I'm reading a wry, dirty book, Edmund White's autobiography, My Lives White is a gay novelist and biographer who's written a frank, sexy description of his life in Paris and New York City, from the 1950's to today, in S&M scenes, departmental meetings at NYU and Princeton, drunken binges, and intellectual discussions with sexually obsessed philosophers like Foucault.
White starts his autobiography by describing the (Freudian) shrinks who have inhabited his life. One of these shrinks was an insecure loner who built a society-of-two with the adolescent White by offering a theory of life in which all of our faults are blamed on our unloving mothers. A theory like that simplifies things, a lot: It's all the mother's fault, and happiness lies in the imagined land of grand self-love.
In one scene of the book, the shrink tries to become White's friend by distancing himself from White's parents. He asks the young White to edit his professional manuscripts, showing the boy he values him: "Don't think I'm a castrating a**hole like your father, an anal perfectionist who can't admit that another man can help him," the shrink says to the boy. It goes without saying that White fell in thrall with that shrink.
The idea behind that scene is simple and meaningful for me. We create small societies by insulting others. Said again, mentors and friends can enhance their appeal by identifying problems that we both see, and can get distance from. Gossip is one example of this: If people in the office name a target to poke fun of, that relieves their own insecurities around each other. Now one person in the office is the misfit, so it's less likely (as least for a bit of time) that the members of the gossiping circle will be attacked by each other. A circle of gossip is a circle of support that distils its group aggression onto an outsider.
Prejudice is a bigger and more extreme example of relief-through-villainizing-others: If one group has inherent problems, our group looks special. If we name an outsider who is guilty, we don't need to look as hard at our own faults.
I once wrote a blog here on schadenfreude [to see it click here], which touches on similar ideas. Schadenfreude is a long word for the joy we get from seeing others suffer. While we don't often publically admit it, it's likely true that we get relief from finding faults in others. After all, security is essentially our ability to maintain our status, or power, in relation to other people and circumstances.
Nasty, bitter partnerships are formed through that sort of villianization, but so are less obviously nasty partnerships. For instance, whenever I'm down, I get on the phone with my cousin, and she often tells me stories about her lover, whose life is much less stable than mine (lost his job; drinks too much). We always speak about the lover in a tone of concern, but if I were to be as honest about emotion as White is in his own autobiography, I'd have to admit to some release there too--some joy at the relative calm in my own life. I gossip with my cousin to create a society-of-two that gives me a sense of security; and that's exactly what White did with his shrink. Maybe that's what we always do with shrinks to some extent: we create partnerships that help us name our strengths relative to other people and things outside the room.
I wonder if you've found yourself in any position like this lately--even if very subtly naming friends as opposed to enemies. There is some comfort in sealing joy with an inner circle.
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