Our Way

I am reblogging a post from several years ago that makes the point I was trying to make in my last post in a slightly different — and more effective — way.

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about our most private lives. We think ourselves superior to the Victorians, with all their hangups, their unwillingness to discuss sex or to see one another naked. We have been taught by every pop psychologist who can set pen to paper or manage a spot on a daytime TV show that we must let it all hang out to be healthy: it’s not good to repress our feelings. Though they may never have read him, these people are playing fast and loose with some of the ideas of Sigmund Freud who knew whereof he spoke. But it is no more clear that these ideas are truly Freudian than it is that we are any healthier than the Victorians, for all our “honesty” about sex and the widespread display of naked bodies on the TV and movie screens. Wallace Stegner, who has a way of asking troublesome questions, wrote about this and presents us with an interesting set of questions.

In his Pulitzer-winning novel, Angle of Repose, his hero is writing a history of the marriage between his grandmother and her husband, whom he greatly admires. His grandmother was an unadulterated Victorian woman, a lady, and one who bore all the burdens of womanhood in an age when women were supposed to be handmaids to their husbands — a quality that has come under severe scrutiny from the feminists among us. In his novel, Stegner also presents us with a young, liberated woman named Shelly Rasmussen, who helps the wheelchair-ridden narrator in his attempts to gather material for his history and get it ready for him to work with. Shelly is in her early 20’s and has already had a failed relationship with an “acid-head” who has forced her to flee back to her parents where she finds work with Lyman Ward, historian, and narrator of this story. While musing about one of the chapters Ward has written about his grandmother, Shelly admonishes him for being prudish about his grandmother’s sex life. If this “history” is largely a novel, why not juice it up and make it more interesting, instead of turning out the lights just when things get interesting? Ward muses:

“I felt like asking her, if contemporary sexual attitudes are so much healthier than Grandmother’s, how Grandmother managed to get through a marriage that lasted more than sixty years, while Shelly Rasmussen hides out in her parents’ house at the age of twenty or so to escape the attentions of her liberated and natural lover.”

Stegner’s novel was written in the early 1970s, soon after the radical movement had blown the top off pretense and restraint, as one might say, and started “telling it like it is.” Stegner may be reeling somewhat from the aftershock of that explosion, but his questions still seem bothersome many years later: are we really better off for all our “honesty”? We have been told we are, but it is not all that obvious.

Freud, of course, never said we should let it all hang out, and if we were leaning on Freud for our psychological insights, instead of a bevy of pop-followers who may never have read the man’s works, we would learn that civilization presupposes repression, or at the very least, sublimation, in order to provide us with the many benefits we so much take for granted. Repression does result in neuroses, but there never was a time when humans were completely free of those — even caused early-on in history by numerous tribal taboos. Freud knew all about repression, and he borrowed Nietzsche’s notion of sublimation to instruct us about the mechanism that makes creativity and real progress possible. It’s not all about “letting it all hang out,” it’s all about being honest with ourselves and acknowledging those things that inhibit us, facing up to them, and “sublimating,” i.e., redirecting, our energies in productive ways.

Lyman Ward sits imprisoned in his wheelchair in almost constant pain, looking at a picture of his grandmother on the wall, a face that reflects “discipline, self-control, modesty. . ” Then he notes Shelly Rasmussen sprawled on the floor, disheveled, unkempt, bra-less and full of rage, letting it all hang out — literally and metaphorically. Readers are aware not only of the stinging things this young woman says to an elderly, retired professor of history who is racked with pain, grilling him and critiquing his book and his prudery as well as his beloved grandmother’s. But we are also aware of the fact that she has the audacity to do so in the first place. Without a doubt, we are less civilized than the Victorians; we live such shallow lives. We are asked by Stegner to question whether we are happier.

