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Against Self-Criticism: Adam Phillips on How Our Internal Critics Enslave Us, the Stockholm Syndrome of the Superego, and the Power of Multiple Interpretations

“In broaching the possibility of being, in some way, against self-criticism, we have to imagine a world in which celebration is less suspect than criticism.”

Against Self-Criticism: Adam Phillips on How Our Internal Critics Enslave Us, the Stockholm Syndrome of the Superego, and the Power of Multiple Interpretations

I have thought and continued to think a great deal about the relationship between critical thinking and cynicism — what is the tipping point past which critical thinking, that centerpiece of reason so vital to human progress and intellectual life, stops mobilizing our constructive impulses and topples over into the destructiveness of impotent complaint and embittered resignation, begetting cynicism? In giving a commencement address on the subject, I found myself contemplating anew this fine but firm line between critical thinking and cynical complaint. To cross it is to exile ourselves from the land of active reason and enter a limbo of resigned inaction.

But cross it we do, perhaps nowhere more readily than in our capacity for merciless self-criticism. We tend to go far beyond the self-corrective lucidity necessary for improving our shortcomings, instead berating and belittling ourselves for our foibles with a special kind of masochism.

The undergirding psychology of that impulse is what the English psychoanalytical writer Adam Phillips explores in his magnificent essay “Against Self-Criticism”, found in his altogether terrific collection Unforbidden Pleasures (public library).

One of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

Phillips — who has written with beguiling nuance about such variousness of our psychic experience as the importance of “fertile solitude,” the value of missing out, and the rewards of being out of balance — examines how “our virulent, predatory self-criticism [has] become one of our greatest pleasures,” reaching across the space-time of culture to both revolt against and pay homage to Susan Sontag’s masterwork Against Interpretation. He writes:

In broaching the possibility of being, in some way, against self-criticism, we have to imagine a world in which celebration is less suspect than criticism; in which the alternatives of celebration and criticism are seen as a determined narrowing of the repertoire; and in which we praise whatever we can.

Our masochistic impulse for self-criticism, he argues, arises from the fact that ambivalence is the basic condition of our lives. In a passage that builds on his memorable prior reflections on the paradox of why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in romance, Phillips considers Freud’s ideological legacy:

In Freud’s vision of things we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate, we love; wherever we love, we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can also frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us, we always believe that they can satisfy us. We criticize when we are frustrated — or when we are trying to describe our frustration, however obliquely — and praise when we are more satisfied, and vice versa. Ambivalence does not, in the Freudian story, mean mixed feelings, it means opposing feelings.

[…]

Love and hate — a too simple, or too familiar, vocabulary, and so never quite the right names for what we might want to say — are the common source, the elemental feelings with which we apprehend the world; and they are interdependent in the sense that you can’t have one without the other, and that they mutually inform each other. The way we hate people depends on the way we love them, and vice versa. And given that these contradictory feelings are our ‘common source’ they enter into everything we do. They are the medium in which we do everything. We are ambivalent, in Freud’s view, about anything and everything that matters to us; indeed, ambivalence is the way we recognize that someone or something has become significant to us… Where there is devotion there is always protest… where there is trust there is suspicion.

[…]

We may not be able to imagine a life in which we don’t spend a large amount of our time criticizing ourselves and others; but we should keep in mind the self-love that is always in play.

But we have become so indoctrinated in this conscience of self-criticism, both collectively and individually, that we’ve grown reflexively suspicious of that alternative possibility. (Kafka, the great patron-martyr of self-criticism, captured this pathology perfectly: “There’s only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy.”) Phillips writes:

Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves.

[…]

Nothing makes us more critical, more confounded — more suspicious, or appalled, or even mildly amused — than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism; that we should be less impressed by it. Or at least that self-criticism should cease to have the hold over us that it does.

But this self-critical part of ourselves, Phillips points out, is “strikingly unimaginative” — a relentless complainer whose repertoire of tirades is so redundant as to become, to any objective observer, risible and tragic at the same time:

Were we to meet this figure socially, as it were, this accusatory character, this internal critic, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him. That he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout of some catastrophe. And we would be right.

