The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: sigmund freud

Freud, Leonardo, Sherlock Holmes, Asexuality

Sigmund_Freud_LIFE

Freud, biographer of Leonardo

Sigmund Freud is a fascinating writer because of the enormous influence he has had on contemporary culture. Sometimes it seems as if our whole sense of what a human being is and does underwent a revolution with Freudian theory, and I’m not just talking about intellectual and academic discourse, I’m talking the tropes of popular culture that seem to have become increasingly Freudian. This is something that particularly fascinates me in the diachronic study I have been making of adaptations of Sherlock Holmes: it is clear that modern retellings like Sherlock and Elementary have to tackle questions about the detective’s sexuality, his unconscious, and the personal psychic development that leads to his unorthodox character, whereas Doyle was perfectly comfortable with the idea that Holmes had no sexuality, no unconscious and underwent no personal development. This is something I go into in more detail in an upcoming publication.

But it comes back to Freud: the stories we tell about ourselves are different now that Freud’s works have made their way into popular culture. One of Freud’s most compelling narratives is the essay on Leonardo, the original Renaissance Man. Freud himself considered this “the only beautiful thing I have ever written”. One thing that interests a semi-Victorian such as myself is the sense in which Leonardo da Vinci: A Psychosexual Study of a Childhood Reminiscence is a throwback to Victorian “Great Man” studies of the Carlyle type. Freud actually calls Leo a “great man” as well as a “universal genius” (in Strachey’s translation), and is throughout open about his admiration for his subject. More generally, he states that he’s interested in making biography into a branch of psychoanalysis.

A further point of interest in the essay for me is that Leonardo is a historical figure who does resemble Sherlock Holmes in one notable respect: he is, as far as behaviour goes, totally asexual. I say “behaviour” because for Freud he was a non-practicing homosexual. There’s no entry for asexual in The Freud Reader (ed. Peter Gay, Vintage, 1995), but Freud essentially did not accept the category of asexuality, speaking of the “historical probability of Leonardo having behaved in his life as one who was emotionally homosexual”. Even though he believes Leonard lived a wholly celibate life, he does not translate this into an identity, but assumes he must have been homosexual.

The first point Freud makes about Leo’s chastity and apparent dedication to the pursuit of knowledge (both artistic and scientic – he was a real Renaissance Man and just because we think of him as first and foremost and artist does not mean that he dedicated himself more to art than to science) is that it was a sublimation. This is one of Freud’s key ideas, especially from the point of view of a literary scholar. It occurs when the sexual libido that Freud sees as the fundamental drive of a human (ignoring the later development of the death drive for the moment) is sidelined into any activity, and it is fundamental to Freud’s understanding of writers, artists, scientists, etc.

The methodological importance of sublimation for Freud is that it immediately leads to a question: why? Sublimation is not a natural occurrence, but only takes place in culture, and always in response to a certain circumstance. In recreating such occurrences Freud is at his most audacious, creating psychic lanscapes with a verve and a sweep of vision that impresses, even if it doesn’t always convince. For a self-declared scientist, Freud tends to go far beyond what the evidence warrants. But that is a familiar complaint – it’s important, but the simple effectiveness of Freud’s theories in the marketplace of ideas demands we don’t limit our analysis of them to the scientific truth they contain.

So, regarding Leo, why did he sublimate his sexuality into the pursuit of knowledge? Almost nothing is known of his childhood, but one of his notebooks contains an account of a childhood dream, too complicated to get into here, which Freud reads with great ingenuity to posit that Leonardo’s father was absent during his early childhood. (Leo was illegitimate, but the evidence, such as it is, suggests he lived with his father – Freud acknowledges this evidence, but nevertheless feels that his reading of the dream trumps it.) Freud further posits that Leo’s mother was sexually frustrated and developed an overly intense and eroticized bond with her young son. Because Leo came to desire his mother, he also wanted to replace or gain ascendency over his father. The rebellion against the father Freud apparently sees as central to all intellectual achievement: “His later scientific research, with all its boldness and independence, presupposed the existence of infantile sexual researches unintibited by the father, and was a prolongation of them with the sexual element excluded.” So the absence of the father is necessary for the development of an independent intellect. It is often said that Freud’s thinking is infected with misogyny. That is a point that can be convincingly made, but one should also note that his attitude to the father seems to place men in a particularly invidious position, as a dark, brooding and stultifying presence contrasted with the erotically tinged nurturance of the mother.

