Intellectualization

Isolation of affect – the dissociation of thoughts and feelings, with the feelings then removed from conscious attention to leave only the thoughts – is closely related to intellectualization. In intellectualization, the uncomfortable feelings associated with a problem are kept out of consciousness by thinking about the problem in cold, abstract, and esoteric terms. First example: I once received a phone call from a junior doctor in psychiatry in which he described a recent in-patient admission as ‘a 47-year old mother of two who attempted to cessate her life as a result of being diagnosed with a metastatic mitotic lesion’. A formulation such as ‘…who tried to kill herself after being told that she is dying of cancer’ would have been much better English, but would also have been all too effective at evoking the full horror of this poor lady’s predicament.

Second example: An ambitious medical student once asked me whether she should take up a career in academic medicine, despite (or so it seemed) having already made up her mind on the matter. I raised some arguments in favour and then some arguments against such a move, in particular that only a very small number of people engaged in medical research ever make a significant discovery. As she did not seem to be taking this argument on board, I asked her to name just one major breakthrough from the past 50 years in the life of a particular top-rated medical research department. Instead of accepting that the department had not made a single major breakthrough in 50 years of publishing one academic paper after another, she resorted to questioning the definition of a breakthrough and then the value of making one.

Third example: After being discharged from hospital, a middle-aged man who had almost died from a heart attack spent several hours a day on his computer researching the various risk factors for cardiovascular disease. He typed out long essays on each of these risk factors, printed them out, and filed them in a large binder with colour-coded dividers. After having done all this, he became preoccupied with the vitamin and mineral contents in various kinds of food, and devised a strict dietary regimen to ensure that he took in the recommended amounts of each and every micronutrient. Despite living on a shoestring budget, he spent several hundred pounds on a high-end steamer on the basis that it could preserve vitamins through the cooking process. Although he expended an inordinate amount of effort, time, and money on his persnickety diet, he did not once consider even so much as cutting back on his far, far more noxious smoking habit.

The focus on abstract notions and trivial footnotes often belies a sort of ‘flight into reason’; the emotionally loaded event or situation is thought of in terms of an interesting problem or puzzle, without any appreciation for its emotional content or personal implications. Instead of coming to terms with the problem, the person may split hairs over definitions; question reasonable assumptions, facts, and arguments; and preoccupy himself with abstruse minutiae. By failing to perceive the bigger picture, he also fails to reach the appropriate conclusion or conclusions, which, as with our medical student or heart attack victim, may hit him very hard come five, ten, or fifty years’ time. Intellectualization can also underlie a number of logical fallacies and rhetorical blind alleys, such as raising irrelevant or trivial counter-arguments, rejecting an argument on the basis of an inaccurate example or exceptional case, using exact numbers for inexact or abstract notions, and ‘blinding with science’. In short, the person appears to be engaging with, and even to be excited by, a certain problem, but without ever truly getting to the bottom of it.

Isolation of affect and intellectualization should be distinguished from plain and simple isolation, which can be thought of as the inverse of intellectualization. Whereas intellectualization involves repressing the emotion but not the thought, isolation involves repressing the thought but not the emotion. The person feels a strong emotion, often breaking down in tears, but is entirely unable to point to its cause. After regaining his composure, he is likely to repress the emotion or its memory until – if he should be so lucky – it returns with a vengeance several years later.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Advertisements

Leonardo, Homosexuality, and Sublimation

The Italian renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci, who is currently the focus of the art world, arguably sublimed his homosexuality into his art.

Leonardo never showed any interest in women and even wrote that heterosexual intercourse disgusted him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he never married, and chose instead to surround himself with beautiful young men, in particular Salai (a nickname meaning ‘little devil’) and Melzi, both of whom Leonardo included in his last will. In 1476, at the age of 24, Leonardo was twice charged with sodomy, even though the charges were dropped for want of witnesses.

