In Defense of Shame

What some contemporary heroes of culture and politics have in common is not contempt for the law, but contempt for guilt

Eran Rolnik
Eran Rolnik
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Illustration.Credit: Yael Bogen
Eran Rolnik
Eran Rolnik

Eating guilt. In 1890, Haim Nahman Bialik wrote a short poem that has two titles: “Eating Guilt” and “The Penitent.” The poem describes how, on the eve of Yom Kippur, as part of the holiday’s Kappara ritual, the author waved a white fowl above his head as a mark of atonement and exculpated his heart of iniquity. After the fast, delighting in the chicken thighs he’d prepared for himself, he realized that he’d devoured “the fowl of his atonements, the meat of his abominations,” and that all his sins and transgressions had transmigrated back to his body.

Literary commentators read Bialik’s poem as a critical satire of Hasidism, though one can also see the colorful image of a Jew who takes pleasure in the guilt feelings he has just tried to rid himself of, as a metaphor for the complex relations that human beings have with guilt feelings all year round.

The patient broke down. “Six million – can you grasp that number? Six million dolphins have died from the brutal fishing methods by which tuna and whales are hunted. I tell you, human cruelty has no limit.” I heard the story about the German patient whose unconscious swapped dolphins for Jews, when I started to take an interest in the way in which the Holocaust continued to resonate in psychoanalysts’ consulting rooms in Germany. A sharp ear was needed to track the echoes of the Holocaust in the inner worlds of those who were not directly involved in it as executioners or as victims.

Illustration.Credit: Yael Bogen

The collective repression of guilt feelings that characterized postwar West German society attested to the Germans’ inability to mourn: for the narcissistic, grandiose investments they made in the person of the omnipotent leader; for the hopes they pinned on the war that were shattered; and for their refusal to take responsibility for the murder and destruction that their catastrophic political choices foisted on them and on the world. They were “good Germans” who refused to accept responsibility, because they hadn’t been members of the Nazi Party. In this way they absolved their conscience of collective responsibility, cultivated a voyeuristic attitude toward every political aspect of their life, and withdrew into a private, obligation-free existence.

Schools in Germany don’t teach in detail all the stages of the “Final Solution,” but the curriculum emphasizes the impact that civil society’s indifference can have on antidemocratic processes. “We must get up off the sofa and speak out,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said earlier this month, in response to the relative equanimity with which the German public has accepted the demonstrations by the extreme right against the government’s immigration policy. It’s hard to imagine a minister in the Israeli government calling on citizens to get up off the sofa and demonstrate against racism. Official Israel will always build ideological bypass routes that will allow citizens to avoid dealing with racism and read history for them in one direction: as proof that as Jews, they will eternally be the victims of racism, never its agents.

Garrison in an occupied city. Freud frequently used political images to describe the psychic mechanism and the relation of forces between the three psychic structures – the id, the ego and the superego. He likened the superego to an occupying power that forcefully suppresses the slightest sign of desire by the occupied population. The role of this complex psychic instance is to observe the ego, posit ideals for it (of which a person is also for the most part not conscious) and serve as a moral compass – a conscience.

Fear of authority and fear of the superego are the two principal sources of guilt. The superego does not distinguish between transgression and thoughts of transgression. Moreover, it operates as a fifth column in the psyche, so it’s not always clear whose interests it seeks to suppress or promote. The subject’s deviant wishes? The will (no less deviant) of a different, great Other? “Loss of the superego’s love is a death sentence for the ego,” Freud writes, and concluded that, “living means being loved by the superego.”

The question of how far life’s experiences affect the structure of the superego and the nature of the relations with it, is one of the most controversial issues in psychoanalytic thought. Clearly no direct relationship exists between the rigidity of the superego and traumatic experience with strict authority figures. It’s also clear that disproportionate hostility is inculcated from the first moment in relations between the superego and the ego.

One of the explanations that were put forward for the disproportionate ferocity with which the conscience tends to relate to the ego, was the existence of influences external to individual history. Freud thought that the figure of the murderous primal father, which is immersed in the psyche, is projected onto the parent and creates, through identification, the most stringent judgmental instance. Subsequently, he tried to connect between the sadistic nature of the superego and the operation of the death drive from the very beginning of life.