So Freud’s theory of how Leonardo came to be a genius and a (theoretical) homosexual is one based entirely on nurture, not taking nature into the equation at all. In some ways it seems inadequate, given that even if Freud’s presuppositions about Leo are right, his circumstances are not that unusual. But Freud’s model of explaining how genius came to be, and particularly the childhood family circumstances, are now the norm. Thus in Sherlock, the relationship of rivalry and ambivalence with the older brother and quasi-father (Mycroft) has taken centre stage, and season 3 also saw the “Redbeard” motif introduced, wherein Sherlock’s childhood love for a pet dog that died is introduced as an implied reason for his asociality/aromanticism/asexuality. For Doyle, Sherlock’s family background was irrelevant, and is never mentioned, though Mycroft does enter into a couple of stories, mainly as a plot device. But why not go the whole hog, and use the Leonardo essay as a basis for a full Freudian explanation of Holmes’ character and his genius: absent father, over-affectionate mother, repression of sexual love for the mother, sublimation into work, remaining libido directed towards other men etc. Elements of this narrativization of the character are found in Elementary and Sherlock, as if they adapt not only Doyle, but also Freud.

Sherlock Holmes and Psychoanalysis

Jeremy Tambling’s Literature and Psychoanalysis (Manchester UP, 2012) is intended to show how psychoanalytic theory can be used to interpret literature. One of the case studies in the book is the Sherlock Holmes story “The Empty House” (TEH), the famous story where Holmes announces he didn’t die at Reichenbach Falls after all. That he is, in fact, still alive. Gasp! Tambling’s use of this text interests me because I use Sherlock Holmes as the paradigm of the pre-Freudian character, one who is unrepresentable according to contemporary, Freudian-influenced ideologies of subjectivity. Despite the fact that many new Holmes adaptations continue to appear, I contend that they are inscribed with the tensions between the Doylean conception of the character and our understanding of being human. This is particularly true of Sherlock, where the character is subject to trauma, repression, desire, self-doubt, ambivalence and all of these Freudian concepts that Doyle gets by without.

So, when Tambling returns to the stories themselves for psychoanalytic readings, my starting position is that Holmes is one character on whom psychoanalysis is wasted. But of course, I’m talking about the character, Tambling is talking about the story. And indeed, Tambling seems to tacitly accept that the character doesn’t respond to the psychoanalytic treatment: Tambling’s key terms in the discussion of TEH are identification and repetition, and all he really says on Holmes is that “We cannot identify with Holmes” (17). Well, it would need an empirical study to show that people have identified with Holmes, but I’m pretty sure that Tambling’s statement is a great exaggeration. It would be closer to the mark to say, “We cannot identify with Holmes, insofar as we are Freudian subjects“. This is part of the greatness of the character: the challenge he presents to dominant Freudian discourses of the subject.

So, having dismissed the character of Holmes in that manner, Tambling goes on to demonstrate the centrality of his key terms. The notion of repetition centres around the theme of “hunting and being hunted” (17), as Tambling notes – so it is rather this idea that may be seen as central, as opposed to the more general effect of repetition. Tambling in fact lists the instances of hunting in the story, and argues quite convincingly thatbasically the whole story is organized around (man)hunts. He doesn’t quite tie this in to his psychoanalytic reading, though, not in a way that was clear to me, anyway. But this was the element of his reading that most interested me, and made me think over the Holmes canon in total, as I had not really considered that enjoyment of these stories was centrally linked to such a primal pleasure as hunting. While not always to the same extent as TEH, hunting is quite central to the stories, albeit perhaps no more so than rationalism, justice, or even friendship.

