Fly on the Wall—At Ease, Monkey Brain!

We can be forgiven for feeling as though we live in a world on fire.  Literal firestorms engulf swathes the size of a small province each summer, and an El Nino year like 2024 makes forest fire fears a top story even in the depths of winter.  Meanwhile, global tensions have reached our back door as protesters march for and against one another’s definitions of terrorism and genocide.  All of this is hard on the caring hearts and hard on our academic cognition.

And then there’s the internet, supposedly a symptom of our all-new 21st Century breed of disarray and dis-ease.  The online world can feel like a horror movie with our heroic selves perpetually closed in upon by legions of zombies possessed by ideas and facts that seem to have no bearing on what the powers-that-be have agreed to convey or on what consensus tells us is true.  Critical inquiry and interrogation of the status quo seem to have devolved into frenetic certainties by freakish elements that would make an old fashioned televangelist blush.  Social media can appear, especially to neophytes, as a parade of cartoon avatars goose stepping to and fro with disturbing gleams in their square eyes, squared into compliance by too much screen time.  Our times are more than a bit unsettling and yet historians say that this age of anxiety has been the hallmark of modernity for well over a century.  The 1940s poet W.H.  Auden coined a famous poem titled ‘Age of Anxiety’, not long after Orson Welles radio reading of ‘War of the Worlds’ channelled into full-blown panic in 1938.  Wars and threats of war are omnipresent but there’s something deeper in our brains that sets our subjectivities askew.

After all, with a real-world step back from the blue screen glow we might pause to note that most of the time on earth humans do remarkably well sharing the planet – given all the weapons and mean words at their disposal.  Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, where newspeople were first depicted as nefarious invokers of discontents may be more the message of the medium of mass culture than a product of any given circumstance.

But what if something deeper is going on in terms of evolution and consciousness?  What if the formation of our conscious selves, begun in infancy, carries in its nature the heavy weight of detachment from all the world around?  Who could be comfortable and at ease in a world where our inner sense of self is predicated on a loss of unity, a downright umbilical detachment, from all that prevails beyond our mind?

How, after all can a world beset by conflict coincide with the relative placidity by which daily traffic, toilet flushes, and electrical outlets stream unabated?  Maybe it’s not external conflict that devolves into daily malaise in our lives, given the facts of our affluence.  I’m reminded of my time living in Creston, B.C., a street away from the homes of members of a Mormon sect who term their community Bountiful.  Their communal yards were adorned with pleasant white rocks that spelled a simple phrase: Keep Sweet.  This was what these folks chose to convey to passersby.  And keep sweet they did, smiling pleasantly at the grocery store while wearing home made clothes and burqu-esque head scarves for the ladies – a reminder of Margaret Atwood’s dystopia A Handmaiden’s Tale or a sign of Canada’s multiethnic diversity, depending on who you’d ask.  In any case, no pay-it-forward trend at a Tim Hortons drive thru was so thoroughly enacted in public.

However, there also have been documentaries made by whistleblowers who exited Bountiful and told harrowing tales of arranged marriages, polygamy, and sexual abuse.  Every idealistic realm has its dark side, one would assume, just as every political philosophy can enable the worst excesses of tyranny if deployed by that mother of all conspiracy theory phrases: bad actors.  There’s always a kernel of truth somewhere in reality but beneath how we see the world there’s also always our selves as seeing beings, conscious humans who have learned to see within a social soup of expectations and behaviours and values.  And as we note at any public event where people hold their simmering feuds under the surface, just enough to force a wan smile, perhaps ostensibly to protect the children, what’s presented outwardly in culture, any culture, is by no means the end of the story of what actually is.

Normally we’d look at how things present themselves on the surface, in terms of ideological beliefs and economic striving.  At a deeper level, though, the human experience as a whole may be fraught, in its essence, with discontent—not unlike wasps forced to share a jar while they’re demonstrated to a class of pupils, themselves confined within the institutional walls of a school, and the school enmeshed within a series of ever-larger cultural constructs that combine to make up modern civilization as we experience it.  To this end, Sigmund Freud concluded that all of our angst and uncertainty represents an “irremediable antagonism between the demands of instinct and the restrictions of civilization”.  In many ways the very politeness and gentility that keeps us from being perpetually at each others’ throats, able to tolerate not only what we wish others could accept so easily but also to allow us to accept that which we actually abhor, is the essence of being socialized.  Any short discussion with a child about kids in the classroom who the teacher always seems to get in trouble for being disruptive reveals that a lot of being well-adjusted involves repressing our natural instincts to talk, interrupt, and be generally a bit disagreeable.

