… Seeing as I’ve privately declared it all-things-Freud week, I thought we’d have a piece from, I think, the best Freud-influenced writer, Adam Phillips. Here’s a short excerpt from his excellent book ‘The Beast in The Nursery’, on a subject close to my heart …
There is a world elsewhere of fluent, uninterrupted competence; a world in which everything works … A world in which we need never feel anger – or rather, the unbearable conflict that we use anger to abolish, to void ourselves of (we don’t want to kill the person we hate most, the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones once remarked, we want to kill the person who creates in us the most intolerable conflict). There is no anger, that is to say, that is not revenge; no rage without the betrayal of an ideal, however unconscious, however exorbitant that ideal might be. In my bad temper I expose not merely my loss of control – that so much wished for transgression – but far more shamefully I expose my furtive utopianism; my horrifying, passionate ideal of, and for, myself. In other words, I am humiliated at that moment when I can no longer bear – that is, rationalize – the disparity between who I seem to be and who I want to be; when, in psychoanalytic language, the gap between my ego and my ego-ideal becomes irretrievable. The one person I can never mourn the loss of is my ideal self. Anything, even the shameful excitement of humiliation is better than that.
If anger is evidence of our idealism, our self-idealization – of just how unconscious, how frantic our sense of justice is – it also reveals, by the same token, that our potential for humiliation is the root of morality. It is, indeed, curious how impressed we are by being diminished; how vulnerable we always are to slight and ridicule (as though we are, somewhere, always already ironized in our own eyes; as though, from one point of view, all our claims are boasts). Nothing confirms more clearly the impossibility of amorality – our embeddedness in a moral world – than our capacity to be humiliated. That we can feel humiliated reveals how much what matters to us matters to us. Our rage is itself a commitment to something, to something preferred. Indeed, how would a person immune from, or ignorant of, humiliation know what a good life was? Our betrayals, our travesties that issue in anger, are forms of awkward, untimely revelation.
It is as though our morality, as disclosed by our anger, is a kind of private madness, a secret personal religion of cherished values that we only discover, if at all, when they are violated. The virtues we can consciously formulate, and try to abide by, are, one might say, our official morality. Our unofficial, more idiosyncratic morality is only available, so to speak, through humiliation. Once you know who or what humiliates you, you know what it is about yourself that you ultimately value, that you worship. Tell me what makes you enraged – what makes you feel truly diminished – and I will tell you what you believe, what you want to believe about yourself. What, that is, you imagine you need to protect to sustain your love of life.