Finally, then, Tambling’s point is that we enjoy because we identify, and that detective stories also satisfy our compulsion to repeat – and what could be more Freudian than that? His argument presents some difficulties, though, not least the manner in which they sideline Sherlock Holmes himself as a character. The nature of the character really must be taken into account, when we consider just how much Sherlockians focus on the character himself. But, if my suggestions are correct, the psychoanalytic approach is not the best one for that task, for the character is in himself a great challenge to psychoanalysis.

Civilizational Apocalypse in The Dark Knight Rises

Revolution and the overthrow of all the reigning structures of power and governance is one of the great fantasies of the post-industrial individual. We all want  to do it. The ambivalence we feel for society is noted in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930):

Primitive man was actually better off, because his drives were not restricted. yet this was counterbalanced by the fact that he had little certainty of enjoying his good fortune for long. Civilized man has traded in a portion of his chances of happiness for a certain measure of  security. (65)

[C]ivilization is built up on renunciation […], it presupposes the non-satisfaction of powerful drives – by suppression, repression or some other means. (44)

It is in the nature of things that a sense of gratitude for the increase in security wears off along with the memory of the insecurity of early stages of civilization, and we begin to consider those thwarted drives of ours, and consider how much civilization weighs down upon us, and, as Freud notes, decreases our chances of happiness. This is why, perhaps, one of the great fantasies of popular culture is the breakdown of civilization, a total social apocalypse. It’s not something we would want to experience in real life, probably – remember that additional license brings additional personal insecurity, increased threat from nature and our fellow humans – but we have to have some outlet for that aggression borne of those repressed or suppressed drives. If we can express our hostility to civilization by destroying it in imagination, that will perhaps be enough.

This is where film comes up trumps. It is the great medium of violence and destruction. Societal breakdown can be done in books, but film engages the senses directly, and destruction is an experience of the senses. In literature, Dickens took on modern history’s greatest societal breakdown of the French Revolution in his A Tale of Two Cities, and made the climactic set-piece a description of the mob violence in inner-city Paris. For effect he relies heavily on the recurring metaphor of the rising sea to describe the mob:

The sea of black and threatening waters, and of destructive upheaving of wave against wave,whose depths were yet unfathomed and whose forces were yet unknown. The remorseless sea of turbulently swaying shapes, voices of vengeance, and faces hardened in the furnaces of suffering until the touch of pity could make no mark on them, (A Tale of Two Cities, Bk. II, Ch. 21.)

This is a relevant example because a recent blockbuster film, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), has taken its cue from Dickens’ book in depicting the end of civilization as we know it, as Christopher Nolan (director and screenwriter) and Jonathan Nolan (screenwriter) made clear. The influence is apparent also in the film, where there are a few nods, most notably a certain character’s graveside oration being taken from the famous closing paragraphs of the novel.

The Dark Knight Rises uses Dickens to deal with issues around total societal breakdown and civilization’s descent into anarchy leavened with kakistocracy. The film’s villain, Bane, is concerned to usher in “the next era of western civilization”, and to do so he takes over Gotham, imprisoning or killing all the politicians and fatcats of the business world and invoking “giving Gotham back to the people” rhetoric. There are some cathartic scenes of mob violence and a breaking-open-the-prison scene reminiscent of Dickens’ Bastille scene. We see all the rich and powerful being “ripped from their decadent nests”, as Bane puts it, and getting their comeuppance. We’ve already been shown their corruption in the early parts of the film, so there’s no sympathy.

