2. Civilisation and its Discontents.
Something in all men profoundly rejoices at seeing a car burn.
When considering this possibility, we come up against a contention that is so astonishing that we will dwell on it for awhile. It is contended that much of the blame for our misery lies with what we call our civilisation, and that we should be far happier if we were to abandon it and revert to primitive conditions.
Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents.
In the previous part of this essay, we looked at how influential modernist architects like Le Corbusier believed that a radical new architecture and urban design could produce a stable, happy community of people whose behaviour ultimately emulates the harmonious mathematical order of the buildings in which they live. In Shivers and High-Rise, however, we find the opposite happening. The residents of Starliner apartments (in Cronenberg's film) and Anthony Royal's high-rise (in Ballard novel) do not replicate the mathematical balance of their environments; rather they surrender to the inherent disorder and chaos of their deepest instincts and most primal impulses. There is a double irony at work here: we observe not only anarchy breaking out in a built environment of idealized mathematical simplicity, but also a kind of atavistic reversion taking place in an architecture which was designed to embody the modern, and act as the incubator of the individual and community of the utopian future. Here is the ultimate riposte to the modernist utopia: instead of going boldly into the idealized tomorrow, the residents of the high-rise are regressing back, to the infantile stages of human identity and civilisation. With a vengeance.
We also argued in the previous section that modernity signalled a radical new juncture in how we perceive time. Previous epochs were often enthralled by the myth of the Golden Age – the belief that the past was infinitely better – nobler, more elevated in manner and wisdom – than the present. The present, in this view, was a failing away or degeneration from a prior, more exalted civilisation, destined either to be lost forever or to come back again according to some grand historical cycle. The return of the past is thus something to be welcomed. In the modern era, all this was reversed. Once we conceive of the present as the pinnacle of civilisation, and the future as the potential Golden Age, the return of the past becomes a danger, a creeping menace. We begin to conceive of modern civilisation as a grand albeit precarious achievement, constantly imperilled by the threat of some kind of reversion back to its well-springs in the primitive and barbaric. This attitude developed from a variety of sources: not only the modernist utopianism which we discussed in the previous chapter, but also from a climate of fierce chauvinism and belief in the superiority of western civilisation which flourished in the Victorian period.
The Victorian period in particular was characterised by a widespread anxiety regarding the stability and permanence of civilisation and the hard-won fruits of progress – a fear of the ‘resurgent atavism’ in cultural terms. In biology, an atavism is a throwback, an ancestral trait or characteristic which returns in individual cases after it has been lost for several generations by the species. It is the anomalous return of some characteristic of a prior stage of evolution and form of existence. The concept of the atavism has enjoyed a rich life in the cultural sphere as a metaphor for the sudden resurgence of primitive forms of thought and behaviour in the context of modern civilisation. In its inception, this concept was often aligned with ideologies of social Darwinism and racism; in time though, it has also come to express ambiguous attitudes towards the value and validity of rationalistic modern civilisation. In Shivers and High-Rise, we find a breakout of resurgent primitivism in the modern apartment complex: in Shivers, a return to a greedy, unbounded infantile sexuality, and in High-Rise to both the prior infantile forms of the individual and of human society in general. To contextualise both works, we will look at the theories of Sigmund Freud, a considerable influence on both artists, and in particular his 1929 essay Civilisation and its Discontents.
Das Unbehagen in Der Kultur (“The Uneasiness in Civilisation”) was written in the aftermath of World War I, which had been to many a profound blow to the notion of human progress and rational civilisation. What is interesting about the particular unease with civilisation which Freud posits in this essay is that it was not – as in the case of traditional fears of the resurgent atavism – something extrinsic to civilisation. It was not something which civilisation had progressed beyond, something external and alien which might still be observed in the customs of the “less developed” cultures. Rather, Freud argued that a conflict between the primitive and the civilised might be an intrinsic part of the very relationship between the individual and civilisation itself. For Freud, civilisation offered the individual something like a Faustian bargain in reverse. The traditional Faustian bargain offers its recipient the capacity to indulge themselves to the maximal degree – to have no limits placed on their capacity for self-indulgence and self-expression.
