Cycles of Liberation
Robert Enoch, 2001
The instincts: savage and covetous; the id, the baby and the dictator. Primordial man is compelled by his instincts to seek the satisfaction of his body’s needs. Once they are sated he stops. To be satisfied is to be ‘liberated’ from present need. But the empty boredom of this needless state can lead to restlessness. And so desire itself is coveted.
Desire is a state of wanting or craving something. It is not possessing that thing. The state of desirousness is a state of starvation, of need and of lack. If you have ever experienced extreme hunger you will know the power that desire can exert, when even the sight of images of food become vividly emotive. Desire implies motion, it is dynamic and sensual whereas satisfaction suggests stasis.
As the system of his life grows more complex - with a partner, children, society, hierarchy, morality, possessions or symbols of value - primordial man becomes civilized man and he will respond to his emotions and his simple needs will become complex desires and may lose control.
The self aims to get what he wants, yet if he pursues every desire can he maintain a coherent life? If one day he feels like staying at home instead of going to work or he feels like flirting with his best friend’s wife, he can risk unpremeditated changes. Desire is dangerous. If he desires promiscuously, so too can he (and those whom he holds dear) be desired promiscuously in return and at once taken up, used and cast away. Fickle desires lead to a fickle universe and so the self becomes worthless by reflection.
Desire can be ambivalent: there one minute, gone the next – even transformed from attraction to repulsion. The self can be lost in desire because time and memory mean nothing to it. The desirous self lives in the moment but the moments he lives are not connected and so create no structure. If you are only desire, then what is left when desire is spent? The desirous self appears in pursuit but isn’t he being led? If you forget who you are, there’s no telling what you’ll become. Desire can lead to satisfaction or to rejection and disillusionment. Desire can disconnect you from the person you have become, yet it is through responding to what we want and don’t want, what we like and don’t like, that we form our identity.
In order to simplify life most people live by principles that maintain a level equilibrium. Yet if life becomes meaningless or cruel, principles and morality are devalued. Desires mimic the absurdity of life, its uncertainty, its apparent lack of meaningful purpose and its accidents. In the face of this, principles and beliefs appear to be the illusions of the fearful and the obstinate.
Desire covets total power, yet total power is flawed because it leads to a sense that one’s worth to others is based only on fear. And however casually the baby-tyrant kills his enemies, so his ‘friends’ might equally casually be rid of him. Hence Josef Stalin’s Secret Police and the concessions the monarchies made to those ‘beneath’ them, thereby affording them reason to be on the monarch’s side and ensure his reign.
Desire is diminutive because the emotions and instincts that desires are tied to accentuate the body and surreptitiously bring physical mortality into sharp focus. At the end of desire the instinctual person first seeks to intensify his experience with greater demands, more intense behaviour and higher ambitions but soon he will seek liberation from the instincts altogether.
Liberation from the Instincts
Liberation from the instincts may lead him towards a Buddhist-like denial of the self and its craving. So he learns to abstain from eating, sex, responses to fear and self-preservation. Every itch is dismissed as a distraction. He may even develop a willingness to suffer in order to further push the instincts away.
The ultimate denial of life is death, or a kind of psychic suicide whereby there is no reason to live or to die, and so the self becomes a kind of walking dead man.
Liberation from Death
This absolute emptiness leads to a growing need for an austere fullness of meaning tempered by reasons and so to religion. The liberation from death comes from an imaginary system in which the self is made eternal via the notion of a transmigratory and everlasting soul and the idea that the ‘real’ physical world is not the only world. The fear of the demise of the body-self, indeed the ‘absurdity’ of death, is often enough to induce belief. Indeed these systems are mostly based on death and respond to the fear that human existence has no ultimate or known purpose and they claim to answer these ultimate questions. Psychologist Sigmund Freud called religion a regression to the authority of the parent figure of God. Supplication is demanded by all ‘gods’ in the form of ritual which has the effect of reducing the ego and instilling a sense of purpose, and may lead to a sublime selflessness that may indeed helps one to face death and other ultimate existential problems. These systems of the imagination give birth to intensely dogmatic rules called ‘morals’ which restrict mortal existence and curtail the instincts by binding them within the system. Hence, marriage becomes a moral act only after which a man and woman can morally indulge in sex. In strict religions the dress code and physical appearance, types of foods, even time and space are circumscribed by the system in order to encompass the entirety of the life of the self and act as both a control system, a mutual reassurance system and an ethnic tradition.
