The Clare Spark Blog

July 4, 2015

Patriotism, perfectionism, excessive parental expectations, and OCD

Super Patriot, figurerealm.com

Super Patriot, figurerealm.com

This blog is about the unexplored connection between “my country, right or wrong” (super-patriotism), America-hating, conservative objections to “perfectionism,” overpraising our children’s accomplishments, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD, a condition associated with both high achievers, and extremely anxious and depressed persons immobilized by the fear of making a mistake).

I am writing it on Independence Day because many conservatives look to the Constitution as holy writ, rather than as a document conceived by men who were creatures of their time. For these super-patriots the Constitution was perfect, even inspired by the (perfect) Divinity. It follows that any and all attempts to historicize this document must be initiated by sinister, demonic forces, out to destroy religion as such.

OCD runs in my family, though some of us have its symptoms more severely than others. In historicizing my family history, I have taken into account how immigrants, especially Jewish immigrants, have coped with competing in a society where modernity sits lightly, where populist antisemitism continues to ride high, and where immigration (often) has been tightly controlled, depending on the labor market.

As children, we had to be high achievers, even without the constant stimulation that the upper classes have achieved here and in Europe– such as devotion to high culture, engagement with world and local affairs, extensive travel, and tutors in many foreign languages at an early age.

In my particular family of origin, there was not much of that, even though my parents had high expectations of achievement, as if my genetic inheritance, my father’s precocity in medical research, and my mother’s descent from distinguished rabbis, would compensate for their neglect. In other words, I early discerned that I was on my own and fled to books.

But “neglect” had its advantages, for I was not “pushed” to be perfect. Nor was I indoctrinated in any particular ideology, unlike those veterans of authoritarian families who had to be flawlessly obedient to the ways of their ancestors, and who would be threatened by any engagement with America’s imperfect past.

I have never encountered an 18th century thinker who expected perfection from their efforts to achieve independence from Britain. Indeed, the classically-educated Constitution-makers favored a republic, not a democracy, such were their suspicions of “the people” (https://clarespark.com/2009/08/24/the-people-is-an-ass-or-a-herd/.)  And yet there are right-wingers who discard the Enlightenment as having made unreasonable demands on “human nature,” which is ever likely to get out of hand.

I have mentioned the super-patriots, but they have their opposite numbers on the Left: America-hating essentialists, the purveyors of identity politics as if America was a single individual with a uniformly horrid and shameful past. Such persons also demonize America, refusing to acknowledge any progress whatsoever in compensating for past, historically determined, mistakes. Rather, we are typified by Charles Manson.

Some  of our presidential candidates on the Right are playing to the super-patriots, ending their appeals for votes with the utterance “We are the greatest country in the world.” They have their counterparts on the Left, who argue that their statist measures will beat the devil, and establish an error-free heaven on earth.

Here’s a toast to a more independent, historically-savvy, appraisal of our country’s past and present. Happy Fourth of July, 2015. Long may our striving toward improvement persist, for we were a great and unprecedented experiment in living with the search for truth, justice, independence and interdependence, for all.

OCD imagined by soulation.org.

OCD imagined by soulation.org.

May 9, 2015

Monster Moms

sweet kaulitz09, Deviant Art

sweet kaulitz09, Deviant Art

Ever since I read Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers (1942) I have been racking my brains for the origins of his diatribe against MOM. Here is how Wylie, later to be matched by the fictional mother in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), or the frequent naming of the welfare state as “nanny state” by conservative journalists, described the transformation of the faultless Cinderella into a (secret) monster:

[Wylie:] “MOM is the end product of SHE. She is Cinderella…the shining-haired, the starry-eyed, the ruby-lipped virgo aeternis,  of which there is presumably one, and only one, or a one-and-only for each male, whose dream is fixed upon her deflowerment and subsequent perpetual possession. This act is a sacrament in all churches and a civil affair in our society. The collective aspects of marriage are thus largely compressed into the rituals and social perquisites of one day. Unless some element of mayhem or intention of divorce subsequently obtrudes, a sort of privacy engulfs the union and all further developments are deemed to be the business of each separate pair, including the transition of Cinderella into mom, which, if it occasions any shock, only adds to the huge, invisible burthen every man carries with him into eternity….Mom is an American creation.” (Chapter XI, p.184)

[Clare:] Here are some of my prior musings upon the origin of the Bad Mother, ambivalently celebrated in film noir and pop culture: First, Freud described the Oedipus complex, in which daughters would inevitably compete with Mom for the favors of Dad. This can’t end well.

Second, the Switch from smiling caretaker to Bitch Goddess, of good Mother to bad: (This is an excerpt from an MLA paper I delivered in 2002 to the Melville Society):

“Extrapolating from his texts (and from the writings of other Symbolists) perhaps Melville’s demonic clouds are related to the “ruffled brow”: the sudden pained and searing glance that mars the happy mother’s smooth placidity when her child vomits, wets his bed, soils his clothing, touches his genitals, blurts out a dirty word: the glance that makes him feel so poisonous to her, he imagines she would like to spit him out…and yet, she molded and branded him in her womb-factory: she is his double and his shadow.  Ever entwined, they are Eve/Cain, the Wandering Jew, Beatrice Cenci, and Pierrot: over-reachers whose self-assertion and gall will be rendered innocuous in the final scene.  The thick black eyebrows of the Gothic villain (like the mark of Cain or Pierrot’s black mask) will trigger the memory of Mother’s distress and her child’s shame.  Romantic defiance, in its identification with the designated enemies of authority, portends only degeneracy and decline; as Melville has shown us, it brings remorse and cleansing punishment, not better forms of social organization.  The cancellation of early childhood “dirt” and parental disapproval (which may be registered as sadness–Mortmain’s “muffled” “moan”–as well as anger), then the return of the repressed in the ostensibly opposed symbols, “archetypes” and “types” of popular culture, undermines emancipatory politics.” [This was an inference only. I have never seen it described in the psychoanalytic literature, let alone by feminists.]

Third, political scientists and historians agree that since the Industrial Revolution, paternal authority in the home has diminished, giving rise to “domestic feminism.” Men would be the absent breadwinner, no longer paterfamilias (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pater_familias), while Mom now (seemingly) ruled the roost, then, in her moralistic way, going on to invent progressivism and its welfare state. Simultaneously, Jesus became feminized, as Ann Douglas pointed out in her overwrought defense of traditional, masculinist Calvinism in The Feminization of American Culture (1977).

Fourth, “splitting” as the Kleinian object relations analysts describe it: Romantic attachments, whether to the family or to other love objects, often entail idealization. The [narcissist], depleted of “narcissistic supplies” demonizes what was once a perfect creature. Which brings us back to Papa Freud, who had already figured this out in his descriptions of romantic love and idealization.

Fifth, and perhaps the most current and relevant. Mom’s are supposed to keep us safe, but I hear reports that pre-teens and teens are suffering from OCD and related problems (e.g. eating disorders) because the world is perceived as just too dangerous. Even omnipotent Mom is helpless against these real-life monsters: jihadism, global warming, race relations gone wrong, etc. Hence the pop culture vogue for zombies, werewolves, vampires, etc. who have nothing to do with the return of the repressed but are signs of objective media-fortified anxieties.

There is no escaping from the Good-Bad Mother (or Father either), for these imagos are reinforced in popular culture, but rarely analyzed in journalism, not even by many feminists.

All attachments are problematic. Get used to ambivalence, and if your parent is gone, my advice is to focus on her or his strengths, not her weaknesses. (https://clarespark.com/2013/05/12/i-remember-mama-betty-spark/.)

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