Our egos foster their sense of conscious reality by differentiation between ourselves and others.  Yet, to avoid being hoisted on our social petard and made a social martyr, we can’t be too much ourselves or too self-confident or assertive, lest we cross an invisible barrier between selfhood and assholery.  History shows, too, that cultures (like the Mormon sect in Creston/Bountiful) can often obtain a degree of peace with their neighbours if, and only if, they quite literally keep to themselves.  On the opposite end of this spectrum are those who indulge their activist impulses.  Glomming onto one or many topics or issues these people (depending on which way the cultural winds are blowing) find themselves either glorified as heroes of social justice and progress or vilified as mere inciters of regressive, antagonistic, and atavistic forces – makers of a less-progressive and even less liberated world to come based on an imagined world of a past that never existed.  The man who led the Holocaust of six million Jews was one such figure living in a fantasy realm, so much so that he’d paint pictures of cities from the past – real cities, but with falsified architecture.  The devil is in the details with how we present ourselves and who believes us—or wants to believe us.  Like countless insect species that, to most of us, look merely like bugs and certainly lack any of the differentiated sexual traits that only an entomologist could know and love, often only those who believe themselves to be in the know according to the rules of the present cultural paradigm are the ones who believe in the magic in the Kool Aid they’re serving.  As a kid we’d put Kool Aid in our rusty Kaleden tap water simply to make the bad taste go away, although we, unlike many paragons of cultural virtue, even at such a young age knew that the bad water flavour was still a reality.  Being well adjusted in this sense is about being endowed with a package of values and beliefs that not only elevate the ego to a precipice of pleasant self-satisfaction, but also that offers the person social capital during interactions with others.  The trick, of course, being to which cultural others we truly seek to impress.  Know your audience, is the would-be novelist’s refrain.  And so to with any cultural clime.  All this by way of the instinct versus culture divide, Sigmund Freud in 1929 summarized as examples of how enculturation leads to alienation and unease.

Though not especially conspicuous, an awful lot of arbitrary judgments go into deciding whose points of view or actual behaviours are normal or acceptable.  Identity politics over recent history illustrates how what’s normal and acceptable, and what counts as hate or intolerance, changes sometimes almost overnight.  All to the good, one’d assume.  Yet, in our times where the body and mind seem inextricably linked in terms of psychiatric disorders, there’s also the challenge of over a lifetime being at peace with who one really is, as the sands of society shift ever faster.

Such a psychological climate of seeking to fit in while being perpetually enjoined to be ourselves is tough on children and adults alike.  Downright exhausting, you might say.  Freud gave an early echo to this in his concept of neurasthenia: “characterized by chronic fatigue, weakness, and generalized aches and pains, formerly thought to result from exhaustion of the nervous system.”

Culture paradoxically induces a sense of anxiety as we seek to, in our egos as well as our behaviour, see ourselves and be seen by others as in instance of mild-mannered political correctness.  Freud summarizes:

“An infant at the breast does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him.  He gradually learns to do so, in response to various promptings.  In this way there is for the first time set over against the ego an ‘object’, in the form of something which exists ‘outside’ and which is only forced to appear by a special action.  A tendency arises to separate from the ego everything that can become a source of such displeasure, to throw it outside and to create a pure pleasure-ego which is confronted by a strange and threatening ‘outside’.”

The psychiatric industry, bless their hearts, concoct an alphabet soup of diagnoses to explain and classify our assorted behavioural adaptations and cognitive neuroses, yet, in the end, the assumption remains that to become well-adjusted we have to adjust ourselves in a manner that allows us to become properly individuated.  That is, to find our ego in a way that matches social expectation with an adequate sense of personal meaning.  Resilience reduces or allows us to ghost our constant companion of angst, created out of a fall from the womb-like state of grace which other animals seem to inhabit in terms of self-awareness.

There’s a problem with this notion of ameliorating anxiety by focussing on our individual selves and coping strategies.  Consider what it means if our animal self contravenes our outward shows of filial piety and sanctimonious displays of social justice.  Are we truly embodying what we think we are when we see ourselves as paragons of virtue?

Sigmund Freud’s thought has aged poorly if we see the mind as merely a series of wires running to and fro within our cranium.  But if we take evolution and our primate origins seriously, his belief that sexual drives are core to all that we do, doesn’t seem far fetched at all.  Any trip to a zoo or youtube will show that, well, monkeys spend a lot of time paying attention to what we civilized humans might term our private bits.  However, what makes us more than mundane monkeys is something Freud termed the reality principle: a sense of how things are where our ego, our sense of self, becomes starkly separate from our surroundings so that we can truly make individual choices, rather than follow instinctive meanderings.  In this sense, the monkeys feels lust, but only the human monkey falls in love.

Unfortunately, with the growth of a unique and personal identity with authentic individual predilections comes a loss of peace that no amount of individuating mindfulness can overcome.  Freud states that

“In this way, then, the ego detaches itself from the external world.  Or, to put it more correctly, originally the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world from itself.  Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive—indeed, an all-embracing—feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it.  If we may assume that there are many people in whose mental life this primary ego-feeling has persisted to a greater or less degree, it would exist in them side by side with the narrower and more sharply demarcated ego-feeling of maturity, like a kind of counterpart to it.  In that case, the ideational contents appropriate to it would be precisely those of limitlessness and of a bond with the universe—the same ideas with which my friend elucidated the ‘oceanic’ feeling” (Freud.  11).

So, there’s truth in the view that cultural socialization alienates us from our animal selves—that boundless oneness of mind with landscape that gives primates such an ingrained bond with their surroundings that to separate a monkey from its vine (or banana) would seem like abuse.  By contrast, a human in an isolation booth may not be a happy specimen but, with pen and paper and an AU library website link, that same isolated human could fulfill a myriad of authentic human experiences.  Whether it’d all amount to so much excrement thrown at the walls depends on who you ask and how they feel about their studies on a given day!  In any case, we can feel a bit more at ease with our unease in society and in history if we recall that, simply to accept the monkeys that we are, we must attain a sense of separation not only from the earth, lest we view the forest but not the trees and therefore bump into trunks while enjoying the view, but also a sense of separation from other humans. That we may truly identify with our subjective identities and, most importantly, with our chosen academic disciplines.

Freud, S.  (1929).  ‘Civilization and its Discontents’.  Penn State University.  Retrieved from
‘Neurasthenia’.  (2024).  Wordnik.  Retrieved from: