Book review - Civilization and Its Discontents
Posted on May 22, 2022
Sigmund Freud occupies a special place in intellectual history. While he was certainly the most influential psychologist of the late 19th and early 20th Century (and perhaps ever) opinion as to the continued relevance of his work is divided. Some respect him as an important figure in the development of psychology, but may consider many (or even most) of his theories to have been soundly refuted; some enthusiastically embrace his ideas; and others go so far as to deride his entire school of thought, on the basis that it is, at best, not scientific, or at worst, pseudoscience.
At the same time, the lexicon of psychoanalysis has entered common usage in popular culture, and you do not have to travel far to encounter elaborations or refinements of his ideas; there are entire subdisciplines of philosophy and literature that are illegible without a cursory knowledge of his work.
I have always found it challenging to decide to what extent psychoanalysis deserves to be taken seriously; and whether the model of the psyche as a trinity of the id, ego, and super-ego is so alluring because it reflects a profound truth, or whether it just happens to be a useful model, that lends itself (perhaps too easily) to analogy.
It is with these thoughts in my mind that I turned to Freud’s ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’. It was published in 1930, when Freud was in his 70s, and can fruitfully be read as a synthesis of his theory of psychoanalysis with his personal philosophical views about the problems civilization poses to the happiness of people. He clearly dedicated a large part of his life thinking about these topics, and it is worth one’s time to read the fruits of such a study. So I read it - specifically, I read the 2002 translation by David McLintock. It should be easy to find a translation online.
TLDR; this is a book so profound in its pessimism that it is at times disturbing. It is redeemed by a combination of brilliant intuitive insight, and hilariously ungrounded but entertaining psychoanalytic speculations about e.g. the taming of fire by humans (Freud suggests we conquered fire when men learnt to restrain their homoerotic impulse to pee on it). I find the speculations about the origin of guilt, and the problems it pose to civilization, fascinating and worth taking seriously.
The book as text
This book is not a good introduction to psychoanalytic thought. Many of the central tenets of psychoanalysis are taken for granted, without reference to a text for the interested reader to follow up on (I present a short summary in the next section - it is best read with some scepticism). You will have to play along, as it were, and assume that certain foundational concepts are essentially correct, if you are to make any sense of this book. At the same time it is initially difficult, due to the writing style, to distinguish what is novel in this book from older, accepted ideas.
On the textual level the material is organised haphazardly, and would benefit from some of the later chapters coming first. A large portion of the writing is digression that touches upon the main theses only in passing. This is doubly irritating because sometimes these digressions do contain a vital point that can easily be overlooked. Fortunately the book is quite short, at under a hundred pages.
Much of the work is speculative. This is also its strength, and likely the reason for the disorganised nature of the arguments - one gets the sense of a creative mind at play. Unfortunately he also repeats himself, stating the same idea in subtly different ways. This is at least useful for checking if you understand what he is trying to communicate; you have to laboriously translate statements into different forms to check if they are logically consistent with what you understand him to have said previously.
A short summary of Freudian psychoanalysis
The following assumptions underlie the analysis in the book.
The human psyche can usefully be considered to consist of three parts - the id, which is the seat of our instinctual drives, and belongs to the unconscious part of our selves; the super-ego, which serves as a type of moral censor; and the ego, which mediates between the other two, and which is central to our ability to navigate the world.
Humans have innate drives, more or less set by nature. These are broadly of two types, the creative and the destructive. The former can be split between those that serve to preserve the individual, and those that serve to preserve ‘the species’ (this is already in conflict with modern evolutionary theory, but let us continue).
There is a certain ‘energy’ associated with these drives; the word is apparently chosen intentionally, in strict analogy with physical energy; the energy associated with these drives can supposedly not be destroyed, but can merely be redirected or channeled into different avenues (which is also biologically dubious) - ultimately our behaviour is supposed to be explainable in terms of these drives, and the various ways our instinctual energy is channelled.
The energy associated with those drives aimed towards the continuation of the species is referred to as the libido. Sublimation is the redirection of instinctual energy into other pursuits as a defense mechanism. In the psychoanalytic jargon, this corresponds to a ‘displacement of the libido’.
The oceanic feeling
Freud begins the book by discussing a certain ‘oceanic feeling’ brought to his attention by his correspondent Romain Rolland; Rolland identifies this with a sense of eternity, or unity with the world, which he considers the origin of the religious impulse. It is perhaps trite to point out that this oceanic feeling sounds a lot like the experience of someone tripping on psychedelics, but this insight was not available to Freud.
