Reflecting On Other People’s Notions of Ambivalence

“[Adrienne Rich] takes on a deliberately Keatsian tone, as if in elegy for a succulent linguistic register she cannot unironically adopt, a tuneful (and classically scanned) mode that represents a morally contaminated real of l’art pour l’art, of aesthetics divorced from politics. She momentarily speaks within this storied, musically opulent tonality; that sumptuousness of sound and syllable–a giddy balance between utmost clarity and a dripping sensitivity to the beauties of what I call “bower consciousness,” an Arcadian realm in which an Adonis is always lying down to sleep or die–is rightfully hers. [And yet–] a sense of dramatic conflict, of molten and conscience-stricken self-scrutiny, the intensity of a great poet examining her own tools and finding them inadequate to the high, stern task […] I listen with eagerness and tenderness for the moments when she lets her musicality unfurl itself, not in pompous or meaningless display but in full consciousness of its sensational power to influence the receptive reader’s mind and body.

From The Dream of a Common Language: “My heart is moved by all I cannot save:/ so much has been destroyed//I have to cast my lot with those/who age after age, perversely,// with no extraordinary power,/reconstitute the world.”

“‘My heart is moved by all I cannot save’ is a resource she will soon be forced to abandon because its heart is contaminated. Rich’s conflicted relation to the linguistic beauties she had the power to command gave her poetry its forcefulness. She was never reciting conclusions reached outside the poem; she was always waging the war–against herself, against her own language–within the poem itself.”


“Bloom: Falling love with a poem or falling in love with a play or character is not greatly different from a young man and a young woman. […] You fall out of love with particular poems and poets. But without that initial falling in love, I don’t think the work of memory begins, I don’t think possession can take place. When I wrote The Anxiety of Influence, it didn’t occur to me to talk about ambivalence coming only after love. I took it for granted, and people slammed me for it. […] I realized that literary love was indeed the crucial element and that the question of agony, of struggle, or retreat, of ambivalence, only comes after the initial act of handing oneself over. [Why is Shakespeare so important?] Shakespeare takes stock of reality, because things that have always been there, nobody would have been able to see if he hadn’t shown us that they were there.”
–Selections from the 16th issue of Pen America.


“2. ambivalence, the strategy of creating distractions to re-direct one’s attention away from the source of anxiety, i.e. fear of annihilation or engulfment (loss of self). When there is impasse in the struggle between libido and mortido, when neither gains the advantage, then movement ceases and paralysis sets in: stalemate. In stalemate, the battle rages on, usurping all available energy. The opposite of ambivalence is a rigid intolerance for ambiguity, nuance or paradox. The synthesis of the two is “passionate commitment in the face of ambiguity.” 

[…]”What we call normality in psychology is really a psychopathology of the average, so undramatic and so widely spread that we don’t even notice it.’ He referred to peak experiences as incorporating altruistic love and will, humanitarian action, artistic and scientific inspiration, philosophic and spiritual insight, and the drive toward purpose and meaning in life.”

[…] Paradoxical intention, to release dysfunctional aspects of oneself by first fully accepting them.

[…] Ambivalence: this strategy creates distractions to re-direct one’s attention away from the source of anxiety. It is the “maximizing strategy” of preoccupation with both what is wanted and what is not. This person feels uncertainty as to whether the other will be available and responsive when needed. This uncertainty causes the individual to grasp at and cling to relationships, while at the same time directly unresolved anger at the other in the relationship. Intimacy alternates with hostility. Hostility may be equated with intimacy. Distraction requires drama and chaos; therefore a quiet or uneventful environment is experienced as threatening. This person grew up with a parent who gave partial and inconsistent attention to the child, or who controlled the child with separation and threats of abandonment. The unpredictability of parental caregiving conditioned this child to anticipate the parent’s state of mind, and to get the needed attention by doing the opposite of what the parent is doing. What the parent is ignoring the child, or attending inappropriately, the child becomes increasingly demanding and aggressive. When the parent is attending to the child, because the attention is usually overly intrusive, the child withdraws passively, becoming emotionally distant. In other words, this strategy hyperactivates, or under-regulates, emotional display, creating chaotic impulsivity. The underlying fear in this strategy is the loss of self. To stop the pattern of both clinging and distancing, to commit to only one path, feels like it would guarantee never getting basic needs met. These people have identified with both polar opposites, and their very identity depends on maintaining both. (sincoff, sroufe, main) 

This person’s fear of autonomy comes about initially through the infant’s consistent defensive choice to avoid the anxiety inherent in any attempt at autonomy. This child’s separation/individuation attempts have all been undermined, either by the parent’s lack of attention or by the punishment of rejection. The fear of autonomy can eventually manifest as success phobia (Krueger). Indeed, of the three strategies, the ambivalent individual exhibits the strongest fear of death, including the loss of his/her social identity.

[…] Indeed, he has a volatile love/hate relationship with God. His simultaneous sense of entitlement and unworthiness guarantees lots of drama in his life and immense sadness over all the lost opportunities for connection. 

[..] These children, then, are not congruent with their age: they are childish and demanding at times, like little old men or women at others.

[…] A child may project the good parts of self out on the external world as a way to protect the purity of that quality, or as a way to attempt repair of what is perceived to be broken […] This expelling of good qualities of self depletes a child of his/her own capacities of love and goodness, resulting in the ego becoming actually depleted through splitting and projection.The valuable quality has been rejected, and remains unavailable to the person over the ensuing lifetime. This inner resource needs to be retrieved deliberately and therapeutically ( a shamanistic procedure) to further the individual’s healing. We virtually always incorporate some form of retrieval of inner resources in the age-regressed ego state in which those resources were lost/rejected/dissociated. […] A child that does not introject admired qualities, who remains fixated in projective identification, develops a ‘pseudo-mature’ character structure, Winnicott’s ‘false self.’ The child has stolen through imitation the outward appearance of admired others, without maturing his/her true self from within. 

[…] “Resistance provides a valuable benefit to the individual experiencing inner conflict: the pinpointing of what intrapsychic areas would be most fruitfully explored to produce growthful change (Yurk, 94). It is an existential Geiger counter locating the deepest veins of buried treasure, the areas of psychic pain and anxiety that are best defended and therefore most central to profound healing.The resistance Geiger counter also quantifies the magnitude of the challenge needed to uncover and overcome it, i.e., the greater the resistance, the greater the opportunity for deep healing. 

[Energetic psychodrama.] “For the individual whose theme in life is resistance, the temptation arises upon discovery of the pattern to fight against it, push back, reject and resist it. Of course, that is the pattern. Such a person would do well to emulate the Aikido master and welcome the resistance itself, to play with it, give in to it while remaining alert to ways of redirecting the energy.” 


True to form, some of this rings true for me, but it also makes me FURIOUS. 

“A child may project the good parts of self out on the external world as a way to protect the purity of that quality, or as a way to attempt repair of what is perceived to be broken […] This expelling of good qualities of self depletes a child of his/her own capacities of love and goodness, resulting in the ego becoming actually depleted through splitting and projection.” This quote fills me with a sense of foreboding. Robin Williams once said: “Comedy is acting out optimism.” 

His death hit close to home for me, because I’ve always had this hope that if I just act out optimism enough, I’ll be able to will it into existence. I’ve always truly believed that we co-create our reality together and that I have to sort of “be the change” as it were. For a few weeks, the fact that someone like Robin Williams could kill himself, seemingly undermined for me the idea that performatism can actually bridge the gap between the spiritually void postmodern irony and authentic spiritual experience. But this idea was never predicated on transcendental truth, it was and is predicated upon interpersonal faith. Faith in ourselves and in each other is therefore paramount to the success of the performatist experiment. 

That’s why questions of when and how we resist, ambivalence on an ethical level, distractibility of a personal and cultural nature….all of these issues are interconnected. 

A coworker told me the other day that I have a high emotional valence. That I’m constantly fluttering between loving everything and being furious. Acting out my anger, not truly being with it like those buddhists were saying. I’m acting out anger, I’m acting out optimism. Looks like these child psychologists were right. “Intimacy alternates with hostility.” 

Their view of ambivalence as a defense mechanism is defined in the opposite way that I’ve been using it. I’ve been advocating an embrace of ambivalence, an integration of the polarized states into one whole being. Here, these guys are saying that it’s an issue of chronic flip-flopping. That the two states aren’t being integrated. That a choice isn’t being made. 

Kierkegaard has some interesting things to say that I’ll add in here later.

Basically, though, the takeaway seems to be that rather than intellectually trying to reconcile my ambivalence, or act out both extremes, I should be striving at all times to act in true congruence with some holistic, intuitive originating point. The Kierkegaard is crucial to this point, so I’ll expand upon it later. Citations are forthcoming. 


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