Transitoriness (by Sigmund Freud)
Original German: Vergänglichkeit
Some time ago, in the company of a taciturn friend and an already reputable and well-known young poet, I took a stroll through a thriving summer landscape. The poet admired the natural beauty around us but without delighting in it himself. It disturbed him that all this beauty was doomed to pass away, that in winter it would wane; but likewise every human beauty, every lovely and noble thing humans have created or could create. Everything he otherwise would have loved and admired seemed to him devalued by the fate of transitoriness that defined them.
We know that from the plunge into decay of all that is beautiful and perfect two different mental impulses can arise. The one leads to the painful world-weariness of the poet, the other to a rebellion against the purported fact. No, it is impossible that all the glories of nature and art, of our sensory world and the world outside, should really dissolve into nothing. It would be too senseless, too blasphemous to believe it. They must in some way be able to persist, to bear all destructive influences.
By itself this requirement of eternity is too obviously a result of our own wishful life for it to lay claim to a reality-value. And also the painful can be true. I could neither make up my mind to challenge the transience of all things, nor force an exception for the beautiful and perfect. But I did challenge the pessimistic poet, that the transience of beautiful things brings about a loss in their value.
On the contrary, an increase in value! Transcience-value is a rareness-value in time [Der Vergänglichkeitswert ist ein Seltenheitswert in der Zeit]. Limitation in the possibility of their enjoyment elevates their preciousness. I declared it incomprehensible that the thought of the transience of beautiful things should thereby spoil our delight in them. As for the beauty of nature, it comes again after every destruction through winter into the next year, and this recurrence may in relation to our lifespan be deemed an eternal one. The beauty of the human body and face we see within our own lives forever wane, but this short-livedness adds to it an extra charm. When there is a flower that blooms for one single night only, the blossom does not for that reason appear to us less splendid. That the beauty and perfection of artworks and intellectual achievements should be devalued by their temporal constraint, I am just as little able to accept. A time may come when the pictures and statues we admire today disintegrate, or a race of men succeeds us for whom the work of our poets and thinkers is no longer understood, or even a geological epoch in which all that is living on earth has fallen silent; the value of all this beauty and perfection will be determined only by its meaning for our own emotional lives, does not need to outlive it, and is therefore independent of absolute duration.
I held these considerations to be indisputable, but I noticed that I’d made no impression on the poet and my friend. I inferred from this failure the interference of a strong affective element clouding their judgment and believed later to have found out what it was. It must have been the revolt in their minds against mourning that devalued their enjoyment of the beautiful. The idea that this beauty is fleeting gave both these sensitive souls a foretaste of mourning over its downfall, and since the mind recoils instinctively from anything painful, they felt their enjoyment of the beautiful impeded by the thought of its transitoriness.
Mourning over the loss of something we have loved or admired appears to the layperson so natural that he declares it self-evident. But to the psychologist mourning is a great riddle, one of those phenomena one does not clarify but to which other obscurities can be traced back. We submit that we possess a certain capacity for love, called libido, which at the beginnings of development had turned towards our own ego. Later, though actually very early on, it turns away from the ego and toward objects which we in this way, so to speak, take into our ego. When the objects are destroyed or become lost to us, our capacity for love (libido) again becomes free. It can then take other objects as substitutes or temporarily turn back toward the ego. But why this detachment [Ablösung] of the libido from its objects should be such a painful process, this we do not understand and cannot deduce at present from any hypothesis. We see only that the libido clings to its objects and does not want to give the lost ones up, even when a substitute lies ready. Such then is mourning.
The conversation with the poet took place the summer before the war. One year later the war broke in and robbed the world of its beauties. It destroyed not only the beautiful landscapes it tore through and the artworks it scraped up against along its way; it also broke our pride in the achievements of our culture, our respect for so many thinkers and artists, our hope in finally overcoming the disparities between nations and races. It sullied the lofty impartiality of our sciences, exposed our instinctual life in its nakedness, and unleashed evil spirits in us we thought we’d permanently tamed through centuries of upbringing by our noblest. It made our fatherland small again and the rest of earth once again far and remote. It robbed us of so much that we had loved and showed us the frailty of so many things we’d held to be enduring.
It is no surprise that our libido, thus impoverished of its objects, has with greater intensity occupied what has remained to us, and that love for the fatherland, affection for those closest to us, and pride in our common features have suddenly been reinforced. But those other, now lost goods, have they really lost all value for us because they have proven to be frail and incapable of resistance? For many among us, it seems so, but again wrongly, I think. I believe that those who think so and who seem ready for a permanent renunciation, because what is precious has not preserved itself as durable, are only in mourning over the loss. We know that grief, however painful it may be, passes spontaneously. Once it has renounced everything lost, and also spent itself, our libido is in turn free, insofar as we are still young and lively, to replace as much as possible the lost objects with ones equally or more precious. It stands to hope that it go no other way with the losses of this war. Once the initial grief has been overcome, it will be shown that our high esteem for cultural goods has not suffered under the experience of their frailty. We will rebuild everything the war had destroyed, perhaps on ground firmer and more long-lasting than before.
—Translated by Timothy Lavenz and Antonia Grousdanidou (2014)