Imaginative systems come with rewards to the faithful, in the form of paradise and eternal pleasure, and their opposite: punishment of transgressors and the faithless generally in the form of ‘hell’ and eternal suffering. It is a great pity that such systems often require emotive and improvable physical threats to force the self into submission. In so much as they promise rewards to the ego in some other worldly place governed by a just parent figure, they seem to reveal mankind’s difficulty at achieving a heavenly utopia on earth. Suicide is not a quick and easy route to paradise because it is a ‘sin’ to destroy what God has given, that is, a crime against God for which the self will suffer damnation.
A condition of obedience results with the instincts sublimated into the power struggles and proliferation of the religion causing a kind of ‘religious fundamentalism’. Doubt is crushed by ever-more intense doses and interpretations of the imaginative system. Eventually such fervour can precipitate a kind of madness and life itself becomes entirely secondary to the laws of the system. Such selflessness can lead to acts of martyrdom whereby the self is voluntarily destroyed or ‘sacrificed’ – as the self seeks emancipation in extreme forms of servitude. When the system operates at such intensity it begins to lose credibility; indeed if a system needs to enforce itself, it is because it is becoming less effective at providing the very liberation it set out to achieve.
The system becomes progressively more tolerant and compassionate as the self unconsciously longs to liberate itself from excessive dogma and so reinvents the system with greater kindness, fairer laws and less terrifying punishments. Indeed, the names change often in these cycles of development but the underlying condition seems to remain the same.
Liberation from the Imaginary
The imaginative system gradually passes into the hands of ‘scientific humankind’ and changes from ‘religion’ into ethics, politics and science and defines itself in institutions of law, education, research, technological advancement, charity, health care and social welfare. The view of humankind becomes progressively more physical. This leads to increasing questioning as democratic civilization scrambles for answers previously provided by religion. Civilization passes through phases of regressive and vehement adherence to dogmatic ideologies and liberal tolerance as it tries to achieve an ideal society.
What were once called ‘transgressions’ become human ‘drives’ with genetic or psychological reasons within a notion of human nature as inherently complex. It becomes increasingly difficult to justify any kind of dogmatism and ideologies fail. Tolerance is increased and opportunities are improved within the new liberal framework of ‘the market’ with its promise of satisfaction that is hopelessly inadequate.
Consumerism and television present a paradox by offering a culture of desire through the unreal, through aspirations, fantasy and vicarious experience. This reduces reality to a world of mirrors and the senses are swindled out of their own touch: life as spectatorship. An over-civilized mundane experience of impotent instincts for those who have failed to successfully sublimate them, or simply don’t have the ability to indulge them versus the high expectations of desire culture leads gradually to a breakdown of meaning. The result is apathy and despair. Ideology gives us purpose, as do the imaginative systems of religion. Without them the self can only generate anger towards itself which either has the innate resources to deliver satisfaction within the framework of the ‘marketplace society’ or it doesn’t.
Liberation from Apathy
It is assumed that the solution to discontent is simple and one need only get a better job and earn more money and find some more interesting friends, get a few more material ‘things’ or find a hobby. Yet if this is not an adequate solution there’s a serious dilemma within the self. There appear to be far fewer choices than we’re led to believe. To escape this dilemma the self may regress into the imaginative systems of religion and seek out the lost Divine or succumb to the sensory pleasure centre of narcotic reveries. Crime might hold the answer with its contempt for civil law and its heroic but self-destructive expression of individuality. In other words, the liberation from apathy, from the crisis of meaning, is to try to get back to the beginning. But returning is impossible. So what could happen next? Perhaps psychoanalysis can offer a solution.