizes Wagner’s piece as “a paean to the red goddess in her most incarnadine aspect.”[7]  “The old world is in ruins from which a new world will arise,” Wagner proclaims, “for the sublime goddess REVOLUTION comes rushing and roaring on the wings of the storm, her august head rayed round with lightnings, a sword in her right hand, a torch in her left, her eyes so sullen, so punitive, so cold; and yet what warmth of purest love, what fullness of happiness radiate from it towards him who dares to look steadfastly into that sombre eye!”

The telling attribute of Wagner’s revolutionary goddess is her maternal function.  “Rushing and roaring she comes, the ever-rejuvenating mother of mankind; destroying and blessing she sweeps across the earth; before her pipes the storm; it shakes so violently all man’s handiwork that vast clouds of dust darken the air, and where her mighty foot treads, all that has been built for ages past in idle whim crashes in ruins, and the hem of her robe sweeps the last remains of it away.”  Wagner’s allegory is recognizably the two-sided, life-giving and life-destroying mother of mythology and depth psychology.  Whence this figure’s paradoxical nature?  The mother who bestows life, the unconscious assumes, can as easily take it away.  Alma mater’s other face is the face of the “terrible mother.”  The mother who nourishes also devours.  “I am the ever-rejuvenating, ever-creating Life; where I am not is Death.  I am the dream, the balm, the hope of all who suffer.  I annihilate what exists, and whither I turn there wells forth fresh life from the dead rock.  I come to you to break all the fetters that oppress you, to redeem you from the embrace of Death and to pour young life into your veins.  Whatever is must pass away:  such is the everlasting law of Nature, such is the condition of Life; and I, the eternal destroyer, fulfill the law and create eternally youthful life.  From its roots upwards I will destroy the order of things under which you live, for it has sprung from sin, its flower is misery and its fruit is crime; but the harvest is ripe and I am the reaper!”

Death, Wagner declares, is “the everlasting law of Nature.”  It is “the condition of life,” and Revolution fulfills this law by eternally destroying and renewing.  The statement of this “law” puts forth a cyclical view of history.  Revolution (etymologically as well as politically a turning) is a circle.  But Wagner’s formulations suggest also that he is groping for what he described in the letter to Röckel as “the very essence and meaning of the world itself in all its possible phases.”  On the face of it, this “essence and meaning” is contained in the principle of revolution Wagner is extolling.  But as Shaw notes, Wagner’s revolutionary zeal gradually waned, eventually to be transformed into its reactionary mirror image.  All the while, work on The Ring proceeded to its ineluctable completion.  The Ring, we may accordingly conclude, must be informed by some other fundamental “essence and meaning.”

To all appearances, the Master here employs the mother figure as a symbol for revolution:  actually, the truth is the other way around.  “Revolution” presents itself to Wagner as a guise for the figure of the universal maternal, a particular guise easily discarded for another when expedient.  Not revolution, but the maternal principle is Wagner’s “very essence and meaning of the world itself in all its possible phases.”[8]

The maternal principle transcends the political or philosophical enthusiasm of the moment, be it meliorist revolution, Bakuninist terrorism, or Schopenhauerean nihilism.  Yet for Wagner, it symbolically encapsulates—paradoxically to be sure—the affective experience and underlying meaning of all of them.  “Mother” is both giver and destroyer of life; from the nothingness of life in her womb we are born, and to it we long to return, as it were, in death.  Revolutions, counter-revolutions, fashions in philosophy come and go; the maternal endures.  “Two peoples only are there henceforth:  the one, that follows me, the other that withstands me.  The one I lead to happiness:  over the other I tread, crushing it as I go; for I am the REVOLUTION, I am the ever-creating life, I am the one God whom all creation acknowledges, who comprises and animates and fills with happiness all that is.”

From this perspective we may resolve the Wagnerite confusion over optimism and pessimism.  These are not—as they appear—opposing philosophical systems between which we are obliged to choose.  Rather, they are complementary attitudes corresponding to the two faces of mother:  the good mother, the “terrible mother”.  The confusion over them lies in the realm of logic, which is consciousness.  But we are venturing into the unconscious, where contradiction is not merely tolerated, it is the rule.  This is the realm of the “mother with two faces,” evoking the linked experiences of desire and terror.  Desire and terror co-exist easily there until intuition of them rises into consciousness, and they become transmogrified (and, we might say, disguised) into “philosophies.”  Then it appears (because consciously we are thralls to logic) that a choice must be made.

