Lethal Magical Thinking by Guy Rundle

A psychoanalytic examination of wars and our destructive drives by Guy Rundle across the 20th century

This should be short and to the point. The Western border of Germany, a summer night in 1914; grey clad troops cross the border, establish their forward defences. The twentieth century and the First World War had begun a week too early. The Germans had crossed into neighbouring Luxemburg a week ‘early’, and had to back off somewhat. The embarrassment was not about the invasion of another country, the erasure of its identity; everyone knew the war was coming. It was not a war crime, but a breach of manners. The war would be a series of strategic skirmishes, and exchanges of territory, everyone knew that. One way or another, it would be over by Christmas.

That’s the legend. In fact, several military experts had warned that this would not be a war like other European conflicts; they had looked at the US Civil War, which had seen the first use of ‘Gatling’ machine guns and barbed wire, new types of cannon, ‘scorched earth’ destruction of cities and understood that something else was coming. By mid-1915 it was there. Across Eastern France, both sides dug trenches from Belgium to the Swiss border; they would eventually become multi-levelled systems, the line of defence of sovereignty. By 1916, they had become not protection, but mantraps, where shells rained day and night, and men went mad, twisted and dying in the wire and mud. In 1916, the first day of the Somme series of battles, saw twenty thousand men killed on a patch of brown earth. By now, the war had become an insanity, visible to those waging it, and running it, carefully hidden from general publics. By 1917 that was no longer possible. The stream of wounded coming back to the major cities of the belligerent powers, weren’t merely torn up, they were broken. Those who expected valiant heroes baring their wounds bravely found mad man-rabbits consumed with the hysteria usually associated, in that era, with women patients: phobias, paralysis, screaming fits, anxiety, the works. In Britain, the military psychologist Charles Myers coined the term ‘shell shock’ and used behavioural and physical techniques including electric shock to get patients up and running, and back to the front, where they fell apart again immediately, losing all government over themselves.

But in Vienna, as the entire Austro-Hungarian empire came apart, another physician was having more success at putting people back together. Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis as a total system, had been viewed with suspicion by the anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic Habsburg regime. By 1917 they would try anything, and suddenly the advocate of a talking treatment for the bewildered bourgeoisie of middle Europe had thousands of damaged men, and the resources of the military hospital system at his disposal. This would have two major effects: Freud’s thinking on the nature of the psyche would change dramatically, and this new approach – in which the sexual drive was seen as being partnered by a new ‘death drive’ – would now be carried by state hospitals and health systems to every corner of social life. Psychoanalysis had already staked a claim in literature and the arts; now it would be applied en masse to social life – often in reductive and simplistic forms from the 1920s into the 1980s.

The new theory would match the century. Immersion in the mass death factory of the military system, the death of his daughter Sophie, and the work of Sabina Spielrein on sadism and destructiveness – unjustly neglected, though credited by Freud – convinced Freud that our drive towards non-being, towards a state beyond the eternal lack of desire, issued in destructiveness, of self and others. For Freud, the willingness of millions of men to kill strangers could not simply be explained by patriotism, propaganda, punishment or the will to kill; there was a will to die, as well, an embracing of death. Our destructive drives would thus take centre stage from the 1920s on in explaining things like irrationality in personal relations, sexual and emotional masochism, addiction, dependence. The techniques of psychoanalysis would be ‘reverse engineered’ to create modern psychological marketing by Edward Bernays (Freud’s nephew), in his 1928 book Propaganda; surrealism was saturated in it; by way of Germany it would come to popular cinema in the film noir genre (Freud had popularised cocaine use in the 1880s; he is truly the father of Hollywood); fascists would use it to hone their propaganda techniques – which included screeds against the theory as ‘degenerate Jewish pseudoscience’; in 1935 Alcoholics Anonymous was founded, with a religious content – surrender your will to God, however you see him – but with a psychoanalytic form, surrendering the internal ‘superego’ control of behaviour to a more concrete belief, in order to allow the ‘ego’ – the meaning forming self – to reassert its integrity and stabilise its boundaries.

