Political Pathology And The Inability To Accept Love

In a post on ‘the underestimation of the capacity to love‘ I wrote of its converse, ‘the inability to accept love’:

That inability, that lowered view of oneself, the judgment that one is unworthy of the love, caring and commitment that is sent our way by our lovers, parents, children, and friends, leads many to reject the intimacy and caring of long-term relationships, the kind that require sacrifice and commitment. It causes the pushing away of partners, the cringing from their touch, the turning away. Those who do so suffer from impostor syndrome: If only the truth about me were to be known, no one would love me, least of all the ones professing their undying love for me.

This inability has a political dimension to it, which is alluded to in my original post: those suffering from it–that is, most of us–render themselves susceptible to political pathology. We cannot imagine ourselves the subjects of a state underwritten by benevolence; we do not imagine ourselves worthy of such an arrangement, part of a community founded on the desire to work toward a common, shared good; instead, we cast ourselves adrift, sometimes seeking the fool’s gold of ‘liberal’ political goods like ‘self-determination,’ ‘individuality,’ ‘independence,’ and ‘autonomy.’ Because we think we are unworthy of care and affection directed at us by others, we valorize instead the solitary, turning a self-imposed necessity into a virtue.

And because we imagine ourselves unworthy of ‘political love’ we are afraid to ask for what is our due; we accept all too readily the abuse of those who govern us. We imagine we deserve no better; we are sinners, always begging for forgiveness; we dare not ask–or fight–for our rights. We accept the handouts sent our way, the grudging political pittances that we imagine are our actual dues. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are sometimes surprised by the ready acquiescence of those they seek to rule; their rule is underwritten and facilitated by this kind of ready acceptance of their peremptory commands.  Rule us; for we are unworthy of anything else. We will not even ask for the satisfaction of our most basic human wants: a roof over our heads, clothing, shelter, and care of us when we are sick and infirm. The political subject who imagines himself unworthy of the love of his fellow citizens is all too ready to be possessed of a vengeful, retributive, spirit; he is all too ready to believe tales of the wickedness that surrounds him. I am fallen among the fallen; do with what you will; like me, they are unworthy of love, of giving or receiving it. The political self-abnegation here is complete.

Note: The political and psychological phenomena described above are exceedingly familiar. Humanist criticism of religion and the state begins from such standpoint; it urges us to view ourselves in a more kindly light, to accept ourselves more readily as a preliminary to letting our fellow political and social subjects into our homes and hearts.

The ‘Ideal Marriage’ And Its Painful Sexual Ignorance

In Making Love: An Erotic Odyssey (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1992, pp. 32-33), Richard Rhodes writes:

Somehow I acquired a copy of Dutch physician T. H. van de Velde‘s Ideal Marriage, published in the United States in 1926, the most popular marriage manual in American until The Joy of Sex came along. Ideal Marriage was wise and tender about love abut euphemistically vague and sometimes criminally misinformed about sex. Van de Velde promulgated the sexist conviction that both partners in an act of intercourse should come to orgasm at the same time. “In normal and perfect coitus,” I read in his book and believed for years afterward, “mutual orgasm must be almost simultaneous; the usual procedure is that the mans’ ejaculation begins and sets the acme of sensation in train at once.” Impossible to measure how much pain that single ignorant sentence caused. It must have baffled hundreds and thousands of men and agonized hundreds of thousands, at least, of women. I took it for God’s truth when I read it–wasn’t it printed in a book? How did Van de Velde arrive at such a bizarre conclusion? From his own experience? From unsupported theory?

Color me baffled too, even if I cannot, like Rhodes, blame Van de Velde for this state of affairs. I did lay my hands on de Velde’s book as a pre-teen boy–a furtive glance or two at a copy that my parents owned, tucked away in some secret hiding place, which I had miraculously uncovered. My heart racing as I realized I was dealing with an illicit text that purported to reveal the secrets and mysteries of an increasingly intriguing and alluring zone of human interaction, I quickly leafed through its pages before hastily replacing it in its sanctum sanctorum and backing away. I promised to return when I had more time, when I was less worried about being caught, but that moment never came again.