One of Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Freud termed this droll internal critic superego, and Phillips suggests that we suffer from a kind of Stockholm syndrome of the superego:

We are continually, if unconsciously, mutilating and deforming our own character. Indeed, so unrelenting is this internal violence that we have no idea what we are like without it. We know virtually nothing about ourselves because we judge ourselves before we have a chance to see ourselves (as though in panic). Or, to put it differently, we can judge only what we recognize ourselves as able to judge. What can’t be judged can’t be seen. What happens to everything that is not subject to approval or disapproval, to everything that we have not been taught how to judge? … The judged self can only be judged but not known. [We] think that it is complicitous not to stand up to, not to contest, this internal tyranny by what is only one part — a small but loud part — of the self.

The tyranny of the superego, Phillips argues, lies in its tendency to reduce the complexity of our conscience to a single, limiting interpretation, and to convincingly sell us on that interpretation as an accurate and complete representation of reality:

Self-criticism is nothing if it is not the defining, and usually the overdefining, of the limits of being. But, ironically, if that’s the right word, the limits of being are announced and enforced before so-called being has had much of a chance to speak for itself.

[…]

We consent to the superego’s interpretation; we believe our self-reproaches are true; we are overimpressed without noticing that that is what we are being.

With an eye to Freud’s legacy and the familiar texture of the human experience, Phillips makes his central point:

You can only understand anything that matters — dreams, neurotic symptoms, literature — by overinterpreting it; by seeing it from different aspects as the product of multiple impulses. Overinterpretation here means not settling for one interpretation, however apparently compelling it is. Indeed, the implication is — and here is Freud’s ongoing suspicion, or ambivalence, about psychoanalysis — that the more persuasive, the more compelling, the more authoritative, the interpretation is, the less credible it is, or should be. The interpretation might be the violent attempt to presume to set a limit where no limit can be set.

Here, the ideological wink at Sontag becomes apparent. Indeed, the Sontag classic would’ve been better titled “Against an Interpretation,” for the essence of her argument is precisely that a single interpretation invariably warps and flattens any text, any experience, any cultural artifact. (How tragicomical to see, then, that a reviewer who complains that Phillips’s writing is too open to interpretation both misses his point and, in doing so, makes it.)

What Phillips is advocating isn’t the wholesale relinquishing of interpretation but the psychological hygiene of inviting multiple interpretations as a way of countering the artificial authority of the superego and loosening its tyrannical grip on our experience of ourselves:

Authority wants to replace the world with itself. Overinterpretation means not being stopped in your tracks by what you are most persuaded by; it means assuming that to believe one interpretation is to radically misunderstand the object one is interpreting, and indeed interpretation itself.

Illustration by Kate Beaton from To Be or Not To Be, a choose-your-own-adventure reimagining of Hamlet

Cuing in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that “genius of self-reproach,” Phillips considers the cowardice of self-criticism:

Tragic heroes always underinterpret, are always emperors of one idea.

[…]

The first quarto of Hamlet has, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” while the second quarto has, “Thus conscience does make cowards.” If conscience makes cowards of us all, then we are all in the same boat; this is just the way it is. If conscience simply makes cowards we can more easily wonder what else it might be able to make. Either way, and they are clearly different, conscience makes something of us; it is a maker, if not of selves, then of something about selves. It is an internal artist, of a kind… The superego … casts us as certain kinds of character: it, as it were, tells us who we really are. It is an essentialist: it claims to know us in a way that no one else, including ourselves, can ever do. And, like a mad god, it is omniscient: it behaves as if it can predict the future by claiming to know the consequences of our actions (when we know, in a more imaginative part of ourselves, that most actions are morally equivocal, and change over time in our estimation; no apparently self-destructive act is ever only self-destructive; no good is purely and simply that).

Half a century after Eleanor Roosevelt’s memorable admonition that “when you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being,” Phillips urges us to question the superego’s despotic standards:

The superego is the sovereign interpreter… [It] tells us what we take to be the truth about ourselves. Self-criticism, that is to say, is an unforbidden pleasure. We seem to relish the way it makes us suffer [and] take it for granted that each day will bring its necessary quotient of self-disappointment. That every day we will fail to be as good as we should be; but without our being given the resources, the language, to wonder who or what is setting the pace; or where these rather punishing standards come from.

