The Clare Spark Blog

August 14, 2014

Understanding Obama’s ongoing appeal

Ridha Ridha "Normal Ambivalence"

Ridha Ridha “Normal Ambivalence”

Many dark thoughts cross my mind as I contemplate the list of failures attributable to POTUS, but ranking the reason for his continued popularity in some quarters goes beyond his obvious appeal to recipients of state largesse, proud or despised minorities, and guilty liberals.

Why has no one mentioned his stirring speeches promising national unity that helped elect him in the first place? For his healing messages imply that not only warring sections of our country shall be reunited, but that the disunity that we feel inside ourselves, and inside our supposedly harmonious “families” shall also be resolved.

And yet ambivalence is part of the human condition, as Freud controversially alleged in his formulation of the inescapable Oedipus Complex. One old standard partly and incompletely expresses these mixed feelings that occasionally surface, but are usually quickly repressed. (Here is Nat King Cole singing the Vincent Youmans tune “Sometimes I’m Happy” 1957:

Psychiatrists Melanie Klein, Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg, in their studies of “object relations” and “narcissism” all explored the common practice of “splitting” in which we escape ambiguity and ambivalence by turning those figures (public or private) who arouse deep emotions into all good or all bad figures. I find myself doing this myself, and it is only in retrospect that I correct these black and white divisions. For like most other people, I am capable of either demonizing or hero-worshipping figures who are themselves sometimes benign, sometimes threatening, but always struggling to stay afloat.

Perhaps it is the greatest challenge we face as historians, as journalists, or as citizen-critics of our leaders to understand that each of us lives within a controlling, often menacing, context that we did not choose; moreover that we struggle to rationalize our own self-interest and to conform to the imprecations of our parents and siblings to be like them, to maintain idealized attachments, and indeed to like them without ambivalence.

We would rather escape into desolation or into the illusion of unity than face “things as they are” (Melville, speaking through the dubious (?) narrator of Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), or try his The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857)—if you can take the challenge to your amour propre.)

Ryoshimizu, "Ambivalence"

Ryoshimizu, “Ambivalence”

Here is a related blog:, with a disquieting painting by Max Beckmann expressing alienation and lack of connection with others or “things as they are.”

Beckmann, Paris Gesellschaft 1931

Beckmann, Paris Gesellschaft 1931


  1. I think I’ve asked if you had read Morse Peckham. This paragraph would pull right out of any one of his many books: …that each of us lives within a controlling, often menacing, context that we did not choose…

    He took part in a conference in 1966 that Paul Metcalf looks to have attended (at least he’s on the program)–The Melville-Hawthorne Conference–led by Howard Vincent and including all the usual Melville Suspects.

    Peckham contributed an essay to the symposium called “Hawthorne and Melville as European Authors.” I found it quite interesting more for the way that Peckham brings Emerson and Melville together in their literary methods–both poets of the “gap” who require the reader to be fully engaged in the critical process of thinking. Somewhere else Peckham notes that Moby Dick is the book that so many readers find “waking them up” to, as you say above, the “controlling…menacing, context we did not choose.”

    Comment by Douglas Storm — August 15, 2014 @ 11:33 am | Reply

    • I am undecided as to whether or not Melville identified with Captain Ahab. At times he clearly does; at other times not so much or even not. That is why I chose not to conclude anything about his motives in HUNTING CAPTAIN AHAB. The hunt will go on, fruitlessly, as long as MOBY-DICK is read. Whenever a journalist, pundit, or academic claims to have pinned down any author’s motives, I balk. We barely know ourselves, let alone the deepest motives of others.

      Comment by clarelspark — December 26, 2014 @ 7:56 pm | Reply

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