On Violence and Mourning Difficulties - Part II

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PostFri Jun 18, 2010 9:29 pm » by Tertiusgaudens

Fascination with Violence and Escape from Suffering and Mourning

Accounts of violence and perversion promise us that we will be vicariously freed from the shackles of our own consciences and social norms, that we will at last realise ourselves to the fullest. They promise to tear down all the prohibitions which have hitherto limited our chances. The less comprehensible the reason for violence seems to be, the more devoid of all emotional connections the perverse acts are, the stronger our positive or negative reactions are. Turned on or dismayed, we let ourselves be cheated. Foucault (1976) concludes the first volume of ”The History of Sexuality”: The irony of this deployment is in having us believe that it concerns our ‘liberation’.” These ever more sophisticated or realistic direct accounts leave a feeling of emptiness, satiation and disgust in their wake. The promised liberation never comes, regardless of whether we regard it as an apocalypse or a Paradise on earth. The insurmountable boredom of pictures of violence catches up with us. In Freud’s (1923, p. 46) description ”the death instincts are by their nature mute” and ”the clamour of life proceeds for the most part from Eros”. In the superego of the melancholic ”a pure culture of the death instinct” reigns supreme (Freud 1923, p. 53). When perpetual repetitions of the same actions are presented without their historical and emotional context they lose their relationship to the conditions of our human existence and with our roots. Thus the depression recurs which the picture of violence, like every boundary crossing, has been passed off as helping us to escape. This void, covering up our own violent, destructive desires, is a pathological form of sorrow from a psychoanalytical standpoint, an expression of the inability or refusal to suffer and to mourn.

The desire to escape every limitation in man’s existence ends in depression or destructiveness. Sabina Spielrein, who in 1912 suggested the first psychoanalytical phraseology for the death instinct, wrote that the most important characteristic of an individual is that he is a ”dividual,” Dividuum. Wurmser (1987) sees man’s claim to the absolute as ”the perversion of conscience” – it fosters the ”demonic” side of the personality and leads to evil, destructiveness and violence. According to Shengold (1991) our original desire for ”everything” is an expression of the utmost narcissism, and it makes ”something” unattainable. Our murderous desires express a rage which turns against the inevitably frustrating reality we live in, represented by the indispensable parents. Only a tolerance for ”no,” ”never” and ”nothingness” can create a real place where it is possible for ”someone” to exist as a separate individual with his own identity.

The psychoanalytical term ”the omnipotence of thought” can help us to understand the effects of the spread of accounts of violence in the media. The concept was coined by one of Freud’s patients, known as the Ratman (1909) and used by Freud in his research on taboo (1913). What the magic thoughts of small children, obsessive neurotic patients and people in primitive cultures have in common is that the thought is considered to be on a par with the deed. The distinctive mark of the new, global media is that it so easily brings up to date this archaic, infantile ”omnipotence of thought” and in that way promotes narcissistic solutions. In its turn this narcissism is an effective obstacle to – and a flight from – perceived suffering, depression, mourning and working through. Added to this is also the disintegration of the individual conscience by participation in the global network of viewers. In Freud’s research on taboo the archetype for this process was the primitive man’s totem meal when the totem animal was killed and eaten: every individual is aware that he is doing something forbidden, allowed only because the whole clan is participating in it.

According to Freud (1913) man’s cultural products are a first acknowledgement of Ananke, ”Necessity”, in the sense of limitations inherent in the existential conditions of man which challenge our narcissism. In this context it could be added that the relation of art to ”Necessity” has always been ambivalent. Every innovative work of art, like every new medium, is an effort to subjugate Ananke, overstep the boundaries in our earthly existence and re-establish a narcissistic structure. Art which ends there, however, will not be art; not until it reaches a bottom layer of depression can it help us to mourn. Subtle ties bind creativity to our narcissistic and depressive sides (Székely 1976; 1983; Haynal 1985; Kristeva 1987; Cullberg 1992; Crafoord 1993). Narratives which deal in depth with our existential conditions, with what makes us humans irretrievably doomed to live as separate ”in-dividuals”, dependent on each other, divided into two sexes and several generations, vulnerable and mortal, can help us to be reconciled with our existential conditions. A painful acknowledgement of Ananke is also an important part of the psychotherapeutic process of change. Let me illustrate this with three clinical vignettes and a film.

