[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Contents PreviousNext

The Human Evasion by Celia Green

Chapter 3 : The Genesis of Sanity

It is fashionable to locate the origins of psychological attitudes very early in life. The taste for doing so is not, perhaps, entirely unmotivated.

It is obviously fairly agreeable to regard one's psychology as the result of conditioning rather than of choice. It is relaxing; one has nothing to blame oneself for; one cannot be expected to change. It is, of course, possible that the infant mind is capable of significant emotional decisions, but this possibility is never discussed.

However, a perfectly satisfactory beginning may indeed be postulated for sanity, and this does not interfere at all with standard theories of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis deals with that part of a person's psychology which has become fixated on other people; so it may well describe what happens to the child in so far as that child becomes sane.

It is well known that the younger people are, the less sane they are likely to be. This has lead to the heavily-loaded social usage of the term maturity. It is an unquestionable pro-word. Roughly speaking, the mature person is characterized by willingness to accept substitutes, compromises, and delays, particularly if these are caused by the structure of society.

Young people are usually immature, that is to say, they wish their lives to contain excitement and purpose. It is recognized (at least subconsciously) by sane people that the latter is much the more dangerous of the two, so the young who cannot at once be made mature are steered into the pursuit of purposeless excitement. This is actually not very exciting, and is well on the way to an acceptable kind of sanity, as it leads to the idea of "excitement" being degraded to that of "pleasure".

Adolescents are known to think about metaphysics more than most people; thus thinking about metaphysics becomes associated with the negative concept "immaturity". If someone thinks about metaphysical problems at a later age, they are said to show signs of "delayed adolescence".

Now let us go back to the very beginning of the "maturation" process. It is to be presumed that a baby which is being born experiences helplessness as helplessness. That is to say, it experiences the painful and incomprehensible process without any of those reflections which are such a miraculous source of comfort to the sane—such as "It will soon be over", or "After all, it happens to everybody", or "It shouldn't be allowed. It's their fault".

The infant may be presumed to find its condition intolerable—because it is out of control of it. At this point of its life, what it minds about is that it cannot control reality, not that it cannot control people.

Now so long as one is finite—i.e. one's knowledge and powers are limited—situations may always arise which one cannot control. But it is very hard for an adult human to feel any emotion about his limitations vis-a-vis impersonal reality. What emotion arises in you when you think that you would be quite unable to lift Mount Everest? On the other hand, it is probably quite easy to feel some emotion at the thought that so-and-so is an inch taller than you are, or can always beat you at badminton. You may also (though less probably) still be able to feel a pang of jealousy or regret that you are not Nijinsky or Shakespeare or Einstein.

Obviously a process of psychological development takes place which ensures (so far as possible) that the limitations of the individual will be experienced only in comparisons with other people. Now it is obvious that the emotion which accompanies the original experience of helplessness is very strong. If you can recall any experience of impotent fury or horror in early childhood you may get some idea of this. This gives some clue to the strength of the human evasion. If people are to take the force of all this displaced emotion, it is scarcely surprising that they should be the object of such exclusive attention.

At first very young children are not immune from a feeling of helplessness per se. But it may be presumed that the part of their environment which is most readily manipulable is soon seen to be other people. The younger the child, the truer this is. Its own physical and mental grasp of the situation is greatly exceeded by that of adult humans—particularly its mother—who can affect the situation in its favour if they feel inclined to do so.

It is very painful to try to do something and to fail. The retrospective attempt to reject the combination of trying and failure is well known in social life. "I didn't really care about the game today." "Actually I was thinking that even if I was elected it was time I resigned to spend more time on my other interests." Therefore, by the time it has reached adulthood, the sane person has evolved ways of relinquishing the attempt in favour of some compensatory aim, in any situation in which it does not feel almost certain to succeed. For example, as a mature adult, you cannot even try (with any emotional involvement in the act of trying) to jump over a house. By the same token, you cannot try to make a door open by willpower alone, or try to arrive home quickly without traversing the intervening space and navigating such obstacles as stairs, walls, gates, etc., in the approved fashion. Your immediate sensation if you attempted to try, would be an overwhelming sense of impossibility.

It is (philosophically or factually speaking) the case that no future event can be demonstrated to be impossible. If something has happened once, this may be said to show it is possible. If it has never happened this does not show that it can never do so. But as has pointed out, reflections of this kind although true, have no emotional impact to a sane person.

