schopenhauer's prickles

It was Deborah Luepnitz's lovely work on the psychotherapy of intimacy and its dilemmas which first introduced to Schopenhauer's fable of the porcupines. In her book she follows the poet Molly Peacock who wrote of how 'there must be room in love for hate'. Their point isn't that love itself somehow involves hate, but that a relationship which is deeply loving is one that will inevitably sometimes anger or otherwise trouble us (unless we stifle the anger and become depressed). In Luepnitz's capable hands the fable - which she inherits from Freud - helps us tolerate and normalise the inevitability of our dissatisfactions with both intimacy and solitude. One of her patients writes “When there is no man in my life, I feel empty and unlovable, and can barely enjoy anything. When I get close to a man, I feel smothered and pampered, sort of chubby with love. I long for time to think, to work late, to feel the edges of things, just to be. Is this sick or what?” After Luepnitz relates the fable to her, the patient says "it's soothing". I think we can - and should - all relate to this. The task of love is to do one's best within the 'tragic' back and forth push and pull of love to manage one's relationships - not to 'comedically' transcend this fray into the unreal bliss of a soul mate or self-satisfaction.

My point today is just that Luepnitz's, and perhaps even Freud's, is a redemptive (mis)reading of Schopenhauer's fable. But wait, I get ahead of myself! What's the story? Freud references it in his book on Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, and it belongs to 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's Parerga and Paralipomena. (By the way, those weird words just mean something like 'random addenda to my main work'. Odd how this book of his was the one to revive his intellectual fortunes!) First, though, the tale in Luepnitz's own words:

A troop of porcupines is milling about on a cold winter’s day. In order to keep from freezing, the animals move closer together. Just as they are close enough to huddle, however, they start to poke each other with their quills. In order to stop the pain, they spread out, lose the advantage of commingling, and again begin to shiver. This sends them back in search of each other, and the cycle repeats as they struggle to find a comfortable distance between entanglement and freezing.

Note that in Luepnitz's hands we find none of Freud's somewhat unholy pessimism about the possibility of love not based in idealisation and narcissism, nor about a putative death drive, and so on. We instead find a beautiful humanistic hope-bringing realism about human life, one that holds out for the possibility both of developmental repair and of albeit fragile loving relationship in the midst of life's conflicts. We don't get to the redemptive neighbour love that René Girard rescues for us - where the withdrawal of projection, the work of conscience, and the end of the violence of scapegoating all come together in the radical proclamation of the divine innocence of a sacrifice to end all sacrifices. We don't get, that is, to the Christian solution to the group-based splitting and projection of which Freud is writing. Even so, what we find in Luepnitz's tragic oscillation around a 'comfortable distance' is something which offers a valuable ethic for psychotherapeutic practice.

Turn to the original Schopenhauer, though, and we meet with something really rather different - not only more pessimistic than Luepnitz, but also more dismal than Freud: 

One cold winter's day, a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order through their mutual warmth to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effect of their quills on one another, which made them again move apart. Now when the need for warmth once more brought them together, the drawback of the quills was repeated so that they were tossed between two evils, until they had discovered the proper distance from which they could best tolerate one another. Thus the need for society which springs from the emptiness and monotony of men's lives, drives them together; but their many unpleasant and repulsive qualities and insufferable drawbacks once more drive them apart. The mean distance which they finally discover, and which enables them to endure being together, is politeness and good manners. … By virtue thereof, it is true that the need for mutual warmth will be only imperfectly satisfied, but on the other hand, the prick of the quills will not be felt. Yet whoever has a great deal of internal warmth of his own will prefer to keep away from society in order to avoid giving or receiving trouble or annoyance.

Schopenhauer, it seems to me, likely had - poor chap - what today we'd call a personality disorder. He was sent away to live with a relative from the age of 9-11. His father's drowning (when Arthur was 17) was probably a suicide; his mental health had been increasingly poor. Arthur's relationship with his mother was famously bad, later on, and when he reached 30 they broke off all contact.

My Dear Son, I have always told you it is difficult to live with you. The more I get to know you, the more I feel this difficulty increase. I will not hide it from you: as long as you are what you are, I would rather bring any sacrifice than consent to be near you.
I do not undervalue your good points, and that which repels me does not lie in your heart; it is in your outer, not your inner being; in your ideas, your judgment, your habits ; in a word, there is nothing concerning the outer world in which we agree. Your ill-humor, your complaints of things inevitable, your sullen looks, the extraordinary opinions you utter, like oracles, none may presume to contradict; all this depresses me and troubles me, without helping you. Your eternal quibbles, your laments over the stupid world and human misery, give me bad nights and unpleasant dreams...
Your Dear Mother, etc., Johanna Schopenhauer

Poor prickly Arthur always struggled to make friends, and his work on the metaphysics of love reduces it to an unhappy reproductive instinct which unfortunately prolongs the misery of the human race. We see some of this in his fable too. In Luepnitz's hands it becomes something soothing for those committed to the idea of our life's meaning properly residing, at least in part, in one another. But in the original we have a miserable tale in which we've but 'a need for society'; 'empty and monotonous lives'; 'many unpleasant and repulsive qualities and insufferable drawbacks' (projection much?); a lack of 'internal warmth' (and if we did have this quality of internal warmth then we'd just keep own own company 'to avoid giving or receiving trouble or annoyance'). Rather than stay invested in albeit difficult genuine love - for that is simply impossible - we must, says Schopenhauer, be content with the formality of manners and politeness. Now I've no clever final words with which to wrap up this little post, but I do just want to emphasise how there's something pleasingly reparative going on in the repurposing of Schopenhauer's fable by Luepnitz. Through Freud, Schopenhauer had a significant impact on psychoanalysis. And as psychoanalysis developed its understanding of the value of the therapeutic relationship and its internalisation, it also increasingly distanced itself from Freud's own later therapeutic pessimism. And as the fable of the porcupines is retold within psychoanalysis it itself becomes part of a redeeming narrative in which we might even, y'know, sometimes seek the warmth of one another's company, or offer that warmth to another, for its own sake and, for a little time at least, put both prickles and politesse aside.


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