Herbert Marcuse
Herbert Marcuse
Scholarship ยป 1950s

A review of Eros and Civilization

Kurt H. Wolff, review of Eros and Civilization, in: American Journal of Sociology 62:3(1956), 342-343

Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. By HERBERT MARCUSE. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. Pp. xii+277. $3.95.

On the occasion of Freud's hundredth birthday, Lionel Trilling celebrated his conception of biology as a safeguard against the tyranny of culture (Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture [Boston: Beacon Press, 1955]); Stanley Edgar Hyman celebrated his new dispensation of a tragic view of life ("Freud and the Climate of Tragedy," Partisan Review, spring, 1956); and Alfred Kazin celebrated his "gift of conviction," which, like the artist's, shows us a piece of reality no one else has seen ("Portrait of a Hero," Partisan Review, spring, 1956). Marcuse's book is a social philosopher's estimate of Freud as social philosopher. No more, for that matter, than Trilling, Hyman, and Kazin, does Marcuse proceed as a participant in the 1956 rites. He is directed by his own "gift of conviction," with which he interprets Freud's psychology in the light of his much more fragmentary metapsychology. Crucial is the conviction that "the psychoanalytic liberation of memory explodes the rationality of the repressed individual," so that the "recherche du temps perdu becomes the vehicle of future liberation" (p. 19). An extraordinary ideal Yet it is an "extrapolation" (p. 35) from Freud's conception that in the child--that is, in the unconscious--freedom and necessity am identical. And this truth is discovered by memory. Thence comes the cognitive function of memory and consequently its therapeutic role: its liberation from repression by the "reality principle," which contrasts freedom with necessity.

From Freud's writings Marcuse extrapolates two distinctions which tradition, though it affected Freud less than most men, prevented him from recognizing in their full force. One is between the "reality principle" as such and the "performance principle." The performance principle is not universal, having characterized Western civilization but hardly "primitive" (or Eastern) cultures, and it need not characterize the future Western (or world?) society. The other, implied by the first, is between a civilization without repression and one without "surplus-repression" or "the restrictions necessitated by social domination" (p. 35). Freud did not envisage the latter. He continued the history of Western philosophy. At least since Aristotle, the dominating Logos of this philosophy has been the "logic of domination," not of "gratification"--the performance principle, not the pleasure principle. But protests against this philosophy have been made, most explicitly by Nietzsche and the idealistic aesthetic philosophers, especially Schiller. They have been directed against the taboo placed by the performance principle on sensuousness, the "enemy of reason"; but the archetypes of Orpheus and Narcissus show that the rebellion antedates Western philosophy. And, today, work guided by the performance principle has created the possibility of abundance, thus giving the lie to Freud, who tended to consider the struggle for existence unalterable. Idealistic and materialistic critiques of culture agree on abundance as the prerequisite for abolishing repression or, rather, surplus-repression. At the instinctual level, the task is the reconciliation of the reality principle and the pleasure principle, the "selfsublimation" of sexuality into Eros and the "sensualization" of reason, so that work relations (as against the relations of alienated labor) become eroticized and morality becomes libidinous. At the sociological level, non-repressive civilization "is utterly incompatible with the institutions of the performance principle and implies the negation of this principle" (p. 218). Yet Marcuse wonders how civilization can generate freedom when unfreedom has come to be "part and parcel of the mental apparatus" (p. 225). His answer is not more than the expression of his conviction that, while utopias way be unrealistic, the conditions for a free society are not, but are a matter of reason.

The scope of this book and the knowledge shown am: magnificent, the sense of dedication inspiring. The unanswered questions--foremost that of the author's fundamental attitude toward contemporary Western culture-the omissions and obscurities, and his failure to connect some of his ideas with those of other writers are of minor importance. The "Epilogue," a "Critique of Neo-Freudian Revisionism," shows Marcuse in an angry mood, very different from that of the book itself. It was preprinted (Dissent, summer, 1955), and the book is probably a surprise to those who mad the Epilogue first, as the Epilogue must be to readers who come to it after the book. It has led Erich Fromm, its chief target, to call Marcuse a nihilist in the guise of a radical and to a further exchange between Marcum and him (ibid., autumn 1955, and winter, 1956). Quite aside from the question of the correctness of particular interpretations of Freud, the Epilogue and its sequence distort Marcuse's work, which otherwise is great in both its literal and its symbolic truth.

Kurt H. Wolff
Ohio State University

Index entries: Eros and Civilization Wolff, Kurt