The moral standards of the person caught up in a group can be different, for good or bad, from those internalized by him individually. In the essay “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” Freud showed that defense against guilt is one of the functions the group fulfills for its members. Historians of the Holocaust were aided by this insight when seeking to explain the readiness of “ordinary people” to obey murderous missions during the war with absolute self-persuasion.

Writs of absolution. It’s difficult to answer the question of what degree of guilt is essential for individual and cultural development, and from what point guilt feelings become a barrier to the growth of an individual or of a society. There is an important distinction between guilt feelings and unconscious guilt that seeks an outlet through self-punishment of different kinds. A person, as well as a group, can fall prey to moralistic tumult in a cyclic and unexpected manner, and the question of how guilt feeling is created, and what role it plays in a person’s relations with himself and with the world, will have implications for the type of therapeutic intervention that will be suitable for him.

A psychotherapist is not a confessor priest who provides writs of absolution. He apprises himself of the conditions and circumstances that caused the patient to position himself, helpless, opposite his internal judge. If the therapist understands the patient’s guilt, or the inhibitions from which he suffers, as deriving from the existence of a pathologically abusive superego – it is natural that he will aspire to “liberate” the patient from the judgmental psychic tribunal that has lurched out of control. It’s desirable that not everything in the psyche be justiciable, and in some cases it’s better for a person to strive to preserve his sovereignty even if the superego opposes him.

At the same time, a therapist who knows the importance that accrues to guilt for psychic growth and for emotional development, will not be in a hurry to “cleanse” his patients of guilt so they “will feel good with themselves.” He will encourage them to identify the intimate grammar of their guilt feelings and the circumstances of their formation in the past and the present. Gradually patients learn how to distinguish between guilt whose source lies in unconscious aggressive and destructive wishes, and guilt and remorse whose source is love.

In praise of feeling bad about yourself. Psychic pain, sadness and guilt are signs of life, not symptoms of illness. The ability to bear guilt is a condition for accepting “facts of life” such as the dependence human beings have on the good object. The term “depressive position,” coined by psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, describes a mental form of functioning that recognizes that love and hate accord their possessors not only pleasure but also intense sorrow. From the depressive position, the psyche becomes more open to a guilty conscience, which is not identical to the blind persecutory guilt whose source resides in the superego.

Persecutory guilt is characterized by resentment, despair, fear and self-flagellation. We find it, for example, in paranoia and in melancholic depression. Because of it, a person will be unable to walk around without feeling that he must bring every unfortunate cat he encounters into his home. The house is small and full of cats, and the guilt does not let go. Unlike persecutory guilt, a guilty conscience manifests as sorrow, caring and responsibility toward the other and toward oneself. It may not impel a person to adopt all the stray cats in the neighborhood, but it will encourage him to take responsibility even for things over which he does not have complete control.

Guilt and democracy. A woman – a jurist by profession – relates that she is considering the possibility of doing vocational retraining to become a psychoanalyst. “I have despaired,” she says. “I’ve been active in the public arena for many years, but nothing comes of it. Israeli democracy is collapsing. It seems to me that there are more successes in psychoanalysis – that in therapy people change, grow.”

What does this woman want? Perhaps she wants to move from her present occupation, in which, she feels, democracy is gradually ceasing to exist, to one in which democracy can still be maintained: the psychoanalytic clinic.

The association between the psychoanalytic perception of people and the democratic worldview is related, in part, to the way in which psychoanalysis brings one face to face with unconscious wishes and fantasies, the sorts that nourish undemocratic regimes and which they aspire to intensify. Translated into psychoanalytic parlance, to fight for democracy means to refuse the temptations of achieving perfection, unity and calmness that characterize undemocratic forms of government.

One of the conditions for the existence of democracy is the ability of both the individual and the collective to bear guilt. Psychoanalysts do not take as self-evident people’s ability to distinguish between reality and wishful thinking, or their ability to think and feel. Like democracy, psychoanalysis also sees thinking as a mental and cultural achievement that is acquired with great toil – an achievement that is susceptible to attacks from within and from without, and that requires constant maintenance, both at the individual level and the collective political level. Like democracy, psychoanalysis also explores the connection between integrity and the integration of life and death drives, and of parts of the inner world that are in conflict with one another. Like democracy, psychoanalysis furthers the distinction between “prejudice” from which it is worth liberating oneself, and the “facts of life” it is preferable to live with.