Flight From Woman

Despite the fact that he never married, Henry Adams held women in the highest possible regard and often, in his autobiography, tells the reader how he was “rescued as often before by a woman.” In most cases it was Senator Cabot Lodge’s wife, who, with her husband and children, accompanied Adams on many of his travels. Indeed, it was with the Lodges that Adams first visited Mont St. Michel and Chartres and later wrote his remarkable study. He spends the bulk of one chapter in his autobiography taking about the plight of women in his age and says, in passing, “Adams owed more to the American woman than to all the American men he ever heard of, and felt not the smallest call to defend his sex who seemed able to take care of themselves. . . . woman was the superior.” In addition, Adams wrote two novels that center around women: Sybil and Madeline Ross in Democracy, and Esther in the novel by that name. In the former, Madeline Ross finds herself unable to “purify politics” in all-male Washington because she discovers “an atrophy of the moral sense by disuse.” Indeed.  For the most part the women stand head and shoulders above the men in the novels as they did with the women in Adams’ life.  I suspect that it was Adams’ high regard for women that drew him to the Chartres Cathedral which was built as homage to the Virgin Mary. As I suggested in an earlier blog, the Virgin represented to medieval men and women the Earth Mother from whom we all came and whose warm embrace will enfold us all in the end. What is this all about?

I would suggest that this has nothing whatever to do with modern feminism. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that modern feminism has helped to effectively eliminate from common discourse any discussion of the woman as she was viewed by such men as Henry Adams. Some would insist that this is for the better. But let us pause and reflect. To Adams, women represent the softer and more gentle side of life, the intuitive and emotional, caring and loving side. Woman represents feeling, man represents reason and cold, hard logic. And despite the fact that Adams himself had a mind like a steel trap and could reason with the best, he preferred feeling which he insists brings us all closer to one another and to life itself. His heroes and heroines show extraordinary sensitivity and he himself was drawn to beauty in all its forms. Adams would have agreed with Jung who insisted on the duality within each of us and tended, for his part, to prefer the side of feeling, the compassion and love that was represented by women and which he was not himself afraid to acknowledge in himself. In fact, he seems throughout his autobiography to regret deeply not having lived in the medieval period when the Virgin Mary was very real and gave meaning to life; she was available to all as a source of comfort and succor.

But what of this duality? Why is it that so much of what is written and spoken about women and men today seems directed toward a categorical denial, a leveling down, an insistence of no difference where differences clearly exist? Why is it that today women so often must seek success in men’s terms, by wearing pants and being assertive and tough enough to break the “glass ceiling”? The male is hard and repellant in so many respects. As Karl Stern points out in his interesting book Flight From Woman,

“Just as in the function of the spermatozoon in its relation to the ovum, man’s attitude toward nature is that of attack and penetrate. He removes rocks and uproots forests to make space for agriculture. He dams up rivers and harnesses the power of water. Chemistry breaks up the compound of molecules and rearranges the position of atoms. Physics overcomes the law of nature, gravity, first in the invention of the wheel — last in the supersonic rocket that soars into the stratosphere. . . . Man’s activity is always directed against nature.”

Men are leading the onslaught against the Earth Mother today: why would women want to be like men? The answer is that society demands it. We have defined success in monetary terms and the only way women can be successful, as we define that term today, is to play a man’s game. and play it as well as or better than the men. However, it is not demeaning to women to insist that they are different, especially if that difference amounts to a superiority. And it assuredly doesn’t imply that women should be denied the same rights as men. For centuries, of course, they were denied a voice and recognition as morally equal to men. It is certainly understandable that women have become defensive about being set apart: they want the recognition they deserve and have been so long denied. But perhaps the fight has progressed a few steps too far. That is one of the consequences of the trend toward equality that slowly emerged from the age of Enlightenment when people first started thinking about moral equality and the need to recognize the rights of all. But moral equality does not translate into sameness: we should  eschew any leveling down, recognize difference and accept it.

