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The Impossible Quest to an Ideal Society

If you were to look at any civilization that has ever existed, you would find that none have quite perfected the model for an ideal society. Regardless of the time period or location, civilizations have continuously failed to provide society with the means for establishing an overwhelming state of happiness. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud raises a number of considerable points pertaining to civilization, while also assembling a line of logic as a means for concluding why civilization has given rise to a series of discontents across society. Similarly, in The Communist Manifesto and in Between the World and Me, both Marx and Coates express their dissatisfaction with their respective societies, while also alluding to the various ways in which unhappiness has become the hallmark of many civilizations, past and present. While Marx outlines a series of solutions, Coates lends a both personal and eye-opening perspective to the matter, which begs the question: Could an ideal society ever exist? Moreover, while every journey towards improvement is marked with challenges, it is important to to keep in mind that, as much as improvement can serve as a benefit to society, it can just as equally serve as a hindrance.

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud alludes to the idea that, the path to an ideal society would inevitably lead to a dead end, based on the fact that humans possess an inherent need to express his/her desires. This means that, in order for any civilization to be considered “ideal,” it would have to satisfy the desires of each one of its members. In addition, Freud points to the contents of communism and how they are, at best, merely an illusion. “The communists believe that they have found the path to deliverance from our evils…But I am able to recognize that the psychological premises on which the system is based are an untenable illusion,” (Freud 97). Not only does Freud believe that communism fails to take into consideration the psychological traits of human nature, but also the social patterns that have been ingrained in society over time. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx outlines a model for how society could be improved, which is largely based on the removal of private property and restoring power to the state. While Marx’s model seems practical in theory, Freud believes that, when put into practice, communism would still face the same fate as its preceding civilizations, disruption. “In abolishing private property we deprive the human love of aggression of one of its instruments, certainly a strong one, though certainly not the strongest; but we have in no way altered the differences in power and influence which are misused by aggressiveness, nor have we altered anything in its nature. Aggressiveness was not created by property. It reigned almost without limit in primitive times,” (Freud 97-98). So based on the psychological implications that Freud offers, it would seem unlikely that a communist model, as Marx describes, would not only fail to control humanity’s inclination towards aggression and desire, but fail to free humanity from the demons that Freud describes as being so deeply embedded in the psyche. Moreover, Marx’s communist model would simply not hold in Freud’s mind, as strife and competition are among the most fundamental qualities of the human psychology. Thus, if these elements were to be suppressed by a communist model, then it would likely lead to further anguish and animosity expressed by society.

In addition to his remarks on communism, Freud goes into grave detail about the significance of memories, which he defines as the, “Preservation in the sphere of the mind." Drawing on the idea that human memories cannot be suppressed indefinitely, Freud asserts that, “Nothing which has once been formed can perish--that everything is somehow preserved, and that in suitable circumstances (when, for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to the light,” (Freud 31). To further illustrate this assertion, Freud draws a parallel between the mental process of preservation and the physical process of preservation. By using Rome as his point of reference, Freud explains how envisioning the ancient city as more of a physical entity than a human habitation that, a greater insight into how the mind actually preserves memories may be revealed. “Now let us by flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a physical entity with a similarly long and copious past—an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one,” (Freud 32). Within this statement, Freud further emphasizes the point that, no matter how much of the past is destroyed and then built over again, the earliest phases of development never fade away, and are, arguably, ever-present. This coincides with what Freud goes on to say about the mind’s interpretation and understanding of history and how, “If we want to represent historical sequence in spatial terms we can only do it by juxtaposition in space: the same space cannot have two different contents. Our attempt seems to be an idle game. It has only one justification. It shows us how far we are from mastering the characteristics of mental life by representing them in pictorial terms,” (Freud 33). And by looking at historical sequence through pictorial terms, it alludes to the idea that, the mind still has a ways to go in terms of fully understanding the implications that follow a human placing himself/herself in the context of history.

