The Modern and The Postmodern 4th assignment {Coursera / Wesleyan}

ESSAY PROMPT 2: Describe how two of the following thinkers make use of memory or history in their work: Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Freud and Woolf

Memory serving to the hyper-ego


                Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud offered society an array of ground-breaking thoughts and stimulated philosophical discussions that constantly raise substantial debate.  To draw comparisons between these two figures or highlight their differences would be most challenging for a scholar; thus it might be of benefit to focus on one emerging commonplace in their works, namely that of history and / or memory.

Civilization and Its Discontents by Freud sheds light to the very first psychoanalytical attempts and the theory surrounding the continuous present struggle of the human nature against our past primal instincts in the name of social conformity. On the Genealogy of Morality by Nietzsche the origins of moral infringements and how these evolved to modern-day prejudices are traced. Specifically, the second essay depicts through the explanation of punishment the infamous “will to power”.

Freud suggests that the power of memory and “preservation in the sphere of the mind” is infinitely stronger as “in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish”.[16]In fact, he borrows evidence for his assumptions from historical archaeology; the Roman Empire’s past is well preserved amidst ruins and scattered remains, beneath all the modern buildings. [16-17]And yet how is it possible that the same piece of land holds both worlds? How are we to distinguish between a church and the ancient temple upon the latter was built? “If we want to represent historical sequence in spatial terms” Freud remarks “we can only do it by juxtaposition in space: the same space cannot have two different contents”. It seems that for Freud even the history of a glorious city such as Rome fails to provide room for the simultaneous existence of memory and modernity. According to Freud the true grounds, where the past is preserved and can be traced back is the human mind. Only there he concurs “is such a preservation of all the earlier stages alongside of the final form possible, and …we are not in a position to represent this phenomenon in pictorial terms.” [18]

The dominant power of memory and the past emerges in the work of Nietzsche as well.  In the second essay, we find the following statement:

Indeed, there is perhaps nothing more fearful and more terrible in the entire prehistory of human beings than the technique for developing his memory. “We burn something in so that it remains in the memory. Only something which never ceases to cause pain remains in the memory”—that is a leading principle of the most ancient (unfortunately also the longest) psychology on earth. We might even say that everywhere on earth nowadays where there is still solemnity, seriousness, mystery, and gloomy colours in the lives of men and people, something of that terror continues its work, the fear with which in earlier times everywhere on earth people made promises, pledged their word, made a vow. The past, the longest, deepest, most severe past, breathes on us and surfaces in us when we become “solemn.”” [p.3]

Nietzsche insinuates a paradox occurring in modern era. Man is plagued by guilt and “bad conscience”; in his hour of solemnity and remorse he feels the past as a burden, our ill-doings stay with us just like the eternal torment of Sisyphus.  Nevertheless, the past and its people were not regarded as solemn but on the contrast “cheerful”! Through the transaction of “punishment” – freed of all moral repercussions – one could ease the pain inflicted upon him by simply punishing the culprit or redeeming oneself to his debtor. Things were simple in historic times.

Both scholars were considered beacons of thought each in their own time respectively. Nietzsche witnesses the fallouts of the Industrial revolution whereas Freud picks up a lot of similar ideas during the First World War timeline. In both cases, the memory and past serve as liberating forces; Nietzsche’s tribal God-mode opposite the Freudian “oceanic feeling” of wholeness. Intriguingly so, none seems to base those claims on data or empirical analysis; their historical references seem to serve such a purpose; yet one considers their notion of the past a somewhat personal view, elevated strictly on the premises of philosophical theory.    

Works cited:

Freud, Sigmund: Civilization and Its Discontents New York: W.W. Norton (1961)

Nietzsche, Friedrich Genealogy of Morals, essay 2 Leipzig (1887)