Doris McIlwain On The Rationality Of ‘Irrational’ Love And Hate

In Living Palely: On the rationality of a certain fullness of feeling (Artlink, Vol 29 No. 3, 2009), Doris McIlwain writes: 

Friendship and love are not fully rational enterprises. They become strangely symptomatic when we approach them as if they are….To me the sign that you really like someone is when you cannot quite offer a full answer when asked why. You could offer reasons, but they would not be the full story….the hot, less thoughtful bits of emotion can contribute intuitive information that we couldn’t get in any other way, as when we experience an inexplicable discomfort at what someone has just said and realise we are being lied to.

McIlwain would have agreed, I think, that if ‘friendship and love are not fully rational enterprises’ then neither are enmity and hatred. We cannot quite explain why we do not like someone; why they make us uneasy, why they ‘just rub me the wrong way.’ We are asked to explain why; we find we fail; our explanations ‘run out somewhere.’ We are helpless in the face of an ‘intuitive’ feeling that something is amiss, something we ‘cannot put a finger on,’ something that pushes us away, that repels us. (We might find, in the course of an analytic session, on the therapist’s couch, that these wellsprings of emotion stream forth from an unresolved, unintegrated childhood experience; perhaps there are encounters we need to have with the past before we can confront the present and the future. The unconscious holds on tightly to emotions and memories alike.)

McIlwain’s broader point is about how reason and emotion can, may, and should work together to animate our–not ‘fully rational’–responses to this world’s offerings. And so it applies too, to our reactions to the words we read and write, the art we make and appreciate, the food we make and provide. We feel affinities to, and repulsions from, peculiar and particular passages of text and authorial maneuvers and locutions; we come to a halt before an artwork, and circle back, puzzled, not quite sure why it draws us toward it–or why it makes us reach for a hammer; we read a poem and know not why it, and not others ‘just like it’ speak to us and hold us; we bite into a morsel, and pause, curiously aware that we are experiencing much more than just plain ‘ol sweet, savory or spicy (‘comfort food’ wouldn’t be called that if it didn’t.) Small wonder our efforts to systematize  the critiques and responses we offer to these experiences are destined to flirt with an incoherence of sorts.

A desirable one, of course, one that speaks to the irreducibility of this mixed up creature we know ourselves to be, this blend of cold and hot, calm and turbulent, this always elusive subject–to the merely reasoned or affective. Reason and emotion working together ensure we always break the mold; they make this world richer and more variegated; we are grateful we see this world through the stereoscopic vision these two lenses afford us.

On Not Recommending One’s Choices

Recently, all too often, I catch myself saying something like the following, “I took decision X, and I have my fair share of regrets and self-congratulation about it but I would not recommend X to anyone” or “In all honesty, I couldn’t recommend that you take decision X as I did.” Or something like that: I took this path, and I’ve reconciled myself to it, but I cannot recommend that you do the same. Even with the express caveat to be prepared for mixed blessings, which would seem to provide all the ‘cover’ needed.  (The kinds of decisions I have mind included some of the most momentous of my life: immigrating, choosing a graduate education and then an academic career, entering a monogamous relationship, and having a child.)

Some of this hesitancy is, I think, quite straightforward. Many of these reasons–cultural, intellectual, psychological–are familiar and infected with a favorable assessment of ourselves and others. We are reluctant to preach and proselytize; we are modest, and think it inappropriate to convey the impression of having gotten things right; we do not want to oversell the good and we do not want to understate the bad–we do not want to brag, we do not want to whine; we want others to take on the terrible responsibility we felt when we took those decisions; we value the boundaries of the autonomous protective space that others have built up around themselves (see: ‘reluctance to preach…’ above.). And lastly, I think, a less exalted, but related, reason: we do not want to saddled with the burden of having pointed out the path to someone, we do not want to be ‘blamed’ when things go wrong.  (There are dozens of web sites, or at least pages, which are dedicated to getting ‘modern, sensitive’ parents to overcome their loathing to preach to their kids, urging them to ‘just do it’ and ‘say something’; don’t be afraid of being a ‘hypocrite’ or a ‘preacher’ if your child’s safety is at stake, and so on.)