Freud, a staunch atheist, apparently by temperament as much as conviction, insists he has had no experience of such a thing except in a purely intellectual sense, but admits that it occurs in other people. He identifies it with the dissolution of the distinction between the self and the outer world; this distinction is one that develops as a person matures beyond infanthood, ‘through deliberate control of our sensory activity and appropriate muscular action’, i.e. it corresponds to the development of the ego. If Rolland is correct about the origin of the religious experience, this conveniently frames the religious experience as an infantilism.
Freud then argues that this feeling, which he refers to as ‘a far more comprehensive, indeed all-embracing feeling, which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world around it’ persists in the mental or psychological makeup of the individual. He goes so far as to call it the ‘primary sense of self’. The analogy he uses to make the case is based on a dubious comparison between mental development and the process of natural selection that I will not repeat here - but this is a good time to point out that he relies on analogy a lot, and that the analogies often read oddly, as they are rooted in the science of nearly a century ago.
He also posits that the human mind cannot forget anything, that ‘[…] nothing that ever took shape [in it] has passed away, and in which all previous phases of development exist beside the most recent’. This seems false to me; to the best of my knowledge modern neuroscience accepts that part of the process of learning involves the pruning of neural pathways, and hence some form of forgetting.
Freud concludes that he does not agree that this oceanic feeling is the origin of the religious sentiment; instead he identifies this with the feeling of helplessness experienced by us when we are small children, and ‘the need for paternal protection’.
This seems too narrowly specific to Abrahamic religions for my liking - I am not a religious scholar, but I think it is uncontroversial that the protective aspect of a father-like deity is less central to religions belonging to other traditions, i.e. most of them.
If the argument is instead that even religions without such symbolism originate ultimately in the need for paternal protection, he does not explicitly make it, and I do not know how it can be sustained. In some broad sense a desire for safety may surely be said to be relevant to religion - but this is too vague an observation to draw conclusions from, and applies equally to many other things. My own belief is that religion owes more to the fear of death, and a desire for a continuation of the self, than a yearning for paternal protection as such.
Despite disagreeing with Rolland, Freud remains committed to the idea that the religious experience is a throwback to an infantile state. This criticism of religion is a recurring theme. For example:
[the comman man’s religion] assures him that a careful providence will watch over his life and compensate him in a future existence for any privations he has suffered. The common man cannot imagine this providence otherwise than as an immensely exalted father.
All this is 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 life.
Of special importance is the case in which substantial numbers of people, acting in concert, try to assure themselves of happiness and protection against suffering through a delusional reshaping of reality.
The religions of mankind too must be described as examples of mass delusion.
In a later section he touches upon a truth that has motivated atheist, agnostics, and religious non-conformists throughout the ages;
Its [i.e. religion’s] technique consists in reducing the value of life and distorting the picture of the real world by means of delusion; and this presupposes the intimidation of the intelligence.
The latter rings true to me - I remember how as a child, as my mind began to develop, how outraged I was that people would lie to me about God; and how terrified I was when I realised that all these adults, who were supposedly wiser than me and in control of the world, were motivated in part by a fundamental fear of death. I’ve chilled out since then, but probably because, as I am an adult, it is no longer considered socially acceptable to coop me up against my wishes and brainwash me with patently ridiculous religious doctrine.
Suffering and its alleviation
Freud commits, likely unknowingly, to the first of the four noble truths of Buddhism, called the truth of suffering (‘to live is to suffer’) when he says:
The life imposed on us is too hard for us to bear: it brings too much pain, too many disappointments, too many insoluble problems. If we are to endure it, we cannot do without palliative measures.
Unlike Buddhism, he does not consider our suffering to be ultimately the consequence of our attachment to desire, but rather due to three separate causes; the superior power of nature, the frailty of our bodies, and the inadequacy of the social institutions that regulate people’s interactions with one another.
Also unlike Buddhism, he does not identify the solution in the cessation of desire, which he would likely have considered impossible, due to the ‘energetic’ nature of the drives. Instead he identifies three types of palliative measures; distractions (specifically, ‘powerful’ distractions - I am not sure what constitutes a minor versus a major distraction); substitutive satisfactions (e.g. art), and intoxicants (Freud has a posthumous reputation as a bit of a coke fiend).
