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Anatomy of Hatred: The Paradoxical Psychology of How That Which Repels Us Binds Us

“The closer the likeness … the more virulent the hatred.”

Anatomy of Hatred: The Paradoxical Psychology of How That Which Repels Us Binds Us

“Hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide,” Kurt Vonnegut admonished in his magnificent Fredonia commencement address. But when the run is generations long — when hate lodges itself in the soul of its carrier and becomes part of the spiritual DNA that propagates the species — it becomes more toxic than anything human beings can synthesize.

Decades before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted that “along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate,” a forgotten woman offered an incisive perspective on hate’s paradoxical quality to both repel and bind with its magnetic chain stretched across time.

Millicent Todd Bingham (February 5, 1880–December 1, 1968) was the daughter of astronomer David Todd and writer Mabel Loomis Todd, who penned the first popular science book on eclipses and who, through a maelstrom of complicated family dynamics and antagonisms, ended up as the steward of Emily Dickinson’s body of work. For two decades, Mabel had been the lover of the poet’s brother, Austin. Her invasion of the lives of the Dickinsons caused a rupture from which the family never recovered. When she edited the first volumes of Emily Dickinson’s letters and poems to enter the world, Mabel didn’t hesitate to exercise her position of literary power in advancing her personal agenda — to excise from the record her lover’s wife, Susan Dickinson.

Before marrying Austin Dickinson, Susan had been young Emily Dickinson’s first great love and would remain her greatest for the rest of the poet’s life. Some of Dickinson’s best known and most electrifying poems were dedicated to Susan, her “only woman in the world”; some of her most passionate letters written to her. Throughout Dickinson’s life, Susan would be her most important reader — and often editor — making Todd’s manipulative mission of excision all the more cruel, and all the more difficult, for Susan animated the vast majority of Dickinson’s writing.

Emily Dickinson’s legacy would become the front onto which the war between Austin Dickinson’s wife and his lover would be fought. The hatred that Susan and Mabel brought to the feud would survive them both, finding new life in their daughters: Martha Dickinson and Millicent Todd.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Let’s Be Enemies by Janice May Udry

As Millicent neared sixty, she reflected on the paradoxical psychological mechanism undergirding such enduring transgenerational hate in an arresting piece cited in Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (public library) — the most nuanced, insightful, and beautifully written of what has become a self-standing canon of Dickinson biographies.

In a passage that applies with equally perceptive precision to the durational hatreds between human factions as varied as sports teams and political parties, social groups and nations, Millicent writes:

Hatred implies similarity, that is, lasting hatred does. The kind of hatred that implies incentive enough to enable it to last a lifetime — strength enough to propel it beyond the grave and loop it in the hearts of a succeeding generation. The kind of congenital hatred means a feud — and a feud does not flourish among aliens … The most virulent kind seems to get its start in stealing of affections, and affections usually do not exist between aliens … Real hate is focussed … and focussing on a negative purpose may be carried out with as much or more determination. It’s not iniquity which the hater hates; he’s hating during an interval while waiting till the opportunity comes for vengeance. This waiting through a life-time does not destroy the carrier; on the contrary it seems to add the vitality to prolong life. The emotion, the hatred, keeps the hater alive and vigorous. The affection which starts a feud may be between aliens, but the hates it engenders does not continue unless between kindred souls and the closer the likeness perhaps, the more virulent the hatred.

Complement with a Zen master’s strategy for handling hate, then revisit the mightiest antidote we have to this most virulent of hatreds — the Ancient Greek notion of agape.


A Stoic’s Key to Peace of Mind: Seneca on the Antidote to Anxiety

“There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

A Stoic’s Key to Peace of Mind: Seneca on the Antidote to Anxiety

“The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is,” Kurt Vonnegut observed in discussing Hamlet during his influential lecture on the shapes of stories. “The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad,” Alan Watts wrote a generation earlier in his sobering case for learning not to think in terms of gain or loss. And yet most of us spend swaths of our days worrying about the prospect of events we judge to be negative, potential losses driven by what we perceive to be “bad news.” In the 1930s, one pastor itemized anxiety into five categories of worries, four of which imaginary and the fifth, “worries that have a real foundation,” occupying “possibly 8% of the total.”

A twenty-four-hour news cycle that preys on this human propensity has undeniably aggravated the problem and swelled the 8% to appear as 98%, but at the heart of this warping of reality is an ancient tendency of mind so hard-wired into our psyche that it exists independently of external events. The great first-century Roman philosopher Seneca examined it, and its only real antidote, with uncommon insight in his correspondence with his friend Lucilius Junior, later published as Letters from a Stoic (public library) — the timeless trove of wisdom that gave us Seneca on true and false friendship and the mental discipline of overcoming fear.