Three Patients and Three COLOURS

The first girl’s colours were brown. Brown’s inner world was filled with terror and perversion. She could sit for hours in front of the TV and watch the most brutal and cruel violent and pornographic films. Before the approaching termination of her psychotherapy Brown fantasised butchering her therapist and cutting up her dead mother. There was no limit to Brown’s hate for her therapist and her mother, both of whom had unavoidably left her. Her own progress in therapy and in life confronted her with the need to accept that, as a matter of fact, she was able to look after herself on her own. When she took a decisive step in that direction she regressed and in confusion went out to her mother’s grave. On the way back she met with the same type of accident which had led to her mother’s death. By identifying with her mother she was trying to understand her mother’s death and accept the fact that she had nothing to do with it, at the same time as she was trying to ”be” the mother. Brown teetered on the brink of death and had to go through a series of surgical procedures. After one of the operations she thought that she had finally buried her mother and freed herself from her. Before the conclusion of the therapy she hit on the idea that she might go to another psychotherapist and this made her feel like a traitor. She had a whim that she might plant the same kind of potted plant as the one in the therapist’s consulting room. Perhaps it would bloom for her, too, and then she could cut a flower and give it to the therapist. Actually she was still grappling with the separation from her mother’s body and expressing a hope that she would be able to refrain from butchering and eating it. She could not keep the good plant herself but imagined that she had to pick the flower and give it back to the therapist, a representative of her mother. Before the next operation a few weeks later she mixed up ideas about the dead mother’s mangled body with fantasies about cutting up her own body and that of the therapist. The therapist who had survived these onslaughts received a postcard after the operation which had on it a picture of the flower Brown wanted to plant, cut and give to her. That moment might be described as a transition from the Fascist mentality and the brown anal universe to a world where the difference between Brown and others and between the symbol and what is symbolised may be allowed to exist.

The second girl’s colours were pink. Pink’s fear of her own destructiveness was hidden behind an idyllic facade. She was a sweet innocent, a china doll. As Pink approached the end of her therapy she wanted to make the process short. Apparently she perceived the upcoming separation as a sign of the therapist’s sadism. Her own sadism continued to be denied and projected. At this point Pink’s fantasies revolved around the desire to hold the female therapist’s hand when a man penetrated her. With their long knives men were nasty creatures. With the therapist she constantly re-created a feeling that there was always something more to work with which she was not allowing the therapist to penetrate. Pink could not endure the difference between the bodies of a man and a woman, between parent and child generations, between patient and therapist, and she also did everything she could to deny the boundary created by the termination. She thought that psychotherapy was not worth anything if it was really going to end by the therapist and her being separated. Everything was ruined and it was just as well to begin slashing her wrists and burning herself with cigarettes. She thought that it helped her to feel real if she saw blood flowing. During one therapy session she stuck her fingertip with a needle, squeezing out a few drops of blood that she wanted the therapist to suck on. In this action Pink’s vampirism mingled with fantasies about the therapist’s bloodthirstiness. At the same time Pink was more and more openly seductive toward the therapist, alternating between inviting physical contact and reproaching her for the lack of it. Not until the therapist became aware of her own strongly negative reactions to Pink’s bloodthirstiness and her homosexual invitations was she able to understand that at every session Pink was giving her the feeling that she was leaving something unfinished and unprocessed behind and that Pink’s motivation was to get the therapist to realise how impossible the upcoming separation seemed to her. This became the starting point for a new round in her work with Pink’s refusal to live in a world of differences.

Green, a middle-aged woman who looked like a teenager, was concerned about environmental destruction. The very first sessions of psychoanalysis aroused her dread of the future termination. She could not understand why she should embark on this relationship if she could not ”get” the analyst and she complained constantly about the lack of mutuality in the relationship. For several years Green reacted to every separation from the analyst with hateful feelings and murderous fantasies, such as butchering and eating her body. Despite the violent quality in her emotions, dreams, fantasies and accusations Green did not need to stage them in her real life or assault her own body, nor did she need to hide her desires behind a facade of innocence and naiveté. She could speak openly about her reactions and her desires remained simply desires. The months before the end of the analysis were characterised by a profound mourning made possible when ambivalent emotions were allowed to come out. Green came to the final session with a gift for her analyst which in symbolic form summed up the inner change she had gone through but was also a symbolic representation of a funeral. She was able to give up the illusion that her desire to have the father/analyst to herself would finally be satisfied after the termination, and she buried her fantasy picture.

