Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Genius Move

Sashaying around the streets of central Europe, chatting to academics, and narrating from trams it seems Bettany Hughes has landed a rather cushy job in BBC's recent Genius of the Modern World series. But she does it so very well it's hard to begrudge her.

The premise is that the 19th century saw revolutions all over the continent. Industrial and political but also of the mind. With an hour each devoted to Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud it's the latter she's here to teach us about.


Starting at Karl Marx's Highgate grave. A site, still to this day, both venerated and vandalised. Within 70 years of Marx's death one third of the world was run by nominally Marxist governments. We zip through the Cuban missile crisis and the fall of the Berlin wall and head right back to Trier, Prussia, 1818.

The young Marx had an idyllic and bourgeois childhood. His father, who'd toasted the French revolution when Trier was under Napoleonic rule, had to convert from Judaism to Christianity to be able to continue as a lawyer under autocratic Prussian rule.

Karl was sent to Bonn to study and, as it turned out, drink. A sabre duel soon had him transferred to Berlin where he grew his trademark beard and joined the young Hegelians. Hegel, himself, had recently died and Marx, who was in awe of his teachings, felt his fellow young Hegelians weren't going far enough to further the teachings of their erstwhile leader. They wanted reform. He wanted revolution.

They felt, as I do now, that religion was the greatest obstacle to humanity. To help spread this view Marx became a journalist, then a new and expanding business, and joined the Rheinland News in Cologne. He was very good at it and gained notoriety for attacking the Prussian ruling classes and advocating passionately the cause of the beleaguered vine growers.

The paper was shut down so, in 1843, he moved to Paris. There a hotbed of radical ideas:- communists, libertarians, and anarchists mixed. His idea that religion was a painkiller to deal with our capitalist woes began to take shape. He famously called it 'the opium of the people'.

He spoke of 'our species essence'. We weren't industrious teamworkers like beavers or bees and under capitalism we become playthings of alien forces enslaved by a Frankenstein's monster we'd created but could not control.

His meeting with Engels began with ten days of red wine and railing against social justice. Engels admitted Marx was the cleverer man but Engels had the lived experience that Marx lacked. He'd worked in his father's textile factory in Manchester and his lover Mary Burns had showed him the slums of cottonopolis.


Marx's agitation made him enemies. Prussian spies forced him to relocate to Brussels on written assurance he wouldn't stir up further dissent. He had to, and did, renounce his Prussian citizenship.

The shift of location was echoed by a critical sea change when Engels met up with Communist revolutionaries and planned to no longer philosophize but to work towards effecting concrete change. Marx and Engels saw communism as the final stage of history (Francis Fukuyama, are you listening?)

Their 'opportunity' came during the late 1840s famine when they released their 30 page Communist Manifesto. It seems odd now but Marx praised capitalist society as a vital, and final, bridge towards the Communist utopia. But, like the Frankenstein's monster of capitalism, Marx was in danger of creating a similar Communist spectre. This he knew.

After worker's protests sprung up, and were pushed back, over Europe the Belgians told him to sling his hook. In Prussia he was arrested and narrowly avoided prison. In August 1849 he sailed for England. He was still only 32.

London, with 2,000,000 inhabitants, was the biggest city in the world. Prices were extortionate - even then. Marx, his wife Jenny, and his four children lived in a Soho slum. He was often pissed up. He had two more kids. One with Jenny. One with someone else.

Stressed about it all he met Engels for a drink and Engels agreed to take one for the team and assume parental responsibilities of Marx's illegitimate offspring. Things got worse when three of the kids died.

Then some, it's all relative, good news as Jenny's inheritance enabled them to move to the cleaner air of Hampstead. Marx worked on Das Kapital in the British Museum reading room. His writings on 'surplus' were, and are, wonderful and more relevant than ever today but when Das Kapital came out it received an indifferent reaction. Marx saw a conspiracy. But it was a hard read.

When Marx died in relative penury Engels, obvs, paid for his initial burial spot. There were just 11 mourners at the funeral. After his death, however, Russian communists adapted, and defied, Marxist theories. They'd jumped straight over the capitalist bridge and, far more seriously, under Stalin there was no room for Marx's beloved liberty. Individualism was crushed. Marx had wrote of the fear of losing one's self through the alienation of labour. Stalin didn't bother with that kind of stuff.

The general feeling was that Marx himself was not as dogmatic as many of his followers. They've not always served his memory well.

Nietzsche's legacy is more problematic still. 1934, Weimar, and Adolf Hitler stands proudly next to a bust of Nietzsche. Nietzsche would've been appalled at this turn of events. But Nietzsche, like God, was dead.

It was Nietzsche, himself, who predicted the murder of God. In 1882. He said we, the people, killed him. He asked who would wipe the blood from our hands?


The man who called himself the Antichrist had had a very religious upbringing. The son of a Lutheran pastor he adored Handel's messiah and had been born in a parsonage in Rocken, Prussia., 1844.


His father's death, when Nietzsche was still a toddler, plunged, they say, the young Friedrich into a lifetime of doubt and self-examination.

Age 20, he, like Marx, moved to Bonn. Nominally to train to be a pastor but he soon fell into the then popular 'biblical criticism'. It caused a family rift. He argued that Christian teaching focused on the next life, rather than this one, with disastrous consequences. It robbed the here and now of sublime meaning and made existence a chore. He chose to investigate rather than blindly believe.

But without Christianity to add meaning to life he feared a hole. What people used to call a God shaped hole. So he devoted himself to finding meaning in a Godless universe. As a philology student he discovered Schopenhaeur's pessimistic, bleak atheist tracts.

Schonpenhaeur thought life was so miserable it'd be better to have never been born. We couldn't strive for happiness so all we could do was try to avoid pain. Nietzsche disagreed with Schopenhaeur's nihilistic conclusions.

In 1869 he became a professor at Basel University and, looking for inspiration for his books, turned his thoughts to ancient Greece and the music of Richard Wagner. Nietzsche thought that music was the one thing, specifically, that gave life meaning. Like attending Glastonbury or something he sought transformational experience in the the collective.

However, he went off Wagner when he watched The Ring being performed to the great and good. So appalled was Nietzsche he stormed out of the performance.

His studies turned to ideas of Dionysian collectivism and transcendence. He resigned his professorship and broke free from his safe life to begin living dangerously. Which he saw as the only correct way to live.

He wasn't physically cut out for it though. He was unwell and his doctors warned him that excessive reading and writing may blind him. He lived for years in a state of nomadic existence speaking to hardly anyone. His mind was his friend.

Eventually he went to live in the Swiss mountain village of Sils Maria. He loved it there. Its beauty reinforced his idea of the sheer magnificence of existence and he honed his ideas of the Eternal Recurrence of the Sane. An idea still very powerful to me now.

To spout a cliche it was essentially "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger". You need to find your own way of living, existing, that pays no heed to external forces and pressures.

Then, in Lucerne, 1892, he fell in love with the 21 year old Lou. She was half his age but when she refused his proposal it wasn't because of the age gap but because she had unconventional leanings herself and didn't imagine herself living the life of a devoted wife. He was devastated. Suicidal even and still in poor health. He hadn't heeded his own philosophy and he knew that.

He yearned for some kind of alchemical trick to turn the mucky base materials of his life into gold and, of course, he found it within himself. Thus Spoke Zarathustra inspired Yeats, Camus, Joyce, and Strauss. A biblical spoof it introduced the idea of the ubermensch. The ubermensch were not reliant on external goals. Ubermensch set their own goals knowing that others may have no concept of what these goals even are.

Nietzsche never found love again but he had become a living testament to his ideas of eternal return. Emboldened he hit the road once more. He wrote Beyond Good and Evil. It terrified him. Reviewers hated it calling it 'dangerous dynamite'. He remained dismayed by the persistence of Christian morality. Even though the faith was dying the values weren't. He railed against the slave morality of Christianity, saw it as an elevated form of self-hatred. He admired how the slaves of ancient Rome had turned their weakness into a strength using Christianity but felt it was ludicrous that a coping mechanism had been adopted so wholesale elsewhere. I'd agree with most of that but he loses me when he claims to hate compassion. Easy on the Ayn Rand there, Fred.

In April 1888 he moved to Turin where, initially, he was hyperproductive but, in this Piedmontese paradise, he started to go mad. He wrote letters to Bismarck, one of the most powerful men in Europe, announcing he was the antichrist. He claimed he was preparing an event that would split the history of humanity into two, and he collapsed in a plaza cuddling a beaten horse. A contradictory act of compassion.

Within a week he was incarcerated within a Basel asylum. He was still only 44. He lived out the rest of his life being cared for, and exploited by, his sister Elizabeth who took Nietzsche's ideas and corrupted them.

As if it wasn't bad enough that she charged curious onlookers to view her brother as a freakshow exhibit she also found a notebook of Nietzsche's with his ideas for The Will to Power.

Nietzsche despised Darwin. He felt humans should do more than preserve themselves. They should seek the exceptional, the extraordinary. Self-critical he saw flaws in this theory and worried that it could, in the wrong hands, lead to tyrannical violence. He chose not to publish. So over it was he that he wrote a reminder to buy a toothbrush over the top of the scrapped work.

It wasn't a toothbrush that he got but some fucking cunt with a toothbrush moustache. Elizabeth was an ardent Nazi supporter and she promoted Nietzsche's discarded thought experiments to such a degree that they pervaded German society and played a big part in The Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's film of the Nuremberg rallies. Watching the journey towards Nazism is even scarier than travelling back in time to view it. A warning from history indeed.

Nietzsche had abhorred nationalism and anti-semitism but he had long known that bad would be done in his name. He couldn't have known just how much. He'd predicted that post-Christianity there would be 'last men' whose lives would be dominated by banal, trivial, narcissistic concerns. Men who'd turn away from big questions and make life a simple matter of reducing pain and increasing comfort. They'd live lifes of 'timid mediocrity'. He knew if you stared into the abyss long enough that the abyss would stare back at you. It happened to him. It won't happen to the 'last men'.

Sigmund Freud probably has an even greater influence on contemporary life than both Marx and Nietzsche. He certainly had more 'hits'. Wish fulfillment, pleasure principle, penis envy. They're all his - and who could forget the Freudian slip. But was he a genius or a sex obsessed charlatan? Or perhaps a bit of both?


Bettany begins by telling us about his childhood (see what she did there?). Born in Moravia, Habsburg Empire, 1856 to Jewish parents. His father's wool business collapsed and they moved to the imperial capital of Vienna, a liberal and cosmopolitan city.

The studious young Freud took inspiration from Moses, Hannibal, Alexander the Great, ancient Greece, and Rome. In an attempt to emulate his hero Darwin he studied the nervous systems of fish. Like Marx he got into extracurricular activities. In 1884 he wrote to his lover, Martha, to extol the virtues of a wondrous new drug he was taking that he found very helpful. It was cocaine.

He initially refused to accept it was addictive but, on seeing a friend fall into the throes of chronic addiction, knocked it on the head. The gateway nosebag had whetted his appetite for experimentation though. Neurology was next.

He started work at a poorhouse for 'hysterical' women. There was thousands of them in Vienna. Male doctors were more than happy to incarcerate perfectly sane women for any number of patrician reasons.

While working with Jean-Martin Charcot he observed experiments in hypnosis and came to realise that the mind was compartmentalised. It was made of of many different, often conflicting, parts. Freud was fascinated by the case of Anna O who had a split personality. Another esteemed colleague Josef Breuer hypnotised her and she recalled, under hypnosis, many childhood traumas. Her aversion to water was traced back to the disgust she felt, as a child, watching a dog drink from a glass. The expression of this revulsion caused her hydrophobia to vanish immediately.

The trouble for Freud though was that he wasn't a very good hypnotist. So he adapted the technique. That's where the couch comes in and that's when psychoanalysis was born. Breuer and Freud, in 1885, published Studies in Hysteria. In what was to become a pattern, however, they soon fell out. Over Freud's belief that sex was at the root of everything.


Freud started working with Wilhelm Fleiss. Freud likened his belief that all neuroses were caused by childhood sexual abuse, usually by the father, to discovering the source of the Nile. He called it the seduction theory. It was dismissed by fellow neurologists as a fairy tale.

Rightly so. After a bit of a strop Freud himself, within a year, accepted it wasn't just flawed but fatally so.There couldn't be that many paedophiles.

Next he began to take a precise approach to the study of the unconscious mind. Dreams had never been taken that seriously but he began to analyse his own. A dream for him was a fulfillment of an unconscious wish. His book, The Interpretation of Dreams, posited the theory that our unconscious was our motor and these ideas chimed with the Viennese zeitgeist of experimentation. He was to thought what Klimt was to art.

At a performance of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex an idea took him. He considered being in love with your mother and being jealous of your father to be a universal condition. Little boys feared being castrated by envious fathers and little girls suffered with penis envy.

17 year old Dora walked into his surgery. She was both hysterical and suicidal. Freud used her as a guinea pig. She was a young woman who'd been abused and his methods lacked sympathy. She walked out in disgust.

This shameful episode at least taught him valuable lessons about transferal. Fleiss damned Freud saying the supposed reader of thoughts was merely using his patients to read his own thoughts. Treating humans as prisms to view his own insecurities through. Freud carried on puffing away on his 20 cigars a day. He saw them as a replacement for what he viewed as the best habit of all. Masturbation.

The brainy wanker was worried that rising anti-semitism would see his ideas never break out of Jewish academic circles. Enter Swiss gentile Carl Jung. After a brief period of harmony their work together ended acrimoniously, of course, with arguments over libido and the Oedipal complex.

More serious disagreements in and around Sarajevo led to the outbreak of World War I. The carnage across Europe led Freud to make discoveries that eventually resulted in the acceptance of post-traumatic stress disorder as a real thing.

If the war helped his professional career it destroyed his personal life. It bankrupted him, traumatised his sons who'd fought on the front line, and the Spanish flu that swept the continent in its wake killed his daughter.

Perhaps with death at the forefront of his mind he turned his studies to fatal psychological impulses. The death drive. He proposed that the mind was made of three elements. Firstly the id where sex and death dwelt. Secondly the superego, a strict moral guardian in permanent conflict with the id. Finally the ego, the peacemaker between id and superego and the zone that psychoanalysis, and no doubt psychoanalyists, could help.

An eager post-war generation, disheartened and broken by the failures of the past, adopted his ideas. In Germany Hitler, with his twisted Nietzschean false morality, rose to power and Freud's books were burnt. The Gestapo were hassling him in Vienna so he called on his powerful contacts and made good his escape to London.

He wasn't in London long before he became gravely ill and in December 1939 he arranged to be given a lethal dose of morphine. His legacy is still disputed, as are those of Marx and Nietzsche, but he made 'abnormality' normal and opened up debates on sexual variety.

The history of these three men has been written and rewritten time and time again and probably will do long after I shuffle off this mortal coil. This series was just one of many takes on them but it was a worthwhile, and very very interesting, one. I'm glad I watched it. I think I learnt something.

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