Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Age of Rage

By Kevin Murphy, MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

So much of what we hear going on in the world is bad news. Wars, terrorism, random shootings, organised crime, ubiquitous violence… We tend to try and understand these happenings in different ways, depending on the type of crime or violence involved. Wars are caused by ideological or territorial disputes between nations or within nations. Shootings are caused by deranged people with psychological issues. Terrorism is caused by political or religious idealism that ignores the rights of innocent people. Crime is caused by greed and unlawfulness. Rape is caused by people who like mixing violence with sex. The list goes on and it is depressingly long.
In order to deal with the dizzying array of circumstances and explanations as to why these things happen, it is sometimes useful to focus on the common element that runs through them all. Let’s for a moment consider a person who shoots dead two former colleagues because he was angry at them and the company they worked for. This was a former TV reporter in the US. He imagined they had disrespected him in some way. He killed them, captured it on camera and uploaded it for all to see. Then he killed himself.

What about the person who assaults another person because they pulled their car out in front of them? Or simply crashed into them by accident? There are compilations of these incidents from around the world on You Tube. They are, for the most part, aggressive, ugly and hard to watch yet the road rage on display obviously counts as entertainment for a particular audience.
Or how about a man who enjoys stabbing women during sex? We had a case of this recently in Ireland. Until he takes it too far and actually kills someone – which was, as the courts decided, his intention in the first place. Is that a purely sexual crime? If there was more to it, what part did an inherent anger and aggression play? It’s hard to imagine carrying out such an act without a large degree of aggression.
We could imagine, equally, a man dressed as a sad movie character firing an automatic weapon at a cinema full of people. This also happened in the US. Yes he may have been unhinged, as they say, but his madness didn’t take the form of sitting in a corner, babbling incoherently. It was madness but it was that barely recognised form of madness that allowed him buy weapons, plan his attack and nurture, indeed even piggy-back on, an extreme anger that we will, again, assume was present. How else can you motivate yourself to calmly kill innocent people who are out for a night at the movies? In fact, it might even be more useful to change the word anger for the word ‘rage’.
The word rage is more accurate because it suggests an anger that can potentially rise to an uncontainable level. After all, a great many of the crimes we get to hear about on an almost daily basis are committed in this almost uncontrolled state. The thug who kills someone with a coward punch usually has had alcohol to do the job of releasing his rage – he doesn’t even have to take responsibility for it. The rapist needs to be at fever pitch in order to allow him (they are mostly male) do what he does to women. And so does the murderer – even if the rage can be contained long enough to wait for the right moment to commit the act. The suicide bomber, likewise, has to be brought to a point of unquestionable rage, either by his own ideas or by the radicalised ideas of others, to carry out destruction. Even gangland hit-men are not exempt – they didn’t choose that career by accident. It offers a perfect conduit for tendencies that already exist within them.
And why limit it to individuals? What about an entire movement of religiously fuelled zealots who carry out acts of extreme sexual and physical barbarity? The aggressive violence and depravity of a group like IS has nothing to do with the religious message of peace, love and understanding. Behind it we can clearly see an intense rage that keeps the destructive momentum going. And, presumably, this appeals to anyone with an equally extreme rage to satisfy. And let’s not forget the interpersonal version of rage that we see in domestic violence.
We could go on with countless examples which appear to be very much to the fore nowadays in human activity. It would be tempting to blame it on inequities in modern society, or injustices in the allocation of the world’s resources, or the increased alienation and fragmentation of internet-fuelled social groups, or on the effect of a commercially exploitative Western society, or the push-back against this of a merciless religious fundamentalism. But aggression is a part of human nature that has always been there. There is something within the human spirit that chooses an aggressive and destructive path. Does this mean that human beings are inherently bad? No, but it means that the capacity for aggression and destruction towards our fellow-man is and always has been there.

