The Super-Ego in the Green World


Mark Edmundson

  In a marvelous essay on self-criticism, Adam Phillips writes about what it would be like if the super-ego left the confines of a particular psyche and went out into the world as an individual. The super-ego, of course, is what Freud calls the interior agency that judges us, often unconsciously, often in punitive, even sadistic fashion. I believe that in many ways we live in a culture of the super-ego, amok with cruel judgment and harsh punishment. Cancel him! Fire her! Send them off to re-education! Harsh reflexive judgment and enforced guilt abound. We too often live, to cite a phrase of Robert Boyers, in a tyranny of virtue.
  In Phillips’s essay, the super-ego turns up at a party. He goes around criticizing everyone. He speaks in a dead monotone. He’s a complete bore and no one really likes him and he has to go home. (I elaborate on Phillips rather freely here.) I’m reminded of a pop song lyric: “My Momma don’t like you and she likes everyone.” Well, in Phillips’s riff no one much likes the over-I either. He is “strikingly unimaginative; both about morality and about ourselves—the selves he insists on diminishing” (Unforbidden Pleasures).
  But now, I fear that when the Over-I goes to a party what he finds are more super-egos. They clap him on the back when he arrives. They ask him who he thinks the administration’s biggest racist is. They exchange anti-sexist jokes. He tells them about his new Twitter campaign to rid the world of speech crimes, and thought crimes to boot. He’s the life of the party. Or maybe it’s better to say that he’s the death of it, and that really charms everybody. It’s that kind of party.
  It’s easy to smile or half-smile at such figures. But one must recall, not only do they inflict pain, they are in pain themselves. It would be helpful to all if they might be delivered from it.
  Phillips is one of the few contemporary public writers who takes Freud’s idea of the super-ego seriously. Another is the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Zizek follows Jacques Lacan, who also sustained a protracted interest in the idea of the over-I, though he radically modifies Freud’s conception. To Zizek, the super-ego is a figure of “obscene enjoyment.” It pretends to be virtuous, righteous, an upholder of admirable laws both public and private. It masquerades as a disinterested, even a noble force. But in fact it revels in seeing others punished. Behind a sober, high-minded mien, it takes unmitigated joy in the sufferings of the fallen. And alas, it also takes masochistic joy in its own self-lacerations. I must do better, better, better! Says Zizek, “No wonder, then, that Lacan posits an equation between jouissance and super-ego: to enjoy is not a matter of following one’s spontaneous tendencies; it is rather something we do as a kind of weird and twisted ethical duty” (How to Read Lacan). There are many ways we might go about attenuating the pressures of the super-ego, and in a forthcoming book, “The Unwelcome Guest,” I’ll enumerate a number. But here I want to focus on one such response, what we might call a second or renovated phase of Romanticism. Maybe one solution to super-ego woes is simply to step outside, especially if there happens to be a swathe of green around. It’s almost too obvious to be worth saying, but over the past years our lives have become more and more indoor lives, and more and more technology based. The major new technology that most of us encounter every day is of course the Internet, which is almost a pure artifact of culture. Nature, the green world, is often absent from our lives. We’ve become over-cultivated, overly dependent on technology; we live in the abstract, rather cerebral world that the Internet epitomizes.
  This has happened before in cultural history, though the terms were quite different. And there was a profound reaction against it. Late in the 18th century, William Wordsworth changed Anglo-American poetry by publishing Lyrical Ballads, in collaboration with his (then) dear friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poem that inspired the readers of the volume most was “Tintern Abbey.” It’s a narrative and reflective poem, about a hundred and fifty lines long, the subject of which remains all too relevant: it’s about depression and the attempt to recover from depression.
  Wordsworth engages nature on two levels. The first is in immediate experience. He has been away from his childhood home in the rural Lake District of England, his green world, for five years and now he is back. He drinks in the beauty that surrounds him, and he begins to feel restored. He’s been living in London, the dismal city, and it’s flattened his spirits: too many people, no common feeling, dirt and grime and grit. He has a sense that the cultural environment has utterly taken over and repressed what is natural in him, and in all city dwellers, whether they know it or not. Natural: what exactly does that mean? To Wordsworth, nature brings peace, harmony and tranquility. Wordsworth savors the beautiful in nature, and seeks out scenes that both awaken and calm his soul. London has taken him into depression: he can’t get over those “greetings where no kindness is.” The culture of the city, its social pressures, and its absence of humanity have brought Wordsworth low. Everybody’s on the make. As he says in another poem that resonates with “Tintern Abbey,” “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” We are alienated, out of joint: “Little we see in Nature that is ours.”
  The journey back to Tintern Abbey refreshes Wordsworth, but it promises more than immediate relief. The poet resolves to remember the beauty he sees here, treasure it in his heart, and recall it when he needs a dose of tranquility. In “Tintern Abbey,” the poet engages nature in experience, but also imagines doing so in the future, through memory. He has, he hopes, found a form of therapy that will make his life in the city possible, as long as he needs to live it. Nature and the memory of beautiful natural scenes are what Wordsworth has to pose against the pressures of a culture that’s too comprehensive and too strong. He says that the “beauteous forms” he sees before him have fed what he calls his “little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” But the memories of the scene have done something else, too: They’ve provoked the mood in which the “burthen of the mystery” is lightened while “with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things.” In this mood, our spirits relax, our desires are stilled, time suspends its pressure and we savor our existence and the existence of all the world. Simple being is enough: we need do nothing.
