08 April 2020

Freud — The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (ii) — Superstition and Suspicion

[244]I would distinguish myself from a superstitious man, therefore, as follows: I do not believe that an event not caused in any way by my own mental life can tell me any hidden facts about the future structure of reality, but I do believe that an unintentional expression of my own mental processes can reveal some hidden factor which itself belongs to my mental life alone. I may believe in outer (real) chance, but not in fortuitous inner (psychic) actions. A superstitious man will see it the other way around: he knows nothing of the motivation of his fortuitous actions and slips, he believes fortuitous psychic factors exist, and he is inclined to ascribe a significance to outside fortuitous events that will make itself felt in reality, and to see chance as a means of expression for something hidden that is outside him. There are two differences between me and the superstitious man: first, he projects a motivation on to something outside him, while I look for it within myself; and second, he interprets chance as some incident that has happened, while I derive it from an idea. However, what seems to him concealed corresponds to the unconscious in me, and we share an urge not to see chance as solely accidental but to place some kind of interpretation on it.

I assume that this conscious ignorance and unconscious understanding of the motivation of psychic fortuitous events is one of the roots of superstition. Because a superstitious person is ignorant of the motivation of his own fortuitous actions, and because that motivation is clamouring to be recognized, he has to accommodate it in the world outside himself by displacement. If there is a connection of this kind it will scarcely be confined to this one case. In fact I believe that a large part of any mythological view of the world, extending a long way even into the most modern forms of religion, is nothing but psychology projected into the outside world. The vague recognition (it might be called endopsychic perception) of [245]psychic factors and circumstances in the unconscious is reflected--it is difficult to put it any other way, so here I must call on the analogy with paranoia--is reflected in the construction of a supernatural reality, which science will transform back into the psychology of the unconscious. The myths of Paradise and the Fall, of God, good and evil, immortality, and so on, could be understood in this way, turning metaphysics into metapsychology. There is less of a gulf between paranoiac and superstitious displacement than may at first glance appear. When human beings first began thinking, as we know, they felt compelled to resolve the outer world, anthropomorphically, into a diversity of personalities in their own image; the chance events that they interpreted in superstitious terms were therefore the actions and expressions of persons. They were just like those paranoiacs who draw conclusions from the trivial signs they observe in other people, and like all those healthy people who, correctly, judge character by the fortuitous and unintentional actions of their fellow men. Superstition seems misplaced only in our modern, scientific but by no means complete view of the world; as the world appeared to pre-scientific ages and peoples, superstition was legitimate and logical.

Relatively speaking, therefore, the Roman who abandoned some important enterprise if he saw birds flying in the wrong formation was right; he was acting logically in line with his assumptions. But if he abstained from the enterprise because he had stumbled on the threshold of his door (un Romain retournerait [a Roman would turn back], as they say), he was definitely superior to us unbelievers, and a better psychologist than we are, despite our current efforts. His stumbling showed him that some doubt existed, something in him was working against his enterprise, and its power could impair his own ability to carry out his intention just as he was on the point of performing it. One can be sure of success only if all mental forces are united in making for the desired aim. ...

[246]Anyone who has had the opportunity of studying the hidden emotions of the human mind by psychoanalytic methods can also contribute some new ideas about the quality of the unconscious motives expressed in superstition. It is particularly easy to see how superstition arises from suppressed hostile and cruel feelings in neurotics, who are often very intelligent but afflicted with compulsive ideas and obsessions. Superstition is to a high degree an expectation of bad luck, and anyone who frequently ill-wishes other people, but has repressed such ideas because he has been brought up to wish them well instead, will be particularly likely to expect bad luck to descend upon him from outside as a punishment for his unconscious ill-will.

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, trans. Anthea Bell, pp. 244-246

The crucial distinction here is inner- as opposed to outer-directed psychology. Freud here quietly levels a devastating critique of those who project their otherwise healthy skepticism exclusively onto the outside world and not at all back upon themselves. In today's colloquial terms this amounts to worrying about things you can't control, a sure recipe for frustration if not for madness itself, as well as for the peculiar condition, raised earlier in the work, of social actors who know (or seem to) others better than they know themselves.

I don't know that I myself can make any exceptional claims to self-knowledge, but as an introvert mired in lifelong estrangement from the tyranny of extroversion which seems to run the world I was foist into at birth, I certainly am apt to posit a privileged position here for my comrades in inner-directedness, and I can certainly conjure my fair share of anecdotes in which excess gregariousness is accompanied by obvious deficits of self-scrutiny. And since introversion and gregariousness are, of course, not mutually exclusive, I would head the list with my own more gregarious moments, which seem not merely to suggest but in fact require a temporary relaxation of filters. As pertains specifically to public social interaction I indeed identify unapologetically with that ever-trendy neologism, the "ambivert," and as I have slowly learned to negotiate the social world and become more familiar (if not truly more comfortable) with its demands, the compulsive talker has made ever more frequent appearances and the wallflower ever fewer. This has indeed been profitable for both my self-knowledge and my relationship to this external social world; but it has also confirmed for me beyond a reasonable doubt that I am almost sure to regret the things that pop out of my inner extrovert's mouth, and often times profoundly so. I definitely like myself less as the filter has become leakier with age, and I'm afraid that is probably a meaningful observation.

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