When someone says “I take no pleasure in this” while, at the same time, being incredibly cruel, it is a sure sign that they actually do take pleasure in it. Yet sadism is a puzzle to most of us. Why do people take pleasure in being cruel? Or rather – and this is a much better question – what sort of a pleasure is it?
I find the story told by my friend Adam Phillips convincing. In the Phillips version of Freud, the human condition is characterised by helplessness, by the fear that we are not in control of the sources of our own satisfaction. This is the stuff of nightmares. To call it a fear is probably not strong enough. The scream of the child when it is not attended to, when the extraneous help upon which the child depends is not available – when, for example, the need for food is not met by its presence – creates within us an indelible terror of abandonment.
There are, Phillips maintains, two ways of dealing with this terror: acceptance or denial. Acceptance is the good way. We acknowledge our need for other people and are open with ourselves about the vulnerabilities this inevitably engenders. Indeed, only by this degree of openness can we ever hope to have our needs actually met. For having needs met requires having needs in the first place; helplessness is a precondition for being helped.
But for those for whom vulnerability is too much of an ask, for whom even the acknowledgment of their own fear is itself too frightening, denial is experienced as a safer bet. Better to have some emotional locked-in syndrome – masked by charm or wit or pretend empathy – than face the terror of vulnerability. It shows the extent to which our popular culture has become so fearful that this feels very much like a description of what it is to be “cool”.
And here is where the sadism comes in. For those in denial about their own vulnerability are unable to cope with other people who remind them of it, unable to cope with those who threaten to put a crack in the dam of denial that has been carefully maintained to hold back a tsunami of terror. This is why Lear rejects the love of Cordelia, because real love demands an acceptance of vulnerability. The cruelty of the play is the cruelty of those punished for loving, punished for inviting the vulnerability that accompanies love. Lear wants love, but wants to maintain his emotional self-sufficiency at the same time. Hence his preference for the simulacrum of love offered by his other daughters.
To switch cultural registers, it’s like Elton John singing: “I want love that don’t mean a thing” and “I want love [that] don’t break me down”. (And surely the genius I Want Love video staring Robert Downey Jr is the cry of a beautiful and frightened young Lear.) As Phillips explains: “If we lose, or forget, or repress, or project, or attack this original helplessness, we quite literally lose, in Freud’s terms, the real possibilities of satisfaction.” That, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of Lear. – By Giles Fraser © Guardian News and Media 2013
Image – www.sxc.hu