Wednesday, February 28, 2007 02/26/07-One-up and One-down

In today's excerpt, Terence Real, Harvard researcher and clinical psychotherapist, speaks to the tendency prevalent among men to relate to others from a position of subordination or superiority, rather than openly as equals. His book examines the adverse effect of this tendency on relationships with partners and self. He argues that this inability both leads to forms of depression and serves as a mechanism for coping with this depression. In this excerpt, he shows the cultural prevalence of this archetype:

"The pattern in males of moving from the helpless, depressed, 'one-down' position to a transfigured, grandiose, 'one-up' position has become one of the most powerful and ubiquitous narratives in modern times. The hero, a meek, quiet, strong man of principle, is bullied and pressed to the wall. He is humiliated and abused, often physically. Then comes the turnaround. Clark Kent rips off his business suit to become Superman; David Banner transforms when angered into the Incredible Hulk. The 'weakling' stands up. In a recurring scene that lies at the heart of the film Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro stares into a mirror and challenges an imagined enemy. 'Are you looking at me?' he threatens. 'Are you looking at me?' ...

"This theme of male transformation harkens back to our archetypal heroes, like Odysseus, Orpheus, Siddhartha ... Throughout most cultures and in most ages, this mutation from a state of helplessness to sublimity has been effected by a spiritual awakening. In modern Western mythology, the same transformation is most often effected through the forces of rage and revenge. In the film Falling Down, Michael Douglas, a repressed, buttoned-down nerd, fulfills our own dark fantasies by decompensating in the middle of a traffic jam and going on a bloody rampage. All of the popular Rambo movies follow this pattern of ritual wounding followed by grand revenge. ... In The Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood is savagely beaten and crawls out of town, only to return and kill his abuser. ...

"These scenes of ceremonial injury hark back to the crucifixion and dismemberment of Dionysius, Mithras, Jesus, and other heroes of the great mystery cults. But for the spiritually rich heroes of antiquity, it is their egos, their ordinary selves, that are rent in order to give way to the sublime. In our modern version, the hero's self is not transmuted by spirit but inflated by violence. This is a dangerous direction for heroism to take. ...

"In covert depression, [a] defense or addiction [used to cope with the depression] always pulls the man from 'less than' to 'better than'--rather than to a moderate sense of inherent value."

Terence Real, I Don't Want to Talk About It, Scribner, 1997, pp. 63-9.


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