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Notes on the puzzle of self-abasement


What explains “the voluptuous pleasure of cringing and self-contempt,” as Marx says in the context of a discussion of Christianity? How can self-contempt—e.g., the self-contempt of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man—be pleasurable? Well, I think it has to do with bringing your self-conception in line with the other’s, or the world’s, supposed perception of you. What the self wants, after all, is harmony between the inner and the outer. If there is a great difference between your sense of self and people’s reactions to you, something will have to give. Such cognitive, or affective, dissonance cannot last forever. Maybe you’ll assert yourself, your sense of self-value, by going on a murderous rampage against this world that has contempt for you, to force it to notice you or recognize your power or just to eradicate the thing that causes you so much torment, or something like that. Or maybe you’ll become schizophrenic; your self will split up to protect itself, with an inner part that the outer world can’t touch. (See R. D. Laing’s classic The Divided Self.) Or you’ll join a fascist movement of some sort, to destroy the part of the world that sees itself as superior to you and keeps you in society’s gutter. Or, to eliminate the contradiction that torments you, you might accept the other’s negative evaluation of you, though in a different way than the schizophrenic does. That is to say, you’ll alleviate the tension in your mind by no longer resisting the other’s (or Other’s) contempt for you but internalizing it, though not in such a way that you overtly split yourself up. By having explicit self-contempt, you can at least experience the pleasure of having your sense of self be confirmed by the other, even if it isn’t the sense of self you’d like to have and originally had. But since the self has to value itself on some level, however implicitly, its “chosen” self-contempt is precisely a means to that end, a last desperate refuge of self-love. For by bringing the inner and outer into harmony, the self is asserting its claim to belong in the world. It is saying, “I am one of you, you despisers of me! I agree with you! In loathing myself, I am just like you, you valuable people (or valuable abstract Other(ness)) who despise me. So, like me, at least a little!” Thus, a piece of the self is salvaged from the wreckage, viz. the piece that looks down on the self. This piece at least has some value.


Or, from another, simpler perspective, the descent into self-contempt can be a way of accepting yourself. No longer do you struggle to be someone you’re not; you accept that you’re (supposedly) weak and small, and such self-acceptance brings comfort. Maybe not enough comfort, since eventually you might end up killing yourself due to insufficient self-love, but it is at least more comforting than constantly having to tell yourself that all these people who ignore you or laugh at you are wrong, that actually you’re strong and valuable. Struggling with yourself, tormenting yourself like that, being full of self-tension due to the contradiction between your desire to love yourself and people’s contempt for you—that can be horrible. It’s much easier, like a relief, to accept yourself in your shameful little essence. And then you thereby are able to find new pleasures, new vindictive, revengeful pleasures, as by imagining bringing people down to your level, plotting petty tricks on them, thinking malicious thoughts like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. Imaginary wish-fulfillments, putting you and your enemies on the same level or raising yourself above them, as by physically torturing them (in imagination at least) or provoking them to act in petty ways like you.


Religious self-abnegation or “self-contempt” can be very different from all this, though. It can entail raising yourself up to try to commune with God, to love him and be loved by him. You have scorn for your base physical nature but love your higher self. But what about severe self-flagellation? I.e., outright masochism (emotional and physical). How do you explain that? The starting point for an explanation is that masochism is, or often is, an expression of self-love—self-love perverted into self-violence. In at least some cases, physical self-flagellation is a way of confirming your reality to yourself, a kind of intense self-assertion. Extreme self-affirmation, paradoxically. It takes an extreme form because, at least in comparison to God, you feel extremely dead, empty, nonexistent. Its use in ascetic religious sects is understandable, then, given that these people spend their lives obsessing over their nothingness and worthlessness as compared to God. When they “flagellate” themselves, the contrast between their ordinary sensory deprivation (and self-deprivation, mental deprivation) and sudden over-stimulation, extreme self-activity, might well launch them into some twisted ecstasy. Their sudden perception of self-reality, so real that it’s painful, can probably approach mystical ecstasy.