Perhaps driven by a concern that he has not sufficiently communicated his pessimistic view of the problems of life, Freud makes it clear that he considers the question of the ‘purpose’ of our lives to be anthropocentric, possibly senseless, and inspired by a religious frame of mind. I am inclined to agree with him on all counts.
Instead of a deeper purpose that would give meaning to our lives, Freud proposes that we are motivated by unconscious desires. The driving force of human instinct, located in the id, is the search for pleasure - hence Freud has it that the id is governed by the ‘pleasure principle’. It is the role of the ego to transmute this into the ‘reality principle’, which is something like a compromise that assists us in dealing with the external world. To oversimplify; the id wants us to have sex with everything, gorge ourselves on chocolate, do a lot of cocaine, and murder people that frustrate our desires, but this is unobtainable. Instead we behave ourselves, go to school, get a job etc, so that we can indulge in some of these things some of the time, avoid death, and hopefully procreate.
Just to be absolutely sure we understand that life is indeed suffering, Freud also states that ‘[the pursuit of the pleasure principle] is at odds with the whole world’ and ‘It is quite incapable of being realised; all the institutions of the world are opposed to it.’ I find this bleak assessment oddly humorous (and true).
Since civilization (which can also be read as ‘society’) does not permit us to murderfuck everything (which is apparently very frustrating to our unconscious selves), we channel our libidinal energy into other avenues to assuage our suffering. Freud considers the most effective channel for libidinal energy to be the exercise of mental and intellectual work as a substitutive satisfaction. This includes the work of scientists and artists - and essentially any creative application of the mind towards some aim other than the satisfaction of our instinctual desires (e.g for sex and food). Nonetheless, these pleasures are inferior in intensity, because ‘they do not convulse the constitution’ (which reads like a euphemism for ’they can’t give you a literal orgasm). Freud also holds that they are not accessible to everyone (I disagree).
After these creative, mental endeavours, Freud recommends gaining pleasure from ‘illusions’; that is, from our imaginations. He provides the enjoyment of works of art (rather than their creation) as the primary example; I am curious what he would have construed of as ‘art’, and what he would have made of the modern phenomenon of mass media and gaming - my lazy guess is that he would have considered much of it to be analogous to masturbation.
Freud reserves a special place for alleviating suffering by making the goal of life the experience of love. Love, he says, is similar to creative endeavours or the engagement of our imaginations, in that it ‘transfers satisfaction to internal mental process’. In contrast to the other methods for seeking happiness, it does not turn away from the external world, but obtains happiness through an emotional attachment to the loved object.
The primary drawback of this approach is that it makes us particularly susceptible to suffering if the object of our love does not reciprocate the feeling, or does not live up to our expectations. For this reason he does not consider it a panacea, although he values it highly.
He makes an interesting digression when he claims that some small percentage of people (he presents St. Francis of Assisi as an exemplar) are capable of loving, not just individuals, but entire groups, which protects them from the potentially harmful effects of placing all ones loves on a single object - making a single object the sole focus of our happiness makes one dangerously dependent on a part of the external world over which we have no control, i.e. the love-object.
Freud considers this all-encompassing love a deviation from the sexual aim of love (as far as I can determine Freud considers the origin of all forms of love to be fundamentally sexual), and a transformation to what he calls a ‘aim-inhibited’ impulse. Presumably the ‘aim’ St. Francis is supposedly inhibiting here is having sex with everything - I suppose he must be commended.
Freud has some interesting criticisms about extending love to all people in this way; firstly, he holds that this is patently impossible, and that the default state of one person to another is of aggression (which seems overly pessimistic). He also writes that not everyone is deserving of our love, which was a strangely shocking thing to read, but on reflection I cannot disagree, even though at first sight it seems to have the character of a moral judgement. He also argues that loving everyone actually cheapens our love - what does it mean if your friend loves a random stranger they barely know as much as you? This is relatable - I have a dear friend who seems incapable of disliking anyone, and it drives me up the wall - I am convinced he would find something nice to say about Hitler if he knew him personally.
The appreciation of beauty is listed separately as a means of happiness. Unsurprisingly he identifies its origin in the sexual realm - Freud’s insistence that everything has its origin in the sex drive becomes rather tiresome after a while. If there is intelligent, asexual life in the universe I hope we make contact with it one day, so that it can share its opinion of Freud with us.