Brown’s and Pink’s colours seemed like the reverse of each other but they both lived in the same archaic universe where their bodies and those of their mothers had grown together. Sometimes Green’s colours might seem brown and sometimes pink. Even though she protested vehemently against every difference between her and the analyst, between her own and her mother’s relation to her father, she could present her own conflicts in symbolic form. Certainly in her analysis she regressed to the same archaic universe in which Brown and Pink permanently inhabited, but in contrast to the two other patients her starting point was a deep depression and not a psychosis. In all three cases violence and perversion disclosed their demands to obliterate all differences.

A Film

”No animals or human beings have been injured in creating this film,” we are assured after Milcho Manchevski’s film ”Before the Rain.” We can feel secure that everything was just fiction, ”make believe.” Photographer and Pulitzer prize winner Alex is on a trip to Bosnia as a newspaper correspondent after 16 years in London. On one occasion he observes to a Serbian militiaman, ”Nothing is happening here.” ”We can easily fix that,” answers the militiaman and shoots a prisoner. In this scene the boundary between fiction and reality is dissolved when the desire for an authentically shocking picture determines what becomes real.

Weighed down by guilt feelings, Alex travels to Macedonia where he wishes to make amends for his crime by trying to rescue the daughter of his youthful love. He winds up in the middle of a feud between Albanians and Macedonians (”they have oppressed us for 500 years”) and witnesses how a brother murders his sister, an Albanian girl charged with having killed a Macedonian. He is finally killed by his own brother. In the first part of the film, ”Words,” we get no explanations for all the hate and violence we are witness to. Part two, ”Faces,” transports us to London only so that we may once again witness something incomprehensible. In a restaurant a Yugoslav picks a quarrel with a fellow countryman, insulting him until he is thrown out. In a few minutes he comes back and mows down the restaurant guests. The explanation does not come until the third part, ”Pictures.” Here we see a Macedonia where next door neighbours are full of hate for each other and we follow the fateful course of events in connection with Alex’ rescue attempt. As in a Greek tragedy it proves to be impossible for Alex, for all of us, to stay out of things and circumvent fate: when Alex fights to preserve his own humanity he puts at stake the life of the girl he was to rescue as well as his own.

The whole film may be considered an exposé of the difference between the viewer of incomprehensible descriptions of violence without meaning or relation and the witness to meaningful and comprehensible actions, however strange and frightening, being the consequence of a long and not immediately recognisable story. Shocking pictures from the war scene skimmed through in a London office, completely unacceptable in their invasion of everyday life, come gradually to be replaced by ”faces” of people, their fates, the coherence of life. The violence in the epic story of the film with its dazzlingly beautiful, almost dreamlike pictures, is contrasted with extremely realistic pictures from Bosnia, reaching us at the same moment they are happening, invading us without giving us any connection or possibility to understand. The highly personal, stylised tale, filtered through the psyche of another subject, gives us a feeling of participation in our common human history. Within the frame of a ritually limited time and place we meet our own and our neighbour’s destructiveness and once again discover that there is nowhere to flee. This family of ours who inhabit the earth are brothers and sisters who are killing each other.

Pictures of Violence and Perversion are Different From Images of Conditio Humana

Now that we have gotten so far into this discourse we may need to go back to some of the theses we formulated earlier and elaborate further on them. Our contemporary descriptions of man’s violence, destruction and sexuality destroy the boundaries between reality and fantasy, between the portrayal and what is portrayed, between good and evil, living and dead, human and non-human. This plays a part in our longing to cross the boundaries of our own ego. In combination with denying that a taboo against portrayal of certain occurrences exists at all, these pictures present a perverse scenario, which may bring into focus corresponding aspects of our inner world. The preoccupation with violence and perversion in our culture can be regarded as a consequence of secularisation, the victory of rationality over faith, and a continuation of the disintegration of the boundary between sacred and profane. Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky articulated this perception of Gott ist tot: if God is dead all crimes and perversions are allowed.

After Auschwitz our culture was to a great extent characterised by the desire to see all and show all and by a denial of the boundaries for what may be depicted and what may be done. This involves a change in our relation to the ultimate limit of our existence, death. Great ambivalence characterises the cult of death which is continuing its advance in the shadow of the gas chambers and the crematorium ovens. On the one hand the taboo surrounding death seems to have been strengthened and on the other hand eliminated. Much of the concrete, physical content of death has been rendered invisible at the same time as pictures of dead and dying bodies are inundating us. We seem to be denying that our own death and that of others is one of the realities of life and a ”beyond,” at the same time as we violate previous taboos surrounding death and the images of it. If death is not a final crossing and if pictures of murder and corpses are a common ingredient of our daily lives, perhaps there is nothing we need to be afraid of and nothing to mourn, either. This cult of death seems to be an attempt to come to terms with the narcissistic outrage perpetrated on us by the fact that we are mortal.

