Ambivalence*

*(freud.org.uk): “Freud argued that ambivalence involves the conflict between two equally strong currents that are “localized in the subject’s mind in a way that they cannot come up against each other”; when one current is conscious, the other is unconscious. To have an unconscious in these terms therefore, is at one and the same time to be ambivalent.”

Jacqueline Rose, Professor of Humanities at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, wrote in the London Review of Books on 19th November this year:

“…In a relatively unknown section of ‘Thoughts for the Time on War and Death’, written in 1915, Freud describes the birth pangs of ethical life arising when man, as yet unsullied by civilisation, confronted the mix of emotions – despair, rage, hatred and pleasure – that he experienced in the face of death, especially towards those he loved most. Out of this mix arises the first ethical commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’: ‘It was acquired,’ he writes, ‘in relation to dead people who were loved as a reaction against the satisfaction hidden behind the grief for them; and it was gradually extended to strangers who were not loved, and finally even to enemies.’ But, he observes, with an eye to the unfolding war, such an embrace of everyone, enemies included, has been lost to so-called ‘civilised man’ together with the ‘vein of ethical sensitiveness’ that accompanied it.

When teaching Freud, I use these lines to convey to students that, at decisive moments, he was far less ethnocentric than is often assumed. But what makes these thoughts so relevant today is the implied message, one that is barely audible at a time when the exile of the psyche to the outskirts of existence is the unshared secret of the hour. Only if you admit your ambivalence even towards those you love most is there the faintest chance that you will reach out across the world to everyone, including your putative enemies: to China, for example, a country the Western world is now being told to hate; to black men being mown down on the streets; to the citizens of another country which, in the race for a Covid-19 vaccine, may just be ahead in the game; to all those who are also suffering, whether from war or pandemic, or, like everyone else, from the fact of being human. But for this to happen, the present-day run of narcissistic – mainly male – leaders would first have to acknowledge their failings, something of which they seem constitutionally incapable and which would entail withdrawing their casually dispersed and carefully targeted hatreds. ‘I, of course, belong to a race,’ Freud wrote to Romain Rolland in 1923, ‘which in the Middle Ages was held responsible for all epidemics.’

Although Freud remarked that the impulse to human empathy is difficult to explain, that compassion can be a veil for narcissism, there are moments in his writing, again in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, when the bare outlines of such an impulse can be found: the protective shield of the psyche which allows itself to die to save the deeper layers of the mind from a similar fate; or the community of cells which survive even if individual cells have to die. Something is working through Freud’s text, a ‘socius primitive’ in Derrida’s reading, or a new form of common life, never more needed than now, which sheds the common pitfalls of the singular ego. A life in which the pain of the times is shared, and in which every human subject, regardless of race, class, caste or sex would be able to participate…”

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