I experience my hesitancy as grounded in all these reasons, of course. But there is also another quite fundamental grounds as explanation for my–and possibly others’–failure to preach. I am never quite sure if my interlocutor and I are talking about precisely the same thing: too many dimensions and facets of their existential choices remain hidden, unclear, or ambiguous to me. I do not know whether all the paths of conduct that are entailed by these decisions are understood as such by them; I do not know if they mean, or refer to, the same objects and states and affairs as I do. These differences, always minor in the context of conversations with most we know, acquire an added facet when we encounter something like a truly crucial choice–made by someone else, another possessor of a unique, only partially accessible perspective.

That is, much like in another state of ignorance that I described in an earlier post about not interfering with others’ self-conceptions, I am reluctant to act for fear of blundering into an unknown space with inadequate navigational aid.

On Not ‘Interfering’ With Others’ Self-Conceptions

Sometimes, when I talk to friends, I hear them say things that to my ears sound like diminishments of themselves: “I don’t have the–intellectual or emotional or moral–quality X” or “I am not as good as Y when it comes to X.” They sound resigned to this self-description, this self-understanding. I think I see things differently; I think I see ample evidence of the very quality they seem to find lacking in themselves. Sometimes, I act on this differing assessment of mine, and rush to inform them they are mistaken. They are my friends; their lowered opinion of themselves must hurt them, in their relationships with others, in their ability to do the best they can for themselves. I should ‘help.’ It seems like the right thing to do. (This goes the other way too; sometimes my friends offer me instant correctives to putatively disparaging remarks I make about myself.)

But on occasion, I bite my tongue. I have heard this assessment too many times from this person. My previous interjections and interventions have had no effect. They are caught up in this conception of themselves; when they look in a mirror they know what they see–or want to see. And this recalcitrance of theirs makes me wonder whether my swooping in on from high will have any efficacy, and even more fundamentally, whether it is even warranted or desirable.

My friends are complex creatures, as all humans are. We encounter diverse personas in them, tips of icebergs we too often mistake for the not-visible mass that lurks below the water. They have constructed their selves over an extended period of time. Its components have been assembled by a process whose details are unknown to the rest of us. The self-assessments they offer me are their glimpses of this self, and they are part of this ongoing process of self construction. But my view is a partial one, occluded by all kinds of boundaries and barriers–physical and psychological. I do not know what role is played by this kind of self-assessment in their psychic economy.

Perhaps they use this kind of lowered ranking of themselves as a spur to improvement, as a warning against complacency, as a spark that lights some fuse. Perhaps making this concession, here, to a nagging doubt that they have entertained about their self-worth, allows them to offer more inflated assessments of themselves in other domains, ones in which a more exalted rating enables more of their lives’ ends and purposes to be realized. As therapists–and their patients–are fond of saying, we are the way we are because in some shape or fashion this is how we choose to be; this is what works for us, even if not for others. Some value of ours, even if it is not one esteemed by others, is preserved by so doing. Perhaps there is a payoff visible to my friends who talk thus, even if not to me.

And so, I wonder if I really should rush in to interfere with this project underway, a unique and distinctive one.


Schopenhauer on Revealing Our True Feelings

Thus spake Schopenhauer:

If you want to know how you really feel about someone take note of the impression an unexpected letter from him makes on you when you first see it on the doormat.¹

Why does Schopenhauer imagine that these kinds of reactions of ours would be particularly revealing of our ‘true’ feelings towards our acquaintances? One can hazard some educated guesses.

First, Schopenhauer suggests that on hearing from someone unexpectedly, we are caught off-guard, unprepared by social conditioning and convention, unable to fall back on safe, canned responses.  Thus, our first reaction is very likely to be an instinctive one, a ‘true’ indicator of our visceral, deeply rooted feelings. (There is also the small matter of the fact that more often than not, we will be alone when we pick up the mail and thus, unlikely to be putting on a performance for anyone else.) Schopenhauer deliberately does not suggest that our true feelings would be revealed during a chance personal encounter with an old acquaintance; for then our reactions would be affected by his presence, his eyes upon us.  We might then ‘perform’ for him. Rather, we must be made conscious of our acquaintance without feeling we need to ‘perform’ for him and conform to his expectations of how we would respond to his presence, his station in life, his role in ours. (Presumably, Schopenhauer might think we would have a similarly authentic reaction were we to unexpectedly encounter someone’s letter or photograph in a personal collection of ours; there again, we would be alone and able to respond unguardedly and unselfconsciously.)