Civilisation, on the other hand, offers the following bargain. You will enjoy ever greater levels of security, comfort, hygiene and health. The bounty of intellectual and aesthetic “high” culture – art, philosophy, the sciences – will be yours to enjoy. Your home will be warm and the provision of your food require no foraging, hunting, or sowing. For the greater part of your life, you will be shielded from physical privation, violence and mortal threats. These are the fruits of civilisation. However, in order to maintain them, we have to give something in return: a great measure of our freedom and individuality must be sacrificed. Most crucially for Freud, our instinctual being – our naturally unbounded desires for the gratification of our sexuality and our individual will – must be repressed:
“Thirdly – and this seems the most important point – it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilisation is built up on renunciation, how much it presupposes the non-satisfaction of powerful drives – ‘cultural frustration’ dominates the large sphere of inter-personal relations; as we already know, it is the cause of the hostility that all civilisations have to contend with.”
To understand Freud’s view of this tension between the individual and his society, we need to briefly sketch out his well-known structural model of the psyche. Freud saw the outward social individual as the mediation between two conflicting forces: the Id and the superego. In this instance, the Id is the atavism: it is the throwback to our infantile stage as an individual, and pre-civilized state as a species. A confluence of our instinctual desires and urges, the Id desires only instant pleasure and gratification, and recognises no law, no limit, no reason or compromise:
“It is the dark, inaccessible part of your personality, what little we know of it we have learned from our study of Dreamwork and of course the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of that is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast to the ego. We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations…It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principal.”
The id is held in check by the superego which is the voice of conscience, the authority of the father, the police force of the individual psyche. Out of some kind of compromise between the clamour of our instinctual desires, and the authoritarian stop-brake of our superego, our public, social persona, or ego, emerges. However, as Freud saw it, this compromise, particularly under the demands of advanced civilisation, is rarely satisfactory for the individual. Inside every humble, self-effacing bourgeois lies a violent, priapic barbarian waiting to claw its way out. Inside each of us, like a buried archaeological stratum of private and evolutionary history, resides an infant and a primitive, a creature of unfettered appetite that swells and seethes with every compromise and accommodation to the adult, civilized world.
In this regard, we can see that there is a neat parallelism between Freud's conception of the individual psyche and civilisation as whole. In terms of mass civilisation, the superego corresponds to the coercive forces by which a society maintains its ideological equilibrium and order – not only the physical force represented by military and police, but also the more crucial invisible forms of psychological coercion and conformism which lead individuals to police their own behaviour. The ego corresponds to the outward appearance of society as a smoothly functioning, cohesive whole whose various parts are content with their societal roles and the overall moral structure of their society. Under the surface, however, there remains the society's id – the seething cauldron of individual discontent, of repressed but unvanquished instinctual drives, which constantly threatens the stability of the society from within.
The marvelous lithographic illustrations for Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms in Nature) - via Wikipedia.
Freud's ideas in this regard were influenced by the recapitulation theory of the German biologist and polymath Ernst Haeckel. This theory, roughly stated, holds that the embryonic development of the individual contains within it and repeats in its individual growth the various evolutionary developmental stages of the species – ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, ontogeny referring the development of the individual, and phylogeny the collective evolution of the species. In Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud argues for a similar conception of the psyche, using the metaphor of an imaginary Rome whose entire history remains permanently present in its current form:
“Now let us make the fantastic assumption that Rome is not a place where people live, but a psychical entity with a similarly long, rich past, in which nothing that ever took shape has passed away, and in which all previous phases of development exist alongside the most recent.”
Though discredited as biology, the recapitulation theory has as a certain elegant, resonant quality: the individual organisation becomes a fractal of the species as a whole, and a living museum of its own vast evolutionary history. The idea clearly fascinated Ballard; in The Drowned World he utilized as a “literary device” the notion of the spinal column as a vessel containing “the details of the entire evolutionary development of the human race”:
“I tell how human beings likewise regress into the past. In a certain sense, they climb down their own spinal column. They traverse down the thoracic vertebrae, from the point at which they are air-breathing mammals, to the lumbar region, to the point at which they are they are amphibious reptiles. Finally they reach the absolute past, which on one hand represents the birth of life itself in the hot womb of the primeval jungle, and which in another sense represents their own origins and birthplace in the mother's womb.”