As already mentioned, you may still (in rare circumstances) be able to try to achieve exceptional things in some socially recognized and strictly limited field. I.e. you may still be able to try and equal Nijinsky, Shakespeare, etc.

But it is far more likely that you have acquired some compensatory attitude towards any such symbols of outstandingness. It can give a very pleasant sense of gentle superiority to discuss Beethoven's deafness, and Shakespeare's Oedipus Complex, and Nietzsche's lack of success with women, in a more or less informed manner. Thus MacNeile Dixon:

So with the famous monarchs of the mind. They terrify you with their authority.... How royal is their gesture, how incomparable their technique!

There is, however, no need for alarm. Pluck up your heart, approach a little nearer, and what do you find; that they have human wishes and weaknesses like yourself. You may discover that Kant smoked, played billiards and had a fancy for candied fruit. The discovery at once renders him less awe-inspiring.1

This kind of approach is not only useful for eliminating a sense of inferiority, it also makes it much easier to ignore anything Kant, Nietzsche, Hume, etc., may have said about reality.

Now although the ambitions of the adult are already restricted to narrowly defined types of social recognition, even this form of aspiration is a strictly unstable structure in sane psychology—i.e. if it is displaced slightly from its equilibrium it will tend to fall further away from that position, and not return to it. On the other hand, compensation is a stable psychological position in sane psychology.

The replacement of aspiration by compensation is perhaps most clearly seen among college students. They frequently arrive at university with immature desires for greatness and an exceptionally significant way of life.

Not infrequently, also, this leads to emotional conflicts and disappointments of one kind and another. They adjust to their problems with startling rapidity. The solution which occurs to nearly all of them, and is suggested to them by psychological advisers, etc., if it does not occur to them spontaneously, is to accept their limitations. The acceptance of limitations is accompanied by a marked increase in the valuation placed on other people.

"I used to be quite self-sufficient and thought I wanted to be nothing but an intellectual. I lived for my work, and of course maths/classics/anything you like is the nearest thing there is to heaven. But it would be selfish to live like that. I see now you've got to take an interest in life—I mean, you have to live with other people. It's difficult to get on with people. Social problems are difficult. The other is easy. It's running away from reality."

What is usually omitted from this exposition by the patient is that between the period at which classics (or whatever it may have been) was "nearly heaven" and the period at which human relationships became the central thing in life, there was usually a stage at which classics was no longer particularly easy.

It is a simple law of human psychology, therefore, that as soon as conflict arises, it will be eliminated by some compensatory manoeuvre in which other people are the central pivot. The process of becoming thoroughly sane depends on repeated manoeuvres of this kind.

This process may be presumed to have started in earliest infancy, when it was much more rewarding to aim at responses from one's mother than at controlling the environment directly. Here began the child's lifelong efforts to limit its trying to regions in which it could succeed. This process, of necessity, remained imperfect in early life, as moderate (though never disproportionate) efforts to learn things must be sanctioned in the young.

These efforts are almost at once heavily conditioned by social acceptability, though this is not yet the exclusive criterion. It is possible to find people who remember, as children, having tried (or attempted to try) to walk away from the stairs into the air instead of going on down them one by one. But even then they found it impossible to try very hard.

Why is it so painful to fail in something you have tried to do? In the case of the young child it is evidently because it reminds it of its limited powers, which suggests the possibility of permanent finiteness.

It is bad enough to be finite at present; it is intolerable to believe that one will always be so. If one tries and fails it proves that one's trying is insufficient. Better therefore to believe that one doesn't want to try—at least at present.

This view of the matter is not so far removed from that of orthodox psychoanalysis, which does, after a fashion, recognize the child's desire for omnipotence. Psychoanalysis is, however, most concerned with what happens once human persons, such as the child's father, have become partial symbols of omnipotence. There is also a tendency to describe the child as having a muddle-headed belief in its own omnipotence. This is, of course, less justifiable than a desire for omnipotence. Sane people cannot distinguish very easily between different attitudes of this kind.

Of course in the child and adolescent there are still remains of the belief that one will, at some judiciously selected time in the future, attempt altogether more ambitious things. In true adulthood this idea has disappeared (or becomes transformed into some such form as "it would make all the difference if people were only decent to me and gave me my rights").