But the myth that de Velde sought to perpetuate made the rounds anyway; perhaps in the softcore pulp fiction that I read like a maniac in my pre-teen and teen years, or perhaps in the way that sex was depicted on screen where matters proceeded smoothly between two equally competent partners with nary a touch of awkwardness, anxiety, insecurity, clumsiness, or dissatisfaction. An education–in many dimensions–awaited me in my sexually mature years. Euphemisms and bravado would count for little; only the right kind of hand waving would do.

Note: I own a copy of Alex Comfort‘s The Joy of Sex; a girlfriend and I bought it as a giggle many years ago, and we took turns snickering at its artful pencil drawings and sometimes purple prose. It had dated a little too quickly and now seemed corny (and sexist in all too many of its recommendations and observations.) As I browsed its pages, I was reminded of the computer nerd’s response to Comfort’s catchy title: a guidebook to the X-Windows System titled The Joy of X. I don’t own a copy of that but I wish I did.

The Underestimation Of Our Capacity To Love

In response to my post yesterday on biological and adoptive parents, my friend Maureen Eckert wrote:

Another way to think about this is that the tragedy is that people routinely underestimate their capacity to love. Maybe that is terrifying in all its implications.

My older doubts about adoption, which I expressed at the beginning of yesterday’s post, can well be viewed as precisely this underestimation of one’s capacity to love. Maureen is right that this variety of abnegation has “terrifying” dimensions to it.

An underestimation of the capacity to love is the converse, of course, of the inability to accept love. That inability, that lowered view of oneself, the judgment that one is unworthy of the love, caring and commitment that is sent our way by our lovers, parents, children, and friends, leads many to reject the intimacy and caring of long-term relationships, the kind that require sacrifice and commitment. It causes the pushing away of partners, the cringing from their touch, the turning away. Those who do so suffer from impostor syndrome: If only the truth about me were to be known, no one would love me, least of all the ones professing their undying love for me.

And sometimes those who turn away, who cringe, do so because they do not consider that they can reciprocate adequately. Judging oneself incapable of loving, or of not being able to love enough, unless some impossibly personal or circumstantial onerous conditions are met, ensures an inability to succeed in, or even desire, the relationships which  provide caring and intimacy and comfort, but which require commitment and reciprocation in turn. Those who suffer thus–and I use that term advisedly–stand at the outskirts of town, unable and unwilling to enter, afraid of failures of performance.

But, why is this terrifying?

I think it is so because a world populated by those who feel they cannot love, and who thus do not allow themselves to be loved, seems rather bleak. (Our world gives adequate evidence of the presence of these.) Love is not the only impulse propelling us to nobility of thought and action and sentiment, but it is certainly a powerful and significant force. To deny that to ourselves is to deny ourselves its powers and capacities; it is to shackle ourselves in thought and action.

But this shackling, this self-weakening, this self-neglect, would be considerably more benign if  those that did not love, or let themselves be loved, or think they cannot love, restricted their attentions and actions to themselves. But they do not, and indeed, they cannot. We are inextricably enmeshed in the lives and plans of others; our doings affect the trajectories of other lives; our plans may interfere with those of others. And all too often, those who do not love, or think they cannot love, hurt instead. Having rejected the outstretched arm and the bosom, they seek instead the cudgel and the club; having disdained the soft touch and word, they seek instead the harsh.

The underestimation of the capacity to love creates a vacuum, into which, all too easily, rushes the incapacity to empathize.  That seems a terrible burden for this world to bear.


Marty Hart Comes Undone

The fourth episode of HBO’s True Detective–“Who Goes There”–is justifiably famous for director Cary Joji Fukunaga‘s epic six-minute tracking take of a gun battle gone spectacularly, violently wrong. There is another scene in the episode that should be just as famous: Marty Hart‘s epic, rage and profanity-filled meltdown on finding out his wife Maggie has left him (after his paramour Lisa Tragnetti has ratted him out to her.)

A recap: Hart comes home to find packed suitcases and a note waiting for him. He reads the note–with no voiceover for the viewer–his face contorted by shock, anger, and fear. He then calls Lisa to find out if his worst fears are true. The next couple of minutes are absolutely terrifying.

Marty’s conversation with Lisa is as horrifying as it is because we witness the shocking transformation of two humans–formerly bound by sexual intimacy and shared confidences–into creatures possessed by a seemingly boundless mutual hatred. Hart is forced to channel his anger through an impersonal instrument, the phone, but it is visibly and viscerally present in his expressions, his bulging veins, his reddened visage, his clenched teeth; it is the closest I’ve seen a human being come to embodying a controlled detonation.