It is interesting in this context to read Sigmund Freud’s paper 'Why War?' which was written in 1932, after World War 1 had ended and before the Second World War would begin in 1939. This was essentially an exchange of letters between Albert Einstein and Freud on the subject of war. Einstein wrote to Freud on behalf of the League of Nations and its International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation to ask his opinion on the following question: ‘Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?’ The Nazi Party under Hitler was on the rise and had just won 37% of the vote in a General Election in March 1932. Einstein was writing to Freud in September of that year. In his letter, Einstein gave his own view as to why there is such a tendency in mankind. “Only one answer is possible. Because man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction.” He equally asked of Freud if it was possible to ‘control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychoses of hate and destructiveness?’ And while he was specifically asking for Freud’s views on war, he was equally well aware that the aggressive instinct operates under other forms and in other circumstances. He concluded his letter with: “I know that in your writings we may find answers, explicit or implied, to all the issues of this urgent and absorbing problem. But it would be of the greatest service to us all were you to present the problem of world peace in the light of your most recent discoveries, for such a presentation well might blaze the trail for new and fruitful modes of action. Yours very sincerely, A. Einstein. Vienna, September, 1932.”

Freud didn’t have the magic answer to this and said as much. But he made a good attempt at it. He said that when a nation is summoned to engage in war, a whole range of human motives respond to the appeal; some high and some low. “The lust for aggression and destruction is certainly included,” he said, adding; “the innumerable cruelties of history and man's daily life confirm its prevalence and strength. The stimulation of these destructive impulses by appeals to idealism and the erotic instinct naturally facilitates their release. Musing on the atrocities recorded on history's page, we feel that the ideal motive has often served as a camouflage for the lust of destruction; sometimes, as with the cruelties of the Inquisition, it seems that, while the ideal motives occupied the foreground of consciousness, they drew their strength from the destructive instincts submerged in the unconscious.”
It’s an interesting idea when we consider it in the context of our world today: that the ideals which are pronounced as informing the motives of violent groups and violent acts – it is in the name of God, it is in the name of nationhood - in Freud’s view, are only an excuse to allow out more primitive aggressive instincts. It offers a very different view of aggression by nations, terrorist groups, individual criminals and even people who inflict aggression (verbal, emotional or physical) on their loved ones. It is also worth remembering that two of the most influential men in history, Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, brought about real change without recourse to violence. The path of violence is a choice – wherever it takes place – that allows us access our more primitive destructive instincts.

Freud in his letter to Einstein recommended that anything that promotes a civilizing effect and sharing between nations reduces the likelihood of war breaking out. The same applies to individuals. The most serious criminals in history have one thing in common – they have difficulty connecting in any meaningful sense to other human beings. They are outside the fold, outside the human bond, and have few, if any, identifications with those around them. You will find the same characteristics in despotic leaders. Freud famously said criminals become criminal out of a sense of guilt – they are guilty so they commit crime to justify their guilt. We could equally add that one of the first things they are guilty of is the ‘crime’ of shutting off, psychologically, from their fellow human beings, even if they have done it without knowing it, i.e. unconsciously. When there is no feeling of human concern (we can call it love) to counteract it, the destructive instinct is given free rein.

In ‘Why War?’, Freud says of this destructive instinct: "… we are led to conclude that this instinct functions in every living being, striving to work its ruin and reduce life to its primal state of inert matter. Indeed, it might well be called the 'death-instinct'; whereas the erotic instincts vouch for the struggle to live on.” The death instinct becomes destructive when it directs outwardly against external objects. If it is directed inwardly then a persecution complex develops for the individual which has equally serious consequences. Either way, Freud considered this the biological justification for all the aggressive and destructive impulses of humanity. He concluded by agreeing with Einstein’s observation that, “… there is no question of getting rid entirely of human aggressive impulses; it is enough to try to divert them to such an extent that they need not find expression in war.”

Rage is not the exclusive property of the stereotypical ‘angry man’. It is just as much a part of female experience, and neither does it matter what age you are. For people of violence, there will always be ideologies or life choices that allow them channel their rage down negative paths. The task is to ensure we are not distracted by political, religious or socio-economic rhetoric that seeks to justify the unleashing of an ever-present tendency towards aggression and violence. For ordinary law-abiding folk the risk is that being unaware of its lurking presence leaves us unprepared to act in a way that allows this inherent aggression and rage find ways of non-violent expression by channelling it into more peaceful pursuits.

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Life of Seduction

By Kevin Murphy, B.A., M.Sc., Reg. Pract. APPI.
Psychologist and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

Recently a very famous Hollywood male actor said in an interview that after a life of womanizing he was now lonely and expected to end his days alone. On the face of it, it is a sad epitaph to an otherwise full and successful life. Yet this man has probably been a strong role model for many who identify with and possibly even try to imitate his lifestyle. The attraction of living the carefree life and of engaging in many sexual encounters is one that, for some, will never lose its appeal. In fact, it might be even more alluring today than at any other point in history. But what lies behind this choice of lifestyle? And why is it so routinely accepted as an enriching way to live?
Perhaps we should begin with why it is so attractive. In the first instance, there is the promise of ever more pleasure. Once a relationship loses its sparkle there will always be another so one doesn’t have to remain sad for very long. And who knows, the next ‘relationship’ might be even more exciting?
It also offers the illusion of freedom – no partner ever becomes ‘the one’ we can’t live without. I say illusion purposely and I’ll come back to that word. Then we have the repeated experience of winning over the object of our desire. This can be an intoxicating element depending on the individual. After all, when we have conquered someone’s heart, so to speak, we have made ourselves the ‘only one’ for them and that can often be considered a satisfying victory.
Having a succession of lovers also puts us in control of our lives. After all, we are directing ourselves along a particular path, with particular objectives and particular outcomes. It looks as though we have a plan.
Finally, a major advantage of constantly moving on is that we avoid the less interesting bits of relationships. Much like a meal where we only consume the parts we like, we only engage with the upside of the relationship, leaving when we are bored, or not in love anymore, or annoyed, frustrated or feeling threatened because we might have to take the other person’s wishes into account.