As in his life so in his art: Leonardo drew many more male than female nudes, and gave much more careful attention to the male sexual organs. Many of the figures in his paintings appear androgynous, especially the John the Baptist (pictured) who, complete with the fine curls of Salai, looks nothing like the biblical cousin of Jesus and everything like Salai or, indeed, Mona Lisa. There is also a drawing entitled The Incarnate Angel from the school of Leonardo that appears to be a humorous take on the John the Baptist, depicting John (and therefore Salai) with an erect phallus. Salai’s name is even inscribed – and has at some point been crossed out – on the back of the picture.

Then, in the famous Last Supper, Leonardo painted a female figure, often interpreted as Mary Magdalen, in the privileged position to the immediate right of Jesus. However, it is generally understood that it is in fact St John who occupied this position. In the Bible, John 13:23, it is written (presumably by John himself), ‘Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.’ And again at 21:20, ‘Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee?’ In his Spritual Friendship, St Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx in the 12th century, contrasts St John with St Peter. To Peter, he says, Jesus gave the keys to his kingdom, but to John ‘he revealed the secrets of his heart’. ‘Peter … was exposed to action, John was reserved for love.’ Whatever the relationship between Jesus and St John, for Leonardo to have placed a female figure in the place of St John, all the more in a painting of the Last Supper designed for the dining hall of a monastery[1], might be thought of as rather more than just a mistake.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.


[1] The monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

Splitting as an ego defense

Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil. – Nietzsche

Splitting is a very common ego defense mechanism; it can be defined as the division or polarization of beliefs, actions, objects, or persons into good and bad by focusing selectively on their positive or negative attributes. This is often seen in politics, for example, when members of the Labour Party portray members of the Conservative Party as narrow-minded and self-interested, and conversely when members of the Conservative Party caricature members of the Labour Party as self-righteous hypocrites. Other examples of splitting are the deeply religious person who thinks of others as being either blessed or damned, the child of divorced parents who idolises one parent and shuns the other, and the hospital in-patient who sees the doctors as helpful and dedicated and the nurses as lazy and incompetent. An example of splitting in literature can be found in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The main protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is mystified by adulthood. To help cope with his fear of becoming an adult, he thinks of adulthood as a world of entirely bad things such as superficiality and hypocrisy (‘phoniness’) and of childhood as a world of entirely good things such as innocence, curiosity, and honesty. He tells his younger sister Phoebe that he imagines childhood as an idyllic field of rye in which children romp and play, and himself as the ‘catcher in the rye’ who stands on the edge of a cliff, catching the children as they threaten to fall over (and presumably die/become adults).

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.

In contrast to JD Salinger, Miguel de Cervantes uses splitting to great comical effect as his main protagonist, the self-styled Don Quixote de la Mancha, guides us through a world that he has repopulated with heroes and villains, princesses and harlots, giants and dwarves – with the heroes being the greatest, the villains the most cruel, the ladies the fairest and most virtuous, and so on. ‘Take care, your worship,’ cries Sancho Pancha, Don Quixote’s peasant-turned-squire, ‘those things over there are not giants but windmills.’ Splitting diffuses the anxiety that arises from our inability to grasp the nuances and complexities of a given situation or state of affairs by simplifying and schematising the situation and thereby making it easier to think about; it also reinforces our sense of self as good and virtuous by effectively demonizing all those who do not share in our opinions and values. On the other hand, such a compartmentalization of opposites leaves us with a distinctly distorted picture of reality and a restricted range of thoughts and emotions; it also affects our ability to attract and maintain relationships, not only because it is tedious and unbecoming, but also because it can easily flip, with friends and lovers being thought of as personified virtue at one time and then as personified vice at another (and back and forth). Splitting also arises in groups, when members of the in-group are seen to have mostly positive attributes, whereas members of out-groups are seen to have mostly negative attributes – a phenomenon that contributes to groupthink. Finally, it is worth noting that both fairy tales and the Church feature a number of sharp splits, for example, heroes and villains, good and evil, heaven and hell, angels and demons, and saints and sinners; and that the greatest characters of literature, such as the Achilles or the Odysseus of Homer and the Anthony or the Cleopatra of Shakespeare, contain large measures of both good and bad, with the one being intimately related to the other.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

%d bloggers like this: