Friday, May 12, 2006

Love Sickness and Writing Blocks

The day before I left for the West Coast, I had my friend Alessia over and we were talking about typical girl things. Alessia got me thinking about the relationship between self-esteem, gender identity, and love sickness. So, beware for a somewhat self-indulgent post to follow.

I spent a lot of time thinking about Freud's notion of melancholia in my dissertation, and why it seems to resonate with so many women that I know. Before I write another word, I should disclaim that I don't think that Freud's notion
only speaks to women, particularly those ravaged by unrequited love. It just so happens that this was the sample of folks I had in mind when I embarked on my dissertation work. In any case, what I found alluring about Freud's theory of melancholia was how closely it was tied to self-esteem, and particularly the need many people have to boost their fragile ego by gaining the love of someone who they think is better than they are. Freud talks about melancholia as a process that ensues after we have lost a love-object, and particular one in whom we invested so much of our energy. We most likely chose this lover because he/she represented what we saw ourselves lacking.

Another essay that captures what I think are excellent gender dimensions of that dynamic is Simone de Beauvoir's "The Woman in Love," from the
Second Sex. De Beauvoir's chapter is a devastating look at how women, in particular, at least in the era she was writing, sought to almagamate themselves with a powerful man in order to gain some sort of importance. She admonishes women for evading their metaphysical task to claim their own worth, their own liberty, without attaching oneself to the male sex as a kind of ascendancy into fame, importance and success. The danger in needing the love of a man to find your own self-worth, argues De Beauvoir, is that you have forsaken your own responsibiltity to strive toward self-definition. I have always loved this particular analysis, because De Beauvoir captures what is really at the heart of love-sickness in women who fear that their lovers are 'better' than they are: the fear of succeeding on one's own terms, or risk-taking.

Now, I am going to restrict my comments to observations about myself and women who I am close to. But, countless times I have listened to very smart, very accomplished women bewail over a lost lover, and particularly one who they believed left them for someone better. The more I would probe the nature of the love sickness--in my best impersonation of a therapist-- the more I would discover that the real source of grief was a profound sense that
she was worthless. In fact, given my small world, the source of my girlfriend's depression lied in the failure to write, particularly write something of importance: a dissertation or an article. The failed romance became the mechanism by which to avoid the metaphysical task of claiming one's own liberty. More particularly, the love affair was a way of distracting oneself from the brutal task of putting oneself out in the public domain, and risk being jeered, rejected, dismissed for one's ideas.

Now, I know this fear exists among male and female academics. But, rarely have I heard a male academic say--outloud--that his girlfriend, or wife was "better" than him. Nor have I heard a male academic express fears that he is simply not up to the task of being a philosopher (for example). It doesn't mean this never occurs. But, I found it interesting at the time that the women around me, fighting to make it in a very male dominated profession, felt themselves profoundly inadequate to the task, and avoided it by subverting their energy into a narcissistic man, who was perhaps just as afraid, but masked it by exuding a great deal of confidence in his abilities.

One thing I have observed about my own tendency toward melancholia is that the more professional validation I have gotten, the less vulnerable I have been to the kind of self-abnegating, passions that leave me destitute, broken, and bleeding on the floor. The more I dared to write and speak, and particularly to put it out in the public domain and then withstand criticism, and earn some respect, the less I went for the "narcissitic dude." (I love that phrase, just made it up. My friend Yehudi would call this guy, 'poet dude.') The object of my affection has simply transformed as I dared to define my self-worth independently, that is, without relying on an important Other to invest me with worth by loving little ole me.

Anyway, I
wanted to put this out there today, and see if any of this resonates with my readers, or if it is all too obvious, or perhaps trite. Is female melancholia, in part, fear of risking oneself, one's ideas to the world? Is love sickness really just a writing block?