Thursday, 4 November 2010

James Joyce, Sigmund Freud and the guilt trip

James Joyce's Ulysses chronicles a day in the life of an Irishman, Leopold Bloom, but isn't as fluid a narrative as you might expect. The book is far from an account of Stephen's day; as it develops, it appears we are on an investigation into the inner workings of the human conscience, which is not a smooth operator. In imitation and representation of the mechanics of the mind, Joyce describes the random day of Stephen's life as if it were an amalgam of varying actions and cognitive processes that conveys an accurate projection of the day's events, despite being an interruptive style of writing. What Joyce intended to recreate was the dynamic quality of perception. Humans tend to perceive events, feel emotions and make decisions in fragmented patterns that are often never completed and fail to culminate in any meaningful or influential conclusions. The fact remains that humans are wildly unpredictable, as are the hallucinations of the characters in episode 15: Circe of Ulysses.

Episode 15 is an observation of a collection of the characters' bizarre and seemingly uncontrollable drunken hallucinations. The theme of the chapter is the implication of real time events on the fixations of the unconscious state of mind, or id. Memories of events that induce emotions of sadness and remorse are frequently described, triggered by analogous interaction with external figures such as prostitutes and dogs. The actions committed are analogous themselves to past events which signify repressed guilt and regret; at one point the character of Bloom is rapt by the hallucination of his parents who are reprimanding him for having transgressed on more than one occasion, following the onset of guilt after making an unnecessary purchase at the butcher's store. It is common for people to dwell upon what they have done, usually when the past action or decision itself was immoral or disobedient. The product of this effect of revisiting past mistakes is guilt, and guilt is one of the most powerful and broad mental forces that can influence our behaviour.

The interesting consequence of guilt is how it is dealt with. There are three standard responses to guilt: acceptance, denial and repression.

Guilt that is accepted can henceforth be prevented from ruining a person emotionally; enabling ourselves to accept guilt also presents us with an opportunity to foresee what may make us guilty, thus providing us with a crucial chance to abort guilty action and decision, like when Bloom returns Stephen his share of the bill after he overpays for the prostitutes – he subsequently takes charge of Stephen's money for the night, consciously deciding the man is too inebriated to sensibly deal with it.

Guilt that is denied has previously been acknowledged but has yet to be reconciled with its bearer, e.g. when Stephen confronts the ghost of his dead mother, whose death he is partially convinced he contributed to. In this instance there is no feasible method of confirmation for the guilt he harbours, thus he casts out the manifestation of his mother in defiance, proclaiming: "No! No! No! Break my spirit, all of you, if you can! I'll bring you all to heel!" He denies his guilt because he fears the burden of responsibility and the curse of not moving forward, beyond the accepted guilt. Ironically, once guilt is accepted, we normally progress as if the guilt never had power of us, despite how mortifying the admission.

The third definition of guilt response concerns repression. Repressed guilt is both the product of denial and detachment. First, we deny the existence of said guilt by behaving as if nothing had gone amiss. Second, we severe an conscious link between our identity and the guilt attributed to it, thus we become independent of its consequence. The effect of this repression, however, is far worse than if we were to simply deny the guilt. Because it is psychologically impossible for us to actualise the expunging of any thought while dwelling on it, we must rely on the process of time and the consequential lag of thoughts past to help us rid ourselves of guilt. This is why the guilt resulting from what we experience as children can sometimes inexplicably return to haunt us as adults. We never completely forget; in fact, forgetting is not included in the equation – we simply have too much to contemplate in the present to focus on the mistakes of the past. And as we store away erstwhile present ideas, the guilt we harbour is buried beneath a huge stockpile of mental blueprints, mostly redundant.

Repressed guilt is no doubt the most powerful product of a regrettable experience, and Sigmund Freud, eminent thinker on the unconscious state of mind, believed repression itself to be a process we can neither be aware of nor control. If we apply Freud's concepts of the unconscious mind – 1) id, 2) ego, and 3) super-ego – we can understand the power of guilt with justification for its causes and effects. Picture an internal war within the brain where your id and super-ego are competitors to the trophy of your actions, and the ego is the realistic mediator to which the two enemies will hopefully always succumb to.

The id is the animalistic ambassador of the sexual imperative; it promotes the pleasure principle. The super-ego is the righteous regulator of instinct; it stands as our moral arbiter in everyday situations. Now, if you imagine you feel attracted to someone who you soon realise is a relative of yours, your id and super-ego react in very different ways. The id urges you to engage in sexual intercourse with this relative, regardless of the immorality you would be espousing. The super-ego compels you to reject this immoral desire by ignoring this person altogether to avoid all risk of the id succeeding. But the ego, our mediator, steps in and reasons that you cannot expect to walk away from contact freely without the chance of the id eventually overpowering the super-ego's moral abhorrence. Instead, you are forced to be diplomatically neutral; you neither proceed to have sex with nor ignore the object of your attraction. Gradually you accept your compromised moral stance, but the guilt for initially having felt in that taboo manner will continue to harass you – unless you repress.

Repression, as the melancholy and erotic hallucinations of the characters in Ulysses reminds us, is a dangerous tool for dealing with guilt. It causes healthy guilt (guilt that is current and lucid) to age, but not as wine ages. Guilt grows old like a festering mould, clinging to a crevice somewhere in the back of the mind, refusing to be forever buried. This sordid guilt has the potential to erupt as a disease that reconditions the ego to become irrational, inconsistent, and, in the worst case scenario, inoperable. Stephen's ego, under the influence of his mother's spectre, comes close to becoming inoperable – it is only saved by his firm denial of the guilt that has remained as stubborn as the guilty memory itself.

It is important to clarify what the precursors to this guilt are. As far as Freud was concerned we are all inherently sexual creatures, intent on thriving on our reproductive instinct. But, as society dictates, we cannot afford to preoccupy ourselves with sexual pursuits alone. Thus the super-ego comes into play. As previously mentioned, the super-ego is the moral arbiter in the war between itself and the savage id. From a romantic's perspective the id would be embraced and flaunted, not shunned and avoided like it mostly is in modern minds. Jean-Jacque Rousseau, romanticist and French philosopher, would have advocated more sexual freedom, as this is a product of the passions, which he believed were more natural than the constraints encapsulated in the social contract – effectively the umbrella of the super-ego.

Rousseau would argue that keeping our sexual instinct under lock and key is what causes adverse behavioural conduct such as rape and murder. Similarly, Freud's famous Oedipus complex proposes that a son, attracted to his mother and jealous of his father, will murder to attain an incestuous relationship. While Freud underestimated the maternal bond between protective mother and vulnerable child, and how fondness of one's mother throughout development is simply the continuation of that bond, his assiduous analysis of the psychosexual did illuminate a major human truth: we are innately sexual creatures. Yes, for some of us sex is less of a priority – some people claim to be asexual – but the majority of us will inevitably be predisposed to high sexual inclinations. And, once again, guilt is knocking at the door. As if they were the oddest couple, sex and guilt seem to hold hands as strongly as they break hearts. In the brothel scene of episode 15 of Ulysses, the character Bloom hallucinates that he is being dominated by the madam Bella Cohen in a sadist fashion. The origins of this excessively emasculating scenario are rooted in sex-orientated guilt.

There is no real mystery as to why sex is intrinsically linked to guilt. Due to its conception under the pleasure principle of the id, sexual gratification makes a person susceptible to over-indulgence in the act and, if revisited on regular occasion, hedonism. Men and women who fall foul of this trapdoor can be referred to as libertines, but will be more likely to fall under more derogatory categories of people, especially if they are female. The difference between pleasure and pain becomes hazy with each indulgent step, as being absorbed by egocentric ideals benefits the self but conversely can have negative impacts on other individuals involved, e.g. the wife of a man who craves sexual attention could start to feel used and unwanted in other aspects of their marriage. Essentially, guilt is the cork that puts a stop to the bubbling liquid of wanton sexual obsession. Once we've crossed the line and brought suffering to others through our uncontrolled sex frenzy, if we are compassionate enough, we will be rendered guilt-ridden and desire redemption and forgiveness.

As we live our lives we are constantly burying old guilt, paving the way for new guilt to come rolling over us like a humiliating tide. While we are filtering through the myriad nuances of our lives, like Joyce's characters who observe their actions as if they were millions of distinguishable events that mesh into one, we are never far from the guilt that keeps us in check and reminds us who we are and where we belong in society's melting pot of personalities.

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