‘In the intellectuals who lived through the atrocities of war in Eastern Europe there took place what one might call the elimination of emotional luxuries. Psychoanalytic novels incite them to laughter. They consider the literature of erotic complications, still popular in the West, as trash. Imitation abstract art bores them. They are hungry—but they want bread, not hors d’oeuvres.’Czeslaw Milosz(1)
In any situation of precarious survival, emotions become subject to necessity. The twentieth century obsession with psychology became possible in societies where the means of living provided the free time to allow it. But isn’t this what we want from civilisation? A modicum of ease? Is it always necessary to be aware of the larger context in what we do, what we write?
It would be misrepresentation to allow the quote from Czeslaw Milosz to stand without stressing the eminently intelligent scope of his book, in which he points out that struggle, hunger, often gives the self a meaning and strength of purpose, creates a self where there is none. On the other hand, he refers to those writers who, absorbed in the process of ‘dialectical materialism’, over-vaunted the political and never reached the depth of observation that impresses us in art.I find it extremely difficult to tease truths from the macro-political arena. There’s such a confusion of detail that it’s hard to know where attention should be applied. Taking as a backdrop the picture of animal life as a whole, viewing humans as a species, tends to remove the morality from everything. I’ve been very influenced by science writers in the past ten years, and power behaviour seems to permeate all areas of human interaction. Motivation is a complex question and it’s difficult to point a finger at anyone, as political writing seems to require. Thankfully, Milosz lit a path in this regard, and The Captive Mind is a masterpiece of perspicacity as applicable now as when it was originally published.
I'm always amazed when an unquestioned assurance of self-entitlement is evident in a personality. Even more amazed, and interested, when the self-entitlement occurs in a blatantly public arena. I accessed the website of Bashar al-Assad the other day and was assailed by feel-good music while hunting a Vogue article about Asma al-Assad called ‘The Rose of the Desert’, which was backed by an even more self-satisfied melody. I imagine that the ‘Rose’s’ world view is that of a garden of plenty, in which she has perfect right to luxurious bloom.
The notion of the right of conquest and genetic superiority is generally abhorrent to the contemporary intellect, but witness the general interest in the royal wedding last year – a blatant display of triumphal privilege. I wonder whether the royal couple represented the primal desire for species propagation. Here was the quintessential fairytale – health, wealth, happiness. We are obsessed with achievement and survival in all their manifestations. Is the display of wealth and beauty that saturates the popular press anything other than a headlong obsession with these? And when some survive extremely well, others inevitably perish.
Competition puzzled and terrified me for years. How could you accept yourself if you tried to conquer someone else in any respect? That was before I realised that competition has an empowering and focusing function both in the personal and genetic context. That was before I accepted how natural it is for humans to admire and desire power. Artists are not egalitarians. They are some of the greatest exponents of the right of conquest. They take the space they need. They are forgiven because they produce completed objects that we perceive as beautiful. They are forgiven because they survive.
It seems to me that the privileged from birth can easily justify an extravagant lifestyle simply because they believe it to be the way things are for them. The converse is true for the deprived. There is no hard and fast rule on this. As Ice-T once said, if he could live on 'the hill' he would. And he did. Could I honestly say I wouldn't like the problem of choosing between emeralds and diamonds for my next birthday present? How do I know that, given a certain set of conditions, I wouldn’t justify an exalted political position because I was a hard worker and consequently turn a blind eye to the massacre of the masses who sought to undermine the interests of the natural order as I perceived it?
But there are other issues when it comes to the ‘emotional luxuries’. Take a common micro-political system, like a family. For all sorts of reasons, the right to self-attention can be withdrawn in the interests of pragmatism. A difficult dynamic with a partner or a tight budget can convert the situation into a modicum of prison. Many people perish as a result. Perish? Do I mean lose their lives? No. Lose themselves? No, it’s not that either, because self is a very complex entity, conglomerate and not necessarily centred. What they lose is a sense of their freedom to assay.
We’ve been hyper-aware of such matters for a long time now, and the necessarily egalitarian phenomenon of ‘political correctness’ has become enshrined. Recognising that society is a variegation of abilities and assets, the psychology-primed generations have built a cosier matrix for the consciousness. Not wishing to disturb this good thing, many of us have felt the fear of following a path of expression that might cause offence. The Irish, in particular, lay a familial claim on their writers, and while it’s encouraging, it can be stifling. The positive is that we have addressed the various injustices, the negative is that we can be too careful. It’s a small pool after all.
But it strikes me that a new kind of de-sensitisation is setting in. Not that it’s the concern of the creative artist, who has always mixed the sensitive and brutal in the interests of honest expression, but it influences us. With the Boom, the average individual felt so powerful. The wave of personal-liberation-psychology lifted us and we could be whatever we wanted to be. We voiced our problems and had some vehicle for addressing them, not least ‘retail therapy’. The Irish were only party to an international phenomenon in self-regard that defined us no longer as victims but survivors.
This having been established, another tone has entered popular discourse. Studies point to how well humans can recover from trauma and re-define ourselves. The brain and personality, it appears, are plastic and can change as a life progresses. Geneticists tell us that our personality traits and ‘issues’ are almost 50% hereditary. As psychology becomes tempered by neuroscience, there are demanding standards for both men and women. There’s that comment by Germaine Greer to the effect that women have gained the right to die of heart attack at forty. We know the cruelty of certain mind-mutilating television shows, but in all areas of life a ‘get over it’ attitude seems to be creeping in. ‘New Age’ practices, while still maintaining much currency, are considered pussy havens by those who think themselves above the swell of the wounded. It seems, paradoxically, that all the self-help literature has borne fruit, and we now have a generation who just ‘don't go there’ in terms of emotional cosseting.
The evidence is harsh humour, quick-fire interaction, a compulsion to be ‘doing something’, the sense that the unadorned self is not enough. One is a function of one’s products. Having had prosperity, we know that we can direct our lives to at least some degree, and easy mass communication allows this. So What’s your problem?
Was it ever different? Are we always living with pockets of inequality and streams of necessity? Are we always operating within the complex collision of tears and laughter, small politics and large? Is this ‘dialecticism’ as Milosz might term it, intrinsic to human society? Must we always complain about something? And will we surmount those complaints if at all possible when survival is threatened? I think yes. We are perennially governed by the need to eat, and for some that will always equal the consumption of caviar. Deprive them of the caviar and they won’t rest until they can get it again. The emotional luxuries will be the aim when we can’t have them. Acquire them and they will be abused, starting the cycle all over again.
The Little Things
These are big things,
as big as a mortgage
and our son’s need for a winter coat,
as big as the job you must maintain,
must suffer morning traffic for –
you snapping at me in the morning,
I snapping at the boys in the afternoon,
you making me cry, I passing it on.
No wonder they goad each other.
The way I’m often tearful –
that’s a big thing,
a thing to be understood,
to be prised for pearls
and not to be ignored
for fear of contagion.
These are big things –
your aching throat, your ocean of non-recall,
the stiffness of my arms when you arrive,
our armed dialogue and anxious-eyed skirting,
I lost and unbelonging on the windward side of the bed.
It’s a big thing
to struggle from the sheets with muscles in a bind,
hardly able to persuade the legs
that there’s ground worth exploring.
Exploring is the biggest thing of all,
which your ticket to tradition will preclude,
and my childish need for a hand hold back.
© Máighréad Medbh. (from Split in ¡Divas! Galway: Arlen House 2003.)
(1): Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind, transl. Jane Zielonko, London: Penguin, 2001, p. 41. (Originally published 1953.)