Whether strictly accurate or no, Freud's conjoined notion of the psyche and society as a placid veneer or facade, perpetually threatened by atavistic impulses and instincts that remain perfectly preserved below the surface, was perhaps the most enduring and influential of his ideas throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. It is certainly this central idea informs the narratives of both Shivers and High Rise. Partially funded by the Canadian Film Board and apparently shot in just 15 days, Shivers remains the most extreme, forceful – and “Cronenbergian” - of all Cronenberg flicks. Its first five minutes, in fact, are so gruellingly warped and unsettling that it was almost as though the auteur was trying to instantly jettison any viewers who weren't in it for keeps. The rest of the film is a sustained assault on every orifice the film's bodies and the viewer's mind has to offer – it isn't every film that features a faecal-phallic parasite as its antagonist – perhaps for the best.
Cronenberg's early films have a unique atmosphere which derive partially from the imperfections and artefacts of their production milieu. Shot cheaply with actors of variable ability, and shot through with a chilly, insular Canadian quality, they have a kind of sinister sterility which is increased rather than off-set by soundtracks of gentle, lullaby-like library music. They feel like mutant public information films. It is interesting that Cronenberg's early cinema often focuses on medical scientists whose well-intentioned experiments produce horrifying consequences. In the 50s and 60s, the well-intentioned monster D. Ewen Cameron carried out a series of appalling experiments in psychological conditioning (under the auspices of the CIA's MK-ULTRA programme) in Montreal's Allen Memorial Institute. Some years before, an estimated 20,000 orphaned children (the Duplessis Orphans) had been falsely certified as mentally ill as part of a scheme in Quebec and confined to psychiatric units. Whether a conscious influence or otherwise, these events make Canada an apt location for the emergence of a chilly, medical variety of horror.
The first of Cronenberg's messianic dabblers is Dr Emil Hobbes in Shivers. Like Freud, Hobbes believes that civilisation creates a fundamental cleavage between humans and their natural and instinctual being; he describes man as “an animal who thinks too much” and “an over-rational animal that's lost touch with its body and its instincts.” However, whereas Freud believed that the repression of the instinctual drives was a worthwhile and necessary sacrifice to make in order to maintain civilisation, Hobbes is a libidinal anarchist who believes that western civilisation is itself a mass neurosis that must be cured at all costs. To this end, he develops an artificial parasite which is a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease. This parasite, he hopes, will unleash the libidinal id on a mass scale, and transform the world into “one beautiful mindless orgy.” In this sense, Hobbes follows in a strain of sexual anarchism which developed out of conventional Freudian theory. The first of these outlaws was the equal parts brilliant and demented Wilhelm Reich, whose championing of orgiastic potency as a cure for neurosis lead to him being labelled the “prophet of the better orgasm” and the “founder of a genital utopia.”
Since Cronenberg is making a horror film, Hobbes' plan to initiate a genital utopia goes Horribly Wrong – as plans which involve the creation of artificial venereal parasites are wont to. On the surface, it might appear that Cronenberg's film expresses an essentially conservative viewpoint: unleash the id, and you open a Pandora's Box of uncontrollable violence and chaos. This was how Robin Wood, a trenchant early critic of Cronenberg, interpreted the film when he saw it at the Edinburgh film festival: “It's derivation is from Invasion of the Body Snatchers via Night of the Living Dead, but the source of its intensity is quite distinct: all the horror is based on extreme sexual disgust.” To take such a view, however, is to misread the very ambiguous nature of Cronenberg's sexual apocalypse in Shivers. The director has often said that he identifies more with the characters after they have been infected – which is to say that a world of sexual anarchy, violence and wanton destruction is somehow preferable to the dull, routinised existence of the middle-class professional.
Although our modern connotative sense of the word apocalypse is a negative image of total destruction, the literal meaning of the word is a disclosure, an unveiling; a revelation of the true nature of the world. “Something in all men,” Jean Baudrillard wrote, “profoundly rejoices at seeing a car burn.” Cronenberg is by intellectual temperament very much a modernist, but he rejoices in seeing the orderly and antiseptic world of the urban bourgeois thorn asunder. For him, the parasite simply unveils the true animal nature of the high-rise dwellers; like the car crash in Ballard's fictions, it reconnects them to their bodies, to the rich, precarious corporeal existence from which they have become disengaged. In Crash and Shivers, disgust in an intrinsic part of the body and sexuality. This idea is expressed in Shivers by Nurse Forsythe (played by ethereal exploitation movie queen Lynn Lowry):
Roger, I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I'm having trouble you see, because he's old... and dying... and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully.