Thanatos and Eros in the 21st Century – Umair Haque
Umair Haque. Medium. February 2019
Thanatos and Eros in the 21st Century
(We’re freaked out because) the things we treasure most are dying. So what can we do about it?
I wrote the other day about how there’s an epidemic of bad vibes sweeping across the globe. Everyone I know feels strangely shaky, anxious, disoriented lately — no, it’ s not just you.
What’s behind all this? It’s obvious to say that living through an age of collapse like we are — countries fracturing, planet dying, economies melting down, of Brexits and Trumps — is profoundly distressing. It keeps us up at night. Is this really who we’ve become? As a result, a greater tilt in the world’s axis — the tenor and tone of the world’s emotions is changing.
This is an age of death. Democracy, the planet, decency, humanity, society, global order, the future — just a few things that are dying. You see that impulse you just had to justify and rationalize this away (with factoids, stats, numbers, some vague notion that “life will go on!” — instead of feeling something, like grief, mourning, or sorrow? I’ll come back to that.
What’s happening these days is that Thanatos is rising — while Eros is shrinking, fading, waning. The world is growing imbalanced. It is becoming a much unhappier and more desperate and worried place as Thanatos overwhelms Eros, takes it by the neck, and suffocates it — because Thanatos kills. This imbalance is why we live in an age of death — and the strange, terrible feelings you might imagine in such a time are beginning now to overwhelm us.
Let me explain what I mean — I know some of you will find all this strange and bewildering. (My definitions will be a little different than American psychologists use — you can make of that what you like.)
Thanatos is the force of self-preservation in us. It is quite happy to watch the whole world burn down — as long as we stand atop the embers. Thanatos is the need in us for superiority, for conquest, for primacy. It is what lies behind our aggression and rage. It is the ego crying out to be the center of the universe, the top of the pecking order, the first and last. It’s Donald Trump, tweeting to put everyone down, boasting and bragging. Imagine a billion beings full of Thanatos, competing to be the center of the universe, the top of the hierarchy — they wouldn’t care if the whole world burned down, they’d be suffused with the pleasure of the fight. That’s us, my friends.
You’d be quite right if you observed at this point that Thanatos sounds like what we’ve built the world on for a very long time now. Capitalism is Thanatos pushed to its outermost limit — you are the only thing that matters, maximizing your own power and advantage should be the only that matters to you, and society should just be an arena of vicious, brutal combat, which we euphemistically call “competition” (but it’s not just “competition” when you die because you don’t have healthcare — it is combat.) Fascism is Thanatos going beyond the limit. It says that I must destroy you — anyone not like me — in order to survive, just to live. I must preserve my “bloodline”, my “land”, my “soil”, and so forth — it is pure Thanatos, unleashed, and it results in atrocity, terror, and despair, just as it is in America today (how to you think those kids in the camps feel?)
So Thanatos — aggression, self-preservation, dominance, egoism — has been the operating principle of global order for an age. We designed a capitalist global economy, which promoted these values, in slightly less bloody forms than outright war. But those values remained at the heart of the order we imagined was just and right and fair nonetheless — the idea that by somehow being more cruel to one another we’d all prosper. Should it really surprise us that selfishness and greed and viciousness resulted only in anger and fury and despair, ultimately?
What happens when a society is built upon Thanatos, as its primal force, what we might call its psycho-political principles? People will want to deny one another basic goods, like healthcare and retirement and education. They will believe that arming teachers is the best solution to school shootings. They will believe that school shootings are, if not justified, then at least normal. They will reject things like vaccines — because remember, Thanatos says only the strong should survive, and you must be weak if you need a vaccine.
In short, if we build a society on Thanatos, we end up eerily and precisely, with modern day America. In every respect we can think of — from school shootings, to massive deficits of basic things like medicine and retirements, to a rejection of modernity itself, denying kids vaccines and lunches and so forth. It’s every person for themselves. Why should I care about your kids? They’re competitors — and this, our society, is just an arena for brutal, bloody combat. Therefore, everyone should suffer — the one who can take the most suffering wins. And the one who wins is the one who can pull everyone else down the most, hardest, fastest — and climb atop them. Does that sound like a pretty accurate description of what went wrong in America? It’s because Thanatos — aggression, self-preservation, egoism, domination — came to be the only force in society whatsoever.
Now, America thought has no understanding whatsoever of this. It’s psychology doesn’t even believe Thanatos exists, it’s economics (LOL) is still arguing whether race and gender segregation could have maybe been good things, and its social thinking is nonexistent to say the least. That’s not a coincidence. When we believe in Thanatos as the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of all human action, thought, organization, endeavour, existence — what need is there left to think about anything?
So for a very long time, American thought hasn’t done any thinking. It’s just regurgitated this one principle, over and over, on Faux News and CNN, at Harvard and Stanford, in films and in culture and in books — one things, repeated, endlessly: the more Thanatos, the better. The more aggression, self-preservation, dominance, cruelty, the better — the better a person you are, the better of we all are, the more rewarded and admired you should be. That’s what “grit” and “resilience” and the endless articles saying we have to “save capitalism!” but not, say, the middle class, really say. American thinking isn’t, because it’s one long paean to Thanatos. And the problem is that everyone can see by now that designing a society on Thanatos only led America to implode as spectacularly as Vesuvius.
Let’s count up all the things Thanatos has cheated America of. Democracy. Its kids. Its prosperity. Decency. Humanity. A future. And even the ability to think about it all, instead of a class of intellectuals repeating forever, just like their Soviet predecessors, a series of bullet points discredited by…reality.