Now, taking Freud’s points and viewing them from Coates’ perspective, one can begin to understand why Coates is so adamant about his dissatisfaction with society, and how it has impacted him in ways that can neither be ignored nor forgotten. In referencing what Freud says about viewing history from pictorial terms, a comparison can be drawn between slavery and Freud’s depiction of Ancient Rome. Just as Rome had been reduced to rubble, African Americans had been reduced to three-fifths of a person. And just as Rome had suffered under restoration, African Americans have suffered from and continue to suffer from the redefining of history. In Between The World and Me, Coates expresses how the, so-called, “white society” has been built upon the backs of suffering of African Americans. Although slavery is no longer seen, like Ancient Rome, it is still ever-present at the core of society. Similar to Ancient Rome and historical events, slavery existed, and has been woven so deeply into the fabric of American society that, it is nearly impossible for it to be erased from the mind. So just as slavery had once occurred, it can never perish, as its effects have been echoed ever-so loudly across society. In addition, because African Americans have always been deemed the outsiders and strangers by the “white society," it has created, what Freud defines as, an us vs. them scenario, which speaks to humanity’s predisposition to aggression and defensive desires. “‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our [black] bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching) and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons,” (Coates 42).

As Freud discusses, the us vs. them scenario is likely to have developed as a result to sublimation of the instinct. For example, it can be argued that much of cultural development has occurred through the process of socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations being deemed as acceptable actions or behavior, which, in turn, has created a conversion of the initial impulse. This process supports Coates’ claims regarding slavery, as it speaks to the issue of how slavery’s effects are ever-present in today’s society. “The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs,” (Coates 89). Because humanity holds this overwhelming desire to achieve comfortability through belonging, it has created a cultural pattern of exclusion. This is true for the history of African Americans, as they have, and will likely always be, seen as outsiders to the “white society." To further this point, Freud explains how society aims to bind certain members of the community together, which, ultimately, helps create a sense of cohesion and familiarity among those members. Much of what can be interpreted from this logic, can transfer over to Coates’ feelings regarding “white society” and the Dream. According to Coates, the Dream is this fairytale lifestyle exhibited by white America. Streets lined with white picket fences and lawns spotted with pruned shrubbery, the Dream is the quintessential society that African Americans have no place in. While African Americans may have no place within the Dream, they have been the group that has suffered at the hands of the Dream, through manipulation and deception. The Dream, as Coates puts it, is out of reach for African Americans, as they only serve as the foundation of the Dream, the valley beneath the mountain. “And there it is--the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below,” (Coates 105). So without African Americans, the Dream would no longer have a foundation to prop its existence upon.

Based on Freud’s us vs. them scenario, which has, arguably, given rise to the Dream, it seems unlikely that a solution could be put in place, in order to combat the societal issues within Coates’ society. Because of this, it seems that Coates’ concerns with the state of his society would go largely unnoticed when placed alongside the psychological disposition of the human mind. And, again, it is because of the tendencies of the mind that cannot be controlled that, African Americans will always serve as the backbone of the Dream. This sentiment is furthered through a quote in which Coates references his son’s role as an outsider to the Dream. “There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream,” (Coates 105). Moreover, it is this pattern of exclusion demonstrated by humanity that, further indicates why there are very few possibilities, at least in Freud’s mind, of a solution to the situations addressed by Coates.

Because humanity will, inevitably, continue to traverse this perpetual path of mental delusion, African Americans will always be denied access to the Dream, and will always face the burden of living among Dreamers. “It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness,” (Freud 98). Based on Coates’ sentiments, African Americans have, and always will be, the “other people” who must suffer from the aggression expressed by those who are bound by race, and seemingly race alone. And because of this, African Americans will always be placed on a secondary level as, “Race itself is just a restatement and retrenchment of the problem. You see this from to time when some dullard--usually believing himself white--proposes that the way forward is a grand orgy of black and white, ending only when we are all beige and thus the same ‘race,’” (Coates 115). But, as Coates goes on to further explain, the problem does not lie in society’s ability to establish equality through the creation of one “race,” but in society’s inclination towards disintegration, and its ever-growing intolerance of difference. “The history of civilization is littered with dead ‘races’ (Frankish, Italian, German, Irish) later abandoned because they no longer serve their purpose--the organization of people beneath, and beyond, the umbrella of rights,” (Coates 155). Within this statement, Coates alludes to the fact that, there will always be a role for African Americans in a society that oppresses and continues to find ways to oppress.

In looking at the perspectives of both Marx and Coates, and based on Freud’s concepts of the human psychology, it appears that hope for an improved, or even an“ideal” society, is unlikely. It is because of Freud’s analysis on the human mind that, one is able to understand the extent of the discontents experienced under the existing model of civilization. Moreover, the fact that Freud alludes to the realization that there is seemingly no solution to modifying the discontents of civilization, represents the sad reality of the flawed makeup of the human mind, and how no matter how much society distorts, suppresses, or manipulates history, it will still never be able to fully grasp the context in which history has progressed and advantaged some over others.

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