YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

February 21, 2013

Discovery anxiety

Joyce Kozloff Map

Joyce Kozloff Map

This blog is about mental health and idealization of families (for a previous and related blog see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/17/bondage-and-the-family/); but this one emphasizes the fear of discovery, whether it takes the form of self-inspection (examining our deepest, most hidden feelings) or discovering knowledge of other peoples, other places. Some might call this process of locating oneself in a specific personal history/world history a form of mapping. It is possible that many “anti-imperialists” suffer from the fear of actually encountering what is now called “the dark side” of human nature, and which in less enlightened periods, was called savagery or “the primitive.” Even the most enlightened and creative persons in the history of the West (e.g., Diderot) have imagined the “primitive” as exempt from the vicissitudes of growing to maturity in the developed societies. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/04/08/racism-modernity-modernism/.)

Perhaps one of the hardest life tasks is this process of mapping, for the darkest continent is ourselves. Many of us will do almost anything to avoid the mapping and I do not blame others for reluctance in undertaking a voyage into choppy waters, where strange creatures lurk.  For many, such monsters are transformations of our repressed rage at being unfairly bossed by parents, or competing with siblings for the love and protection of parents, or the “puritanical” tasks of self-control and the postponement of gratification or instinctual renunciation for the sake of treasured relationships (I refer to sex and aggression as instincts). Sadly, our schools and other socializing institutions may not address such “Freudian” considerations, because even the most advanced societies dare not tamper with the institution of family, lest its “citizens” start defending their political and economic interests with greater energy, focus, and sophistication.

I first realized that “discovery” was terrifying in my dissertation research as I read the very private letters and notes of major Melville scholars, most of whom developed frightening physical symptoms while conducting their researches into Melville’s texts—symptoms that they blamed on a dead author (and his demonic character Captain Ahab) who should not have been a real-life threat. Melville’s indefatigable close readings of every kind of “family” that he wrote about, whether that be his family of origin, or “families” aboard ships, or the wider Christian family, was disturbing to very intelligent men, who then diverted their attention from Melville’s texts to his “influences” in the literary history of the West, or perhaps the leftists among them, tore delightedly (and sadistically) into the task of destroying his reputation as a man and a husband and/or father. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/. )

One of my most productive friends in academe, dead at 55 of a massive heart attack, once told me that he was afraid to look inside himself, or even to go to a physician, because he feared the chaos within. The braver artists and scholars have fascinated us because they gave these “imagos” forms and faces. I don’t care if you call them Moby Dick or Leviathan or the State. Just don’t mix them up with Mom and Dad or sisters and brothers.

Joyce Kozloff

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November 19, 2012

Abandonment anxiety and “moderation”

Over the weekend, I discovered that my computer had been hacked. It set me into waves of panic. The panic was about abandonment, and the subject leads me back to certain themes on my website that have been discussed at length: attachment theory, panic attacks, the neutral state, rival conceptions of managing conflict, and the psychiatry wars between Freudians, Jungians, and anti-“talking cure” pill-dispensers.

As my Facebook friends are aware, I live in Southern California, which is home for New Age mystics and those who seek “healing” of conflicts that have lodged in the material body, or, worse, conflicts that are omnipresent in the (mis-named) “body politic.” It is to these latter seekers after “peace of mind” that this blog is mostly addressed.

It has long been my position that traumas inflicted in early childhood can never be healed, no matter how much insight into family dynamics, the poor parenting skills of our caretakers, or knowledge of world, national, and local history. For instance, I could dwell on women as particularly susceptible to abandonment fears, but men have abandonment fears too, whether they go beyond the typical feminine fear of aging and being dumped for a younger woman, or not.

This blog is not consoling, except in one respect: as mature persons looking at conflict inside or outside our own psyches, we may learn to manage conflicts, even if they can never be resolved. In the public sphere, we should beware of politicians and pundits who preach the opposite: that a neutral, artful, manipulative mediator can get warring parties to agree on compromise.

We are facing two particularly unresolvable conflicts today: 1. Israel and the Palestinians; and 2. Republicans and Democrats (the political parties not only have divergent views on capitalism, but are internally incoherent). The term “moderation” is a favorite conception of psychological warfare practitioners. “Moderation” is something that every healthy person strives for, but the word is too abstract, taken by itself, to be useful.

When we look to “moderation” are we talking about the portions of pasta that we consume, or “compromising” with the person with a gun or missile pointed at our home? We have seen how ineffectual appeasement has been in the past, while through the 1930s, Hitler constantly tested the democracies who were loath to embark upon another war after the war-weariness that ensued after the Great War. There are times when the enemy must be resisted and defeated, not pacified.

Families and family histories are a different matter. Paraphrasing Tolstoy, each family is miserable in its own unique way, whether over political differences, memories of past injuries, generational conflict, sibling rivalry, or marital strife. Liberals recommend better “communication skills” as if these techniques actually soothed the savage beast that often emerges at such moments as Thanksgiving or similar holidays. Some religions advise “forgiveness” as if such a gesture would confer “closure”, restoring a harmony that never existed, maybe not even in the womb.

My own view is that no amount of appeasement, compromise, or reparations can cure ancient hurts, but that self-knowledge (including knowledge of those organs where rage is stored), knowledge of our relatives’ sore spots, and particular needs, are skills that everyone can acquire in time. “Healing,” like the sentimental songs that the Yankee Doodle Society have reconstructed, is a utopian fantasy, but wise management of irreconcilable conflict is realizable.

Happy Thanksgiving, and work on your deep breathing. (For a different take on Thanksgiving, see https://clarespark.com/2011/11/24/thanksgiving-the-power-of-a-national-symbol/. Especially timely given the new Spielberg movie on Lincoln.)

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