The whole point of these books acquired posts is to try to document interesting stuff that comes in before it winds up in my pile for months (to put things in perspective, I got a reader copy of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son back in January, and have finally gotten around to reading it just now). I usually spend a week or two looking over the book, maybe publish a blurb or an excerpt of the book along with a photo, and then file it in one of three stacks — now, later, or never. Anyway, Siri Hustvedt’s new collection of essays Living, Thinking, Looking ended up never getting stacked anywhere, because I kept going back to it, poking into her essays on Goya, Gerhard Richter, Freud, reading her riff on sleeping, which somehow synthesizes Macbeth and Nabokov and REM science, pausing over her consideration of the Bush admin’s rhetoric. I haven’t finished the book but I will. Hustvedt combines her keen intellect with a range of ideas to explore her subjects (primarily, if the title didn’t tip you, living, thinking, looking). There’s a lot of lit here, a lot of psych, and plenty of art. Good stuff.
Slavoj Žižek Uses Norman Bates’s House in Psycho to Illustrate Id, Ego, and Superego (Because Why Wouldn’t He?)
Kate Beaton’s take on psychoanalysis. From Hark! A Vagrant.
- “I think the historical thing is a red herring. I don’t see C as a historical novel. I see it as completely contemporary. It’s about media and our relation to media and to emerging new media and to networks.”
- “It comes straight from Freud. Trauma is the condition of our identity. Trauma is the most basic condition of our existence.”
- “It’s a dual trauma, Serge’s seduction by Sophie his sister and then the loss of the sister.”
- “The way I got the idea with the book was I had a long-standing fascination with this movie by Jean Cocteau, Orphée, his retelling of the Orpheus myth.”
- “Orpheus in this movie interfaces with the underworld via a radio and what he picks up are the voices of the dead poets.”
From Cocteau’s Orphée–
On Kindness seeks to answer why “It is now generally assumed that people are basically selfish and that fellow feeling is either a weakness or a luxury or a more sophisticated form of selfishness.” Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor quickly demonstrate that up until the “so-called dawn of modernity” in the Enlightenment, people simply believed themselves to be naturally kind. The advent of the ideals of self-reliance and independence (along with the appeals of aggressive mercantile capitalism) led to a zeitgeist–one that still exists–in which kindness is a form or weakness, or a type of duty, like philanthropy, that negates its own purity. In short, Phillips and Taylor point to a general feeling that real kindness might not exist–and then argue, quite convincingly, against this general feeling.
The book’s second chapter, “A Short History of Kindness” outlines the philosophy and social practice of kindness from the time of Seneca through to Freud. Phillips and Taylor choose Jean-Jacques Rousseau as their champion, with Thomas Hobbes (and his famous dictum of bellum omnium contra omnes) as a recurring villain. But it’s Freud who dramatically problematizes modern attitudes toward kindness, with the radical idea that “aggression itself can be a form of kindness; that when aggression isn’t envious rage or the revenge born of humiliation, it contains the wish for a more intimate exchange, a profounder, more unsettling kindness between people. In short, psychoanalysis makes sentimentality and nostalgia, not hatred, the enemies of kindness.” This complicates the relationships between children and parents; psychoanalysis renders kindness unnatural. The resulting confusion leaves us open to the idea that acts of kindness might leave us radically exposed or otherwise in harm’s way. Even worse, modern society elevates and idealizes kindness into “a virtue so difficult to sustain that only the magically good can manage it” — this “destroys people’s faith in real or ordinary kindness.” But, Phillips and Taylor want to assure us, real and ordinary kindness does exist. “We depend on each other not just for our survival but for our very being,” they argue in their final chapter. “The self without sympathetic attachments is either a fiction or a lunatic.” So, what are the solutions? Philips and Taylor clearly argue that the pleasures of kindness they advocate cannot stem from “moral superiority or domineering beneficence or the protection racket of good feelings. Nor are acts of kindness to be seen as acts of will or effort or moral resolution.” Instead, our authors argue for “a revived awareness of something that is already felt and known.”
On Kindness is a compact, tightly-wound tract of 114 pages that can be read quickly by a general audience, but nevertheless takes some time to digest. Picador’s trade paperback edition (new this month) is handsome and small enough to fit into a cargo pocket, purse, or beach bag. It seems of a piece with Picador’s Big Ideas/Small Books series, erudite works that consider big subjects without ever falling into traps of academic solipsism. Recommended.