I have thought and continued to think a great deal about the relationship between critical thinking and cynicism — what is the tipping point past which critical thinking, that centerpiece of reason so vital to human progress and intellectual life, stops mobilizing our constructive impulses and topples over into the destructiveness of impotent complaint and embittered resignation, begetting cynicism? In giving a commencement address on the subject, I found myself contemplating anew this fine but firm line between critical thinking and cynical complaint. To cross it is to exile ourselves from the land of active reason and enter a limbo of resigned inaction.
But cross it we do, perhaps nowhere more readily than in our capacity for merciless self-criticism. We tend to go far beyond the self-corrective lucidity necessary for improving our shortcomings, instead berating and belittling ourselves for our foibles with a special kind of masochism.
The undergirding psychology of that impulse is what the English psychoanalytical writer Adam Phillips explores in his magnificent essay “Against Self-Criticism”, found in his altogether terrific collection Unforbidden Pleasures (public library).
One of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne
Phillips — who has written with beguiling nuance about such variousness of our psychic experience as the importance of “fertile solitude,” the value of missing out, and the rewards of being out of balance — examines how “our virulent, predatory self-criticism [has] become one of our greatest pleasures,” reaching across the space-time of culture to both revolt against and pay homage to Susan Sontag’s masterwork Against Interpretation. He writes:
In broaching the possibility of being, in some way, against self-criticism, we have to imagine a world in which celebration is less suspect than criticism; in which the alternatives of celebration and criticism are seen as a determined narrowing of the repertoire; and in which we praise whatever we can.
Our masochistic impulse for self-criticism, he argues, arises from the fact that ambivalence is the basic condition of our lives. In a passage that builds on his memorable prior reflections on the paradox of why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in romance, Phillips considers Freud’s ideological legacy:
In Freud’s vision of things we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate, we love; wherever we love, we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can also frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us, we always believe that they can satisfy us. We criticize when we are frustrated — or when we are trying to describe our frustration, however obliquely — and praise when we are more satisfied, and vice versa. Ambivalence does not, in the Freudian story, mean mixed feelings, it means opposing feelings.
Love and hate — a too simple, or too familiar, vocabulary, and so never quite the right names for what we might want to say — are the common source, the elemental feelings with which we apprehend the world; and they are interdependent in the sense that you can’t have one without the other, and that they mutually inform each other. The way we hate people depends on the way we love them, and vice versa. And given that these contradictory feelings are our ‘common source’ they enter into everything we do. They are the medium in which we do everything. We are ambivalent, in Freud’s view, about anything and everything that matters to us; indeed, ambivalence is the way we recognize that someone or something has become significant to us… Where there is devotion there is always protest… where there is trust there is suspicion.
We may not be able to imagine a life in which we don’t spend a large amount of our time criticizing ourselves and others; but we should keep in mind the self-love that is always in play.
But we have become so indoctrinated in this conscience of self-criticism, both collectively and individually, that we’ve grown reflexively suspicious of that alternative possibility. (Kafka, the great patron-martyr of self-criticism, captured this pathology perfectly: “There’s only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy.”) Phillips writes:
Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves.
Nothing makes us more critical, more confounded — more suspicious, or appalled, or even mildly amused — than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism; that we should be less impressed by it. Or at least that self-criticism should cease to have the hold over us that it does.
But this self-critical part of ourselves, Phillips points out, is “strikingly unimaginative” — a relentless complainer whose repertoire of tirades is so redundant as to become, to any objective observer, risible and tragic at the same time:
Were we to meet this figure socially, as it were, this accusatory character, this internal critic, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him. That he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout of some catastrophe. And we would be right.
One of Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
Freud termed this droll internal critic superego, and Phillips suggests that we suffer from a kind of Stockholm syndrome of the superego:
We are continually, if unconsciously, mutilating and deforming our own character. Indeed, so unrelenting is this internal violence that we have no idea what we are like without it. We know virtually nothing about ourselves because we judge ourselves before we have a chance to see ourselves (as though in panic). Or, to put it differently, we can judge only what we recognize ourselves as able to judge. What can’t be judged can’t be seen. What happens to everything that is not subject to approval or disapproval, to everything that we have not been taught how to judge? … The judged self can only be judged but not known. [We] think that it is complicitous not to stand up to, not to contest, this internal tyranny by what is only one part — a small but loud part — of the self.
The tyranny of the superego, Phillips argues, lies in its tendency to reduce the complexity of our conscience to a single, limiting interpretation, and to convincingly sell us on that interpretation as an accurate and complete representation of reality:
Self-criticism is nothing if it is not the defining, and usually the overdefining, of the limits of being. But, ironically, if that’s the right word, the limits of being are announced and enforced before so-called being has had much of a chance to speak for itself.
We consent to the superego’s interpretation; we believe our self-reproaches are true; we are overimpressed without noticing that that is what we are being.
With an eye to Freud’s legacy and the familiar texture of the human experience, Phillips makes his central point:
You can only understand anything that matters — dreams, neurotic symptoms, literature — by overinterpreting it; by seeing it from different aspects as the product of multiple impulses. Overinterpretation here means not settling for one interpretation, however apparently compelling it is. Indeed, the implication is — and here is Freud’s ongoing suspicion, or ambivalence, about psychoanalysis — that the more persuasive, the more compelling, the more authoritative, the interpretation is, the less credible it is, or should be. The interpretation might be the violent attempt to presume to set a limit where no limit can be set.