More masochistic puzzles and paradoxes.— Ordinarily, of course, moments of self-contempt or self-hatred are unpleasant, something you struggle against. They happen through your temporary internalization of the perspective of an other who hates or has contempt for you. You momentarily understand that other’s judgment of you, but probably you overcome it and convince yourself of your worth pretty quickly. In the case of someone like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, however, his self-contempt is itself mixed up in his self-love, not necessarily opposed to it. In a way, yes, it is, since he probably still resists it in certain moods, etc. But in another way, he loves his self-contempt; it is comforting, it possibly allows him to feel superior to other people (because it proves to him that he has greater sophistication, self-knowledge, self-critical intelligence, etc.), it makes possible malicious pleasures and the pleasures of brooding self-involvement, etc. Someone like Marmeladov, on the other hand,[1] who is weaker, probably thinks on some level that his self-contempt sort of ingratiates him with people because he knows they have contempt for him. They’ll like him (he thinks) at least a little if he doesn’t resist their judgments of him. He’s not resisting the world, he’s accepting it. So to that extent it should accept him too, as part of it, or as a confirmation of it. To take a more concrete example: when a husband (e.g., Marmeladov) lets his wife beat him out of anger at his drunkenness or uselessness or infidelities or whatever, what is going on in his mind? He is thinking “I deserve it.” But what does that really mean? It means he wants to be punished. It makes him feel better. By being beaten, he is atoning, washing away his sin. He is making things better with his wife, showing that he accepts (“confirms”) her condemnation (hence her self-love, her desire to assert herself and be proven right) and thereby hoping she will forgive him and accept (confirm) him (his self-love) again. Or, to say it differently, if she can just let out her rage on him she’ll feel better, and he’ll feel better. There will no longer be the barrier between them of his shame and her resentment; he will no longer have to rebuke himself or feel bad about himself, at least to the same degree, because she will no longer hate him (for he has accepted and shown that he agrees with her anger and disgust, which makes her feel better about herself). In short, his acceptance of her anger makes her feel better about herself (because, after all, his prior actions seemed to express contempt for her) and restores, to some extent, her fondness or love for him (maybe she “forgives” him), which makes him feel better about himself. Moreover, because he loves her and cares about her happiness, he simply felt guilty about causing her pain. By showing contrition and letting her cause him pain, he is equalizing things again, so that she will not have to feel bad about herself (which she did implicitly, if not explicitly).




Losing yourself in love, love of God or of a person, fully believing in your worthlessness compared to this being, this being that has given you grace through no merit of your own—submerging your individuality, your sense of self, in this being, being filled with love and gratitude, exalting the other at your own expense, breaking down the distinction between self and other in a self-humbling way. Certain mystical experiences, states of mystical rapture, are like this; I suspect that ordinary passionate love is related to mystical rapture. Despite appearances, this self-debasing person is glorifying himself, partaking in the glory of the radiant other who has deigned to recognize him. By exalting the other he is exalting himself—he is merging himself with the other—for, in being loved by an exalted other, one is exalted oneself (however much one “doesn’t deserve it”). The way to recognition here is, paradoxically, through self-effacement; it is through self-degradation, for the less you are, the less self you have, the more the other is, this other who loves you and in whom you are merged. (And therefore the more validating is the other’s love.) Moreover, the less self you have, the more you can lose yourself in the other, thus attaining fullness of self. Women are often adepts in this underhanded self-glorification. So are Christians.




An embarrassing incident (from 2009).— I missed my flight today from Budapest to New York, so now I have to pay $700 to change to another flight tomorrow. It was a silly mistake: I thought the flight was at 12:55 instead of 11:55, so I lost myself in reading and writing at the airport as I waited for the plane. At 11:45 I realized what time it was, learned that the flight was leaving in ten minutes, ran to the gate, and wasn’t allowed on. I suspect my parents won’t be happy when I tell them, since they’ll have to help bail me out. Stupid, stupid mistake. Now I’m at a cheap hostel in Budapest.


In the aftermath of defeat I half-decided not to stay at any place tonight and instead wander the city or sleep on a bench. I thought I deserved it. It was my way to atone. The prospect even pleased me a little, for some reason. I wanted to do it. But how do you explain that? I had no idea why I wanted to experience a sleepless and uncomfortable night; all I knew was that “part of me” had that desire. Its causes were unconscious, like the causes of Marmeladov’s desire to be beaten by his wife. The starting-point of an explanation is that obviously I half-consciously expected such a night to make me feel better, to wash away my self-frustration. It would be my way of atoning. By so atoning I would restore things to normal, restore the equilibrium, compensate for and so effectively “erase” my past stupidity. “I made an incredibly stupid and expensive mistake; well, okay, I’ll spend tonight on the streets. That will satisfy me.” The point, I think, is that by punishing myself I would be “enacting,” so to speak, my self-respect, my self-regard. By subjecting myself to a stern justice, or a compensation....well, but how does that realize my “self-love”? This is a difficult problem.