 

Bane

Bane

But Nolan’s sympathies aren’t really with the mob at all, and the people of Gotham never rise above a faceless mass. Apparently the people’s republic is run entirely by criminals; all the decent people just hide in their homes, it is implied, and we never meet any of them. In fact, one of the big problems with this film for me, judging it as a piece of socially and politically engaged work of narrative art rather than simply a superhero film, is how narrow its character-base is: everyone’s either a criminal or a cop. (I think, by the way, it wants to be judged as more than a superhero film, and that’s why they publicized their use of Dickens: he has a certain intellectual cachet they want to appropriate.) The criminal or cop thing is a problem: eventually, the film will have to come down on one very narrowly defined side, and that side definitely isn’t going to be the criminals.

And that’s what happens. The eventual reclaiming of the city from the Bane faction is undertaken by Batman with the help of a huge cohort of policemen who have been trapped underground but now burst forth into daylight. The huge final set-piece is a street battle of cops still in their blues versus Bane’s mercenaries. While Gotham’s general population are apparently hiding in their bedrooms, the police come along and do all the work. The camera lingers on them and a tribal beat kicks in as they line up in an orderly fashion to begin battle against the usurpers.

Cops ready for battle

Cops ready to battle to take back Gotham

So it’s a fairly blatant authoritarian fantasy at this point, one that asks: what if the police were freed up to really clean up the streets and take out the trash without holding back? Wouldn’t that be awesome? At the end of a film that has seemed to question western civilization to its very core, to announce the death of the American way, to allow Bane to call his revolution a “necessary evil” and imply (by the depiction of absolute and ineradicable corruption among Gotham’s elite) that he’s right, it’s back to square one: the same old militaristic and authoritarian fantasy. The same institutions. The same cops. It’s not consistent and it’s not smart. It just means that, ultimately, The Dark Knight Rises isn’t an interesting film, and it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s not Kubrick.

It’s dangerous, too, if we get back to Freud. The aggression felt in Gotham against society is eventually channeled into aggressive action upholding the very institutions that are responsible for the forcible repression. The way to escape being repressed is to channel it all into repressing others. That’s the one socially and legally viable expression of primal drives. It’s a very vicious cycle (“vicious” in more than one sense). This approximates to Freud’s account of the formation of the super-ego: “The aggression is introjected, internalized. actually sent back to where it came from; in other words, it is directed against the individual’s own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of the ego that sets itself up as the super-ego” (77). So if one wanted to make a purely Freudian reading, Bane and co are the ego, because the superego (the cops and Batman) turns its aggression on them. But what the aggression that could be against society is really being turned against in the diegetic world are a group of criminals and neer-do-wells whose guilt has already been clearly established by the objective eye of the camera. The fantasy at work is of having one’s cake of security in civilization and eating it in the form of permitted aggression against a group who wholly deserve it. As long as there’s a Bad Group who can be punished with compunction, civilization’s strictures aren’t unbearable. Freud mentions this too:

One should not belittle the advantage that is enjoyed by a fairly small cultural circle, which is that it allows the aggressive drive an outlet in the form of hostility to outsiders. It is always possible to bind quite large numbers of people in love, provided that others are left out as targets for aggression. (64)

Gotham has that now. And. as far as the old guard are concerned, all is forgiven.

The Future of Gotham

So one might engage in a bit of speculation as to what happens in Gotham after Bane has been defeated. Firstly, who’s in charge? The police, one supposes. It’s now a police state. As a symbol and an icon, Batman’s in charge (we see his statue being erected in a plaza downtown, as the local dignitaries look on), but as a person, he’s out of the picture. But symbols are important, as Nolan’s trilogy has always made clear. “The idea was to be a symbol”, Bruce Wayne says in Rises; Dent was a symbol: that was how pre-Bane society kept from anarchy. Symbols are more important than actual people. Now, they’ve got a new symbol, but no new ideas or no new possibilities for structures. Father Reilly is still around, too, taking the kids into Wayne Manor, which is to be an orphanage. Maybe religion isn’t dead in the new land. The point is, though, people are feeling good. Foley represented the lazy, unmotivated cop, but even he got off his ass when he saw the Bat-symbol light up the sky and knew the fight against Bane was on. It’s a new symbol, not a new regime. The regime might be liberal-capitalism, fascist, feudalist (like the time of Thomas Wayne as depicted in the first of Nolan’s trilogy, Batman Begins). Doesn’t matter. It’s about Real Heroes/ Symbols, not structures.