Surprisingly it appears that Freud believes ‘neurotic illness’, which is a psychoanalytic umbrella term that includes anxiety, depression, and OCD, is (or can) also be an attempt at finding pleasure via ‘substitutive satisfactions’. So he appears to assert that neurotics (or at least their unconsciousnesses) are somehow responsible for their disease; their symptoms are a substitutive satisfaction for their frustrated sexual drives.
I am not sure what to make of this - I am sure many of us have known deeply unhappy people who seem to us to be their own worst enemy; but that seems distinct from e.g. someone suffering from extreme OCD that is seriously impacting their ability to function. I would expect a more purely neurophysiological origin of the latter, rather than trusting in complicated arguments based on abstractions piled on abstractions that are only tenuously linked to physical concepts, and which seem to flirt with victim blaming. On the other hand, maybe if the cause is in the unconscious of the individual, the blame can not be laid on them? The topic is strangely difficult, and one is prone to fall into logical and semantic traps. I am undecided, but certainly very averse to the idea that people definitely and unambiguously cause their own mental illness - in many cases that is certainly not the case.
Freud identifies the constraints of civilization as a primary cause of neurosis: ‘it was discovered that people became neurotic when they could not endure the degree of privation that society imposed on them in the service of its cultural ideals’ - this insight frames much of Freud’s discussion.
This is interesting, and I think I largely agree, even if the examples he provides are not that convincing. He has an annoying habit of talking around an issue, and you really have to focus to notice that when he talks obliquely about things like frustrated aggression he literally appears to have violent murder in mind.
One of the primary privations imposed on us by civilization with which he is concerned is the need to give up frequent and easy sexual congress with a wide varieties of partners, which was required by the moral code of his time. Of course, depending on where you live, it still largely is. Despite large parts of the world becoming more sexually liberal in this regard, the ‘natural’ state which would appear to most clearly satisfy the instinctual desire for frequent sexual gratification is polyamory, which is still a decidedly minority disposition, that can lead to its own complications and sufferings. From my own experience of polyamorous people I am highly sceptical that they are much less neurotic than the general population - although in keeping with Freud’s theory, I think there is reason to believe that they obtain substitutive satisfaction from talking about polyamory all the time.
Freud is specifically unimpressed by the restriction of marriage; I would be interested in an account of his own love life - he was married to the same woman for over 50 years, which is at odds with his professed concern about the effect of sexual restrictions and monogamy.
Freud defines civilization as all activities and values that are useful to human beings. It is built on the renunciation of our drives - we give up the satisfaction of our basic drives for the benefit of, essentially, security.
A primary focus of the book is the origin of the hostility to civilization which Freud considers a serious impediment to the furthering or continuation of said civilization. Freud lays part of the blame for the inimical attitude towards civilization on Christianity, because of its devaluation of the material world. There are echoes of Nietzsche here - the interested reader is directed to section 15 of ‘The Antichrist’, which also echoes Freud’s antipathy towards religion in general.
Freud points out that projecting our own mental state onto people living in completely different circumstances is likely inappropriate, given how extremely subjective such a process is - and that for this reason, despite great improvements in medicine and technology, it is difficult to say whether people of previous ages were more or less happy. This is very pessimistic - I imagine Steven Pinker would not be impressed by this argument. Certainly we are less likely to die or lose children than our ancestors were (on average), and this should be viewed as a good. Freud’s response might be, sure, but are we really happier? This sounds like the notion of the hedonic treadmill applied to technological progress - I do not have a convincing rejoinder to it.
He discusses the so-called ‘anal character’, and without any motivation (which I assume he has provided elsewhere) asserts that this excessive obsession with cleanliness and order corresponds to a transformation of children’s interest in ‘the excretory function’ (which we are also told is a form of ‘anal eroticism’). At one point he also claims that the original possession, and hence the origin of the concept of ‘possession’, is the infant’s ownership of its faeces. I do not know how to evaluate the truth of this statement, but it is certainly interesting. For one thing, it suggests a reconsideration of the notion of ‘property’ in discussions about civilization and freedom.
Freud suggests there exists a conflict between civilization and the sexual drives of individuals. Specifically, sexual love is a bond between (at least) two people, while civilization involves relationships between large groups of people; so when the demands of civilization make claims upon persons bound by sexual love, or a family (which is a natural consequence of this sexual love) there is a fundamental tension that must be resolved.