Thus the sane, adult person wants (or tries to want) to have what it can have and to do what it can do, and exercises a good deal of ingenuity in attempts to want not to have what it cannot get.

One or two points must be made in parentheses. The sane person will not, of course, admit that the prospect of being permanently finite is intolerable.

Even if he looks so miserable that he cannot with any conviction claim to be happy himself, he will utter constant affirmations that "most people are perfectly all right and quite happy as they are." "Why should I mind about being finite? Suppose I enjoy it like this?"

This does not make our hypothesis about the development of the human evasion any less probable. Our argument is that a sane person's life has been spent in an increasingly successful attempt not to find finiteness intolerable. Thus if he makes assertions of this kind, he is telling us only that he has succeeded.

After all, it is accepted in psychoanalysis that one of the objects of a psychological reaction to an unacceptable fact is, eventually, to conceal the true origin and purpose of this reaction.

The sane adult will, of course, object that what happens when one comes up against one's limitations is not that one is reminded of the possibility of permanent finiteness. It is certain that the limits of one's capabilities are defined by what one can and cannot achieve.

The very young child reacts emotionally as if it believed that limitation is only potential; it does not yet identify itself with its limitations. In this its emotions are in accordance with the most abstract philosophy; whatever may be achieved in certain circumstances on one occasion or even on a great many occasions, it may still be the case that something quite different may be achieved on a future occasion. In the most abstract sense, this might simply happen in the way that everything might stop existing at any moment or start existing according to different laws. This, I know, is the sort of consideration that has no force at all to a sane adult. But even within the normal world-view, it cannot be claimed that very much is known about the psychological factors that restrict or permit achievement, and the possibility cannot be ruled out that if someone adopted a different kind of psychological attitude from any they had had before, they might find their abilities radically changed.

Initially, then, the child is merely horrified at the prospect that a single failure may contain some implication of permanent restriction; some barrier set forever between him and the possibility of omnipotence. It is a matter of social conditioning that he increasingly learns that he is regarded by others as defined by his failures, so that any single one comes to have the force of a permanent measurement of what he unchangeably is.

This process is accompanied by a continuous shifting of the idea of failure away from absolute failure (i.e. failure to fulfil one's own will) toward "failure by comparison with other people". To the mature adult only the latter is of any interest.

The child is trained, then, to react to failure not only by regarding his limitations as final, but by substituting something more readily obtainable for what he originally wanted. The substitution is usually eased by a shift of emphasis from what the individual himself wants, to what other people want from him. It may be the substitution of a different ambition from the first one, on the grounds that it will be just as useful to society, or it may be the substitution of social approval per se for any ambition at all.

Consider some well-known gambits. "Never mind, darling. Even if you fail your exams, you know we'll still love you." If the person concerned is actually worried about the exams, there is an obvious motivation for attempting to find this comforting. "Well, we know you did your best, and that's what counts." The latter is particularly subtle, since it combines the idea of finality of failure with the offer of social approval. What it is really saying is: "Provided you accept that you couldn't possibly have done better, and you really are worse than all the other boys, you may have our affection as a good boy who tries."

Now the child may well have an obscure feeling that in some way he wasn't feeling right about the thing; or that somehow everything felt wrong at school in some indefinable way that made it quite certain that he couldn't do that kind of thing there. But his mind must be distracted from any attempt to work out how one does make oneself feel right to do things. (If he does start reflecting on the effect of circumstances upon him he will most likely be told he is "making excuses".)

The denial of psychological reality is very important to sanity. It cannot afford to admit the existence of a psychology of achievement, still less to understand it. However, one of the few pieces of psychology that is understood by sanity is how to make young humans with aspirations feel discredited and absurd. Any aspiration bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a desire not to be finite at all. Inspiration is of little interest to modern psychology; it is about as unfashionable as witchcraft. If the subconscious mind is considered at all, it is considered solely as a repository of associations of ideas about parts of the body and members of one's family.

Of course there is a kind of non-aspiring psychology of success which is understood by sanity. It is roughly as follows: the most stable, least excitable, most normal, people will tend to be most consistently successful.

Even if this seems to be supported by observation, it must be borne in mind that these are the conditions for success (of a moderate kind) in a society composed of sane people.

  1. MacNeile Dixon, The Human Situation, Edward Arnold and Co., 1937, p.16.
Contents PreviousNext