But one could wish Nolan had put in some real people – as in, not just police. The citizens sat on their asses till the police who had been buried underground broke free and took back the town. And Nolan even feels no need to acknowledge the people. He doesn’t even dramatize their cowardice. They just don’t exist. They’re nothings, waiting for some real cops with proper training to get shit done. But I guess that’s the superhero genre: it’s not a democratic genre. It’s fascistic. In so far as community is invoked, it’s a community of well-drilled fighting men. In the end, commitment to genre values maybe trumped what Nolan might have wanted to say about society and history. Or maybe he really is into the idea of the police-state.

Could Nolan have learned anything from Dickens’ book here? The thing about Two Cities is that for all the stuff about revolution, it ends up being a personal drama. Why does Carton die? For his beloved, Lucie. Does his sacrifice mean anything in terms of the revolution? Nope, nobody even knows except Lucie and her family. It’s an act of private heroism that doesn’t really redeem the situation. Nothing changes. Maybe the message one can pick up from these two works is just that nobody knows what comes after a revolution. It’s hard to create an diegesis of post-revolutional society and rebuilding structures. All bets are off. A police-state is probably as good a guess as any. The French Revolution didn’t take long in giving birth to a dictatorship under a military leader. In Gotham, maybe Gordon takes over; he was in charge of the resistance to Bane, at any rate. Not much of a political innovator, Gordon. He’ll just reinstate the old regime, the old structures of power. Soon he’ll be maneuvered out of power by some ruthless young punk. Remember the exchange at the beginning of the film: the congressman says Wayne is about to be fired because he’s a war hero and “this is peace”. Some of those old Machiavellians might still be around, or if not, there are more where they came from. Give it eight months, Gordon will be gone; give it eight years, Gotham is back where it was: a steaming pile of corruption and a disenchanted populace. Something terroristic will grow. Remember Bane’s revolution was a harvest, and in this Dickens’ philosophy was key:

It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw. Such vapouring, combined with the extravagant plots of Monseigneur for the restoration of a state of things that had utterly exhausted itself, and worn out Heaven and earth as well as itself, was hard to be endured without some remonstrance by any sane man who knew the truth. (Two Cities, Bk. II, Ch. 7)

The theory of revolutions and of necessary evil in Rises means that things have to change to stop all this happening again. Again, Nolan is clear that it’s a harvest: there was a causal connection between the draconian Dent-Act-era politics and the Bane uprising. So my prognostication for Gotham is grim: nothing’s changed, the happy-clappy dancing around the Bat-symbol can’t last long, and soon the reign of idealism will give way to materialism, responses grounded in actual conditions of living, and the structures will fail again, because they have every time so far. The Dark Knight will have little choice but to Rise again, but in the meantime he should brush up on political theory – maybe try something socialist going next time, help the proletariat to lose their chains? Symbols will only get you so far for so long, and this is the one thing Gotham’s never tried.

Sigmund Freud as Sage-writer

If 19th-century England was the home of the Sage-writer, with Carlyle, Arnold, Ruskin, Newman, et al. (see John Holloway, The Victorian Sage), there are various writers from other times and places who seem to be writing in somewhat of the same spirit and towards the same ends.  It is certainly possible to read some of Sigmund Freud’s work as being in the sage tradition. Freud wrote mostly on psychoanalysis, which he considered to be a science, but later in his career he turned to general reflections on the course of civilization, and the relationship between the individual and his society, notably in The Future of an Illusion (1927) and Civilization and its Discontents (1930). At the beginning of the former work he gives his subject as “culture”, defined as: “[E]very thing in which human life has risen above its animal circumstances and in which it distinguishes itself from animal life (and I refuse to separate culture and civilization)” (The Future of an Illusion, Penguin (Great Ideas series), 2008, p. 2). A very wide definition, then, basically synonymous with civilization itself, or at least so intertwined with it as to render both terms indefinable without the other – to become civilized is to gain a culture of some sort.

