Brian Clack, PhD, Releases New Book "Love, Drugs, Art and Religion: The Pains and Consolations of Existence"

Friday, April 11, 2014

USD Philosophy Professor Brian Clack’s new book, Love, Drugs, Art and Religion: The Pains and Consolations of Existence, is being published by Ashgate in April, 2014. In the interview below, his colleague, Professor Matt Zwolinski, asks Brian to explain some of the central ideas of the book.

MZ: Your new book is about "Love, Drugs, Art, and Religion." That's an interesting group! Could you tell us a little about what you think they have in common?

BC: My book takes its inspiration from a passage in Freud's book Civilization and Its Discontents in which he suggests that life is so very difficult for us that it requires the adoption of one or more of a number of possible strategies that serve to soften the worst blows of existence. He refers to these as “palliative measures”, a term which highlights the essentially hopeless and incurable nature of the human condition: a palliative, after all, is something that relieves without curing, something that lessens the effects of severe and curative-unresponsive illnesses. The four palliative measures mentioned by Freud are those constituting the title of my book: love, drugs, art and religion. To say a word about each of these, romantic love softens our anguish principally by its provision of intimate and supportive companionship (as Robert Nozick put it, “love places a floor under your well-being; it provides insurance in the face of life's blows”); drugs are employed either to numb oneself to the troubles of existence (narcotics and alcohol can be seen to perform this task) or to introduce excitement into a life felt to be dull (hallucinogens and stimulants might in this capacity be used); the pleasures of art and music offset pain, often taking us out of ourselves and thereby allowing us - at least temporarily - to forget our discontentment; and religion (at least on the Freudian reading) palliates the most painful aspects of life by, as it were, re-creating a picture of the world so that its most unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by features more in line with our wishes (the world is not cold and indifferent, but is rather governed and ordered providentially). Freud's discussion of each of these palliatives is somewhat cursory, so my aim in this book is to tackle the subject in much greater depth, going beyond the Freudian literature to investigate the nature, promise and limitations of each of these strategies of coping. In doing so, I attempt to articulate an (undeniably pessimistic) view of human life, a life in which palliation - of one kind or another - is simply indispensable.

MZ: A lot of people view drug use as a kind of "escapism," and a sign of moral vice. Someone with true courage, we often think, would face life's challenges head-on - not hide from them in an imaginary world of their own making. Are palliatives a sign of weakness? Are we wrong to seek refuge in them? Or does it depend on which palliatives we use, and how?

BC: This is an important question. It is possible to argue that all palliatives have an escapist character: Freud certainly thought this was true of religion, and also true of art (though his account of art is certainly deficient, and really can apply only to art of a sentimental or kitsch character). The case of drugs is here instructive, however, and can be used to throw light on the use of palliatives as a whole. The case of the hopeless heroin addict is not uncommonly used to show how an individual can use drugs to flee from the unbearable features of life, while a Massachusetts judge cited “the evasion of problems and escape from reality” as the primary motivations for drug use (and as a reason for keeping marijuana illegal). But surely not all drug use is escapist. Douglas Husak argues - correctly, in my opinion - that drugs are primarily to do with mood control: without a cup of coffee I would remain sluggish and sleepy in the morning, and without a glass of wine or a pint of beer in the evening I would be tense after work. And even such a stern moralist as Kant can commend the (social) use of alcohol since it promotes the desirable moral quality of frankness. The point is that there can be both escapist and non-escapist uses of intoxication. By extension, we might say the same of all palliatives: there certainly are kitsch forms of art (and they're terrible, of course), but not all art is escapist and fantastical (it would be bizarre to say that the paintings of Francis Bacon or the tragedies written by Shakespeare were “escapist”); by the same token, a great deal of religion is escapist, but I'd be reluctant to say that it always has that form. Something similar might be said about romantic love, but that's a more complicated story.

MZ: Let's talk a bit more about religion. Freud, from whom your book draws its inspiration, is widely regarded as having been quite hostile to religion, regarding it as a kind of "illusion" comparable to a "childhood neurosis." And surely most religious believers would object to the idea that their faith is merely a palliative. Is the analysis your book provides of religion ultimately incompatible with sincere religious belief? Or is there some way of reconciling the two perspectives?

BC: You're right to say that Freud is unremittingly hostile to religion, regarding it as “patently infantile” and “foreign to reality”. I find myself in sympathy with his view that religious belief is a product of human wishes, principally the wish that one should be loved and protected against a threatening external world. Indeed, I am so heartily sympathetic to that idea that I devote an entire chapter of the book to a defense of the view that religious beliefs are - in the main - illusions (i.e., beliefs generated by wishes). However, I say “in the main” here because I want to leave open the possibility that there might be a variety of religion that does not derive simply from wishes, and in the final chapter of the book I try to develop just such an account. This revisionary exercise results in a religious perspective stripped of belief in God, providence and immortality, but which utilizes the rich resources of our Christian heritage as a means of reconciling us to our nullity and ultimate annihilation. This revised religion would still have a palliative function (it could be a great source of comfort), and yet it would not deny the harsh realities of existence in the way that Freud (and I) think religion generally does. Your question concerns whether someone could continue to be a believer once he or she had come to regard religion as a palliative. Evidently, one could not accept the entirety of the specifically Freudian view of religion and yet still believe. I am not persuaded, however, that a recognition of religion's general palliative status must lead to its abandonment. This is not the case with the other palliative measures, after all. I don't stop listening to music, for example, even though I may feel that its function is (to use a Dickensian expression) to 'calm the wild waters of the soul'. It is, of course, up for debate whether what you have called “sincere religious belief” requires belief that there is a God, an afterlife (and so on). I do not think that is the case, though I'm sure that many others would disagree.

MZ: What's the most important idea you'd like readers to take away from this book?

BC: I'd like to mention a couple of things, if I may. First of all, the context within which the four palliatives are discussed is one of pessimism, and I'd like readers to give the pessimistic tradition a fair hearing. Joshua Foa Dienstag, a political science professor at UCLA, has written that, in a time such as ours, pessimism is dismissed as irrational, defeatist and unpatriotic, and I think it is important that the unthinking optimism we daily encounter should be challenged. Hence I try at the very beginning of this book to spell out the main (and the most compelling) features of pessimism: hopefully these won't be dismissed as merely the outpourings of a depressed mind. (As an aside, driving into work this morning I followed a car with a bumper sticker that read "Life is Good". I suppose my book is an antidote to that. It's difficult, because one always runs the risk of being accused of simply being miserable.) The other thing I'd like readers to take away from the book concerns technique and perspective within the philosophy of religion. Contemporary analytic philosophy of religion, despite its many admirable qualities, tends to proceed as though religious doctrines and beliefs had a life entirely independent of the human beings who formulated them. My aim here, contrariwise, is to situate religious belief firmly within the strains and vicissitudes of human life, and to explain religious ideas as emerging from, and as an efflux of, those strains and vicissitudes. A principal contention of the book is that life is very hard for us (at times too hard), and that we search for ways to cope with its trials and challenges: religion is one such way.


Brian Clack, PhD

College of Arts and Sciences

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