To elaborate - civilization does not merely consist of pairs of people bonded via love, who also happen to share the bonds of work with the greater mass of society - that would be simply a case of distinct families cooperating when it was to their material benefit, and would not entail all the machinery of civilization. Instead Freud views civilization as involving the binding of everyone with libidinal energy, mainly of the aim-inhibited type. This is required to overcome an innate destructive drive that exists alongside our other drives. He talks about this quite a bit, but I never quite felt he motivated it properly. The idea was not originally his, and he writes that he also took some time to accept that such a drive exists - it is sometimes referred to as Thanatos (which was not Freud’s word for it), to distinguish it from the drive to love, Eros, which are in some sense in opposition.
Relatedly, in what reads as a rather misogynistic turn, Freud claims that women have a ‘retarding, restraining’ influence on the process of civilization because of the importance they attach to family, and because they have little aptitude for sublimating their drives. He grounds this claim in his observation that civilization, as he construes it, makes claims on the energy of their partners. I would summarise his argument, only half-jokingly, as ‘women aren’t good at civilization, which they resent for making their men have less sex with them’, which is simultaneously hilarious and false. I won’t dispute that it seems likely that people might have more sex without the obligations imposed on them by society, but asserting that women, in general, have a hostile attitude towards ‘civilization’ because of this is a bit of stretch, to put it mildly. This is but one out of several passages that show a similar prejudice - I am unsure if I am being unfair to Freud here, but that is how they read to me.
The origin of guilt
If we accept that we possess an innate drive towards aggression, then it is necessary to find a way to tame it, if civilization is to be prevented from decaying to a state of perpetual violence.
The main method we use to do so, Freud maintains, is to turn the aggression inwards, and direct it against the ego; this is the origin of our conscience, of our moral sentiment. The super-ego acts as a censor, directing the aggression we want to direct against others (actual, physical violence) against ourselves - this is the origin of guilt.
The super-ego serves to sustain civilization against the violence of the individual:
In this way civilization overcomes the dangerous aggressivity of the individual, by weakening him, by disarming him and setting up an internal authority to watch over him, like a garrison in a conquered town.
Freud expands on this, and traces the development of this guilt-function to the dependency of the infant on its caretakers; what the child fears most is the withdrawal of the attention of its caretakers, that is, the withdrawal of their love. This is also the origin of our conception of evil - evil consists of those actions which can lead one to losing the love of those on whom you depend for survival (if this is true, it is easy to imagine how it can be coopted by religions).
As people grow up, the role of this caretaker is taken over by society at large - what we fear then is the punishment of society. This authority is eventually internalised as the super-ego, which we cannot escape, not even in our thoughts. The super-ego is the arbiter of good and evil - and it deems merely considering an evil act worthy of guilt. So even temptation can lead to guilt - temptation in fact reinforces guilt, as the super-ego does not distinguish strongly between thought and action.
Rather perversely, the super-ego can also blame the self for acts of misfortune that befall it; the evidence for the sinfulness of the individual is in the fact that it is being punished. Freud interprets this as the super-ego replacing parental authority with Fate - if you consider Fate an expression of divine will, you have a perfect scenario for flagellating yourself for events completely beyond your control, in the belief that whatever terrible thing happened was your fault, and you deserved it.
There is an odd internal coherency in this narrative that rings true to me, and I find the concept fairly convincing for that reason. I don’t know how otherwise to account for guilt, which seems largely pointless, and which I suffer from more than seems reasonable (I don’t know what a reasonable amount of guilt is - maybe as much as is necessary to prevent you from being a sociopath, but no more?).
I will skip over Freud’s discussion of how this relates to the original, primeval guilt arising from the mythical act of the murder of the father by its sons, because I think it is too silly to merit comment.
This book is ultimately about guilt, and the challenges it poses to civilization. In fact, Freud proposes that this guilt is a primary impediment to happiness: ‘[…] the price we pay for cultural progress is a loss of happiness, arising from a heightened sense of guilt’. In typical Freudian fashion, Freud also insists that even people who believe themselves to be guilt free, but who experience a general malaise or discontent, are nonetheless fundamentally motivated by the sense of guilt.