In the early pages of TFOAI, Freud also states some general political principles; that is, in the terms he has set out, his idea on how society becomes civilized or cultured, and may be kept so in an orderly, productive and reasonably pacific way. His answer is bluntly authoritarian:

Only the influence of exemplary individuals whom they accept as their leaders will induce them to perform the labour and suffer the voluntary privations on which the continued existence of culture depends […]. However, there is a risk so far as [the leaders] are concerned that, in order to retain their influence, they will yield to the mass more than the mass yields to them, which is why it seems neccesary for them to have access to instruments of power making them independent of the mass. In short, two very common properties of human beings are to blame for the fact that only through a measure of coercion can cultural institutions be upheld: humans are not, of their own volition, keen on work, and arguments are powerless against their passions. (p. 5)

Clearly, Freud was no great admirer of humanity in general, as is also clear in Civilization and its Discontents. But this passage goes even further than you might expect. When we read the second sentence excerpted, we find it beginning with the acknowledgement that “there is a risk” in investing the power of leadership in these “exemplary individuals”; indeed there is, we say, confidently expecting the good doctor to go down the power corrupts route. In fact, he says the exact opposite! The problem is not power’s corrupting influence, but the possibility that the leader will be acted on by the mass, hence the need for “access to instruments of power” that render the leader independent of the mass. Dr F is heading into Carlyle territory here, though he is perhaps even harder on the human race than Carlyle (though his language is more moderate, of course). His justifications for advocating, basically, tyranny (a “wise despotism”, as Carlyle would say) are that humans are not keen on work, and cannot be swayed by reason, both big generalizations that go unsupported in any way.

Dr Freud with a cigar, but maybe not just a cigar.

Dr Freud with a cigar, but maybe not just a cigar.

But unsupported does not necessarily mean wrong, of course. One could say that the history of homo sapiens provides ample supporting evidence for both positions. It is the job of the sage only to have a position on the nature of humanity, and prescribe a course for society in line with that. Freud’s here is close to Carlylean Hero-worship, revolving around the idea of the accession to power of “exemplary individuals”, and the vesting of said individuals with power without check. But while Freud diagnoses authoritarianism as the remedy for societal ills in mankind’s then state of development, his aim in TFOAI was to suggest that this could change if “the primacy of the intellect over the libidinal life” (p. 65, see also 68) became a reality. This could perhaps be achieved through the final break with the ideology of religion; at least, that was its only chance, though nothing was guaranteed.

Like most of the Sages of the 19th century, Freud believed that religion in its old forms was dead: the Christian era was over, some rough beast perhaps slouched towards Bethlehem to be born. He advocated, however, a purely rationalist response to the new predicament. His approach here was somewhat different to his predecessors: while Arnold presented “culture” (as defined by him) as the great tool of moral and social progression, and Carlyle spoke with equal certainty of the power of work, faith and duty, Freud is, in one sense, less presumptuous: “Should experience reveal (not to me but to others after me who think as I do) that we have made a mistake, we shall drop our expectations.” (p. 67) While Carlyle traded on the power of positive certainty (and, given his tenets on the importance of faith, it behoved him at all times to display faith in his own principles) Freud was positive only in a negative sense: that the lot of mankind in society was not, and showed no signs of ever having been, or ever becoming, a happy one. He toyed with the idea of authoritarianism to suppress discontent, but seems to have concluded in TFOAI that a final break with religion and a seeing of humankind’s place in the universe exactly as it was could, potentially at least, allow for a more rational humanity which had relinquished its infantile desires and would perhaps live in reasonable harmony. Yet a tension remains in Freud’s work, for whenever he gets onto to talking of humans as they are, it is always clear that he has seen (or believes he has) little empirical evidence of man’s potential for harmonious, rational living. Thus an air of uncertainty hangs over the conclusions of both TFOAI and, more explicitly, Civilization and its Discontents, and it is this gap that Freud allows between what he believes and what may be that makes these books palatable over 80 years on.