Marty’s anger is especially frightening because we know it is animated by fear. To Marty, Lisa has transformed herself into something dangerous and vicious; she is capable of great damage and harm; she has suddenly revealed a power once hidden; she is unafraid to use it. Marty is terrified by her, petrified by the knowledge he has consorted with such a monster. She is now beyond the control he thought he exerted over her; their past intimacy now appears as mere prelude for this betrayal. Marty is floundering; he has had the wind knocked out of him by Lisa; through his rage, he attempts to find a grounding in a bewildering new world.

But most frighteningly of all, Marty’s rage is impotent. He cannot shovel sand back into the hourglass; he cannot roll back Lisa’s communique; he cannot undo his affair; he cannot even bring Maggie to the phone. He rages and rages, not just at Lisa, but at himself, at the arrangements of this universe that place the past out of reach, that expose us again and again to such terrible finality. He can curse and commit himself to the deadliest of acts, but only for the future. The past is done and dusted.

Our daily composure is commonly understood as an elaborate construction, a holding back of the forces that fray us around the edges and threaten to pull us apart; it is often unable to resist the various insults sent its way. At those moments, we ‘lose our shit’, we come undone; we slump, the accumulated tension too great to bear. Watching another’s decay thus is frightening because it reminds us of our own vulnerability and fragility; it tells us we may suffer a similar fate, unable to take refuge behind our daily facade of normalcy.

Lawrence’s Rainbow Still Glistens

So much has been written about DH Lawrence‘s The Rainbow that further commentary is perhaps superfluous, but possible redundancy has never been much of an influence in decisions to write. So here I am, offering my dos pesos.

The Rainbow, ostensibly the multi-generation history of the Brangwen family (which continues in Women in Love), is an ambitious novel in which Lawrence advances many philosophical theses–ethical, metaphysical, and political–using a diverse set of literary techniques: internal monologues; authorial interventions and asides; and character construction and dialogues.  It situates these in its recounting of relationships between men and women, fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, teachers and students, and even employers and employees. (The Rainbow also features extended commentaries on, among other things, the educational system, the pernicious influence of industrial life on the English countryside, and the changing roles of women in society.)

I will not be the first, and certainly not the last, to note that Lawrence’s vision of the power plays between human beings can be bleak and dispiriting; this does not make it any less interesting. Sexual love and the relationships that spring up around it, are often, if not always, territories for the contestation of wills and selves doomed to remain opaquely hostile to the other; the ‘relationship’ such as it is, appears not so much as a shelter from the surrounding storm, as a theater for the creation of one.  Anger, fear, resentment, jealousy are as central to this battle as are the more exalted emotions normally associated with the mingling of bodies and souls. Man and woman bring a complex set of motivations, histories, and unresolved existential crises to their ‘encounter’; contact is made with the counterpart, and battle is almost immediately engaged. Sometimes there are are literal or figurative honeymoons; sometimes not. (Lawrence’s description of the cascade of confused anger and longing that can send a loving relationship careening downward approaches, at times, Tolstoy’s brilliant descriptions of the decay that infects Vronsky and Anna’s passions in Anna Karenina.)

An editor at a publishing house might well have returned Lawrence’s manuscript with the comment “It’s a little too interior, if you know what I mean.” Much of the ‘action’ in the novel is located in the maelstrom of characters’ minds;  the reader is frequently granted privileged access to extended attempts at resolutions of intractable, torturous compounds of emotional impulses. Digesting these and generating sympathy for, and empathy with, Lawrence’s characters remains the primary challenge for any reader.

Most critical takes on The Rainbow justifiably focus on the sexual relationships at its core; but Lawrence’s descriptions and analysis of the negotiations of power between employer and employee (at Ursula’s school) and between teacher and student (at the same venue) are also fascinating. These encounters are no less fraught than the sexual ones with struggles for pole position, for the deployment of strategies designed to assert one’s self in order to fully realize it.

The Rainbow is not a light read, but it is never tedious; the tone is magisterial, and only occasionally pompous. In scope and ambition it comes close to being an epic.