  The cultural context into which Wordsworth is writing can be, speaking very broadly, called an Enlightenment context. It’s the world bequeathed by Doctor Johnson and Alexander Pope, Edward Gibbon and David Hume. Reason is supreme, feelings suspect. The mind seeks to know the world in order to shape it to its own ends. Society and culture are potent, and broadly accepted in their current mode; there’s a pervasive sense of pride in all that mankind has wrought. Perhaps we are evolving beyond nature and our natural selves into efficient, rational, fully socialized beings. Against this tendency, Wordsworth and “Tintern Abbey” rebel.
  The Enlightenment was other directed, and placed a high value on social exchange; it affirmed individualism of a competitive sort; it championed the gathering of data and theoretical speculation; it affirmed technology as a major source for human progress: or so says the intellectual historian and biographer, Leo Damrosch, and I believe rightly. Wordsworth felt he was most himself when he was alone and immersed in nature; he was an individualist, but he preferred what he called wise passiveness to competition; he spent no time gathering information, far preferring to gather rich recollections of nature; he had no use whatever for technology—he didn’t even use paper and pen to draft his poems, preferring to speak them aloud as he took his country walks.
  An account of our current culture doesn’t match Damrosch’s sketch of the Enlightenment term for term, but it comes close. We too are committed to technology, competition, information, theory, and social connection. We’re committed to life as conditioned and sometimes determined by the Internet. I have no wish to malign the Enlightenment (far from it) or to malign the Internet in its every manifestation. It’s sim- ply that, as everyone knows, we humans have a tendency to go too far with a good thing. Enlightenment can devolve into bloodless rationalism and cold, instrumental thinking. The Internet can become a machine for chilly, uncharitable analysis and judgment. It can become an extension of the super-ego. When the super-ego / Internet turns on you, when the de-platformers and cancellers and all purpose doxxers point their guns at you, what is there to be done? Not much. Every attempt to answer back is fuel for more invective. No apology is good enough. No acts of penance pass muster. The super-ego, says Phillips, delights in issuing monologues. Dialogue is its aversion. “Psycho-analysis,” he says, “sets itself the task of wanting to have a conversation with someone—call it the super-ego—who, because he knows what a conversation is, is definitely never going to have one. The super-ego is a supreme narcissist.”
  Technology is usually an extension of the mind: the Internet, one might say, is a second brain, that remembers, gathers, and assembles data (among other actions). As such it’s not what McLuhan would call a hot medium (like radio), or a cool medium, which stimulates laid back detachment (as McLuhan thought that TV did). Rather, it’s what I would call, extending McLuhan, a cold medium. It doesn’t summon the cool detachment of TV, but a rather icy and judgmental detachment. We love our computers, but in a chilly manner, the way we might love an especially useful robot. A cold medium can have its virtues: it allows for a detachment so extreme that it appears to be a form of objectivity. It tends to turn us into observers, analysts, authorities. All head, too little heart: it encourages us to become judges. And judgment, unmitigated by compassion, can often lead to harshness, even cruelty. There is something super-ego aligned, something Urizenic, as Blake might say, in technology overall, and in the technology of the Internet in particular.
  An over-commitment to technology, data, reason and science led to the rebellions of Wordsworth and Rousseau. Both valued the heart more than the head. Both lived for rich feeling and not for commanding, controlling knowledge. Their work began to matter as absolute faith in the Enlightenment came into question. Had Wordsworth written “Tintern Abbey” twenty years before he did, it probably would have been ridiculed or ignored. As it was, he was occasionally ridiculed, but he was not ignored, at least by young people looking for an alternative to the domination of mind.
  One may, I think with some confidence, predict an oncoming surge of forms of art that value the heart over the head, and that recognize that the Internet, marvelous as it can be, is largely an emotional desert, and almost by necessity a playground for the super-ego. We will perhaps see the rebirth of a second Romanticism that affirms beauty, warmth, kindliness, and love: much of it will occur off-line or in a renovated version of the Internet that’s somehow just a little less chilly than the one we have. All to the good, I think.
  Right now we have a strong literature, both scientific and experiential, of environmental awareness. More and more books are telling us about species extinction, climate change, the end of nature as we know it. These forms are provocative and surely necessary. But we might also be able to use more art that affirms the beautiful as it occurs in nature. If there is a contemporary Wordsworth out there, I’m not sure who it is.
  But you and I don’t have to wait for an artistic alternative to super-ego culture. We can, if we are fortunately placed, simply step outside into whatever green world we may be lucky enough to have access to. Nature’s soft green is an alternative to the glowing silver and over-bearing white light of eye-intense cerebral culture. Green softens the gaze, calms the mind, balances the spirit. You can bathe in it on a walk in the woods; and come back restored, sometimes almost imperceptibly, but truly so, at least in my experience. I’m writing these sentences on a computer—all honor to the ease of doing so. All praise to the inventors and their Enlightenment minds. But over the edge of the screen, out my window, is the many voiced green of the Virginia countryside, a benevolent chorale. May it infuse this writing as much as –more than—the medium of composition I’m using. A few green thoughts from a green shade? In the age of the Internet, there’s maybe nothing better to aspire to.