Freud’s Civilisation and Its Discontents – a new writing challenge

Young Poets Network is once again teaming up with the Freud Museum to bring you a new challenge inspired by their upcoming Weekend of Discontent.

Imagine that the year is 1938, eighty years ago. Europe is brimming with tension. The anti-Jewish Nazi party in Germany, having gained power in 1933, have just annexed Austria. Thousands of people have already fled their homes in fear. War seems inevitable. Amongst those forced into exile during this year was one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century: Sigmund Freud.

The celebrated psychologist left his home in Vienna for London. He sought refuge at 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, and there he spent the last year of his life. His house is now a museum where you can find out more about Freud and the history of psychoanalysis.

What are some of Freud’s most famous theories?

By the time Freud fled Austria, he had already established some of the most fundamental concepts of his controversial theory of psychoanalysis. He emphasised the significance of childhood experience in determining adult behaviour, the role of ‘animal instincts’ in our so-called ‘human nature’ and the analysis of dreams as a way to understand unconscious thoughts and desires. Read more about poets such as Ted Hughes, W.H. Auden, A.E. Housman who explore the unconscious and Freud’s theories in our previous challenge on YPN.

Though Freud died in London less than three weeks after the start of the Second World War, he was no stranger to the harrowing effects of war. In his later years, he turned his enquiring mind to the study of society and the place of men and women in social life. His book Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego examines how groups are formed and how people come to follow a charismatic leader. His examples are sometimes surprising. A group of soldiers will follow their commander, just as the German people followed Hitler, but a group of young people may display the same kind of fanatical devotion to a pop star. For Freud, it is all a kind of ‘love’. Read more about poets’ responses to war and disillusionment in Freud’s work in another previous YPN challenge in partnership with the Freud Museum.

Civilisation and Its Discontents

In another book, Civilisation and Its Discontents (1930), Freud looks at the ‘psychological cost’ of living in civilisation.  He takes it for granted that there are all kinds of benefits, at least for the lucky ones – sanitation, health care, technology, protection from conflict, economic security and all the pleasures of art and culture.

But for Freud there is also a price to pay. We lose something in civilisation as well. Civilisation makes unnecessary demands on us to act in a certain way. It restricts our freedom more than it needs to. As a result, civilised existence brings with it guilt and shame, unhappiness and anxiety.

Civilisation also seems to divide us from each other. On the one hand it brings people together in larger and larger units, but on the other hand it often creates communities by defining others as ‘outsiders’. According to Freud, it wasn’t a matter of chance that ‘the dream of Germanic world-dominion called for anti-Semitism as its complement’. This creation of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ can also be seen between different religions and belief-systems:

Once the Apostle Paul had posited universal love between men as the foundation of his Christian community, extreme intolerance on the part of Christendom towards those who remained outside it became the inevitable consequence.

With bitter irony he laments:

It is clearly not easy for men to give up the satisfaction of their inclination to aggression. They do not feel comfortable without it.

Civilisation makes us ‘hypocritical’, too, according to Freud. He analyses the religious injunction ‘to love our neighbour as we love ourselves’ and concludes that it is an irrational expectation. He claims that the ‘cultural superego’ makes strict ethical demands of us that are impossible to accomplish. Trying to achieve these demands is actually one of the things that makes us ill because we cannot live up to the ideal. So we’re always hiding something, pretending to be one thing and really being something else. Perhaps ‘civilised life’ could not go on otherwise.

Luca Siggnorelli’s Last judgement frieze in Orvieto Cathedral, from Freud’s collection
Finding a ‘technique of living’

Despite all these double identities, we find ways to fend off suffering and seek a modicum of happiness. One way is through creativity, getting pleasure from ‘psychical and intellectual work’:

A satisfaction of this kind, such as an artist’s joy in creating, in giving his [sic] phantasies body, or a scientist’s in solving problems or discovering truths, has a special quality…

But creativity is not a complete protection against suffering, as many artists have discovered:

Their intensity is mild as compared with that derived from the sating of crude and primary instinctual impulses; it does not convulse our physical being.

Another means of satisfaction can be through work and the relationships we establish at work. But this is only if the work is freely chosen; if so, it becomes a kind of artistic activity in itself. For most people work, however, is a chore and only done ‘under the stress of necessity’.

