The Hippest Book I Read

Like most American teenagers, I wanted to be hip. With it. On the edge. Rebels, after all, were the most popular dudes around. I listened to the right music, wore the right clothes and went to every party. I said man. A lot. I saw myself as an outlaw, a crazy, roistering wild man who broke all the rules. Then I encountered Sigmund Freud.

It was my senior year in college, and I knew big change was coming; perhaps that is why his life and work had such a strong effect on me. He was a dead genius, and I was a questioning kid, but still I saw deep similarities. Like me, Freud grew up in a loving home and went to good schools. He was a hard worker who married and reared a family in middle-class comfort. The same things, I had to admit, that I wanted for myself. On the surface he was bourgeois to the max, the very opposite of hip.

But as I read “Civilization and Its Discontents” (1930), he also seemed the hippest guy on the street. It was the wildest, most audacious, out-there, kick-butt book I had ever read. It crackled with risk-taking creativity. This dour man in a jacket and tie was a subversive of heroic courage, who gave free rein to thoughts that challenged the very foundations of society.

What a combination.

In this short work (my copy of the standard edition translated by James Strachey runs just 104 pages), Freud offers radical insights into the nature of beauty, love and the sources of religion. In his more far-flung moments, he discusses our complicated relations with dogs, how man’s upright gait provoked feelings of shame, the changing meaning of the menstrual cycle in sexual relations, and why houses are substitutes “for the mother’s womb.”

But those are only side-trips in Freud’s mind-bending journey. In prose as controlled as a surgeon’s scalpel but as free as a dancer’s leap ― God, I wish I could write like that ― he tackles the central question of life. But instead of wondering “How can I be happy?” he asks, “Why is it so hard to be happy?”

To my young mind, Freud’s dark twist on this age-old riddle was hipness personified. Mocking the feel-good philosophies society peddles, it seemed a revelation of hidden truth. My phoniness meter was finely tuned back then (thanks, Holden), so I was enthralled when Freud began answering his question by exposing a fundamental hypocrisy: People say they follow Jesus’ call to “love your neighbor as yourself” but, Freud argues, the Roman playwright Plautus described our more familiar conduct: “Man is a wolf to man.”

For Freud, this inescapable conflict between love and hate, between reason and instinct, is the dynamic force of each individual’s life and the history of our species. In a tour de force of scientific insight and poetic imagination ― God, I wish I could think like that ― he attributes this struggle to two great instincts. Eros, the life instinct, urges us to fall in love, to co-operate with our fellow man, to build great societies. Eros gives wings to our better angels.

Problem is, we also have a “death instinct,” a devilish reservoir of our inherent aggression, of our desire to destroy rather than create, which opposes the whole lovely scheme. “Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved … their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on

him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.”

Civilization, then, is a mass insurance policy against the death instinct. Its terms boil down to this: “Don’t clobber me and I won’t clobber you. If you do, the group will punish you.” It establishes laws and mores, setting out what is permitted and what is proscribed, allowing Eros to flourish. Unfortunately, while we might agree that society serves our larger self-interest, we chafe at its restrictions: It frustrates our desires and leaves us with pools of aggression that we are not allowed to satisfy.

As a young man I knew all about pent-up anger and frustration. Reading Freud, it ― I ― suddenly made sense. He gave me a feeling of self-knowledge I’d never known before. Now I knew the score. I was in control. But then the old hipster laid one more unsettling truth on me.

Society, Freud says, does not trust us to handle our frustrated impulses. So it has devised an ingenious, though discomfiting, way to hurl that aggressiveness we would like to exercise upon others back on ourselves. It accomplishes this through the Superego ― which Freud posits as the third territory of the mind, along with that home of our wildest passions, the Id, and the Ego, which seeks to mediate the claims of its combative brain-mates.

The Superego performs a sort of cultural alchemy: It transforms the aggression that threatens civilization into pacifying psychic states that serve it, our conscience and sense of guilt. Part of our mind, the Superego knows our every secret. It is a cop who never goes off duty. It need not catch us in the act but pounces at the mere hatching of a plan. “Bad intentions are equated with bad actions, and hence come a need for punishment and a sense of guilt.” Few men, for example, actually kill their fathers and sleep with their mothers. But, according to Freud, they all want to. Instead of congratulating us for renouncing these Oedipal wishes, the Superego swats us for simply harboring them. The fact these desires are instinctual and, often unconscious, matters not a whit to it. We feel stricken, but don’t know why.

It gets worse.

With each new collar, the Superego becomes empowered and  emboldened. “Every renunciation of instinct now becomes a dynamic source of conscience and every fresh renunciation increases [its] severity and intolerance.” Thus, Freud argues, the more virtuous we are, the guiltier we feel. For those who routinely tell their Superegos to buzz off, society builds jails and asylums (and artist’s colonies).

Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Abandon civilization, and we better sleep with one eye open. Embrace it, and we must hand the reins over to your personal Officer Krupke. “What we call civilization,” Freud concludes, “is largely responsible for our misery.”


When I first read “Civilization,” I found Freud’s pessimism deeply appealing. When we’re children, our elders try to give us a rosy view of the world ― every Christmas a jolly guy we’ve never met gives us presents! By our teen years, it become clear that there’s another, more troubling side, to the story. “Aha!” we say, “so that’s the real deal.” We become angry at the manipulation, at being made the fool. No wonder the hippest kids embrace the darkest visions. What “Civilization and Its Discontents” said to me was: “Look at what is being done to you.”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more hopeful and less smitten with Freud’s views. Yes, there are people who feel miserable, and, yes, Hitler and history’s other monsters have revealed the savage potential that exists in us all. But most people are far less conflicted, guilty and unhappy than Freud

allows. Our nasty urges are far less powerful than he assumes. Eros, the death instinct and the Superego may be playing their parts in each of us at this very moment, but the result is not discontent. It is a wide range of changing feelings in people leading generally satisfying lives. Could we be happier? Sure. Are we perpetually miserable? I don’t think so.

However, those reservations are of little importance. It is not Freud’s conclusions but his approach, an unsurpassed model of daring, conviction and originality, that still inspires me. Fearless, freewheeling and iconoclastic, it embodies the very essence of hipness. Freud showed me that hipness isn’t about buying, wearing or believing the right things ― those who glom onto such accouterments are, ironically, simply advertising their conventionality. It’s a mindset that questions everything not because rebellion is cool but because that is the only way to clear your own path. I had sought hipness as a means of belonging; Freud taught me that it is really about going it alone.

Hipness isn’t about keeping up, but keeping on. It’s a chimera, like the rainbow’s end, a destination that is useful precisely because it can never be reached. The minute you think you’re there, you’ve stopped felling the trees and cutting the brush.

This article ran in the News & Observer of Raleigh on Feb. 4, 2001. It was reprinted with permission in “Remarkable Reads: 34 Writers and Thier Adventures in Reading” (W.W. Norton, 2004).

I am a web developer, web designer, software engineer with a fascination of technology and the rapid changes in technology and how our lives are changing and being changed by technology. I look for opportunities to utilize technology to improve lives and make a difference in the world whenever I can.

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