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480. Pushing upward (IX)

Why is it that parents and children often feel a certain ambivalence towards each other, whereas grandparents and grandchildren form a natural bond—almost a conspiracy against the parents? Let us consider an existential explanation—an explanation that is connected, in part, to the “narcissism of minor differences.”

When I was eight or so, my father brought a videocamera home from work—the bulky, VHS kind. At first, I was very excited. I waited all week for the day it would “come home” for a while, before it was used elsewhere—it was a chance to play film director. Sure enough, I made a video; and I was almost giddy with excitement at the thought I had made a little film. What would it be like? I put the cassette in the VCR and pressed “Play”—and I was appalled, I watched for a few seconds and then hit “Stop”. It was the same effect, as you know, as an audio cassette or audio recording. To hear your own voice—no matter how pleasant—somehow makes you wince, it makes you intensely uncomfortable. We can just about stand to look in a mirror, we always did that in pools and ponds; yet to hear and see yourself completely from the outside is rebarbative.

As much as we mock the primitives who do not want to be photographed, there is certainly something odd about being represented back to ourselves—something diabolical; and I am not sure even actors really enjoy it—many do not even watch their own films. From an existential perspective, the reason why we dislike our own appearance is because it destroys our freedom. Inside, so to speak, we feel there are a great many possibilities; our consciousness and our thoughts are disembodied—there is a sensation we could “go” anywhere; we know we have a body, yet we are at a slight remove from it. This is what existentialists mean by freedom; the inner sensation that there is a possibility for movement in any direction—as if we have a large sky inside us.

What a video does is to fix everything; suddenly, what “you” are is represented back to yourself objectively. What this destroys is the internal freedom that you identify with “yourself”; inside, your consciousness feels open in its possibilities; and thoughts and emotions seem to soar and float about. Other people, the people you watch, are fixed and objective; they can surprise you still, but generally you know what to expect from them—you do not know what to expect from yourself so well, you seem to contain a great many possibilities.

The video shows you what you are as objectively as you see other people, and this causes a sudden disjunction between the internal freedom you experience and the shock that comes from seeing yourself as others see you—as a body with a particular voice, disposition, bodily tics, and so on. Suddenly, you see what you are, not your possibilities—and this is oppressive because it feels as if your possibilities have been fixed and fully objectified. “Oh, I’m that sort of person,” says the mind, and yet we are not configured to live that objectively; we are configured to live with possibilities, not as a fixed type.

Parents become ambivalent about their children—and vice versa—because both have too much of the other in them. The parent looks at their child and it is like watching a video of themselves, “That’s me, that’s my voice—that’s that hand gesture I do all the time.” The effect is uncanny and alienating; of course, it is not so bad as the one-to-one representation on the video—yet it is bad enough. Grandparents and grandchildren, being just that bit more dissimilar yet still blood related, do not have to contend with the uncanny. To be with your parents—and vice versa—always feels oppressive because, existentially, to see yourself objectified reduces your freedom; parents and children objectify each other.


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