As Stern insists in a remark that would offend many women today, women “act and react out of the dark, mysterious depths of the unconscious, i.e., affectively,  intuitively, mysteriously. This is no judgment of value, but a statement of fact.”  This does not mean that women should not pursue mathematics and science or become police officers, which are supposed to be more “manly” activities, but simply that we should all acknowledge that there are differences between men and women and that every one of us is an intriguing combination of the two natures. Some women make better physicists or mathematicians than men and some men make better poets or writers than many women do. Recent testing suggests that young girls do as well as or even better than young boys in tests involving math and science. But that does not mean that there are not differences between the two aspects of the human psyche or that women and men are not different from one another in ways that subtend the physical. It is precisely because we come to this topic with bags choked with prejudice and suspicions that when differences are pointed out we insist that value judgments are being made; we refuse to acknowledge the facts that stare us in the face.

But if in the end we insist upon making those value judgments, rather than simply to acknowledge that there are ineluctable differences between the sexes, then perhaps we should simply agree with Adams that the female is superior to the male. Love trumps aggression every time. As Joseph Conrad would have it, women are “not the playthings of Time,” they shine forth with “an unearthly glow in the darkness.” And that darkness is the result of man’s unfettered rapaciousness over the centuries.

But as I write these words I wonder if we have come to the point where they simply no longer make any sense.

Losing Our Faculties

When philosophers first started exploring the human mind in a study that eventually became psychology, there was virtual unanimity that the human mind was comprised of a number of “faculties.” This eventually became known as “faculty psychology,” which, I am given to understand, is no longer accepted by all members of the psychology fraternity. I, however, find it most helpful in attempting to understand myself and my fellow humans.  Two of the human  faculties that have received a great deal of attention over the years are memory and imagination and much of the effort in the schools in bygone days was devoted to developing both of these faculties. But no longer.

Students are seldom asked to memorize passages from poetry or literature or even the times-tables in arithmetic: it is all available on the student’s i-pod. Whatever needs to be known can be looked up and there seems to be no need to develop the child’s memory, which is a shame, since memory is an integral part of human intelligence. But even more to the point is the lapse in attention to the human imagination, which is an essential part of being human. I have touched on this before, but it bears repeating. Besides, I have another point to make.

Take sex. In reading Balzac’s Cousin Bette recently the point was driven home by the circuitous way the author has of describing the wiles of his very sultry and sexy protagonist Valérie Marneffe who, while a married woman, manages to entertain three lovers at the same time. She is a remarkably beautiful and talented woman! But Balzac merely suggests this; he does not lay it all out there for us to lap up. He relies on the power of suggestion and the lively imagination of the reader to construct the complete picture while provided with mere hints. That’s the way things were done in his day — the nineteenth century — even in France! Take the following description of Valérie’s seductive attentions to one of her lovers, the wealthy and very bourgeois Célestin Carvel. He appears before her deeply troubled by a scene he has just witnessed and Valérie is determined to get his mind back on more important things, namely, herself. As Carvel enters her bedroom, Valérie is having her hair combed by her maid.

“Reine [her maid] that’ll do for today. I’ll finish my hair myself. Give me my Chinese dressing-gown, for my Monsieur looks as rum as an old Mandarin. . . Valerie took her wrap, under which she was wearing her vest, and slid into the dressing gown like a snake under its tuft of grass. . . .[Later] she struck a pose in a fashion that was enough to lay Carvel wide open, as Rabelais put it, from his brain to his heels; she was so funny and bewitching, with her bare flesh visible through the mist of fine lawn.”

You get the picture — I hope. Here we have a sketch that the writer presents to the reader allowing him or her to fill in the details. It is sufficient to create an image that Balzac wants and it is very effective. But it relies on the reader’s imagination. Without that, there is no picture. And this is true of art generally: it requires an effort on the part of the reader or spectator to complete the picture, whether it is drawn, painted, or written — an effort of imagination.

But we are no longer asked to make that effort. The above scene would be written today in lurid detail in an effort to shock and stimulate — but not to ask the reader to imagine. The writer or painter, or photographer, sets it all out there for the viewer to see in graphic detail, the more vivid the better. This is certainly the case when it comes to sex and violence, but it is true generally of the media today that seek to sensationalize all human emotions. Lost is subtlety and suggestion. Lost, too, is the sense of mystery that surrounds the unmentioned. The human imagination is in danger of becoming flaccid, emaciated, unable to stand on its own, much less run and leap. As Henry Adams would have it, “. . . the feebleness of our fancy is now congenital, organic, beyond stimulant or strychnine, and we shrink like sensitive plants from the touch of a vision or spirit.” And he noted that long before i-pods and video games!

