Sour Grapes

Because Richard Rorty just died, I keep thinking of him, and his reading of Orwell’s 1984, particularly the ‘undoing’ of Winston Smith: “Do it to Julia” as the turning point in his character. This is an extreme example, but it reminds me of the zone of “sub-culture” revealed by G. We all start out heroes, ethical beings, and our failures and weaknesses show us up, drag us down into an “inferior” realm. Having once done something cowardly or confused, how can I now rise up to be a hero? Instead I try to make my existence an argument for why that cowardly or confused act was consistent with my values and with my being, and indeed consistent with my carefully constructed picture of humanity.

G. didn’t mean “sub-culture” in the 60s sociological catchword meaning, youth and rebellion, etc.; he meant it in the old sense of “culture” as nurture, as cultivation, as well as culture as “high culture.” Sub-culture is our inferior, degraded, idiosyncratic mythology constituted out of our inability to live up to our high (and, I would add, youthful) ideals. We sooner describe ourselves as evil than as misguided.

In this connection I’m reminded of William S. Burroughs again. He shot his wife in the head, playing a “William Tell” game. He became a misogynist, a lover of guns, even wrote of the Zen of marksmanship. All of these things, lifestyle choices, identities, interests and fascinations, predicated on covering up a trauma. The trauma was not the death of his wife. The trauma was that he had once done something singularly stupid and thoughtless, and had bad aim, and it had tragic consequences. How was he supposed to continue after that moment, being who he had been? If he was to go on living (some people would have killed themselves directly or indirectly), he had to make it make sense.

So he formed an identity in which, retroactively, his killing of his wife became not really such a terrible thing within the larger context of his values.

People do thoughtless or careless things, often in their youth, and if those things end in tragedy for someone, or otherwise stick in people’s memory, they spend their lives trying to live up to those acts. This is the roots, not of “evil” because that’s too strong a word for what most people are, but of “badness.” Of how we choose paths of selfishness and irresponsibility and make them into ethical choices. Transforming (unconscious, unchosen) practice, or accident, into (willed, self-defining) action.

It’s the tendency of the mind to claim happenstance and transform it into fate (which is just character) – the tendency that therapists often find themselves deconstructing and undoing, or helping patients to undo.

You could call it “sour grapes.” Principles, standards, ambitions, capacities – these upper definitions of ourselves – become grapes, and in our failure to live up to them, in our confusion, our lapses, our clumsiness, our failures, etc., our attitude toward those grapes is that they are sour. We redefine our ideals – not “downward,” because that would be to admit failure (and confusion, and clumsiness, etc.), but in some other direction. Upward in another direction.

(It’s what happens to us when we are old, too: Our bodies go out from under us, and we become sad to ourselves. You stumble. “I meant to do that.” Because someone who ‘just stumbles’ is sad, pathetic, pitiable. Does the mind, the personality, chase the body into its decrepitude, to have the whole thing be consistent?)

The most well-developed Western philosophies of failure are Catholicism (the Fall), Psychoanalysis (the Unconscious, Trauma), Marxism (again, trauma, due to class oppression). Other cultures, like Japan, make less room for failure. Saving face, honor, may well demand suicide. It’s an interesting attitude to human failure. In the West, failure is more negotiable. Because values are more negotiable, I suppose. Our culture makes room for disagreement. Whatever wrong you have done, there is always some point of view you could adopt from which it is right. Your story of getting there could be a story of self-discovery. The personal journey is always a good story, in whatever direction you travel.

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