Stories That Breathe


das Über-Ich

he who goes out. goes out to be accepted

Albert was in the train when one of the cabins exploded.

It was a Friday morning. The train was packed with yawning passengers who had only one desire as they waited on the train platform—not to be late for work or school.

It was halfway through the journey that the blast occurred.

Albert had stopped SMSing his girlfriend. His morning routine was to ensure that she would not be late for school. With his goal achieved, he began to think of the day’s timetable. He was looking forward to it, for there would be his favourite professor’s lecture. Prof Yoo was a psychology professor. Albert was an engineering undergraduate, and had chosen psychology as an elective module.

Just a week ago, Prof Yoo talked about one of Sigmund Freud’s theories that sent the whole lecture hall into a ripple of laughter. He started by asking the students what “id, ego and superego” were. A few students with thick glasses and beer bellies (who usually sat in front) answered.

After that, Prof Yoo smiled. “Yes. ‘Id, ego and superego’ is a theory proposed by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. It’s widely established as one of the best theories to understand the unconscious thoughts—yet it’s also one of the theories that many do not buy into. Now, who goes to the beach often?”

This time, the sporty, tanned students raised their hand. Albert, who was then smirking, had his hand raised, too. He made sure he had tightened his muscles so that his biceps would have a defined shape.

“Good. Anyway, let’s say you’re on a beach. You see a girl in a bikini walking past you. She’s the girl of your dreams. You love her.” Prof Yoo paused. “Well, in fact, you don’t just love her. You would like to have sex with her. She turns you on. You desire her. What would you do?”

A few students giggled. “Rape her,” someone whispered, soft enough to show others that he was not telling Prof Yoo, but loud enough for Prof Yoo to hear.

“Yes! Your first instinct is to visualize her naked and have sex with her,” Prof Yoo said with a straight face. Everyone laughed because of how simple he had made it to be. The projector then showed a cartoon man on a beach, wearing only green swimming trunks. “Now that we’re in a psychology class, don’t feel ashamed of your answers. Let’s just say that in a psychology class, you’ve to displace social norms.”

Albert glanced at Shu Yi, the girl who had perky breasts. He realized all the help he extended to her, from lending her his notes to buying something online for her with his credit card, was all just to fulfil his desire: to squeeze that pair of boobs. No…displace social norms! He wanted to fuck her. Doesn’t matter if she loves me or not—sex, to Albert, was not an emotion. It was merely an enjoyable process. Instant gratification; desire.

“So, physically and mentally, your desire will become apparent.” The cartoon man protruded a bulge on his crotch. Everyone laughed. Some clapped. Albert realized he had an erection, for he could not stop looking at Shu Yi, whose breasts were in good view from where he was sitting. He wondered whether the other guys had the same desire; then he displaced social norms and got his answer. “This desire is what we call id. So, tell me, if we have this desire, why have we not seen millions of rape cases annually on the beach?”

Albert wondered whether talking about sex in a lecture hall filled with young, pretty things with short skirts and low-cut blouses would distract Prof Yoo. Of course, said something in him. He, too, has his desire.

“Social control!” another guy said. “Both formal and informal.”

“Right,” Prof Yoo said. “Well, partly, yes. We’re not doing everything to satisfy our desires because we need to follow the laws. But social control is external, created by society.”

Social control is how society controls people, through legal means such as laws and other means like following norms to be socially accepted.

“However, this is psychology, not sociology. We’re talking about everything within, not external. Not about a group of people, but an individual. It’s something unconscious. Something within us that we can’t consciously control. So, what’s stopping us, other than social control?”

“That girl is not hot enough,” a guy said. Some students laughed so loud that they slapped the tables. Albert immediately understood the guy’s motive: to impress one of the girls in the room so as to fuck her.

“Well, I’m sorry that my wife goes to the beach often.”

Everyone laughed. That was why he liked Prof Yoo’s lectures. Then Albert came to a conclusion: Prof Yoo was being humorous so that one of the girls would like him. Then, have sex.

