Civilization and Its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents

In Civilization and Its Discontents, by Sigmund Freud, Freud offers his personal views on humanity’s ideas of religion and morality. The Book of J, translated from the Hebrew by David Rosenberg, features characters who do not necessarily seem to be comparable to Freud’s thinking, as they exhibit behaviors unique to their time or story. Though Civilizations and Its Discontents and The Book of J are two contrasting texts in time, Freud’s thinking helps a reader to understand The Book of J to a greater extent.

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As demonstrated by Rebecca and Jacob in Chapter 60 of The Book of J, morality or, in Freud’s terms, the superego, can be ignored in order to grasp the most ‘precious’ aspect of religion, a blessing. The characters in the Book of J do not seem to have a sense of morality or guilt, in which Freud calls a human’s superego. Rebecca, the mother of Jacob and Esau, desires Jacob to receive the blessing in which her dying husband Isaac is going to give to Esau.

Even though Jacob recognizes “I [Jacob] would be in his eyes an impostor […] would be serving myself a curse, not a blessing” (Rosenberg, 102), he still goes ahead and takes the blessing from his brother Esau. This, in Freud’s thinking, demonstrates that though people “feel guilty when he has done something which he knows to be ‘bad’” (Freud, 84), some, like Jacob, can decide to ignore his or her superego, or conscience, and give into their desires with guidance from his mother.

It is significant that Jacob does not carry out this deed alone, as his mother Rebecca urges him to let her “voice guide you [Jacob]—only follow” (Rosenburg, 102) and reassures him “any curse would be mine [Rebecca’s]” (102). As Freud explains in his text, the difference between an infant and an adult is that an infant is mainly scared of being caught, while the establishment of a super-ego after maturing will instill “the fear of being found out” (86).

In this case, Freud’s thinking suggests Rebecca’s character shows signs of being psychologically infantile, as she encourages her son to steal the blessing knowing there was no way she herself would get caught. It is Rebecca and Jacob working together that successfully takes the blessing from Esau. Rebecca, Jacob, Esau, and the father Isaac clearly follow a religion that, in Freud’s views “draws them into a mass-delusion” (36) in which they follow Yahweh, the God. Freud’s thinking helps decipher the motivation behind why Jacob ultimately takes the blessing from his brother Esau, even through dishonest means.

Freud explains “religion restricts play of choice and adaptation, since it imposes equally on everyone its own path” (36) and suggests religion is a constraint that pronounces to humans there is only the one way of acquiring happiness or avoiding suffering. Since the characters in this story have grown up being ‘restricted’ in this religious system, it is not surprising Rebecca and Jacob felt it imperative that Jacob receive the father’s blessing, as it also ensures Yahweh’s protection.

In Isaac’s blessing to Jacob of “God grant you sky’s water, earth’s milk—an overflow of grain, flowing wine” (103), Jacob receives a relief for his infantile psychological need of “the longing for the father” (Freud, 20). According to Freud, Jacob desires both his father’s protection as well as a greater protection in Yahweh. It seems to be so important to Rebecca and Jacob that Jacob receive the blessing that they would reject their superego or sense of guilt from lying to Isaac.

At this point, Freud’s thinking in Civilization and Its Discontents cannot explain how or why Jacob and Rebecca were able to surpass their own consciences. However, Freud does help the understanding of The Book of J in terms of religion a considerable amount through his other views. Freud’s thinking in Civilization and Its Discontents helps a reader comprehend Rosenberg’s translation of The Book of J in a unique psychological aspect of the characters.

Freud says that all humans have a sense of guilt, or superego, which promptly appears in Jacob’s thoughts revealed in The Book of J, but can be overcome as Rebecca and Jacob choose to ignore their consciences. The blessing Rebecca and Jacob take from Esau and Isaac is in Freud’s view, a representation of how religion is infantile and an attempt to satisfy the desire for the father and his protection. The Book of J, with Freud’s interpretations, allow for a deeper, and more diverse analysis of its characters and story.


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