Monday, June 17, 2019

Reality and Sour Grapes

Fox and grapes

“’Human kind cannot bear very much reality,’ T.S. Eliot said [see “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets (Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1943)]. What our psychology, too, stresses is how hard the process of self-awareness is, how painful, sometimes searingly painful [it is], to face the reality of who we are. Not that this is surprising when we remember that it was the unbearability of this pain that produced our defenses against awareness in the first place, when we began our splitting off, or repression, of aspects of ourselves [cf. the ‘fragmented’ mind, the divided self, our capacity to ‘compartmentalize,’ etc., all of which, strictly speaking, are logically distinct from, even if perhaps thought to provide some sort of evidence for, the ‘modularity of mind’ theory in cognitive science and philosophy of mind which goes back to the late philosopher Jerry Fodor [see his book, The Modularity of Mind (MIT Press, 1983)]. Part of the work is for both parties to the [therapeutic process of psychoanalysis] to begin to tolerate what has been untolerable [or intolerable] so that self-awareness can happen. 

Psychoanalysis has refined and deepened our knowledge of how much this is so, and how the denials function to limit, constrain, and distort our lives. We find it hard to bear our hatred; but it is also hard to bear our loving and all that goes along with love—need, dependence, greed, lack, fear of rejection, loss, jealousy, envy, rage, and guilt. Nor is it easy to bear the humiliation of others’ harshness and contempt (or others’ imagined harshness and contempt) if we allow or show the dependence (and all the rest). Love, which always has elements of possessiveness in it, inevitably makes us vulnerable to psychic pain.

Similar hard-to-bear vulnerabilities arising as a result of wanting or desire occur with less personal feelings of love – think of the fable of the man [rather than the fox!] who, hungry, thirsty, and tired, is walking along a dusty road, and sees delicious-looking grapes hanging over the high hedge. He tries desperately to reach them, but can’t. He then denies his longing, saying to himself: ‘the grapes were green and unripe. I didn’t really want them’ [Brearley here references a later—1962—English translation (with a slightly different title) of Sartre’s brief use of this fable* in his book, The Emotions: Outline of a Theory (Philosophical Library, 1948) (original in French, 1939)]. This man thus changes the world as he perceives it in order not to suffer disappointment. If he never wanted the grapes, he doesn’t have to mind not having them.” – From Michael Brearley’s essay, “What do psychoanalysts do?” in Louise Braddock and Michael Lacewing, eds., The Academic Face of Psychoanalysis: Papers in Philosophy, the Humanities, and the British Clinical Tradition (Routledge, 2007): 20-32. 

* “The Fox and the Grapes” is one of the Aesop’s fables, although widespread knowledge of these are likely owing to La Fontaine’s Fables, which “adapted them into French free verse. They were issued under the general title of Fables in several volumes from 1668 to 1694 and are considered classics of French literature.”

In a future post I will discuss Jon Elster’s use of the “sour grapes” fable (in his brilliant book by that title) to illustrate and explain “adaptive preference formation,” as well as G.A. Cohen’s critique of same as part of the latter’s larger and important discussion of “market socialism” in the conclusion to his book, Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge University Press, 1995).


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