The mood of American life reflects America’s long-standing love affair with Thanatos. American life is profoundly unhappy. It’s full of despair, anxiety, worry, panic. It’s not a happy place to be. But again — we should have understood from the beginning, because Thanatos doesn’t get us to happiness: it just gets us to the pleasures of domination, cruelty, and aggression. It lets us gloat, it gives us a thrill, it consumes us with the pleasure of the kill. But what it doesn’t do is anything deeper, truer, and more enduring. It doesn’t get us to fulfillment, purpose, meaning, truth, contentment, self-discovery, or self-realization.
For those things we need Eros. Eros, sometimes called “libido”, is the need for self-transcendence. It’s true that you can understand in a narrow sexual way, as Freud did — but it’s better seen as the need to lose yourself, to merge, to become one. It is feeling the “connectedness in things”, we often say. Sure, you feel that during (good) sex — but you probably feel it, maybe even more deeply, during a sunset stroll on a beach, looking into your child’s eyes, holding someone you genuinely love.
We’re so distant and detached from Eros in our culture, in our society, in our age, that I think many people have a hard time even comprehending it — or they react with the anger of defensiveness to it. But Eros is the simplest thing of all. There’s a perfect spring day. All that thinking of you, you, you stops. A feeling of purity, of wonder, of beauty rises in you. You seem to be experiencing something truer than what you can see. Time stops. There’s just this. You’ve disappeared. Where does the spring begin — and where do you end? That’s Eros. You can feel this sense of oneness, this merger into unity, this transcendence into wholeness with a lover — but you can also feel it with a society, with a city, with yourself, or with the whole world.
Now. The simple fact that we live in an age of death — a time when the following things are dying, the planet, democracy, decency, prosperity, humanity, the future — should tell us something very powerful, if you understand all the above.
These things were always going to die if we only obeyed Thanatos — if we prized it above and beyond Eros. There was no way they were ever going to live. Thanatos is self-preservation, aggression, conquest, the destruction of everything else i remember — and so that is what we did to all these things. We destroyed them so that we could feel the pleasure doing so gave us. The feeling of being on top. The feeling of “owning” them. The thrill of controlling them. Right down to other people. A species ruled by Thanatos, like we have been for far too long, will destroy everything it touches, because it needs to preserve itself as dominant first, last, and, and always, and fight within its own self for dominance, power, control — at the price of everything, period, full stop.
It shouldn’t be any surprise, for example, that the planet’s dying, when we value our own self-preservation above every single thing on it — so much so that sending selfies of ourselves in makeup is worth ripping down the forests. What would say if monkeys started sending selfies of themselves in makeup, or rippling their biceps — while their trees burned down? You’d laugh. But we are just those monkeys.
So you feel disoriented these days (it’s ok to admit it, I do too) because the world is deeply out of emotional balance. Thanatos ruled us for too long — and we politely brushed it under the rug. Maybe we went to church once a week and told ourselves we were good people — while our societies were still segregated. Maybe we gave a few dollars to charity every now and then — while voting against healthcare for everyone. And so on.
But now all that Thanatos we tried to politely hide, with social games of politesse, by smiling fake smiles, by shaking hands with our neighbors while taking away their futures — it’s all coming exploding out. A great tsunami of Thanatos is sweeping the globe. Self-preservation through aggression, domination, control. That’s Trumpism, Brexist, the wave of neofascism shredding democracy after democracy, from Brazil to Hungary.
The problem is that many of us have never really accepted Thanatos as a good or wise thing to let rule us. So as this wave rolls over us — we sense it — and we feel deeply discomfited, disturbed, distressed. We can feel the world’s emotional tenor and tone changing — our deepest selves can — even if our rational selves don’t know what to do with it, or even how to admit it. Emotions are contagious, and the emotions Thanatos produces — the cheap gloating of conquest, the thrill of aggression, the rush of domination — bleed over onto us. We find them unfamiliar, unwanted, undesirable — repulsive, grotesque, vulgar. But there they are, ruling our worlds, spilling over onto us.
This emotional spillover is a kind of acid, which corrodes us from the inside, which threatens our own goodness and truth and humanity, and so we must work harder to defend against it, which is exhausting. See the vicious cycle we face — those few of us who remain good and decent people in an age of death? I’d bet many of us don’t even want to say these distressing words: “an age of death.” But do they fit how you really feel? Perhaps you see my point.
So what’s the answer to all this? Well, the simple answers go something like: talk about your feelings, don’t hide them away, and be kind in small ways, no matter how draining it is, because it will recharge you more still. But the big answers are really the big questions.
The 21st century is going to need to be a time where a tsunami of Eros arises. Where human beings really discover their will and need for self-transcendence, for connectedness, for nourishing and caring for…everything. From democracy to each other to the planet to the river to the insects.
It must be a a time where a tidal wave of Eros rises to meet the thundering waves of Thanatos which are ripping the globe apart — and slices through them. Without more Eros — the knowledge, sense, experience, that we are more than our aggression, spite, contempt, rage, hate — that we are things that can heal, build, create, renew, not just destroy, ruin, plunder, pillage — I doubt whether we have much of a future, my friends. But don’t mistake that for pessimism.
Is there more to us than Thanatos? I believe there is. Art, medicine, literature tell me so. A little child’s laugh tells me so. The water against the waves does, too. But I also believe that we’ve been told for so long that there isn’t more to us than Thanatos — that all we are is little walking vessels of greed, rage, spite, and hate — that Thanatos is all we know how to be anymore. Let us, then, begin the difficult, beautiful work of discovering a greater truth about ourselves.