There may be many more ‘positives’ to be added to the list but even as it stands you begin to wonder if there is any downside to this way of life. And so the question, what drives it? Is it purely about pleasure? Our famous actor claims he is lonely, and even though we may have to take that with a grain of salt, there is likely to be some truth in it. The end result, then, of his self-defined philandering is ending up with no-one. Now the interesting thing is that historical and literary examples of the same way of living indicate the same result.
Giovanni Giacomo Casanova was one of the most famous womanizers of them all. Born 1725 in Venice, the eldest of six children, he was a seducer of women and probably the first ‘playboy’. Ironically he was due to be a priest but he was caught in bed with someone at the seminary and expelled. He got fired from his next job for the same reason and so began a wandering life across Europe. Along the way he ended up in jail for witchcraft, made and lost fortunes, became a spy in Venice, met Pope Clement XIII, Voltaire, Rousseau and Mozart, and had seemingly endless romantic exploits. And yet after a life filled with adventure and mishap, he ended his days as a librarian, frustrated, bored and alone, apart from the company of his fox terriers. Even the location of his grave remains unknown today.
Fiction too has its version of the man who loved every woman. Don Juan is the Spanish fictional equivalent, again a womaniser who eventually seduces a nobleman’s daughter and kills the girl’s father when he tries to avenge his daughter’s honour. And, Casanova was no stranger to duelling either. But with a far more dramatic twist than Canasova’s life, Don Juan then defies the ghost of the man he has killed, refuses to repent and is eternally damned. Interestingly Casanova too said he regretted nothing of the way he lived. Both men however, one real, one fictional, end their lives alone and faring badly.
The message of fiction and history, if that is what we can call it, appears to be that a dissolute life – one dedicated to sexual conquest – does not lead to happiness or well being. I mention it because the influence of this kind of ideal can still be seen today. Our famous actor is just one high-profile example. But in the therapeutic setting one often comes across the man - particularly the married man with children - who wants to enjoy all other women, or as many as he possibly can. One even comes across the female version also.
Now there is probably a small book to be written on the moral view of all this but that is best left to the moralists and perhaps those with religious agendas to pursue. Of interest here is the psychoanalytic perspective which offers an understanding of something that is often taken for granted as being simply what ‘red-blooded people’ do. And, just to point out, this is not to stigmatise someone for having numerous lovers. The issue in question here is of a different order. This is a lifelong compulsivity that is more aimed at seduction, winning over and then departing in order to start again. As we can see from the examples above, it doesn’t do the person themselves any real good. And it is equally not pleasant for any partners who feel they were exploited and then cast aside.
In order to get an understanding of behaviours like this it can often be useful to examine the end result and work backwards. In the Hollywood actor’s case we have a man who devoted his life to the pursuit of women with essentially nothing to show for it. Allied to that is the prospect that he might end up alone. If, for argument’s sake, we take this as our starting point and ask a simple question: what if the end result was actually the ‘thing’ he was, without knowing it, looking for in the first place? What if, without knowing it consciously, the real priority of the man in question (it could equally be a woman) was to end up alone? Of course, people will argue that this is impossible. How could anyone do something like that? Well, one of the central elements in psychoanalytic theory is that people act against their best interests on a regular and consistent basis. That’s why people who get into a pickle can’t believe they ended up there. Yet they did, and usually by their own actions.
Or if we look at Casanova we know that he had a record number of sexual conquests to his name. But he holds another record – the record for departures and separations. In essence, by his own actions he not only repeats the process of attaching to another person sexually, but he constantly repeats the act of separating from them and being alone. If there is anything in this as a possible theory, then we have a further question to ask. Why would someone want to repeat the pattern of being alone for their entire life?
Well in the first instance, it wouldn’t seem like this to him. He would only be aware of the constant search for a new woman to enjoy sexually. Even in that we get a glimpse of a constant search for something that never really exists. There is no satisfying the appetite that he is attempting to satisfy. There is no finding the 'thing' he is trying to find. The pleasure being derived from it, however, blinds him to what is happening on the other side of the same equation.
He starts off being alone and then there is the choosing of the new love object and the beginning of the seduction phase. This is then followed by the consummation of the relationship and then, for whatever length of time, he engages in the relationship itself. Inevitably, he gets tired of the new partner and an excuse is made – it doesn’t really matter what it is - to bring it to an end. And so the pattern repeats again. What you usually find is that the beginning phases are extremely pleasurable for any seducer. It is a romantic time, an exciting time, very little is demanded other than they be a perfect lover, do the right thing, say the right thing. The safest place for anyone to hide is the place where their partner is completely enthralled by what is happening. There inevitably comes a point, however, when something more is demanded of them. It could be something trivial, or indeed important, but it requires them to step outside the phantasy of all-satisfying, unconditional love and deal with something real. When you hear these men talk of the moment a relationship changes for them, when the bubble bursts, this is the moment they speak about. It could be something as mundane as going to a family celebration, or the supermarket for the weekly shopping, or the suggestion of moving in together, or even the belief that the partner has been won over totally and there is no longer any challenge in it. If someone is structurally designed to have one eye on the exit, it doesn’t really take very much.
But on each and every occasion the serial lover is stepping away and repeating the experience of being alone. And if this is what is being repeated it suggests that this might be the hidden objective. Quite obviously the business of remaining in relationship with any one person is deeply problematic for them. This further tells us that something in the way they learned to bond with others from an early age was not pleasurable for them. There is more comfort for them in distance rather than closeness. And this will often run counter to the pleasant nature of the person, how considerate they were, how thoughtful. For a time, they appeared to be the perfect partner, the ideal. And that’s very much the impression they wish to leave behind each time. There’s not much chance of creating a legend if people are glad to see the back of you when you go.
It’s probably a roundabout way of coming to something we always knew. The person who can’t settle on loving any one person has a deep-seated difficulty with interpersonal intimacy. They have no problem with physical, bodily intimacy. In fact, they substitute it all the time for the other kind. The emotional kind of intimacy, though, never gets brought into play. It remains protected, hidden away. And yet the emotional kind of intimacy is the only one that can ensure the relationship has an authenticity that extends beyond the physical. Without it, there really is just a series of sexual encounters with physical bodies. And at the end of such a compulsively and identically repeating series is it any wonder we might ask what exactly we are left with? The answer might be found in that little word I used at the beginning – illusion. And for many people it has not lost its allure.