But Wagner was unable, finally, to make that choice, although he shifted enthusiasms periodically.  Shaw shrugs off Wagner’s inconsistencies as part and parcel of his genius.  “As in all men of his type,” he writes, “our manifold nature was so marked in him that he was like several different men rolled into one . . . Wagner was not a Schopenhauerite every day of the week, nor even a Wagnerite.  His mind changes as often as his mood.”[9]  “Mind,” the superstructure of consciousness, is made rigid by logic and brittle by contradiction.  But “mood” arises from the unconscious where, because contradiction flourishes, there is no contradiction at all.

It needs to be stressed that what is at issue is not the nature of mother or of the maternal itself so much as the child’s ambivalent relation to her—a more intricate matter, since it is a continuing relation, characterized by an evolution.  This evolutionary relation is recognized as having multiple stages, notable among them what Freud named the Oedipus Complex.  In Freud’s view, it was the determinative nucleus of personality, and in turn of personal destiny.  The Oedipus Complex was in effect Freud’s “very essence and meaning of the world itself in all its possible phases,” his reduction of life to a single genetic principle.  Freud coined the term complex to characterize a complicated affective system; complexes, he explained, are “circles of thoughts and interests of strong affective value.”[10]

The Oedipus Complex refers neither to an event in the life of the child, nor simply to its unconscious wish for sexual possession of the opposite sexed parent, but to the complicated psycho-sexual economy that evolves among the child and its parents.  Since it is a dynamic economy, it is based on a system of tensions that tend continually toward resolution.  But since the possible resolutions to Oedipal conflict are inevitably compromises, the tensions are never finally unstrung, and continue to determine the evolving psychology of the adult.  Caught in a double bind, the male child wishes to monopolize his mother, and eliminate the competition of father and siblings.  But neither can he accomplish his desire without suffering guilt, nor can he suppress his desire or transfer it to some substitute object without suffering frustration.  The Freudian view of the course of psychic life, then, is that the individual periodically accomplishes merely provisional resolutions of Oedipal conflict, only to see each resolution unravel, requiring a new effort at resolution—a continuing rhythm of regression and growth, a spiral, a series of circles.



[1] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Garden City, NY, 1957), p. 430.

[2] The project of psychoanalysis is to decipher even this apparently padlocked psychic code.  As Philip Rieff writes, “Repressions both conceal and betray.  The psychoanalytic interpreter looks for tell-tale ways in which repressed material manifests itself:  in dreams, by the eruption of symbols, distortions of logic and sentiment; in the pathology of daytime, by an unusual arrangement of the patient’s words, a forced expression or gesture, an accidental clumsiness.”  Freud:  The Mind of the Moralist (Garden City, NY, 1961), p. 120.

[3] “The polarity in religion between the manifest literal and the latent ethical exactly reverses the Freudian.  What is hidden by the religious text is ‘high’ (or at least ‘higher’), while what is hidden by the psychic symptom—even a normal symptom like the dream—is ‘low.’”  Ibid., p. 121.

[4] Adorno, op. cit., p. 117, notes that, “It is as if Wagner had anticipated Freud’s discovery that what archaic man expresses in terms of violent action has not survived in civilized man, except in attenuated form, as an internal impulse that comes to the surface with the old explicitness only in dreams and madness.”

[5] Erik Erikson, “The First Psychoanalyst,” Insight and Responsibility (New York, 1964), pp. 17-46.

[6] Henri F. Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious (New York, 1970).

[7] Ernest Newman, The Life of Richard Wagner (Cambridge, 1976), vol. II, p. 54.  The text of Wagner’s article is found translated on pp. 54-56.

[8] Cf., “Alles Vergängliche/Ist nur ein Gleichnis . . . Das Ewig-Weibliche/zieht uns hinan,” Goethe, Faust, Part II.

[9] G. B. Shaw, Op. cit., p. 300.

[10] Sigmund Freud, “Sixth Lecture,” A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, trans., Joan Riviere (Garden City, NY, 1953), p. 114.  All subsequent quotations from Freud’s writings will be from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed., James Strachey, 24 vols. (London:  Hogarth Press, 1963).  Ms Riviere’s translation of this phrase, is closer to Freud’s German, “affektmächtige Gedanken-und Intressenkreise,” to be found in Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse (Leipzig and Vienna, 1918), p. 112.