In his thirteenth letter, titled “On groundless fears,” Seneca writes:

There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

With an eye to the self-defeating and wearying human habit of bracing ourselves for imaginary disaster, Seneca counsels his young friend:

What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come.

Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.

Day 63
Illustration by María Sanoja from 100 Days of Overthinking

Seneca then offers a critical assessment of reasonable and unreasonable worries, using elegant rhetoric to illuminate the foolishness of squandering our mental and emotional energies on the latter class, which comprises the vast majority of our anxieties:

It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.

Art by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

Sixteen centuries before Descartes examined the vital relationship between fear and hope, Seneca considers its role in mitigating our anxiety:

The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to any evil; it twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning; or it fancies some personal grudge to be more serious than it really is, considering not how angry the enemy is, but to what lengths he may go if he is angry. But life is not worth living, and there is no limit to our sorrows, if we indulge our fears to the greatest possible extent; in this matter, let prudence help you, and contemn with a resolute spirit even when it is in plain sight. If you cannot do this, counter one weakness with another, and temper your fear with hope. There is nothing so certain among these objects of fear that it is not more certain still that things we dread sink into nothing and that things we hope for mock us. Accordingly, weigh carefully your hopes as well as your fears, and whenever all the elements are in doubt, decide in your own favour; believe what you prefer. And if fear wins a majority of the votes, incline in the other direction anyhow, and cease to harass your soul, reflecting continually that most mortals, even when no troubles are actually at hand or are certainly to be expected in the future, become excited and disquieted.

But the greatest peril of misplaced worry, Seneca cautions, is that in keeping us constantly tensed against an imagined catastrophe, it prevents us from fully living. He ends the letter with a quote from Epicurus illustrating this sobering point:

The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.

Complement this particular portion of Seneca’s wholly indispensable Letters from a Stoic with Alan Watts on the antidote to the age of anxiety, Italo Calvino on how to lower your “worryability,” and Claudia Hammond on what the psychology of suicide prevention teaches us about controlling our everyday worries, then revisit Seneca on making the most of life’s shortness and the key to resilience when loss does strike.


How Bach Will Save Your Soul: German Philosopher Josef Pieper on the Hidden Source of Music’s Supreme Power

“Music opens a path into the realm of silence.”

How Bach Will Save Your Soul: German Philosopher Josef Pieper on the Hidden Source of Music’s Supreme Power

Some of humanity’s greatest and most fertile minds — including Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Aldous Huxley, and Friedrich Nietzsche — have contemplated the power of music, and yet the question of why music moves us so remains unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable. Why is it that music can permeate our deepest memories, help us grieve, and save our lives?

Four years after his increasingly timely case for shedding the culture-crushing shackles of workaholism, the German philosopher Josef Pieper (May 4, 1904–November 6, 1997) explored the abiding puzzlement of music’s power in a speech delivered during intermission at a Bach concert in 1952, later published under the title “Thoughts About Music” in his small, enormous posthumous essay collection Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation (public library) — a set of reflections titled after Augustine’s beautiful assertion that “only he who loves can sing” (which Van Gogh echoed in his insistence that art and love are one), exploring what Pieper argues is the “hidden root” of the richness of all music, fine art, and poetry: contemplation.

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?

Piper begins his Bach speech by examining our age-old preoccupation with pinning down the elusive source of music’s singular enchantment:

Not only is music one of the most amazing and mysterious phenomena of all the world’s miranda, the things that make us wonder (and, therefore, the formal subject of any philosopher…) [but] music may be nothing but a secret philosophizing of the soul… yet, with the soul entirely oblivious, that philosophy, in fact, is happening here… Beyond that, and above all, music prompts the philosopher’s continued interest because it is by its nature so close to the fundamentals of human existence.

Pieper considers the question of what we actually perceive when we listen to music. Surely, he points out, we perceive something greater and beyond the sum total of the specific sounds and words, something of additional intimacy and meaning, just as in poetry we “perceive more and something other than the factual, literal meaning of its words.” Echoing Aldous Huxley’s exquisite assertion that “after silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Pieper writes:

Music opens a path into the realm of silence. Music reveals the human soul in stark “nakedness,” as it were, without the customary linguistic draperies.