Taking the proposition seriously for a moment, the picture Freud paints is something like the following; the more restrictions are placed on us by society at large, as part of the process of accommodating ever larger groups of people to cooperate without overt violence, the greater the internal sense of guilt. In effect we learn to fit in to society by treating ourselves cruelly.
By analogy Freud also posits a cultural super-ego which plays a role like that of the individual super-ego for the greater community (he provides ethical systems as a concrete realisation of this). This cultural super-ego does not make sufficient allowances for the severity of the instinctual impulses of the id, and as a result the ethical precepts by which we are meant to live (or at least, by which we unconsciously believe we should live) are impossible to live up to, leading us to punish ourselves. Freud suggests lowering the demands of the super-ego, which seems wise.
I can’t resist another happy quote from Freud to further affirm the suffering inherent to human existence:
If civilization is the necessary trend of development that leads from the family to humanity as a whole, it follows that the intensification of the sense of guilt, perhaps to a degree that the individual finds hard to endure, is indissolubly linked with it, as a consequence of the innate conflict of ambivalence, of the perpetual contention between love [Eros] and the death-wish [Thanatos].
Do not read this as a way to get into Freud. If you read it, do so for the insights of a mind honed by a lifetime of acquaintance with the workings of the human psyche, and as a form of intellectual archaeology, to trace the genealogy of ideas.
A modern reader might not feel terribly enlightened by much of the book. We are used to the idea that under our veneers of civilized respectability we are animals with violent and sexual tendencies - we might even think, so what if we are? But if that is something you believe, then it is due in part to this book and others like it.
I am cautiously of the view that Freud’s entire theory is best viewed as a useful model of human psychology, which lends itself to explanatory analogy. This means that many of the details will be wrong, while still being useful. But we should be wary of convincing analogies that do not aid us in making testable predictions.
Something in the way the material is presented puts me in mind of the thoroughly discredited notion from early evolutionary biology that phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny - in fact the idea that ‘earlier’ stages of the mind are maintained alongside ‘later’ versions is strongly reminiscent of it. This point deserves to be expanded on, but for now I will satisfy myself by merely noting the observation.
A fruitful discussion can also be had about the role that the analogy of energy (in the literal physical sense) to mental processes played in Freud’s development of the concept of the libido, and the instinctual drives. I think the limitations of Freud’s theory can already be found here - he seems to have made an awfully big deal about the conservation of displacement of very literal energy, which he flavours with the content of specific ‘drives’. I do not think this can be reconciled with the modern understanding of the brain - and in particular the connectionist paradigm; but I am not a neurobiologist, and therefore maybe wrong.
The fundamental problem one is confronted with when analysing such theories is the high level of abstraction at which they operate. I alternate between seeing the theory of psychoanalysis as a house of cards built on speculation, and a profound tool for understanding the human condition - but troublingly, I do not have any criteria by which to distinguish the two cases. Almost any fact can be explained in any number of ways by the theory, depending on the theorist. This was also Karl Popper’s fundamental criticism of psychoanalysis - it is arguably not a science (which is of course distinct from saying it’s not true or useful).
Because of the great influence Freud’s ideas have had on literature, psychology, and philosophy; and the way his concepts have entered the popular imagination (often in a misunderstood sense, which I hope I have not promulgated in this review) it is difficult for me to identify when the sense of congruence I experienced when evaluating some of his assertions are due to a prior, forgotten acquaintance with them. It is in the nature of the mind to respond with an unconscious welcoming to ideas it has been exposed to before; this is not necessarily a sign of ‘truth’, as such, and should instead be evidence for the need for further inquiry as to the origin of our response. In other words, does this seem true to me because it accords with something I have heard before, rather than because I have been provided with reasons in its favour?
The idea I find most compelling is the explanation of the origin of guilt. Since this requires acceptance of the id, ego, and the super-ego, I suppose I must grudgingly grant them a place in my mental toolbox, despite all the misgivings I have.
I am by temperament melancholic, anxious, and already convinced of the fundamental tragedy of life, so I found little of what I read to be shocking (some of it was hilarious though). I think optimistic people with a happy outlook on life are most likely to gain something from this book. Ideally they should lock themselves in a poorly lit room for several days, and deeply internalise the book’s pessimism. Once they have properly contemplated the suffering of life they can return to the sunshine - perhaps their brush with the darkness at the heart of the human animal will leave them invigorated. Or they may just think it’s silly. For myself, I will be focusing on reducing the demands of my super-ego.