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Spero, M.H. (2008). The Civilization of Discontent: Notes on the Hidden Sources of Unbehagen in Freud's Analysis of Civilization. Psychoanal. St. Child, 63:221-253.

(2008). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 63:221-253

Historical Contributions

The Civilization of Discontent: Notes on the Hidden Sources of Unbehagen in Freud's Analysis of Civilization

Moshe Halevi Spero, Ph.D.

The following essay engages Freud's German title Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, translated in the psychoanalytic canon as Civilization and Its Discontents (1930[1929]). We know that the pithy title was preceded by another title, and recent research reveals an earlier title whose meaning is the complete reverse of the present title. I argue here that Freud's ultimate decision to use the term Unbehagen reflects more than the intention to emphasize the painful disgruntlement of humankind as it struggles restlessly under the bridle of the superego, as the theme of this book is usually understood. Rather, the title, and the crisis that ensued when it was being translated, was a response to the nearing to consciousness of a cluster of psychological dimensions that fomented conflict throughout Freud's life: the illusory quality of religious belief, anxieties surrounding femininity, motherhood, and death, and uncanny qualities of the realm of the aesthetic. I reinterpret the choice of the term Das Unbehagen as representing the unique depressive “gain” that is the byproduct of the symbolizing function basic to the process of civilization. Mature aesthetic and religious structures and beliefs require and contain the modicum of discontent that is inevitably produced during symbolization.

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