Opinion » John Rember

The Wretched Excess Birthday Tour

Freud goes on vacation

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For the past few years, Julie and I have spent late October days at Chico Hot Springs in Montana, usually after touring the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. Our excuse is that it's my birthday, but even if it weren't, we'd go anyway and find an excuse later.

This year we had a wealth of excuses. Blue skies had settled over Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, after days of rain and snow and newspaper articles predicting a harsh winter because of warming Pacific waters. The government shutdown had ended. Julie had been working long hours and wanted out of the house. Best of all, I had my ancient-of-days lifetime pass that allowed us free entry to national parks and national monuments.

We took books and a well-stocked picnic cooler, cameras and sleeping bags, CDs of old-fart music, heavy-duty hiking gear, headlamps and backpacks. We were ready for anything short of the eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano or another government shutdown.

As it happened, we could have traveled lighter. We hiked, but it was in sandals on Yellowstone boardwalks, not in hiking boots on the ridges of the Tetons. We played only half the CDs. We never used the headlamps. We did eat the contents of the cooler, which was why we didn't go on any long hikes.

I read one book. It was small, easily carried and I'd read it several times before, but it still took me a solid week to get through. It was Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. I'd taken it along because it describes how culture puts demands on individuals, forcing them to deny their basic instincts, which Freud indicates are more or less unspeakable.

People hate it when their basic instincts are denied, much less articulated, and the best evidence that Freud was onto something was that the Congress of the United States had, for much of October, tried to get rid of their government so they could do what they damn well wanted to. At least that was the rhetoric in Washington, D.C., and enough of our representatives believed it, or believed that their constituents believed it, that they threatened to damage the fiscal credibility of America and bring down the whole shooting match.

Freud implies that when the needs of civilization get too heavy to bear, people go crazy, things fall apart and you start seeing bands of orphaned 8-year-olds with assault rifles at your door, ordering you to give them the year's worth of food in your crawl space and let them watch cartoons on your big screen.

I took the book to find out how close we were to all that, and it gave rise to a series of semi-ironic portraits, which showed me reading Civilization and Its Discontents in the hot pool at Chico, on a massage table in the Chico spa, on a recycled plastic Park Service boardwalk in front of an erupting geyser and behind a flatiron steak and glass of pinot noir in the Chico dining room. If the end of civilization depends on my discontent, it will survive as long as I can get to Chico for my birthday.

Still, Freud says that the unconscious death instinct, evident in our aggression toward each other and ourselves, makes most people hate the government and the civilization it represents. Murderers, rapists, playground bullies, spouse abusers, suicides, warmongers, mean girls, scornful talk-radio hosts, hospital billing agents, congressional nihilists, KKK members--I could go on--are all, according to Freud, expressing their need to do what they damn well want to, and that's to increase the amount of death in the world.

To see the conflict from another perspective, the culture tells me to love my neighbor as myself, but that becomes painful when my neighbor is nasty, brutish and short, and wants to do me in or at least borrow my lawnmower and not bring it back. After brooding about my missing mower, I start wishing I could do what I damn well want as far as my neighbor is concerned--to do him in, or at least go out at night with a paintbrush and a can of Roundup and write on his manicured lawn what Freud says he really wants to be anyway.

Leaving Chico was like getting kicked out of Eden. We headed for Butte, Mont., where we had eaten pulled-pork sandwiches in its decaying downtown and then had driven out to see the Berkeley Pit, the giant copper mine that has eaten like a cancer into the town, where purple-black waters slowly rise toward the horizon and any geese that land there die. It sparked memories of a Yellowstone full of civilized prohibitions, most of them concerned with keeping 3 million tourists a year in their cars or on boardwalks, safe from wild animals or lethal geology or authentic experience. Then the radio reported that the ruined nuclear plant at Fukushima had experienced another earthquake, and I had the absurd thought that the Pacific was warming because it was being used as a cooling pond for spent fuel rods. I had the not-so-absurd thought that maybe civilization didn't need a Congress to destroy it because it was busy destroying itself.

I finished the book after we left Butte, while we were driving through the mountains of Montana toward the Idaho border. It was a warm day. Sun-golden tamaracks lit the dark green of fir forests above us. Neon-orange cottonwoods flooded the river bottoms. Van Morrison's Inarticulate Speech of the Heart was on the stereo, raving on. Few cars were on the highway and it was possible, for long happy moments, to think that we were driving through a post-civilization world, beautiful, empty of neighbors and gloriously free from the dark struggle between love and death.