It reminds me of the fact that sometimes murderers who get away with their crime can’t live with their having escaped punishment and finally turn themselves in. It is the Raskolnikov syndrome. (And maybe the Marmeladov syndrome too, come to think of it. He enjoyed being punished for his crime of being a pitiful alcoholic.) It isn’t the murder itself they can’t live with—i.e., it isn’t that they feel so horrible about having killed a person that they can no longer live with themselves. They want to be punished, not dead. If granted their wish for a punishment, it is quite possible they’ll feel good about themselves again, indeed will be very happy, won’t be bothered much anymore by their knowledge of having committed a murder. In my case too, it wasn’t merely my stupidity that bothered me; it was the feeling that I had committed a crime. I really felt like a kind of petty moral criminal—against my parents, I think, or rather against the “law” they have implanted in me that to disrespect money on such a scale is a crime. Even if they were dead or I did not expect them to lend me money or even to find out about what I’d done, I suspect I would have felt the same guilt. It was their law, not their actual selves, that weighed heavily on me. Or maybe you could say I was burdened by my internalization of their harsh perspective, which is equivalent to my unconscious or half-conscious desire that they, or my internalization of them, approve of me. I wanted to subject myself to their law, which meant I had to compensate for my transgression. Then I would have their implicit forgiveness; they, or my internalization of them, would be well-disposed toward me again, which would let me be well-disposed toward myself.


Normal people don’t want to be wholly “free”; they want to be anchored in some kind of moral order, subject to a moral law that has punishments attached to its violation. In this way they can define themselves, can have standards by which to determine at any given time that they are worthy and self-defined beings. To be totally free, to live a morally unbounded life of whims and hedonism and unaccountable sinning, tends to be an intolerable psychic burden. That is to say, it tends to contradict the fundamental urge for active confirmation of one’s value as a self. For one thing, it entails a denial of recognition of your value or self-love by authority-figures from your past or present whom you have internalized and whose judgment at least unconsciously matters to you. Consciously or unconsciously you know what their attitude is or would be towards you, and this tends to affect your mental health, either reinforcing/stimulating or undermining your self-certainty (self-harmony, etc.). —Actually, the case of the unhappy hedonist or “inveterate sinner” and that of the criminal who wants to be punished are psychologically different, although what I just said about authority-figures is true of both. So let’s ignore the hedonist and focus on the criminal. Aside from the “authority-figures” thing, he is also troubled—this is surely the crux of the matter, at least in many cases—by always having to conceal from others a dreadful secret about himself. In such a case, Carl Jung is literally right (in Modern Man in Search of a Soul) that the secret is “a burden of guilt which cuts off the possessor from communion with his fellow-beings.” The burden of guilt, to repeat, is not necessarily due to the crime itself; it is due to the criminal’s having to conceal the crime. He can never feel wholly at home in the company of others (unless they know his secret) because he always has to be careful not to reveal himself. He cannot know true companionship, true loving confirmation of his self-love, until he gives himself up. Through punishment, moreover—compensation—he feels as though he will be submitting himself again to the common moral law, which will signify his reentry into society (even as, perhaps, he physically leaves it, going to prison or Siberia like Raskolnikov). He will be reentering the human community. Realigning himself with his authority-figures, his significant others, etc.


(All kinds of guilt are, I think, implicitly about self-love in some way or other, like most things in the psyche. But in someone with an empathic disposition, guilt can also be about genuine concern for others. What is “genuine” concern, though? Is there a line to be drawn between “egoistic” guilt and “altruistic” guilt? Where do you draw it? I think you could call Raskolnikov’s guilt egoistic,[2] but “empathic” guilt surely exists too.)


The Marmeladov syndrome is different from the Raskolnikov syndrome in that it doesn’t involve a terrible secret, but it is similar in that it entails self-contempt due to the violation of the common moral law, i.e., due to the person’s implicit knowledge of condemnation from society and his significant others in the form (at least) of condemnation from the Other in his consciousness, or himself. Marmeladov compensates for his crimes by letting his wife beat him, which implies (as he sees it) that he accepts moral norms after all and so is not the outcast he seemed to be. He shows he agrees with his implicit accusers about himself, thus securing the validation of at least some of his injured self-love. (He has partially split himself into a “higher” and a “lower” part. A (self-)condemning part and a condemned part.)


My own feeling of guilt in the airport was identical neither with one case nor the other, but it was a milder form of both.



[1] Marmeladov is a character in Crime and Punishment, a drunken, self-contemptuous buffoon who lets his wife beat him and insists that he enjoys these beatings. In the end he is killed, possibly by suicide.


[2] After all, he seemed to lose his burden of guilt after he was exiled to Siberia and had the love of pure devoted Sonia. What he wanted all along was that people and society forgive him, so he could (thereby) forgive himself. –On the other hand, his compassion and pity for Lizaveta probably did entail an element of “altruism” in his guilt, genuine and profound regret for brutally killing this poor girl. Most guilt must comprise a mixture of egoistic and altruistic elements.

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