Second, Schopenhauer suggests that most social encounters are well-defined and circumscribed ones, their parameters of acceptable behavioral responses quite clearly delineated by all manners of social norms, conventions and niceties; in these settings, we are not being ourselves but are rather, playing very particular roles. As he notes elsewhere in his essays:

There is an unconscious appositeness in the use of the word person to designate the human individual, as it is done in all European languages: for persona means an actor’s mask, and it is true that no one reveals himself as he is; we all wear a mask and play a role.

Here Schopenhauer takes refuge in the unnecessary essentialism of ‘himself as he is’. While this is perhaps unsurprising for someone so fond of the otherwise incomprehensible notion of ‘thing-in-itself‘, he could well have rested content with noting that what we consider someone’s personality is merely the sum total of these roles. There is nothing left over once these roles are accounted for. As the first aphorism suggests, Schopenhauer does think there is a ‘genuine core’ left over. But perhaps even our reaction to the unexpected letter might be a kind of role-playing, one performed for the ever-present witness of our selves. Certainly, in the conversations–sometimes silent, sometimes not–we have with ourselves all day long, we constantly acknowledge the presence of this other.


1. Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, ‘On Psychology’, R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin, New York, p. 171.

‘Empire,’ ‘Self-Government,’ and ‘Religious Conflict’

In The Colors of Violence, an attempt to contribute ‘a depth-psychological dimension to the understanding of religious conflict, especially the tensions between Hindus and Muslims [in India]’, Sudhir Kakar writes¹:

If Hindu-Muslim relations were in better shape in the past, with much less overt violence, it was perhaps also because of the kind of polity in which the two peoples lived. This polity was that of empire, the Mughal empire followed by the British one. An empire…Michael Walzer observes,² is characterized by a mixture of repression for any strivings for independence and tolerance for different cultures, religions and ways of life. The tolerance is not a consequence of any great premodern wisdom but because of the indifference, sometimes bordering on brutal incomprehension, of the imperial bureaucrats to local conflicts of the people they rule. Distant from local life,  they do not generally interfere with everyday life as long as things remain peaceful, though there may be intermittent cruelty to remind the subject peoples of the basis of empire–conquest through force of arms. It is only with self-government, when distance disappears, that the political questions–‘Who among us shall have power here, in these villages, in these towns?’ ‘Will the majority group dominate?’ ‘What will be the new ranking order?’–lead to a heightened awareness of religious-cultural differences. In countries with multireligious populations, independence coincides with tension and conflict–such as we observe today in the wake of the unravelling of the Soviet empire.

This  analysis of religious conflict is not inconsistent with those that see it grounded in economic dispute and class struggle; the political questions noted above have an economic dimension to them as well, for variants of the power being mediated and parceled out and haggled over are very often economic ones; and class struggles may only become more starkly visible when the mediating hand of empire is removed. It is however, in the Indian context, inconsistent with those accounts of Hindu-Muslim conflict, which view the two ‘communities’ as living in a state of peaceful, tolerant amity before being rudely interrupted in their mutually respectful reveries by the heavy hand of the divide and rule colonialist; instead, here, it is the colonial stamp that keeps the incipient clashes at bay.

The empires of the colonialist enterprise displaced questions of power to its centers, away from the margins, and rendered its most central questions in a form that appeared only in highly restricted forms–pertaining to survival, not flourishing–to its subjects. ‘Local conflicts’ of the sort alluded to above remained low-stakes affairs, the spoils accruing to their victors not great enough to warrant the mobilization of a favored group along lines that emphasized social, cultural and religious identity. It is only when the trappings of the immense power associated with governmentality become visible that the group draws in closer and prepares to make an ambitious, even if expensive and bloody, play for power.


1. Sudhir Kakar, The Colors of Violence, Penguin Books India, 1995, pp.  241

2. Michael Walzer, ‘Nations and minorities’, in C. Fried, ed., Minorities: Community and Identity, (Berlin: Springer Verlag), pp. 219-27