Freud, writing one year into World War I, as war waged, not in some far foreign land, but in Europe’s backyard, his backyard, wrote about the war:
“It destroyed not only the beauty of the country sides through which it passed and the works of art which it met with on its path but it also shattered our pride in the achievements of our civilization, our admiration for many philosophers and artists and our hopes of a final triumph over the differences between nations and races. It tarnished the lofty impartiality of our science, it revealed our instincts in all their nakedness and let loose the evil spirits within us which we thought had been tamed forever by centuries of continuous education by the noblest minds. It made our country small again and made the rest of the world far remote. It robbed us of very much that we had loved, and showed us how ephemeral were many things that we had regarded as changeless.”
After the recent grotesque events of Paris, Beirut, and Mali, those words resonate today, one hundred years after Freud wrote them. Along with the innocent lives that were lost which we mourn, there is also the loss of something else which Freud is writing about. There is the loss of the sense that we humans can be better. In the unspeakable and senseless horror, we have lost our better natures. The works that attest to that nature, the music of Beethoven, the paintings of Van Gogh, the poetry of Dante, are profaned and diminished. There is so much splendor and beauty we are capable of. So much love. But all of that is wiped away in these senseless acts. What lingers is that sense of how much better we can be. How much better we are at times.
Ever the European man, steeped in the enduring works of art, the believer in civilization, Freud ended his piece on an optimistic note. With the recent horrors in mind and the many horrors that humankind has inflicted on others, the animals, the earth, it feels difficult to be so optimistic. But I’ll quote him in the hopes that his words become true.
“When once the mourning is over, it will be found that our high opinion of the riches of civilization has lost nothing from our discovery of their fragility. We shall build up again all that war has destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before.”
May it be so.