YDS: 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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtPeknt0mBA.)

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: https://clarespark.com/2013/09/17/the-illusion-of-national-unity/, 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


November 8, 2012

The Magical power of “Negroes” and other Beautiful People

Viola Davis as magical

One Facebook friend reports polls concluding that Romney voters focused on the economy, while Obama voters responded to his “caring” persona. This is valuable intel, for it reminds us of the Magical Negro archetype described here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Negro. As Wiki tells it, this archetype is a throwback to the “noble savage” who emerges in the European age of expansion.

(This one of those “back to basics” blogs, basic tactics for political support that are cross-cultural and universal in their efficacy.)

But more, we should reflect upon the power of the Beautiful People, and the mass appeal they exercise. Why? Is it simply that “beauty” is a supremely rare quality that mesmerizes us in all times and places? Or is it something more primal, which returns us back to the emotions of early childhood and our dependency on mothers and fathers for care and protection?  After all, Mitt Romney projected a “caring” persona, as Anne Romney emphasized in her RNC account of their marriage, noting her husband’s constant attentions to needy neighbors and even strangers. But all the demonstrated compassion in the world is not enough to compensate for the image constructed by Democrats that Romney was the (uncaring) tool of Wall Street and the Big Money.

In prior blogs, I have written much about populism and its embedded antisemitism, how many ideologues continue to blame Hollywood “Jews” for corrupting the masses and either converting them to the Democratic Party and to the Left in general, or conversely, fastening the “mass” psyche to the material goodies promised by capitalist economies. Both claims are nonsensical, for such “Jewish” titans as Laemmle, Mayer, Goldwyn, or the Warner brothers adapted themselves to immigrant tastes and prejudices. The history of the Hollywood film is replete with bloodsucking bankers and other capitalist villains, valiantly opposed by the muscular Common Man. (For the femme fatale as a repudiation of the idea of progress, see https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/, retitled “Film Noir, decoded.”)

All tyrants use visual images (including architecture) to consolidate support and to divert mass rage away from themselves; pictures are deployed to evoke parental imagos.  The tyrant’s friends are beautiful—as lovely as the nursing Mother to her clamorous infant, or as her glittering earrings are to her toddler who pulls on them, while enemies are as repulsive as the angry father wielding a cane or whip (think of the omnipresent Big Brother) or old crones—women who no longer expect to please men, and who have nothing to lose by stirring the pot.

Female Chartist

And so, fed by a diet of idealized/demonized images, we continue the process that psychoanalysts describe as “splitting.” Our love objects, whether politician or other celebrity, can switch with alarming frequency from ministering angel to terrifying demon. Don’t look to popular culture for “integration, “ i.e., a less distorted view of The Loved/Hated One.

June 13, 2011

Weinergate, Papa Freud, and the Imperfect Father

Henry A. Murray’s story as told by a political ally

While I was doing my dissertation research on literary history in America between the wars, I noticed that Freud and Marx were usually paired together, and that both were anathema to the “moderates” who reconstructed the humanities curriculum, mostly at the end of the 1930s. Marx and Freud were regarded as intruders into the canon, for both were taking an inventory of personal history and the big picture (such as the material and ideological conditions under which works of art were created)  in ways that threatened the “natural harmony” that the moderate men wished to restore.

But of the two “Jewish” intellectuals (both were atheists and hence deficient in unifying “spirituality”), Freud was probably the more threatening, for after all, populism was an important thread in American political history, and Marx’s dim view of big business and finance capital was attractive to small businessmen and many professionals, including poorly paid teachers and other academics. But to think that the pursuit of happiness might be sullied by “everyday unhappiness” (as Freud argued throughout, but especially in his thoughts about the Great War, in which he asserted how lightly civilization sat upon the overpowering demands of sexuality and aggression), was a real downer.

But more, Freud’s jaundiced eye at perfect fathers (and of course religion) threatened already weakened paternal authority in the family, and restoring such paternal authority was a major aim of the social psychologists who were allied to the Roosevelt administration.

Perhaps that is why one of the chief left-liberal propagandists, Henry A. Murray, Director of the Harvard Clinic, Jungian, and long-distance psychoanalyst of Hitler, came down so very hard on Melville’s great novel that followed hard on the heels of Moby-Dick. I refer to Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), and partly discussed in my last blog. Murray was one of those who advocated conflating the images of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, so as to improve “morale”—in his view, the morale that kept Americans loyal to the “moderate conservative” agenda (i.e., the New Deal). Perfect father figures were necessary as the  “focus of veneration” and he deemed Melville to be “pathologically puritanical” in judging his own father so harshly for his amorous peccadilloes. (Actually, Melville was not complaining about sex as such, but rather about the abandonment of an illegitimate half-sister by his supposedly Christian family. But Murray was himself a womanizer, and focused on sex alone, as indeed, did his authorized biographer, Forrest G. Robinson.)

Throughout this website, I have come down very hard on both idealization and demonization. Psychoanalysts call this separation of other people into all good or all bad, “splitting”. Splitting is very bad for mental health, as the inevitable disillusion that follows idealizing our parents or other love objects as real human frailties are revealed, can lead to rage and depression.  We don’t expect children to see their parents as imperfect human beings, struggling with sometimes overpowering emotions, such as sexuality that can be wayward in male and female alike. Demagogues count on transferring childish idealization of parental figures to themselves.  And what demagogues do is demonize their opponents, while promising the restoration of pre-adolescent family harmony to their audiences.  In other words, demagoguery leads to mass regression; to a dependent childhood state where the critical faculties are not yet developed.

There is a remedy to the siren call of the demagogue. It is an education in economics, and in the skills that enable adults to analyze the costs and benefits of proposed public policies as they emanate from either political party. But before we can do that we have to summon the courage to look inside ourselves and to try to get to the sources of our deepest motives that determine loves and hates. In the case of Weinergate and the huge emotions evoked in many, we might visit our images of ourselves as holier-than-thou (and most certainly holier than the damned Weiner). I admire every writer with the nerve to do this, as Melville surely did in his great, much-abused, and under-rated novel Pierre.  Some call this looking inside without covering our eyes as demonic (in the cover to the paperback edition that I have, Pierre’s face is darkened as he merges with Isabel –the latter an emblem of suffering humanity). I call this intense self-scrutiny sanity and moderation.

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