11/01/2012 02:19 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Literature and Its Discontents: Freud and the Absurd

Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents (1929) demonstrates man's potential for developing new perceptions which includes full acknowledgement and acceptance of his mortality. He examines the larger questions of existence and death and the dangers inherent in man's failure to address these issues. His work presages Albert Camus' The Stranger (1942) and J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951); novels in which the protagonists travel the same general direction of alienation. Each writer intercepts his character's disposition at varying points along the way to his estrangement. Meursault and Holden experience a conscious awakening to the absurdity of their lives. However, only one survives, albeit temporarily, to forge forward in a way that is reminiscent of Sisyphus. What makes these literary characters interesting is their utilization of coping mechanisms, which they later reject, and the meditative processes which serve to amalgamate their understanding. The circumstances surrounding these characters' lives bring their experiences closer to those of ordinary men, who could be anyone. They may not represent every man's exact circumstance, but they do inhabit a place uncomfortably close to it. It is the mission of the 20th century to elucidate the irrational.

-- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-Sense

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud uses an analogy in order to explain the similarities between man's constructions of physical and mental barriers. He proposes that past civilizations were built upon each other in much the same ways the brain's organisms have formed -- with the most primitive structures forming the foundations (Civilization 16-18). Freud includes many examples showing that the earliest exemplars of society were usually ruled by a oligarchy featuring an older member of the human circle taking on the role of wise protector 0 -- usually a primitive male who was typically physically aggressive and ruled with brute force. Later in man's history small settlements consolidated resources and expanded their size by forming city-like dwellings surrounded by a protective barrier. Another step in human development included the ancient Greeks who chose governance by a body of its citizens in the form of a polis (πόλις, city-state). The purpose of the polis enabled men to perform heroic exploits and bring home their dead -- making home a sacred place by providing a sense of duty and protection. During the Middle Ages a state and its people served a King as God's holy representative on earth. The King proclaimed laws with impunity; he was usually ruthless in enforcing them while providing an illusion of protection to his human circle (Civilization 16-18). Those examples are also reminiscent of the primitive foundations of many religions.

Freud, Camus and J. D. Salinger reveal optimism for greater awareness and aspire to a society that has matured past the need for religion. In such a society, man may perhaps accept his mortality and turn his energies wholly toward improving his present condition by not living a life of destructive dependency. Essentially, Freud observes that man's coercive effort to civilize himself continues to fracture his relationships resulting in unspeakable atrocities against humanity. These points are also demonstrated in the literary movements of the 20th century in Modernist and Postmodernist work. For instance: In Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, James R. Knowlson reflects on the anxiety of man by remarking on Samuel Beckett's absurdist play, Waiting for Godot:

[Beckett's play depicts] individual reactions to the great unknown and man's insistence that the unknown be defined... fulfilled... understandable...
" -- anything to hold the terrible silence at bay." (57)

Freud is influenced by a modernist approach where plot is secondary to a philosophical examination, and the power of science over nature is evident. He warns of the insidious forces at work in the human psyche and the coming crisis that it will create, and Camus confirms it.

This thesis argues that the separation of the ego from the id as illustrated in Albert Camus' The Stranger and J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, reflect Freud's arguments presented in Civilization and Its Discontents regarding the fragmentation of man. Their theories merge when they argue that man reverts to primitive defense mechanisms as a barricade against life's absurdities thereby continuing to split his self instead of reconciling and accepting his reality and modern scientific methods may point the way.

The disquieted characters within these works slowly descend into a world which ricochets throughout man's struggles for individuality and meaning. They represent those who seek shelter from society in the same ways "that each one of us behaves in some one respect like a paranoic, [by correcting] some aspect of the world which is unbearable to him by the construction of a wish and introduces this delusion into reality" (Civilization 28). Man, they argue, can also construct a healthier way of living if he so chooses. These characters bravely contemplate their own existence as they grapple with the universe and the universe's indifference. Absurdist literature allows the reader to contemplate the larger questions of existence and bravely examine areas of humanity that are sure to disturb new readers well into the next millennium.