In examining utopian thinking, we discovered an inner contradiction: The goal of establishing an ideal society must be happiness, that is, the fulfillment of people’s desires, but success requires that people accept limitations on their desires.
One can soften the tension of contradiction by agreeing to less than perfect success, but still, when we recognize how disastrously some utopian experiments have failed, ranging from horrifying totalitarianism to mindless consumerism, we may suspect there’s more than just a moderate amount of tension here.
So we came to the conclusion that we must explore desire. Why are human desires apparently endless? Why do they often become destructive?
Espen Hammer gives us a clue when he cites Ernst Bloch’s argument that “all utopias ultimately express yearning for a reconciliation from which one has been estranged. They tell us how to get back home.”
The ultimate “back home” is, of course, our origin in the primal family. Home and family with all that it might have meant – security and stability, with love and encouragement supporting our growth – is the ideal utopian situation. But virtually none of us experienced the complete fulfillment of our desires.
It was Sigmund Freud who pointed directly to this issue, locating the source of inner psychic conflict in those original desires. He named the force of desire “Id,” meaning essentially IT, an anonymous vital life force that had to be tamed. But he also created a storm by associating this force with sexual impulses in infants and children.
Still today, many people find Freudian theory hard to accept because of this dimension. If you’re one of them, it may help you to know that I also was resistant to much of the theory, and found it all the more annoying because my resistance could be diagnosed as denial – a double-bind that I thought was extremely unfair.
Not until I began studying the work of the extraordinary biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg did I return to considering Freudian theory in a different light. Zornberg also had at her disposal a century of clinical work, research based on close observation of infants and children, and insights from other disciplines that contributed to deeper understandings of the phenomena of desire. When she demonstrated how to read biblical narratives wearing the lenses of psychoanalytical insight as well as Hasidic commentaries, I came to see how this work on Desire could be helpful in understanding human psychosocial dynamics.
Here’s a summary of what I have been able to understand and integrate, simplified for the present purpose.
Humans experience almost intolerable frustration of desire before we are emotionally able to manage it. We are born totally dependent, needing almost constant presence and attention, and even the temporary disappearance of the mother is potentially traumatic. This is unlike most other mammals that are able to walk and feed themselves shortly after birth. Even when the mother is physically present, our emotional dependence on her, other early caretakers, and a supportive social environment continue to be essential to psychological stability. This level of emotional fragility is unknown in the animal kingdom.
When the infant or child experiences loss of this care and sustenance, stability is undermined. On a temporary basis, the psyche can tolerate this “missing.” But if it is too much – and individual variability is high in defining what is too much – natural desire becomes painful longing and yearning. Disappointment of desire generates irrational anger and hatred – irrational simply because it arises long before reason has any place in the psyche. Unfulfilled desire generates a search for substitutes that will replace the lost presence, and rage at substitutes that are ineffective (as eventually they all will be).
I could now see this dynamic in my experience as a mother and, watching with less involvement, as a grandmother. I write from the maternal perspective, with the understanding that this can apply to any early caretaker(s). I now understood Eros, desire, as that magnetic realm where one being extends itself toward another – the infant with radiance and with need; the mother with wonder and generosity; their gazing at one another. Through sheer energy they leap over the distance between them.
Yet she is also an independent being, while her child is not. She has thoughts that pull her away. Sometimes the baby’s desire is not met. At that instant, a chasm opens and the leap of desire becomes a fall into loneliness, abandonment into empty space. Hopefully the space is filled again, soon, so that the infant can learn that the movement from presence to absence is like the in and out of breathing, or perhaps more accurately the pleasure of eating but the discomfort of digesting, to be followed again by presence / eating.
But at some point it will become more difficult. Some accidental separation that is too long, or some willful anger or rejection, will create unbearable trauma. Or the child will experience the mother’s grief or terror, beyond his capacity to understand. Or the child will begin to sense there are other objects of the mother’s Eros, different and mysterious. (Sexualization of desire here often becomes confused with our associations from adult sexuality, so I will not use that language.)
The variants on the narrative are of infinite variety but generate the same dilemma: She is gone. Will I find her again? Must I lose her forever? How will this empty space be filled?
And when she returns — if I could put words to, say, an 8-month old’s feelings, they might be: I am so sad but – now, what? there she is, unbearably beautiful. I want to fall in her arms and weep. But will she leave again? How could she have done this? I am angry. I will not look at her. But I need her. …
The older child’s feelings become more complicated, as mirroring begins to yield some sense of “the other” with her own feelings. But they can easily be confused: Did I cause her to go away? I don’t want her to get angry at me. When I am angry she turns away. She looks sad when she sees me sad.
Virtually all of us carry some version of these traumas of dangerous and fearful absence — and some version of healing from them, or we would not be alive. Yet most of us can be triggered into trauma again, later in life. That’s when fear and rage arise, along with actions that are destructive to ourselves, to others, or both. To the extent that they were unbearable to us as children, to the extent that we were not helped to bear them, these feelings will still lurk under the surface, and may again become unbearable. Then we will turn them on ourselves (as in addiction), or outward on an enemy.
No wonder utopias don’t work. They promise a way to fulfill desire, but inevitably they fail in some dimension, and the disappointment is like losing one’s parents. Of course we would fantasize “reconciliation” with that from which we have been “estranged.” But do we really want to walk into that dangerous ground again, where we have been wounded to the heart? Or, if we take the risk to build community with others, are we always walking on eggshells, waiting for the chasm to open?
So communities degenerate into jealous factions, people become suspicious of neighbors. Authoritarian governments arise to administer the “utopia” — to manage rage and to displace one’s own rage on those lower in the hierarchy. And “government” becomes an object of resentment too, but that is only one dimension of the frustration of desire.
I could go on. The point is, we can’t talk about utopia or even seriously about social improvement unless we understand the volcanic dimensions of desire.
Zornberg treats these issues in her exposition of the biblical book of Numbers, entitled Bewilderments, where she follows the ancient Israelites in their wanderings in the wildness – the wilderness – of desire. We will look at her thinking more specifically in the next post.