Art by Julia Kuo from The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito

With an eye to the canon of ideas about music in Western philosophy — including Schopenhauer, who believed that music is superior to all other arts for they “speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence,” and Nietzsche, who dramatized his monumental regard for music in the proclamation that “without music life would be a mistake” — Pieper summarizes the landscape of thought:

The nature of music variously [has] been understood … as nonverbal articulation of weal and woe, as wordless expression of man’s intrinsic dynamism of self-realization, a process understood as man’s journey toward ethical personhood, as the manifestation of man’s will in its aspects, as love.

All of these ideas, he suggests, can be summed up in a single formulation. A decade after the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer framed music as a laboratory for feeling and time, Pieper writes:

Music articulates the inner dynamism of man’s existential self, which is music’s “prime matter” (so to speak), and both share a particular characteristic — both move in time.

Much as the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky would argue decades later that cinema is the art of “sculpting in time,” Pieper argues that this temporal element of music gives us a vital tool with which to sculpt our personhood:

Since music articulates the immediacy of man’s basic existential dynamism in an immediate way, the listener as well is addressed and challenged on that profound level where man’s self-realization takes place. In this existential depth of the listener, far below the level of expressible judgments, there echoes — in identical immediacy — the same vibration articulated in the audible music.

We now realize why and to what extent music plays a role in man’s formation and perfection… beyond any conscious efforts toward formation, teaching, or education.

The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."
One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

In a passage of even more jarring pertinence to our own era of formulaic mass-produced mediocrity marketed as popular music, Pieper writes:

If we now look at our society … we observe how much the most trivial and “light” music, the “happy sound,” has become the most common and pervasive phenomenon. By its sheer banality, this music expresses quite accurately the cheap self-deception that on the inner existential level all is fine… We observe how much attention is demanded by — and willingly given to — the rhythmic beat of a certain crude and orgiastic music… Both kinds of music, the “happy sound” as well as the numbing beat, claim legitimacy as “entertainment,” as means, that is, of satisfying, without success, the boredom and existential void that are caused and increased by each other and that equally have become a common and pervasive phenomenon. We further observe how music … is frequently selected and consumed as a means of personal enchantment, of escapism, of a certain pseudo-deliverance, and as a means to achieve delight that remains merely “skin-deep” (von aussen her, as Rilke said)… We observe all this with great alarm, aware that music lays bare man’s inner existential condition, removing veil and façade (and it cannot be otherwise), while this same inner condition receives from music the most discreet impulses, for better or for worse.

Pieper returns to the subject of his speech, extolling Bach as a timeless counterpoint to this debasement of the soul in music — a supreme example of the kind of music that ennobles our personhood by inviting existential contemplation:

We observe and ponder all this and then are moved to rejoice as we become aware again and acknowledge anew that among all the various kinds of music today there still exists, also and especially, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach!

Obviously, this implies a challenge to ourselves, a challenge not easily nor “automatically” satisfied. That we are willing to listen attentively to the essential message of this music and that we let this message find an echo, as if on reverberating strings, within the immediacy of our soul is decisive. This will lead to new and rekindled clarity, authenticity, and vigor of our inward existence; to the dissatisfaction with entertaining but hollow achievements; and to a sober and perceptive alertness that is not distracted from the realities of actual life by the promise of easy pleasure proffered in superficial harmonies. Above all, this will guide us to turn with resolve, constancy, courage, and hope toward the one and only Good by whose grace our inner existential yearning finds fulfillment; the one Good praised and exalted particularly in Bach’s music with such ever-present “wordless jubilation.”

Complement this particular portion of the wholly jubilant Only the Lover Sings with Franz Kafka on the power of music and the point of making art and Aldous Huxley on why music speaks to our souls, then revisit Pieper on the neglected seedbed of creative culture.


A Laboratory for Feeling and Time: Pioneering Philosopher Susanne Langer on What Gives Music Its Power and How It Illuminates the Other Arts

“Music is ‘significant form,’ and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated sensuous object… Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import.”

A Laboratory for Feeling and Time: Pioneering Philosopher Susanne Langer on What Gives Music Its Power and How It Illuminates the Other Arts

“Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts… and the most sensual,” Susan Sontag wrote in one of the most beautiful meditations on the power of music. Aldous Huxley, in his immensely poetic reflection on why music moves us so, recounted “some exquisite soft harmony apprehended by another sense” as he listened to Beethoven in the dark. This sensorial splendor of music is what Helen Keller, deaf and blind, articulated in her exultation upon “hearing” Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with her hand.

I thought about all of this recently — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I felt about it — as I listened, with my whole being, to a friend perform music that seemed to emanate from her whole being. I wondered what it is about music that we feel in our marrow, that invites us into some other dimension of time, magnetizing us to the present yet containing within itself all that ever was and ever will be — a place where the symbolic and the real, the abstract and the acutely alive, converge into something larger.

