Saturday, January 10, 2009

How is it thinkable that there should be not a historical but a directly aesthetic relationship between us and The Divine Comedy?

The best proof of that comes not from Freud but from Trotsky
Psychoanalysis and the "empty place" of psychology within Marxism By Frank Brenner It is my aim in this paper to show that a familiarity with the basic concepts and major discoveries of Freud’s psychoanalysis can be of great value to Marxists... 11:45 AM 12:24 PM

It was Trotsky, in fact, who made clear what those consequences were in the course of his struggle against the proponents of ‘proletarian culture’. Again, the issue hinged on a vulgarization of Marxism: the proletcultists treated artistic works as if they were political documents, judging them purely on the basis of their class content. Basing himself on Labriola, Trotsky argued:

"How is it thinkable that there should be not a historical but a directly aesthetic relationship between us and a medieval Italian book [i.e. The Divine Comedy]? This is explained by the fact that in class society, in spite of all its changeability, there are certain common features"

and he went on to cite love and the fear of death as typical examples.45 If these "common features" were the key to our ability to enjoy the art of the past, it followed from this that they were also the key to developing a viable Marxist perspective on art, as indeed Labriola had suggested. But the whole point about these features was that they were continuous, that they persisted "in spite of" the changeability of class society, in other words, that they were not at all like Novack’s molten glass.

Let us consider them more closely: obviously these features have to do with our being biological creatures who, though living in society, "do not cease to live also in nature". Does this mean, then, that there is some ‘natural man’ lurking underneath the veneer of our social being? If that is the case, then we are back to Kautsky’s position: human behavior is a matter of some social instinct, i.e. it is all biological. But these features clearly aren’t encoded in our genes, though obviously the fact of our biological existence is an essential precondition for them.

The difficulty is that we are used to thinking of biology and society as mutually exclusive opposites: biology is universal, society is specific; biology makes us human beings, society makes us slaves or serfs or workers. But the features we are talking about here don’t fit neatly into either category: they are social but they are also universal.

43 G. Plekhanov, "On the Materialist Understanding of History" in Selected Philosophical Works, v. 2, pp. 233-6.
44 In a 1970 book On Materialism, Sebastiano Timpanaro, an Italian radical, drew attention to the significance of Labriola’s remarks and made many of the points I have discussed in this paragraph (see pp. 45-51). Timpanaro’s book called for a revival of materialism and correctly attacked the idealism of the so-called ‘Hegelian-Marxist’ and structuralist tendencies within the radical circles of the time, but he discounted the importance of the dialectic and (interestingly in the context of the present discussion) was an opponent of psychoanalysis, devoting a book to discrediting the theory of the Freudian slip.
45 L. Trotsky, "Class and Art" in Leon Trotsky on Literature and Art, pp. 67-8. 19Psychoanalysis and the "empty place" of psychology within Marxism

Take the fear of death as an example: though our experience of it has certainly changed greatly in the course of history, it has not changed to such an extent that it has become unrecognizable, which is why an ancient poem on the subject, despite being very different than a modern one, is not so different that we cannot understand what the classical poet was writing about or be moved by the feeling he was conveying. In that sense, we can speak of the fear of death as being universal. But is it biological, i.e. is it somehow a natural characteristic that we are born with?

The answer to that is quite simple: animals do not know they are going to die, only humans do. The fear of death, therefore, is not a given of our biology but an acquirement of our culture: it was only in the course of our development as humans that we became aware of it. But once we did acquire that awareness, it became a universal feature of our species. Thus, it is both social (or cultural, in the anthropological sense) and universal, and the same can be said for all of these common features. They comprise a common heritage of the human race which derives from our transition from the animal to the human state.

What we tend to overlook, however, is that this transition is not just ancient history but that it plays an ever-present role in our lives: just as we were forced to make this transition as a species, so each of us is forced to make a similar transition individually in the course of growing up and becoming a part of human society. Herein lies the key to a materialist conception of human nature, and that brings us to Freud. © Copyright 2007 by Frank Brenner. All rights reserved.