Under this docile surrender to self-criticism, Phillips cautions, our conscience slips into cowardice:

Conscience … it is the part of our mind that makes us lose our minds; the moralist that prevents us from evolving a personal, more complex and subtle morality; that prevents us from finding, by experiment, what may be the limits of our being. So when Richard III says, in the final act of his own play, “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!”, a radical alternative is being proposed. That conscience makes cowards of us all because it is itself cowardly. We believe in, we identify with, this starkly condemnatory and punitively forbidding part of ourselves; and yet this supposedly authoritative part of ourselves is itself a coward.

The most virulent and culturally contagious form of this cowardice, I would argue, is the resignation of cynicism — a resignation Phillips traces to the punitive system at the root of our culture’s moral framework, in which good behavior is incentivized largely through fear of punishment for bad behavior. This effort to foster the constructive by the destructive, he suggests, ends up turning us on ourselves as our fear of punishment metastasizes into self-criticism. (The cynic bypasses the constructiveness — that is, refuses to do anything about changing a situation for the better — and rushes straight to inflicting punishment, be it by insult or condemnation or that most cowardly and passive-aggressive fusion of the two, the eyeroll.)

Phillips returns to the central paradox, arguing for the importance of overinerpreting our self-critical conscience:

How has it come about that we are so bewitched by our self-hatred, so impressed and credulous in the face of our self-criticism, as unimaginative as it usually is? And why is it akin to a judgement without a jury? A jury, after all, represents some kind of consensus as an alternative to autocracy… We need to be able to tell the difference between useful forms of responsibility taken for acts committed, and the evasions of self-contempt… This doesn’t mean that no one is ever culpable; it means that culpability will always be more complicated than it looks; guilt is always underinterpreted… Self-criticism, when it isn’t useful in the way any self-correcting approach can be, is self-hypnosis. It is judgement as spell, or curse, not as conversation; it is an order, not a negotiation; it is dogma, not overinterpretation.

Our self-criticism, to be sure, couldn’t be entirely eradicated — nor should it, for it is our most essential route-recalculating tool for navigating life. But by nurturing our capacity for multiple interpretations, Phillips suggests, self-criticism can become “less jaded and jading, more imaginative and less spiteful.”

Unforbidden Pleasures is a magnificent read in its entirety, exploring such strands of our psychic complexity as desire, disappointment, indifference, and idealism. Complement this particular portion with Albert Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, then revisit Phillips on why our capacity for boredom is essential for a full life.

BP

Audre Lorde on the Vulnerability of Visibility and Our Responsibility, to Ourselves and Others, to Break Our Silences

“That visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.”

Audre Lorde on the Vulnerability of Visibility and Our Responsibility, to Ourselves and Others, to Break Our Silences

“Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each,” Paul Goodman wrote in his anatomy of the nine kinds of silence shortly after Susan Sontag penned her masterwork on the aesthetic of silence as a creative choice. “The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her beautiful meditation on writing and how silence fertilizes the imagination. But against these fecund conceptions of silence stands silence of a very different kind — the oppressive muting of dissenting, divergent, and minority voices, imposed first from the outside and then from the inside. (James Baldwin captured this internalized oppression memorably: “It’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.”)

That oppressive silence and its most potent antidote are what the great Caribbean-American poet, essayist, feminist, lesbian icon, and anti-war, civil rights, and human rights activist Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) explores in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” — a galvanizing short paper delivered at Chicago’s Modern Language Association in 1977, later included in Lorde’s indispensable anthology Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (public library).

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde

Lorde writes:

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect. I am standing here as a Black lesbian poet, and the meaning of all that waits upon the fact that I am still alive, and might not have been.

Lorde is writing shortly after her doctor discovered a tumor that turned out to be benign but forced her to confront her mortality in the agonizing three-week period of uncertainty. She reflects on the sobering urgency into which the experience shook her:

I was forced to look upon myself and my living with a harsh and urgent clarity that has left me still shaken but much stronger… Some of what I experienced during that time has helped elucidate for me much of what I feel concerning the transformation of silence into language and action.

In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.

Turning to the audience — and, across space and time, to us — Lorde issues a clarion call for introspection:

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Echoing Anaïs Nin’s reflection on what lies beneath our fear of the unfamiliar, Lorde adds:

Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?

And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, “Tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.”

In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear — fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live… And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.

Lorde considers our responsibility to that visibility, out of which arises the transmutation of vulnerability into strength:

In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary for each one of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation and to recognize her role as vital within that transformation.

For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it. For others, it is to share and spread also those words that are meaningful to us. But primarily for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.

