A curious shortcoming of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents is that Freud never considers the libidinal economy of the pagan world, which seemed far more tolerant of sexual enjoyment than the Christian civilization that displaced it.
The fundamental difference between the pagan and Christian cultures is that the former was a culture of customs with no claim to universality. Paganism unlike Christianity did not distribute personhood evenly. It did not preach the communion of souls now or in the hereafter. It did not concern itself with abstractions like love of neighbor. It had rituals but little in the way of theology. Its orientation was worldly rather than otherworldly.
What poisons European sexuality is the introduction of the Christian notion of personhood, which is later secularized into the doctrine of rights.
Enjoyment is in opposition to rights because enjoyment is predicated on use (usufruct). To put it bluntly, fucking is not loving. “Respect” and mutuality are alien to sexual enjoyment. Sade was perhaps the one modern European who cut through the accumulated miasma of a millennium of Christian sentimentality and articulated the precise terms and implications of sexual enjoyment:
DOLMANCE: . . . What is it one desires when taking one’s pleasure? that everything around us be occupied with nothing but ourselves, think of naught but of us, care for us only. If the objects we employ know pleasure too, you can be very sure they are less concerned for us than they are for themselves, and lo! our own pleasure consequently disturbed. There is not a living man who does not wish to play the despot when he is stiff: it seems to him his joy is less when others appear to have as much as he; by an impulse of pride, very natural at this juncture, he would like to be the only one in the world capable of experiencing what he feels: the idea of seeing another enjoy as he enjoys reduces him to a kind of equality with that other, which impairs the unspeakable charm despotism causes him to feel. ‘Tis false as well to say there is pleasure in affording pleasure to others; that is to serve them, and the man who is erect is far from desiring to be useful to anyone. On the contrary, by causing them hurt he experiences all the charms a nervous personality relishes in putting its strength to use; ’tis then he dominates, is a tyrant; and what a difference is there for the amour-propre! Think not that it is silent during such episodes.
The act of enjoyment is a passion which, I confess, subordinates all others to it, but which simultaneously unites them. This desire to dominate at this moment is so powerful in Nature that one notices it even in animals. See whether those in captivity procreate as do those others that are free and wild; the camel carries the matter further still: he will engender no more if he does not suppose himself alone: surprise him and, consequently, show him a master, and he will fly, will instantly separate himself from his companion. Had it not been Nature’s intent that man possess this feeling of superiority, she would not have created him stronger than the beings she destines to belong to him at those moments. The debility to which Nature condemned woman incontestably proves that her design is for man, who then more than ever enjoys. his strength, to exercise it in all the violent forms that suit him best, by means of tortures, if he be so inclined, or worse. Would pleasure’s climax be a kind of fury were it not the intention of this mother of humankind that behavior during copulation be the same as behavior in anger? What well-made man, in a word, what man endowed with vigorous organs does not desire, in one fashion or in another, to molest his partner during his enjoyment of her? I know perfectly well that whole armies of idiots, who are never conscious of their sensations, will have much trouble understanding the systems I am establishing; but what do I care for these fools? ‘Tis not to them I am speaking; soft-headed women-worshipers, I leave them prostrate at their insolent Dulcineas’ feet, there let them wait for the sighs that will make them happy and, basely the slaves of the sex they ought to dominate, I abandon them to the vile delights of wearing the chains wherewith Nature has given them the right to overwhelm others! (1)
But Sade in a sense arrives too late. He is himself tainted by a post-Christian tendency to speak in absolute terms, to oversystematize, to dogmatize. Pagan worldliness in regard to sexual enjoyment is depaganized when Sade expresses it as willful blasphemy. But the hegemony of Christian slave morality prevents the attempt to revive pagan sexual mores from being expressed any other way. In the end, Sadean “libertinism” can only invert but not escape an internalized and undislodgeable Christian ethic of personhood.
Still, Sade, in proposing a sexual ethic predicated on a return or reinvention of a society of masters and slaves, alerts us to what Freud overlooks in Civilization and Its Discontents. It is not civilization per se that imposes neurotic sexual repression but post-Christian European modernity, which recast the Christian doctrine of universal personhood into the modern democratic doctrine of human rights. It is modernity that makes it impermissible to use another for one’s capricious enjoyment. Freud will not broach this subject, but it is the modern emancipation of women that has impoverished the sexual life of Europeanized peoples and contributed to the rise of neurotic illness in both sexes. Freud’s complaining hysterics (whose characteristic symptom according to Freud is that they experience disgust in circumstances where they should experience sexual pleasure) are the paradoxical product of this emancipation. The woman who can do as she pleases turns out to be a woman who can no longer be pleased.
Once the doctrine that all are equal before God is transcribed into the secular language of rights, it strangles enjoyment. The emancipations inaugurated by modernity diminish rather than increase enjoyment as concern for mutuality and consensuality reclassifies the enjoyable use of the other into abuse.
Freud attributes the strangulation of enjoyment to the over-aggressive repression of aggression in the service of civil peace, but he fails to take note that this surplus repression, is a specifically modern, European phenomenon.
Today, under the rubric of “harassment,” enjoyment to excess (which Sade tells us is the only enjoyment worthy of the name) is forbidden even to the elite. The result is that in Western societies libidinal energy is increasingly forced to find discharge in spasmodic outbursts of scapegoating that canalize the cruelty of the sexual drive into moral crusades. These puritanical convulsions are not a new phenomenon. If anything, they indicate that long after its secularization, European culture retains the essential repressive characteristics of its Christian origins.
1. Sade, Richard Seaver, and Austryn Wainhouse. 1966. Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings. 1st paperback ed. New York: Grove Press., 344-45.