But so what, you might ask? The answer is that the human imagination is necessary for the possibility of ethical behavior. This is something that is seldom noted but which is worth pondering. The so-called “Golden Rule” which lies at the heart of so many religions and ethical systems requires that we imagine the effects of our own actions and treat others as we would imagine they might treat us in the same circumstances. Without imagination there can be no sympathy, much less empathy, which many would regard as central to ethical actions. We do the right thing by others because we can imagine ourselves in the same straits and we care enough to act to relieve their suffering. Again, without the imagination, there can be no action.

Thus while the entertainment industry works hard at devising new tricks to present to masses of viewers the latest in technical expertise and trickery, they threaten to render impotent the human imagination. Not only will art suffer in the end (as it has already) and our lives become shallow, we are in danger of losing our faculties — not only memory, but, more importantly, imagination. The mental faculties are like muscles: they need to be exercised to gain strength.

Freud On Violence

In my effort to understand violence and the reason why Americans seem to have a penchant for violent acts, I have previously alluded to Hannah Arendt’s suggestion that violence is a result of a sense of powerlessness that leads to frustration and finally to a violent act. This strikes me as entirely plausible. But there is a deeper and, perhaps more compelling analysis that we can find in the writings of Sigmund Freud — and it seems to complement Arendt’s analysis.

Before looking at what Freud said about violence, however, I must apologize to those who think the man himself was quite mad and obsessed with sex. I had a colleague in psychology at the university where I taught who had a picture on the bulletin board in her office with a red circle and a line through the silhouette of the father of modern psychotherapy. I have always thought that strange, since the man was historically important in her field, but she was convinced that he was the patron saint of misogynists and she simply couldn’t get past the fact that Freud insisted that all women suffered from (among other things) penis envy. She refused to teach any of his doctrines to her students. Welcome to the postmodernist age!

Be that as it may, Freud had some very interesting things to say about human sexuality and about the human psyche generally and rather than toss him on the dust bin of dead-white-European-males with the rest of many of those who created Western Civilization, it might be worth our while to listen to what he had to say. With that in mind, let’s take a quick peek at what he had to say about violence.

Freud was convinced that humans develop a conscience, or what he called the “super-ego” as a result of repression. Parents say “no” to the child and the child represses his natural urges toward aggression and destruction. Thus, what we call “civilization,” in the form of parental and societal repression, thwarts the natural instincts common to us all and they are turned inwards toward the self and become what we call a  bad conscience. We feel bad about doing those things we were told not to do as we grow up.

When the restraints of civilization are loosened, as they are in a permissive society, the aggressive instincts turn outwards again in the form of violence toward others. Given the fact that, thanks in large measure to a misreading of Freud, ours is an increasingly permissive society where we rarely say “no,” we can expect to see increasing levels of violence. We no longer turn the aggressive instincts toward ourselves in the form of a bad conscience, we turn them loose on others in the form of rage and violent actions: we let it “all hang out.” When guns are readily available, as they are in this society, this can easily take the form of an increase in what we call “gun-deaths.” Couple the lack of repression with a growing sense of powerlessness among people used to getting their way as children and we can begin to understand why violence is on the rise in this country.

So those who say that guns don’t kill people, people kill people are half right. People in this increasingly permissive society are more and more inclined to violence and would doubtless find a way to express that violence — though they can get vicarious release by watching violent sports such as football. But when they (or their mothers) can buy an assault weapon and some hand guns from Walmart, the temptation is to reach for those weapons when angry rather than, say, a baseball bat or a knife.

There’s not much we can do about the permissive nature of the society in which we live. It seems to be a fact of modern life. But we can certainly do something about the availability of weapons that allow the expression of our violent tendencies to take the form of mass killings — if we have the will. And by “we” I mean, of course, the Congress of the United States.