One fact of life, for example, is the knowledge that people by nature have complex relations with the truth and with pleasure. But this is not only in the realm of politics but also in science as well, where unconscious fantasies can be identified that are inconsistent with the democratic enterprise. The history of the 20th century shows that the rise of ethnocentric political ideologies is accompanied by a partiality for scientific concepts that are biologistic, essentialist or voluntarist to an extreme.

When to get a divorce? Scientism is one of the features of our era, but another one of the characteristics of the period is a loss of interest in the distinction between knowledge and truth. Biological psychiatry and the brain sciences are energetically cultivating the image of man as a being whose behavior is to be measured, predicted and reshaped. It’s hard to be critical of the vast growth in scientific knowledge, but it’s also not useful to ignore the dangers that lie in wait for democracy from the psychopharmacological culture that has seized control of the Western world. The medications industry plays a central role in the formation of the “behavioral person” as one who does not look for meaning in what he feels or thinks; in turning him into a subject who has many questions for Google and Facebook, and few questions for himself.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Can decision-making theory be applied to romantic relationships?Credit: Mark J. Terrill/AP

In one of Dan Ariely’s captivating lectures, the Israeli-born behavioral economist applies his theory of decision-making to the realm of relationships. He relates what he advises for a person agonizing over whether to divorce his wife: that he try to ignore the fact that he has been married to this woman for many years, and ask himself whether today, in the light of all that he already knows about her, he would marry her.

The popularity of decision-making theory in schools of business administration and in corporate customer-relations departments is in-built. The desire to apply it to the inner world and to romantic relationships is touching. The voluntarist psychology of the experts on decision-making insists on identifying the psychic with the cognitive, and on portraying people as though they are a beta version of a more intelligent and efficient thinking machine that’s still in its developmental stages. It encapsulates an object relations theory of far-reaching implications for the connections between the individual and the state, and for interpersonal relations. “Relationship management,” they call it.

One after another, figures are striding to the center stage of history who seem to have been waiting for the moment when they could leap out of Ayn Rand’s writings into our life. What some of the heroes of science, culture and politics of our time have in common isn’t their contempt for the law, but the contempt they harbor for guilt and for psychic pain as such. A political culture in which people are urged to cast their gaze on statistical “happiness quotients,” to feel good with themselves at any price, or to make decisions about leaving their partner on the basis of rational “data processing,” is a culture that views guilt as a type of malfunction or hitch.

The psychotic self. Leaders have always shown off the psychopathic side of their personality and have known how to use moral lack of restraint not only as a means to frighten political rivals but also as an “aphrodisiac,” to seduce us, the little people, into ridding ourselves of oppressive pangs of conscience and placing our trust in a “Godfather”-like leader free of conventional moral shackles. It’s not only power-drunk politicians who take pride today for “ceasing to apologize” or “not believing in guilt”: The behavioral individual tends to be overly fond of the grandiose and psychopathic aspect of his personality, which he dons as protective armor against any emotional contact with human feelings like weakness, dependence, guilt, shame or remorse.

It’s no longer rare to encounter acerbic, ostensibly open-minded young people whose narrow range of feelings, and whose emotional difficulty in taking an interest in what goes on in their inner world, recall the world of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his roles as a superhero in dystopian action films of the end of the last century. The culture heroes of this period are also part-concrete, part-fictional personalities, trying to signal that nothing will come between them and their pleasure.

It’s possible that the task of liberating humanity from the burden of the superego has succeeded over and above all expectations. Pathologies of a new type – individual, cultural and political psychologies – have become the attributes of a period in which a “good life” and guilt are perceived as being antithetical. “Among the signs of bestiality / a clear conscience is Number One,” Wislawa Szymborska wrote in her poem “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself” (translation: Stanislaw Baranczak and Claire Cavanagh). In a world devoid of guilt, there is only authoritarian admiration and self-love.

Eran Rolnik is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.

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