That peculiar property of music may have been what prompted Susanne Langer (December 20, 1895–July 17, 1985), one of the first professional women philosophers, to call music an “unconsummated symbol” in her trailblazing 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Langer revisited the subject a quarter century later in her final work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (public library), exploring what makes music different from all other forms of creative expression and how, paradoxically, understanding the source of its power illuminates the other arts.

Susanne Langer

Langer writes:

Music, like language, is an articulate form. Its parts not only fuse together to yield a greater entity, but in so doing they maintain some degree of separate existence, and the sensuous character of each element is affected by its function in the complex whole. This means that the greater entity we call a composition is not merely produced by mixture, like a new color made by mixing paints, but is articulated, i.e. its internal structure is given to our perception.

And yet music, Langer argues, is not quite a language, as it has frequently been called (although the two worked in tandem to help us evolve.) Unlike language, where words function as its primary forms of fixed meaning and association, music allows us to fill its forms with our own meaning. She considers this singular role of meaning in music:

Music has import, and this import is the pattern of sentience — the pattern of life itself, as it is felt and directly known.

Let us therefore call the significance of music its “vital import” instead of “meaning,” using “vital” not as a vague laudatory term, but as a qualifying adjective restricting the relevance of “import” to the dynamism of subjective experience.

With this lens, Langer offers a sublimely compact and insightful definition of what music is, how it differs from language, and what it does in and for us:

Music is “significant form,” and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated sensuous object, which by virtue of its dynamic structure can express the forms of vital experience which language is peculiarly unfit to convey. Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import.

The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."
One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Langer goes on to propose a special theory of music based on the idea of “significant form,” which she suggests can be generalized to illuminate the function and symbolic essence of all the arts. She writes:

What is “created” in a work of art? More than people generally realize when they speak of “being creative,” or refer to the characters in a novel as the author’s “creations.” More than a delightful combination of sensory elements; far more than any reflection or “interpretation” of objects, people, events — the figments that artists use in their demiurgic work, and that have made some aestheticians refer to such works as “re-creation” rather than genuine creation. But an object that already exists — a vase of flowers, a living person — cannot be re-created. It would have to be destroyed to be re-created. Besides, a picture is neither a person nor a vase of flowers. It is an image, created for the first time out of things that are not imaginal, but quite realistic — canvas or paper, and paints or carbon or ink.

What, then, is being created when music is made? An image of time, argues Langer two decades before the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky defined cinema as “sculpting in time.” Langer writes:

The elements of music are moving forms of sound; but in their motion nothing is removed. The realm in which tonal entities move is a realm of pure duration. Like its elements, however, this duration is not an actual phenomenon. It is not a period — ten minutes or a half hour, some fraction of a day — but is something radically different form the time in which our public and practical life proceeds. It is completely incommensurable with the progress of common affairs. Musical duration is an image of what might be termed “lived” or “experienced” time — the passage of life that we feel as expectations become “now,” and “now” turns into inalterable fact. Such passage is measurable only in terms of sensibilities, tensions, and emotions; and it has not merely a different measure, but an altogether different structure from practical or scientific time.

The semblance of this vital, experiential time is the primary illusion of music. All music creates an order of virtual time, in which its sonorous forms move in relation to each other — always and only to each other, for nothing else exists there.

Writing shortly before musician extraordinaire Nina Simone’s meditation on our experience of time, Langer adds:

Virtual time is as separate from the sequence of actual happenings as virtual space from actual space. In the first place, it is entirely perceptible, through the agency of a single sense — hearing. There is no supplementing of one sort of experience by another. This alone makes it something quite different from our “common-sense” version of time, which is even more composite, heterogeneous, and fragmentary than our similar sense of space. Inward tensions and outward changes, heartbeats and clocks, daylight and routines and weariness furnish various incoherent temporal data, which we coordinate for practical purposes by letting the clock predominate. But music spreads out time for our direct and complete apprehension, by letting our hearing monopolize it — organize, fill, and shape it, all alone. It creates an image of time measured by the motion of forms that seem to give it substance, yet a substance that consists entirely of sound, so it is transitoriness itself. Music makes time audible, and its forms and continuity sensible.

Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling is a revelatory read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with some of humanity’s greatest writers — including Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Aldous Huxley, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, and Friedrich Nietzsche — on the power of music, then revisit Langer on the purpose of art and how abstract thinking gives rise to human emotion.


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