With an urgent eye to the necessity that we “not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own,” Lorde concludes:

We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.

The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.

Decades after its publication, Sister Outsider remains a silence-shattering force of uncommon might and pulsating timeliness. Complement it with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s magnificent forgotten conversation about race and identity and Ursula K. Le Guin on oppression, freedom, and how storytelling expands our scope of the possible.

BP

From Scripture to Screen: Kate Tempest’s Electrifying Spoken-Word Meditation on Our Fraught Fillers of Existential Emptiness

“You’re handed the mould and told — fit in to this.”

From Scripture to Screen: Kate Tempest’s Electrifying Spoken-Word Meditation on Our Fraught Fillers of Existential Emptiness

Partway between poem and public service announcement, the spoken-word masterpiece “Progress” by English poet and playwright Kate Tempest, found in her altogether terrific poetry collection Hold Your Own (public library), is the finest, sharpest thing written about why religion exists since Bertrand Russell, the most sobering case against the cult of consumerism since E.F. Schumacher, and the most piercing take on the violence of image-culture since Susan Sontag.

The creative ferocity that leaps from the page comes alive with tenfold more power in Tempest’s extraordinary performance on the Australian television program Q&A:

PROGRESS

Once there was a purpose,
so I hear: there was a God.

It made it all less worthless
and it gave us the because

we’d all been searching for.
An unarguable truth.

A reason to be kind and just,
a reason for the noose

that sent the sinner off to sinnerland
and made us all feel better

in the knowledge that the righteous
would be right and just forever.

Once there was religion,
and it ruled. We had it bad.

We fooled ourselves to sleep at night;
This was This, and That was That.

And if our morals ever shook,
we looked no further than The Book.

But over time we felt the pressure;
it became the great oppressor.

And without God, the wars seemed crueller
life seemed bleaker. Art seemed foolish.

Death seemed stranger now than ever.
What was mankind for? What terror

flooded us to understand
there was no point, no grander plan.

There was just living out each day.
Work. Eat. Sleep. Fuck. Pass away.

Without the fear of retribution
we found guilt-free pleasure

but we lost the sense of union
that had kept us all together.

We needed something new to fill
the emptiness that grew;

and what’s better to believe
in than all-you-can-eat Freedom!

The joy of being who we are
by virtue of the clothes we buy.

The dream of getting rich enough
to live outside the common life.

And now, there is no purpose
that exists beyond our needs.

Now there is the worship
of convenience and speed.

We run around the circuit,
pit our grace against our greed

And all we have is surplus
to what’s needed and we feed

our callous little urchins
in the best way that we can.

And then wonder how they’ve grown
to only know what’s in their hands.

Now we have the Screen,
and it rules.

Our kids are perma-plugged into its promise,
admiring all its jewels.

And couples eat their dinner,
in the glimmer of its rays,

we stare until we’ve learned
the world’s ways.

Pre-teens learn what heart-throbs are.
Heart-throbs gorge on hot pork and watch sport.

Reality played for us to sneer and weep at —
here is morality at last! See us caught

in full colour, high definition.

Look — a cripple on a blind date.
Look — young people getting fucked in Magaluf,

look — the mother of a dead son, weeping, irate,
look — a celebrity eating shit and singing Agadoo.

We used to burn women who had epileptic fits.
We’d tie them to a stake and proclaim them a witch.

Now

we’ll put them on a screen if they’ve got nice tits,
but they’ll be torn apart if they let themselves slip.

We’ll draw red rings round their saggy bits.
And flick through the pictures while we eat bags of chips.

You can either be a beauty or a beast or a bitch,
you can either be cool or kooky or kitsch.

Before

you were damned for the things that you did,
or if you didn’t live how the villagers lived.

Now

You’re handed the mould and told — fit in to this.
And maybe one day you could really be big.

Behind-the-scenes footage
of a famous last gig.

Backstage close-up
of the singer’s last twitch.

Before she pulls her gun out
and blows herself to bits.

The world is your playground,
go and get your kicks,

as long as you’re not poor,
or ugly, or sick.

We never saw it coming,
like all the best tricks.

Once we had the fear;
now we have the fix.

For more brilliantly disquieting spoken-word genius, see Lee Mokobe’s terrific piece on what it’s like to be transgender and Sarah Kay’s electrifying “If I Should Have a Daughter.”

BP

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