Present day techniques for the spread of information has extended the range of our sense and motor organs to a level which spans the globe. This global expansion of boundaries of the outer organs of the ego has not been accompanied by a corresponding change in our ego. The skin ego, the outer shield of our body image and our inner world, is lagging behind. This state of things resembles adolescence: the teenager’s body changes faster than his chances of integrating it into his self-image, at the same time as the radical increase in the pressure of his instincts triggers regression. In contrast to the teenager, however, what we are talking about here is not a matter of the increased pressure of the libido but of the death instinct. The result is that we once again meet the archaic, infantile sides of our selves, this time under the hegemony of hate and destructiveness. Changes in the social arena and in the scope of the media coincide and together strengthen the regressive psychic processes, which have also been apparent in other epochs of historic upheavals.

The effect of exposure to pictures of violence and perversion may be described in terms of regression to narcissistic structures. Another consequence was the mortification of our psyche, a process which may be said to chisel out the ”living dead” parts of our ego. Effects like these have previously been observed in a pure form in people who have survived a perverted world full of destructiveness, violence and evil – the survivors of the Holocaust, of torture and psychosis (Werbart & Lindbom-Jakobson 1993). The preliminary hypothesis that pictures of violence and sexuality may have traumatising intrapsychic consequences if they penetrate or contribute to the disintegration of the skin ego can now be confirmed. A massive exposure to images of man’s evil and perversion, devoid of every emotional and historical context, may activate our ”archaic remnants.” Our own destructiveness and narcissism then come to life rather than being diverted and canalised. This may lead to a temporary or persistent reorganisation of the ego. The appeal of these images and the regression they conjure up lie in the fact that the projection outward of our own aggressivity and hate is accompanied by flight from depression and grief, manifest in the ecstatic expectation of being able to free ourselves from all the boundaries in our existence. This regression in the individual and in the group can be carried over from generation to generation (Kaës et al. 1993).

What then is the difference between pictures of violence and perversion which serve the ends of the death instinct and accounts which promote the action of the life instinct in joining together instead of tearing down? One difference is between pictures which isolate a fragment of our life, ignoring its total emotional and historical context, and accounts which are incorporated into a human story. Another difference is between showing or viewing, and witnessing. This difference deals with the presence or absence of a Narrator, an intermediate agent who is responsible for a certain psychic and symbolic pre-processing. The tales of the Greek bards, the Bible stories, the Islandic Edda and Völsungasagan or the Finnish Kalevala are not devoid of atrocities, but they are presented by someone who witnesses, relates and mediates. With the modern technique for the spread of information, the Narrator tends to become invisible and to be replaced by the medium. The mediating instrument seeks to obliterate the subject’s presence as an intermediate link in order to be seen as a neutral extension of our perceptual organs. Unprocessed, non-symbolised pictures are still not testimony, for that requires a narrative communicated through another person’s subjectivity. The portrayals which ”rape” us are pictures without a tie to experience, empty of suffering, pain, meaning, and message. Behind the undoctored images of violence and perversion is an incapacity to endure suffering and psychic pain – in reality a refusal to accept mankind’s existential conditions. In psychoanalytical terms it deals with an attempt to make the Oedipal third invisible or to eliminate it. Such pictures play along with our desire to cross the boundaries of our own ego and confirm the ego’s temporary or permanent disintegration. Pictures of violence and perversion included in a description of conditio humana, on the other hand, contribute to the re-establishment of the ego as a psychic agent of our self-government.