“Something within the unconscious mind is stopping the id from its desire. That something is what we call superego. Superego is like the opposite of id; it looks at society, thinks logically and instils morals into the mind. Whether it’s to integrate into society is anyone’s guess. This, Freud suggests, is done unconsciously. It has been argued whether it’s society that creates the superego, or it’s in our genes. Think of superegos as your parents. When you were young, you would steal chocolate from the fridge when you desired sweet food. Your parents would be there to scold you, and then tell you why it shouldn’t be done. Freud, in his book Civilization and Its Discontents, suggests that civilization is the lock to all our desires and our aggressions. Therefore, it’s argued that society creates the superego in us. Sociologists like to call it collective consciousness, and claim that the superego is fed to us by society as one grows older. Some of you call it conscience.”

Albert nodded to himself.

“Some people argue that we’re all born into this world with merely id—the primary drive to seek pleasure or avoid pain. That we are born ‘id-ridden’.”

Prof Yoo went on to talk about id and superego, and Albert took down notes. Society and something in him—unconsciously—had indeed stopped him from raping Shu Yi now.


“So, now we’ll move on to ego. As a psychology student, you should not think of ego as merely self-esteem. That’s the dictionary meaning, so leave that to the nerdy linguistics students next door. Wait—is there one here?” Some students laughed. Prof Yoo then continued, “Ego is the balance between id and superego, and it’s self-aware. In other words, it’s sort of conscious—having the ability to think. It acts according to the reality principle. You see, as you have desire and self-control fighting each other, there must always be a result. So, ego compromises a little of desire and a little of self-control. It acts as a mediator between id and superego, and then does whatever is socially acceptable, yet eventually fulfilling the desire. In the example of the beach boy, he doesn’t go rape the girl. Nor does he forget about her.”

“He goes to the toilet to masturbate,” someone said. Surprisingly, it was a female voice.

Albert waited for Prof Yoo to say that the answer was wrong. Or maybe he was waiting for Prof Yoo to say something that was socially accepted in a school. But Prof Yoo said, “Yes, that’s right. Freud suggests that masturbators are taking the easy route. Or the beach boy might hit on the girl. It really depends on how strong his id is, and how strong his superego is. Since it’s pleasure seeking, the id might not be stronger than the superego. If it’s pain avoiding, then the id might be stronger than the superego. Read the book Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud to understand how our aggression is being restricted.”

“Prof.” Shu Yi raised her hand. Oh, I so desire you, Shu Yi. “What if the id is stronger than the superego? Would that turn people into beasts?”

Prof Yoo smiled. “Aren’t we already?”

* * *

Albert was thinking about Shu Yi’s question when the sound of the explosion pierced his ears.

The loud cries of the passengers were muffled by the echoes of the blast. In the train where people had been squeezing for a space to stand, they were now beginning to grab on to something—anything. The echoes of the explosion lasted for about two seconds, and then the train braked abruptly. Everyone, including men, was screaming. A collision? An accident?

Confusion reigned over logic. People pushed their way away from the blast, as though it would lead to a fireball. Albert then saw it.


The young, petite lady in a power suit with an LV bag, seemingly a high-flyer, elbowed her way like a rugby player. Her strength surprised Albert: The people she shoved comprised a few beefy men and a middle-aged woman, but the lady rammed ahead like a bowling ball hitting pins. When an old woman screamed with her legs stretched out, the lady kicked them away and continued. Then, the next.


Two men shouted for people to remain calm. They could have run as well, but they helped, making their way towards the source of the explosion in slow, careful steps, like brave firemen walking into a burning building. One of them stopped at the intercom and tried to talk to the driver. The other continued to pacify the passengers as he melted into the front of the train.

Albert did nothing. He, like many of the passengers, remained seated and watched ids fight with superegos with eyes and mouth wide open. Out of all the running passengers, it seemed like only two people had their superego suppressing their id; the rest responded to their id: that drive to survive, or in Freud’s words, to avoid unhappiness, regardless of anything.

Prof Yoo was right.

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