Here, the ideological wink at Sontag becomes apparent. Indeed, the Sontag classic would’ve been better titled “Against an Interpretation,” for the essence of her argument is precisely that a single interpretation invariably warps and flattens any text, any experience, any cultural artifact. (How tragicomical to see, then, that a reviewer who complains that Phillips’s writing is too open to interpretation both misses his point and, in doing so, makes it.)
What Phillips is advocating isn’t the wholesale relinquishing of interpretation but the psychological hygiene of inviting multiple interpretations as a way of countering the artificial authority of the superego and loosening its tyrannical grip on our experience of ourselves:
Authority wants to replace the world with itself. Overinterpretation means not being stopped in your tracks by what you are most persuaded by; it means assuming that to believe one interpretation is to radically misunderstand the object one is interpreting, and indeed interpretation itself.
Illustration by Kate Beaton from To Be or Not To Be, a choose-your-own-adventure reimagining of Hamlet
Cuing in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that “genius of self-reproach,” Phillips considers the cowardice of self-criticism:
Tragic heroes always underinterpret, are always emperors of one idea.
The first quarto of Hamlet has, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” while the second quarto has, “Thus conscience does make cowards.” If conscience makes cowards of us all, then we are all in the same boat; this is just the way it is. If conscience simply makes cowards we can more easily wonder what else it might be able to make. Either way, and they are clearly different, conscience makes something of us; it is a maker, if not of selves, then of something about selves. It is an internal artist, of a kind… The superego … casts us as certain kinds of character: it, as it were, tells us who we really are. It is an essentialist: it claims to know us in a way that no one else, including ourselves, can ever do. And, like a mad god, it is omniscient: it behaves as if it can predict the future by claiming to know the consequences of our actions (when we know, in a more imaginative part of ourselves, that most actions are morally equivocal, and change over time in our estimation; no apparently self-destructive act is ever only self-destructive; no good is purely and simply that).
Half a century after Eleanor Roosevelt’s memorable admonition that “when you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being,” Phillips urges us to question the superego’s despotic standards:
The superego is the sovereign interpreter… [It] tells us what we take to be the truth about ourselves. Self-criticism, that is to say, is an unforbidden pleasure. We seem to relish the way it makes us suffer [and] take it for granted that each day will bring its necessary quotient of self-disappointment. That every day we will fail to be as good as we should be; but without our being given the resources, the language, to wonder who or what is setting the pace; or where these rather punishing standards come from.
Under this docile surrender to self-criticism, Phillips cautions, our conscience slips into cowardice:
Conscience … it is the part of our mind that makes us lose our minds; the moralist that prevents us from evolving a personal, more complex and subtle morality; that prevents us from finding, by experiment, what may be the limits of our being. So when Richard III says, in the final act of his own play, “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!”, a radical alternative is being proposed. That conscience makes cowards of us all because it is itself cowardly. We believe in, we identify with, this starkly condemnatory and punitively forbidding part of ourselves; and yet this supposedly authoritative part of ourselves is itself a coward.
The most virulent and culturally contagious form of this cowardice, I would argue, is the resignation of cynicism — a resignation Phillips traces to the punitive system at the root of our culture’s moral framework, in which good behavior is incentivized largely through fear of punishment for bad behavior. This effort to foster the constructive by the destructive, he suggests, ends up turning us on ourselves as our fear of punishment metastasizes into self-criticism. (The cynic bypasses the constructiveness — that is, refuses to do anything about changing a situation for the better — and rushes straight to inflicting punishment, be it by insult or condemnation or that most cowardly and passive-aggressive fusion of the two, the eyeroll.)
Phillips returns to the central paradox, arguing for the importance of overinterpreting our self-critical conscience:
How has it come about that we are so bewitched by our self-hatred, so impressed and credulous in the face of our self-criticism, as unimaginative as it usually is? And why is it akin to a judgement without a jury? A jury, after all, represents some kind of consensus as an alternative to autocracy… We need to be able to tell the difference between useful forms of responsibility taken for acts committed, and the evasions of self-contempt… This doesn’t mean that no one is ever culpable; it means that culpability will always be more complicated than it looks; guilt is always underinterpreted… Self-criticism, when it isn’t useful in the way any self-correcting approach can be, is self-hypnosis. It is judgement as spell, or curse, not as conversation; it is an order, not a negotiation; it is dogma, not overinterpretation.
Our self-criticism, to be sure, couldn’t be entirely eradicated — nor should it, for it is our most essential route-recalculating tool for navigating life. But by nurturing our capacity for multiple interpretations, Phillips suggests, self-criticism can become “less jaded and jading, more imaginative and less spiteful.”
Unforbidden Pleasures is a magnificent read in its entirety, exploring such strands of our psychic complexity as desire, disappointment, indifference, and idealism. Complement this particular portion with Albert Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, then revisit Phillips on why our capacity for boredom is essential for a full life.