To Re-establish the Ego is to Restore Differences

The world we live in, the incomprehensible events occurring all around us, all the dangers to our own existence as individuals and as a species, constantly threaten the ego’s unity. When pictures of naked violence, the free outlet for murderous and perverse desires, are perceived as invasive and perforate the skin ego, the entire arsenal of our ancient defence mechanisms is activated. Besides denial, projection and splitting, I have mentioned such defences against traumatic overstimulation as encapsulation, screening, and ego restriction. The sense of our vulnerability and our own murderous desires are both so threatening to us that, faced with pictures of this kind, we may react by ”de-identifying ourselves,” keeping a distance, regarding reality as fiction, de-humanising others. This is not true; it can’t be like this. It is happening there, not here. It is they who are doing it, not us. They are not like us; they are different. ”They are only Jews,” as an eye witness to the liquidation of the ghetto expressed it in Steven Spielberg’s film, ”Schindler’s List.” It’s just a movie, not for real. The use of these defence mechanisms is facilitated by the pretended transparency of the new media. ”This is exactly how it is...” When the presence of the mediating agent is made invisible and the re-editing by the ”third” subject is denied, we can protect the unity of our ego by contrariwise looking upon the portrayal as completely opaque. There is nothing beyond the presentation; the medium itself is the message. In the end it is the murderer within ourselves, the bloodthirsty beast we do not want to know. As in neurosis and psychosis a massive use of our most primitive, rigid defences contributes to strengthening the effect of what we are defending ourselves against. This may lead to a perverted reconstruction of frames, characterised by paranoid delusions. When the taboo against portrayal of certain occurrences is denied, that which we do not want to know can be fully possible.

In the current debate about the mass media in the USA, a paradox has recently come to light. It seems that everyone follows Simpson’s trial in direct TV broadcasts. This murder affects the entire population since they can recognise themselves in the drama and identify with both the perpetrator and the victim. The pictures from Serbia, on the other hand, do not seem to affect the American public and are regarded as just pictures on the TV screen. The spread of pictures of violence by the media may contribute to the identification process (like the broadcasts of the hunt for and the trial of Simpson) or to de-humanisation and the onset of xenophobia (”We never believed anything else about the Balkan people”). Our attempt at ”objective news reporting” may contribute to this de-humanisation. Inexplicable pictures of bleeding, maimed or dead bodies, often in direct broadcasts, may easily strengthen the feeling of unreality.

Pictures of evil, violence, destructiveness, and perversion may contribute to the re-establishment of the ego’s boundaries if they counteract the disintegration of the ego and restore differences. In order that they may help us to work through our experiences, to endure suffering and to mourn, such descriptions have to fulfil certain conditions. The subjective position, with the portrayal separated from what is being portrayed, may make it easier for us to identify with one of the protagonists. The narrator’s visible presence, the mediating agent responsible for a certain psychic pre-processing, can contribute to our leaving the role of the passive viewer and becoming an active witness. This also promotes the symbolisation and reconstruction of a historic context. Such accounts can help us to accept the loss of our infantile omnipotence.

In Freud’s (1917b) aphorism one of the great injures to the narcissism of man is that our ego is not master in its own house. Changes in our culture, in the political arena and the technology of the spread of information work together today to influence the boundaries between our ego and the outside world, between our ego ideal and perceived self-esteem, between the desirable and the undesirable aspects of our inner world. This is a new outrage to our narcissism. Our impulses, desires and fantasies are the same as they were ten thousand years earlier. Never before, however, has our repressed, archaic world had the same chance not only to break through to the surface but also to be rapidly spread over the whole world and shared by everyone. The boundary between the festivals of the Ancient Age or the carnivals of the Middle Ages and the every day life was circumscribed by a train of rules and ceremonies. The bard and the story teller could extend the range of our sense and motor organs because his ego was the mediating link. With the technology of today these boundaries are indistinct and the mediating subject is reduced to a minimum. Modernism, post-modernism, deconstruction have had the goal of breaking with various taboos, crossing boundaries, mixing what previously could not be mixed. For the archaic stratum in our ego the message that everything may be depicted may take on the meaning that everything may also be done. In the world we live in today several different technological and cultural factors work together to activate the archaic and perverse sides of our personalities. All those who are depicting our passage and our fate on this earth are involved in this process of the breakthrough of archaic material. Restoring the ego involves restoring our ancient taboos and re-establishing differences between fiction and reality, between good and evil, the permissible and the forbidden, living and dead, human and non-human.


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This essay was written for the Governmental Council Concerning Violence in Moving Images, Department of Culture, Sweden, and was published in Swedish. The English translation by Sheila Smith was made possible by the Psychosocial Research Centre, Stockholm County Council.

Copyright: Free Associations

Andrzej Werbart is an associate member of the Swedish Psychoanalytical Society, private practicing psychoanalyst, and director of the Research Unit at the Institute of Psychotherapy in Stockholm.
Hope is the thing with feathers...
Emily Dickinson

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