This would all reach its apogee in the 1960s and 70s, with the self-help movement and the ‘me’ decade, whose dominant fads – from the hit book Games People Play analysis to ‘primal screaming’ – all had roots in psychoanalysis, however mutated the branching tree became. But before that, there was the Second World War, a completion of the first, and one in which both the madness of human destructiveness and the theorisation of it came together. To say that the Holocaust was mad is to speak of only one dimension of it of course, and many object to such a characterisation of an event that was radically evil, committed by participants who knew they were doing such. But it was mad as well, the idea that the glory of Germany could be restored by throwing small children into a gas chamber at Treblinka, lethal magical thinking, for which a Freudian approach could supply an explanation: the total surrender by a whole nation, of their moral judgement to a fuehrer, who would give them a fully meaningful existence – a world without doubt – in exchange.

For Freud, the willingness of millions of men to kill strangers could not simply be explained by patriotism, propaganda, punishment or the will to kill; there was a will to die, as well, an embracing of death

war timeline

The US government definitely thought so. Mid war they engaged the exiled intellectuals of the Frankfurt School – a group of theorists, the most prominent being Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, who combined Marxist and Freudian theories – to make a study of German culture and psychology, to determine how deep rooted the appetite for Nazism was in the nation, and ways that it could be ‘denazified’ after defeat. The Frankfurt School, were engaged directly by the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, and came up with a volume entitled The Authoritarian Personality, which went further than its commissioners had anticipated, identifying the roots of a submission to authority in the manner in which corporate and industrial capitalism turned society into a series of ‘instrumental practices’ – from the factory floor to government – in which moral or value questions are never asked.

The volume would be one source of policy for occupied Germany, but it would be equally influential on the US ‘New Left’ – thinkers in the 50s who saw that political liberation as involving personal liberation, in terms of sex, gender, love, values – and that in turn would help shape what we know as ‘the 1960s’. As knowledge of the Holocaust became more general through the 1960s and 70s, the question of how human beings could be so unlimitedly cruel to others, in the millions, became a preoccupying one. The century came to be assessed through the lens of something it had produced: a psychoanalytic key concept, ‘the return of the repressed’, that desires stifled, will come back in another, often cruder and more violent, form. The Communist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich had been arguing this since the 1930s, and his simple view that maximum sexual liberation and satisfaction would dissolve much political oppression - an idea quite contrary to Freud’s idea that a significant amount of repression (and with it, everyday unhappiness) was necessary for meaningful life – became hugely influential. Even as the prospect of radical political liberation rose and fell – its high point perhaps the Paris uprising of May 1968 – the idea of sexual/personal liberation remained. Today, the idea sells a million magazines and TV shows. The centrality of sexual satisfaction to a good life, and the rough idea that the absence of such produces a certain type of cramped, rigid, joyless personality type is something most of us apply to encounters, a sort of barefoot psychoanalysis. Even as psychoanalysis itself has faded from view we take its terms or derivation – guilt-trip, denial, repressed – and use them at the office, the family BBQ, watching the latest US school shooting on a screen. We would not do so had two wars produced sufficient madness to require whole governments to fuse themselves to a minor medical-philosophical movement, and propagate it across the whole of modernity.

“Medieval and traditional societies have everyday violence in much greater occurrence than ours. But it was almost always at the level of the human body, the violent encounter.”

The purported cure survives; so too perhaps does the trauma. Medieval and traditional societies have everyday violence in much greater occurrence than ours. But it was almost always at the level of the human body, the violent encounter. We are the successors to a century which has a meat grinder at the centre, which churned for thirty years, from 1914 to 1945, the violence of machines on people, treating the human body as contingent object. Nations deployed it, then movements. There had been nothing like it for centuries; there may be, please God, nothing like it for centuries more. The ‘world war’ may have the same status for us as the war against Troy had for Homeric Greece and hence for the West. We may be living in its aftershocks still. Would our popular culture be so obsessed with particular scenarios of violence and retribution if not as an echo of such an event? Would the mass shooting of random strangers occur as a solution to life’s problems without it? Did it create two generations in which millions of men were so irremediably damaged that the return of their repressed – violence, coldness, rage – created an idea of what masculinity is, and should be. Would we now be so concerned with our own boundaries, our self-sovereignty in safe spaces, against the impingement of the Other, were fear not such a dominant mood of the era? The wars, the madness are not over. They have barely begun.

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Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently Crikey's correspondent-at-large, and a regular contributor to The Sunday Age. He was an editor of Arena Magazine for fifteen years, and is a frequent contributor to a wide range of publications in Australia and the UK.