Finally, there are the consolations of religion, which offers hope for the future; or the obliteration of reality offered by the effects of drugs. One way or another, says Freud, we try to blot out the pain, to escape the pressure and demands and frustrations of civilisation.

Freud ends on a pessimistic note, saying that in modern civilised life we are capable of ‘exterminating one another to the last man’. He wonders if hate and aggression will win the day or whether love will prevail. Let’s hope for the latter – but even if love does win out, Freud asks ‘who can foresee with what success and with what result?’

A Weekend of Discontent | Saturday 23 and Sunday 24 June 2018

The recent BBC television series Civilisations told a story of diversity, creativity, beauty and achievement from cultures across the world and throughout history. But there is another story of civilisations which should also be told, about the cost of civilisation on the lives of those who live in them. This is the collective human condition that Freud explored in his book Civilisation and Its Discontents which forms the inspiration behind ‘A Weekend of Discontent’ at the Freud Museum, and this challenge. The event is part of the BBC/ART FUND ‘Civilisations Festival’ and parts of the programme will be included on the BBC digital platform.

The challenge

We want to see young poets’ contemporary responses to Freud’s work on the discontents of civilisation. What are the ‘discontents’ and ‘unhappinesses’ of living in civilisation today and how do we find a ‘technique of living’, as Freud called it, to achieve a little happiness after all? What are the pressures that ‘civilisation’ put us under and how do we manage to escape it?

If you can, go along to at the Weekend of Discontent the Freud Museum and get inspired! If not, don’t worry – we want to hear all interpretations of this theme. 

Our friends at the Freud Museum generously offered five free tickets for young poets to attend A Weekend of Discontent to inspire their writing. All free tickets have now been taken up.

St George slaying the dragon
St George and the Dragon by Vittore Carpaccio, from the Accademia Venice; a print from Freud’s collection.
Poets and Freud

As we have explored in other YPN challenges with the Freud Museum, many poets been influenced by Freud’s work. Civilisation and Its Discontents is no exception.

The great American poet John Ashbery’s poem ‘Civilisation and Its Discontents’ explicitly references Freud. He speaks about ‘Performing once again, for you and for me’:

Since I had already swallowed the poison
I could only gaze into the distance at my life
Like a saint’s, with each day distinct.

In your poetic response to this challenge you might like to think about performing, or about being divided from other people in ‘civilised life’.

You might want to explore the discontents of ‘civilised life’ through metaphor. In ‘Prometheus Goes To A&E’ by Foyle Young Poet Isla Anderson, we meet the mythological character of Prometheus who is doomed to having an eagle eat his liver, only for it to grow back the next day and this cycle to continue for eternity. Transported into the modern day, Prometheus’ pain is diagnosed as ‘abstract’ and ‘obscure’ by doctors who see no problem: ‘they couldn’t hear the scratching of / the eagle at the door.’ Here, ‘the eagle’ could stand in for so much. Could you use metaphor in a similar way in your poem?

For further inspiration, you could read Foyle Young Poet Magnus Dixon’s winning poem ‘Force Ten’, whose ‘long scream, / leaving me as dizzy as the spray’ lets out the ‘discontents’ of civilisation.

You might also like to think about ‘techniques of living’; in this poem, Dixon ‘believe[s] old tales’, turning to art to feel ‘safe, cocooned in deep sea’. How do we find happiness and safety in civilisation? However you approach this challenge, we look forward to reading your poems inspired by Civilisation and Its Discontents.

from Luca Siggnorelli’s Last judgement frieze in Orvieto Cathedral, from Freud’s collection

The winning poems will be published on Young Poets Network and on the Freud Museum website. Winners will also receive an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and goodies from the Freud Museum shop.

How to enter

This challenge is now closed.

This challenge was open to all poets up to the age of 25, based anywhere in the world. You can send a poem written down, or a performance poem as a video or as an audio file. Send as many poems as you like. The deadline for all entries was midnight, Sunday 15th July 2018.

If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.

Send your poems to [email protected] with your name, date of birth/age, gender, and the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country), you live in and the subject line ‘Freud challenge’. 

If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 15th July 2018 you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form if you haven’t already; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry. This is due to new data protection laws. 

If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line of your email. If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, please include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the body of the email. You can sign up yourself for free here.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society and the Freud Museum to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you, and to hold your data in a secure manner so we can contact you about the results of this challenge. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

Published June, 2018

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