On Looking into Fifty Shades of Grey

It behoves the aspirant cultural critic to investigate all significant cultural phenomena, and with this in mind I have lately been looking into E.L. James’s bestselling erotic novel, 50 Shades of Grey, which is the fastest selling book of all time. Suddenly, it’s taken the generally unspeakable topic of sado-masochistic sexual relationships and presented it in a way that has found huge favour in the mainstream. It has provided a new code with which to speak of things which as their uneuphemized selves cannot be spoken of. Yet whether 50 Shades is really about sex and/or sado-masochism is harder to say. Perhaps its popularity is that it is a book nominally about sex that really gives free rein to other fantasies, giving to these tired old tropes a veneer of newness. Here, having read 66% of the novel by Kindle’s calculations, I will take time to reflect on this groundbreaking work, this Sign of the Times, as our old friend Mr C. would say.

The relationship between Christian Grey and the young female narrator Anastasia Steele is about much more than sex. The sexual dominance Grey employs is only an extension of what happens in the rest of their relationship. He follows her, he’s there when she’s about to do something dumb or dangerous, he always knows what she’s thinking, he has the power to give her all the things she wants materially, if she deserves them. He is a sort of secular god, with added powers of providing sexual satisfaction. He doesn’t provide Anastasia with just a good sexual partner, but with a whole metanarrative, a design for life. He motivates her, partly through fear of losing his favour, to change her lifestyle, to eat and drink better, to sleep better, to be fitter and more productive, to exercise – which she has hitherto hated; she is no longer in danger of a standard student life of alcoholic overindulgence whose dangers are highlighted in the early part of the book. She drives more slowly after meeting him, remembering “a stern voice telling me to drive carefully” (loc 312 – Kindle citation).Grey is a convenient construction who provides a personalized motivation to do all of the things she felt she should be doing anyway. She is an all-knowing, all-seeing providence guiding her every movement, and judging it infallibly. The same drives that are behind the creation of a Christian Grey are those hitherto sublimated in the religions of mankind. Religion is, in the words of Dr Freud (in Civilization and its Discontents (1929)):

[A] system of teachings and promises that one the one hand explains to him [i.e. man], with enviable thoroughness, the riddles of this world, and on the other assures him that a careful providence will watch over his life and compensate him in a future existence for any privations he suffers in this. The common man cannot imagine this providence otherwise than as an immensely exalted father.

The good doctor goes on to find this “so patently infantile, so remote from reality, that it pains a philanthropic temperament to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above such a view of life.”

In 50 Shades, this image of the immensely exalted father is not projected onto a literal god, but onto a real person (diegetically real, that is). It is the feeling of being watched over by a perhaps stern but certainly benevolent omnipotence that provides the attraction for Anastasia Steele. Sex, I would suggest, is a small part of this, and not the most important; only important, perhaps, in that sex is the hardest element of life to reconcile with the religious drives – but, yet, they must be made to reconcile, and this is what James achieves, providing a fantasy of life that has all bases covered. 50 Shades of Grey helps to fill a God-shaped void for many of its readers (and, by God, I mean, mostly, the wish to abdicate intellectuo-moral responsibility); the danger, of course, is in applying the “lessons” of 50 Shades to real life, as this involves the imputation of god-like status to some person. Whether this turns out to be more dangerous than imputing god-like status to an illusory entity, time will tell.

One is not, of course, suggesting that 50 Shades in itself and alone will be responsible for a rerouting of the religious drives onto individuals within a romantic and sexual context, but that it may be a “Sign of the Times” in this regard. This is all based on the supposition that the drives which have hitherto given rise to religions are still operative and as it were searching for a new object.

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