British Psychotherapist and Essayist
British Psychotherapist and Essayist
Authority wants to replace the world with itself. Over-interpretation means not being stopped in your tracks by what you are most persuaded by; it means assuming that to believe one interpretation is to radically misunderstand the object one is interpreting, and indeed interpretation itself.
In Freud?s vision of things we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate, we love; wherever we love, we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can also frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us, we always believe that they can satisfy us. We criticize when we are frustrated ? or when we are trying to describe our frustration, however obliquely ? and praise when we are more satisfied, and vice versa. Ambivalence does not, in the Freudian story, mean mixed feelings, it means opposing feelings.
Nothing makes us more critical, more confounded ? more suspicious, or appalled, or even mildly amused ? than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism; that we should be less impressed by it. Or at least that self-criticism should cease to have the hold over us that it does.
The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unloved life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad. We have to be aware of what is missing in our lives - even if this often obscures both what we already have and what is actually available - because we can survive only if our appetites more or less work for us. Indeed, we have to survive our appetites by making people cooperate with our wanting. We pressurize the world to be there for our benefit. And yet we quickly notice as children - it is, perhaps, the first thing we do notice - that our needs, like our wishes, are always potentially unmet. Because we are always shadowed by the possibility of not getting what we want, we lean, at best, to ironize our wishes - that is, to call our wants wishes: a wish is only a wish until, as we say, it comes true - and, at worst, to hate our needs. But we also learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like.
We may not be able to imagine a life in which we don?t spend a large amount of our time criticizing ourselves and others; but we should keep in mind the self-love that is always in play.
Because we are nothing special - on a par with ants and daffodils - it is the work of culture to make us feel special? This, essentially, is the question psychoanalysis was invented to address: what can of pleasures can sustain a creature that is nothing special? Once the promise of immortality, of being chosen, was displaced by the promise of more life - the promise, as we say, of getting more out of life - the unloved life became a haunting presence in a life legitimated by nothing more than the desire to live it. For modern people, stalked by their choices, the good life is a life lived to the full. We become obsessed, in a new way, by what is missing in our lives: and by what sabotages the pleasures that we seek.
In our dreams we can have our eggs cooked exactly how we want them, but we can?t eat them.
Once the next life - the better life, the fuller life - has to be in this one, we have a considerable task on our hands. Now someone is asking us not only to survive but to flourish, not simply or solely to be good but to make the most of our lives. It is a quite different kind of demand. The story of our lives becomes the story of the lives we were prevented from living.
The wish to be understood may be our most vengeful demand, may be the way we hang on, as asults, to our grudge against our mothers; the way we never let our mothers off the hook for their not meeting our every need. Wanting to be understood, as adults, can be our most violent form of nostalgia.
We need, in other words, to know something about what we don?t get, and about the importance of not getting it.
Before you have children, the novelist Fay Weldon once said, you can believe you are a nice person: after you have children you understand how wars start.
Indeed psychoanalysis makes sense only as part of the larger cultural conversation in the arts that became known as modernism. Vienna, where Freud lived for virtually his entire life, was the eye of the storm of this modernism; and was the birthplace of the linguistic philosophy that came to dominate the twentieth century.
Psychoanalysis is an account of how and why modern people are so frightened of each other.
There is always what will turn out to be the life we led, and the life that accompanied it, the parallel life (or lives) that never actually happened, that we lived in our minds, the wished-for life (or lives): the risks untaken and the opportunities avoided or unprovided. We refer to them as our unloved lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason - and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason - they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are. As we know more now than ever before about the kinds of lives it is possible to live - and affluence has allowed more people than ever before to think of their lives in terms of choices and options - we are always haunted by the myth of our potential, of what we might have it in ourselves to be or do. So when we are not thinking, like the character in Randall Jarrell's poem, that The ways we miss our lives is life, we are grieving or regretting or resenting our failure to be ourselves as we imagine we could be. We share our lives with the people we have failed to be.
Were we to meet this figure socially, as it were, this accusatory character, this internal critic, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him. That he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout of some catastrophe. And we would be right.
Believing in religion is like believing that adulthood is the solution to childhood.
Indeed that is what our lives are, a project of recovery and restitution; or we have to ironize our always wanting to get something back that we never had and that never existed anyway.
Sanity, as the project of keeping ourselves recognizably human, therefore has to limit the range of human experience. To keep faith with recognition we have to stay recognizable. Sanity, in other words, becomes a pressing preoccupation as soon as we recognize the importance of recognition. When we define ourselves by what we can recognize, by what we can comprehend- rather than, say, by what we can describe- we are continually under threat from what we are unwilling and/or unable to see. We are tyrannized by our blind spots, and by whatever it is about ourselves that we find unacceptable.
There is nothing more terrorizing than the possibility that nothing is hidden. There is nothing more scandalous than a happy marriage
When God is dead, kindness is permitted. When God is dead, kindness is all that people have.
Conscience? it is the part of our mind that makes us lose our minds; the moralist that prevents us from evolving a personal, more complex and subtle morality; that prevents us from finding, by experiment, what may be the limits of our being. So when Richard III says, in the final act of his own play, ?O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!?, a radical alternative is being proposed. That conscience makes cowards of us all because it is itself cowardly. We believe in, we identify with, this starkly condemnatory and punitively forbidding part of ourselves; and yet this supposedly authoritative part of ourselves is itself a coward.
It is as if, oddly, you were waiting for someone but you didn?t know who they were until they arrived. Whether or not you were aware that there was something missing in your life, you will be when you meet the person you want. What psychoanalysis will add to this love story is that the person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams; that you have dreamed them up before you met them; not out of nothing ? nothing comes of nothing ? but out of prior experience, both real and wished for. You recognize them with such certainty because you already, in a certain sense, know them; and because you have quite literally been expecting them, you feel as though you have known them for ever, and yet, at the same time, they are quite foreign to you. They are familiar foreign bodies.
Satisfaction is no more the solution to frustration than certainty is the solution to skepticism.
To grow up is to discover what one is unequal to.
Writers as diverse as Wordsworth and Freud, as Blake and Dickens have all hypothesized that the turbulence and intensity we feel as young children are what ultimately give us our life force as adults. Without this first madness, without being able to sustain this emotional lifeline to our childhoods--to our most passionate selves-- our lives can being to feel futile