Freud, Rilke, and some rambling thoughts on choice

“The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious; what I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied.” – Sigmund Freud

In the last half of the 19th century, an Austrian doctor with a penchant for smoking cigars did something remarkable. He shocked the medical community by saying that most of our behaviors were not a matter of conscious choice but were a result of the unconscious, a vast reservoir of memories, repressed feelings, and desires that were the actual motives to our behaviors.

This did not sit well with the prevailing Victorian norms of the time. After the Enlightenment, Reason became the dominant modus operandi of the human soul. One, it seemed, used Reason to control all the contradictory passions and desires each person experiences.

However, where the Victorians saw Reason, Sigmund Freud saw repression. Freud’s great insight was to show that when Reason attempted to control or repress our real feelings and desires, such as sexuality, those repressed feelings would manifest themselves in other, oftentimes neurotic ways.[i] What societal norms did, Freud showed, was to breed conformity, often at the expense of the individual. In many ways, Freud’s insight was a big “fuck you” to the entire history of Western intellectual culture from Socrates on. (Nietzche’s discussions on Christian ethics and “slave-morality” were another “fuck you” to the establishment, and he was someone whom Freud admired greatly.)

I bring up Freud now because I have been thinking about the unconscious and repression and how they relate to my own experience working at a mental health clinic. There are the more obvious forms of repression, such as the gay man who represses his urges to win the favor of his parents but ends up slitting his wrists. But there are subtler versions of this story too. I have watched many young men, young men with curiosity and intelligence, ignore those impulses to fit into the gang culture of their neighborhood. Also, I have watched men and women who never wanted children, but who show they are “good fathers” or “good mothers” to the external world while secretly taking their angst and unhappiness out on them.

Of course, my own zeitgeist, the cultural class of educated Brooklyn, is fraught with its own perils. The beliefs and styles of my own group seem to have its own underlying rules, its own mores for what is acceptable and unacceptable. Fashion, politics, the books we read, the women we tend to date, all seem to have a strain of similarity and maybe, just maybe, a hint of conformity to it all. And I would be amiss to ignore the world of expectations laid out by our college-educated upbringings. The expectations to find work, get married, to make money, and more. (I am not sure there is a conservative Republican in this zeitgeist, but I would think that if there is, he would find it very hard to admit it to anyone.)

So what to do with all this? If our society directs us to do certain things almost as a matter of “fitting in,” where is there room for the individual? How can we be certain that we are doing anything of our own volition and not Mommy and Daddy’s desperate need to fill the own void in their lives with their children’s successes? In essence, is there a fucking choice in our lives? Or are we all just hashing and rehashing the cultural norms we live in, living with the belief that we are conscious and in control of what we do, but in actuality mindlessly and unconsciously living our everyday lives?


It is a rare thing for a man to think for himself. This is undoubtedly because it is extremely difficult. Freud was predictably pessimistic on man’s ability to think for himself as he saw no real, permanent solution to our problem of repression, as his only hope was that through therapy, one could become less repressed but never a fully, self-actualized human being who makes choices for one’s self. The reason is that repression is self-serving. It protects us from the knowledge of the chaos and fear that is all around us.

Ernest Becker, in his landmark book, Denial of Death, maybe said it best:

We cannot repeat too often the great lesson of Freudian psychology: that repression is normal self-protection and creative self-restriction—in a real sense, man’s natural substitute for instinct. (Otto) Rank has a perfect, key term for this natural human talent: he calls it “partialization” and very rightly sees that life is impossible without it. What we call the well-adjusted man has just this capacity to partialize the world for comfortable action.[ii]

I don’t doubt that Freud and others were mostly right here. In whatever we do, we will never be fully free from the expectations of our society. This is in part because our society provides us protection from the terror and panic of the natural world. In other words, humans gladly give up a part of their freedom for the safety and protection of the cultural norms.

The question I think then is whether there is any room for real choice in this viewpoint. I turn to one my favorites for some answers:

Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.[iii]

Rilke starts with the assumption that man is alone, that despite all the distractions and trivialities that let us be “lords of our skull-sized kingdoms,” that no one can really know how “I” see the world or really understand what is going on in the depths of my being. However, instead of pessimism, Rilke sees this as the starting point of nosce te ipsum. In our solitude, we can maybe first start to be free of the cultural norms of our world, and first start to be self-aware.

This has its own hazards. Man is a social animal, and the “loner” is often a pejorative term in today’s world. And the loss of social outlets can create tremendous anxiety and loneliness for an individual. But it is in our solitude, Rilke argues, that we can first learn to understand our deepest desires and fears, it is here we can finally accept the finality and fragility of existence. And it is here, and only here, with self-awareness as the starting point, that a man can make choices that come from his deepest depths, aka the unconscious.

This is certainly difficult. It is easier to drown out sorrows and anxieties in alcohol and television. And many days, we will not have the energy to live like this and would gladly exchange self-awareness for a six-pack of beer and some football. But in my view, this is our only escape from living like a zombie, going through the motions of everyday life thinking you’re living freely but really slaves to the external circumstances around us. It is in this space of solitude and simple self-awareness that we can start to grow and make unsexy but honest choices for ourselves, not choices based on fear or ambition, but choices that come from our deepest desires.

To end, I wanted to leave you with a quote from a Rollo May in a book I recently read. It think it sums up the difficultly it takes to live one’s life in the way one sees fit:

It requires greater courage to preserve inner freedom, to move on in one’s inward journey into new realms, than to stand defiantly for outer freedom. It is often easier to play the martyr, as it is to be rash in battle. Strange as it sounds, steady, patient growth in freedom is probably the most difficult task of all, requiring the greatest courage. Thus if the term “hero” is used in this discussion at all, it must refer not to the special acts of outstanding persons, but to the heroic element potentially in every man… In any age courage is the simple virtue needed for a human being to traverse the rocky road from infancy to maturity of personality. But in an age of anxiety, an age of her morality and personal isolation, courage is a sine qua non[iv]





10 Comments on “Freud, Rilke, and some rambling thoughts on choice”

  1. Jonathan H. says:

    This post is meaty like the slice of pizza I drunkenly ate last night. Once I’ve sufficiently digested it (Wait, the post or the pizza? Oh, the ambiguity…), I’ll share some thoughts.

  2. Diana says:

    Sometimes, it’s as easy/hard as deciding to take the long way home.

  3. Matt M says:

    Nietzsche said all of this stuff first. Freud just dumbed it down and made it less dickish for mass audiences.

  4. Jonathan H. says:

    Having read neither Nietzche nor Freud, I suppose I’ll need Tshering to make it even palatable for me.

    I’m still mulling over this post, so I’ll just post some quick thoughts:
    Where’s the line between solitude and sociability? I’m a fan of solitude when it leads a person to, say, live out by a pond and hoe some beans, but not so much when it leads to a person to, say, get a PhD in mathematics and send mail bombs.
    Is the “purpose” of life self-actualization above all else? Was the kid from Into the Wild courageous or foolish? Do we owe anything to our loved ones, our families, our community, our society, etc.?

    • Matt M says:

      I should confess that I posted my last comment before actually reading the post, but essentially stand by my comment. Nietzsche is certainly best known for his “discussions on Christian ethics and “slave-morality” [which] were another “fuck you” to the establishment.”

      It’s important to note, though, that he dissected those Christian ethics by using the repression vs. reason rationale that you give Freud credit for. By pointing out that all of the Kantian and Socratic “logic” that grounds the saccharine empathy undergirding our Christian ethos is no more an objective “truth” than the whining of a sickly kid. In essence, logic and reason are just delivery vessels for our deepest urges, whether they be sexual or material, whether are repressed by our parents, religion, or what McSweeney’s tells us we should dedicate our wits to.

      I suppose I’ve made quite a stink in order to make the modest point that Freud doesn’t deserve credit for this, but, the sooner people stop giving him credit for things other than second-rate literature, the better.

      Regarding the rest of the post, I’m sympathetic to a lot of it. I had to move to Micronesia to have any real sense of how effete and spineless living in the hip parts of Brooklyn makes a man, and it’s all because our culture values standardization of young people more than the taking of risks, be they aesthetic, spiritual, or financial.

  5. Wow, Mannisto, you really don’t like Freud… Freud deserves a lot of credit at the very least for introducing psychotherapy to the world and creating modern psychology. Whether you disagree with the id, ego, superego or find his views on sexuality repulsive, the reaction to views alone– modern CBT, existential psychology– make him an important figure.

    • Matt M says:

      He pilfered the id, ego, and superego from Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, among others, along with every other good idea he is given credit for.

      He had some original ideas, but they were all wrong.

      I think the odds are pretty good that someone else would have come along with a more useful and less nonsensical version of talk therapy if psychoanalysis weren’t around being useless for 50-100 years to prevent that from happening.

  6. mattyfatsacks says:

    Also, at risk of revealing my inner grammer nit, I’d like to note that the use of “zeitgeist” in the post caused me much consternation. Isn’t there just one zeitgeist? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that there were different zeitgeists at the same temporal moment.

    Someone please correct or vindicate me so that I can sleep tonight.

  7. “Zeitgeist is the general cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual, or political climate within a nation or even specific groups, along with the general ambiance, morals, sociocultural direction, and mood associated with an era.”

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