On Being Misunderstood


The Labors of Hercules

Part I: “Proteus” in Ulysses.

In James Joyce’s “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” Stephen Dedalis had been almost exclusively cerebral. Chapter three of James Joyce’s subsequent work, “Ulysses,” is entitled “Proteus,” a reference to the sea god who could achieve different shapes at will. The episode begins with a paragraph that introduces the reader to the challenges facing Stephen Dedalis in turning his gaze to the external world:

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signature of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawarack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But then he adds: in bodies….”

In other words, when turning to a focus upon the external world, Stephen is faced with the “ineluctable modality of the visible,” the need to wrestle with, struggle beyond the simply perceptual mode of sensing the visible. How does one get behond the thingness of things, the way they look and occupy space? How, at the same time, can one face the need to wrestle with the limits of the intangible.

Joyce anwers this by engaging the reader in the Protean nature of thought, where items and events are many things at once: their past, their present, their meanings in another’s mind. Stephen’s ‘pure’ stream of consciousness in this chapter, as his thoughts twist and mutate in response to the outside world, also reveals an undertone of physical suffering, with recurring themes of mortality, decay, death and dying.

Part II. The Labors of Hercules.

Thoughts about Proteus also relate to one of the mythological Labors of Hercules, which was to wrestle with Proteus, the monster sea god who kept changing shapes from serpent to lion to bear. Hercules managed to hang on and hold onto Proteus despite the transformations.

The attempt to think and write about feeling misunderstood is faced with a similar predicament: one must hang on despite the anxiety over metamorpheses. Attempting to grasp the feeling of being misunderstood, the shame of being seen by others as a person one does not feel oneself to be, is very much like wrestling with Proteus: it keeps changing shapes.

Part III. The “Padded Cell.”

The feeling of being misunderstood leads to feelings of agony, along with wishes to express anger and rage. One defense in the face of all this is to, metaphorically, put oneself in a fantasied “padded cell” where it would be safe to unleash the agony and anger from within. The “padded cell,” in response to feeling misunderstood, also serves as a fantasy of being alone, unexposed to the gaze of others, protected against the shame of feeling misunderstood.

Thus, we might provisionally define the experience of feeling misunderstood, and its associated feelings of shame, as a strong sense of discomfort, a discrepancy between the way one imagines one is and the way one feels or imagines one is being seen; it is a discrepancy between the way one wants to be and the way one fears one is, together with the exhausting efforts to control the one way one appears.

Part IV. Fantasies of Invisibility.

The shame of feeling misunderstood can also drive the fantasy of invisibility. Being invisible functions to avoid conflict, hiding the wish to look or the very fact of looking or the pain of being seen as one does not want to be.

There may be a sense of freedom in fantasies of invisibility, but at the same time this engenders great anxiety about being overlooked, perpetuating a vicious cycle of feeling or being misunderstood. This situation is represented by Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” (1947). The protagonist slowly comes to realize that invisibility still requires the active participation of the one not seen.

However, lacking a solid inner stabilizer, the “invisible man” comes to confound his values of good and evil, honesty and dishonesty, which depend upon who happens to be looking through him at any particular moment. When he tells the truth, he doubts himself and is hated, but when he tries to give others the the incorrect, absurd responses that they want to hear, he is loved. When he presents himself as others want to see him, they receive a feeling of relief and security about and with him.

But the price is high, because in order to please others, to tell them what they want to hear, he ends up feeling like his “tounge [is hanging out and wagging] like the door of an empty house in a high wind” (Ellison, p. 573)

Part V. Oedipus on Being Misunderstood.

In response to the painful shame of feeling misunderstood, of appearing to be one who does not really know about what one says or does: “HENCE THEREFORE BE DARK!” Oedipus declared as he blinded himself for having descended to a state wherein he could not see what he realized he should have been able to see. Oedipus attempted to control the way he was seen by the people of Tebes and, in doing so, engineered his own downful.

What Does It Mean To Be Human?

Quentin Crisp: Portrait

Again, I return to thoughts of Quentin Crisp and how, in his own highly eccentric manner, his life seemed to symbolize and attempt to promote a perspective (however paradoxical) of individuality, self acceptance and tolerance. Along this line, he once stated, “I have always lived my life in the profession of being.”

Many years ago Quentin wrote a short autobiographic note of his life, entitled “What Does It Mean to be Human?” The following is the text of that autobiographic summary:

When thinking about what it meant to be human, I was very sorry that I was not a scholar and had no philosophical point of view to express. More than not being a scholar, I am not really a human being. I do not mind spending long hours alone, and I never find something to do. This is part of my nature.

My sister reminded me before she died that she and my mother sat on each side of the fireplace and occupied themselves with darning socks, and knitting, and writing letters on their laps. I lay as a child on the rug between them, and once an hour one of them said, “Why don’t you get something to do?” And I said, “Why should I?” That is a question I cannot answer. Why should I have something to do?

Of course, there is the theory that time is money. It is an American theory: I am not earning money while I am doing nothing. Which is sad. But if I were rich, I would never do anything. I was asked by a paper, “If you suddenly had a million dollars, what would you do?” And I said, “Go to bed, and never get up again!” This was a great disappointment to the people who asked me the question. But idleness is my only occupation, and people are my only hobby.

If I regard what I think is human, and perhaps I was asked precisely because I am not a human being and, therefore, have a detached view of the subject, I would say it was a preoccupation with the idea of death. The reason why people do not live alone and do not spend hours doing nothing is because they can hear time ticking by. Then they develop hobbies, which drive them mad. You may ask them, “Why do you do this?” They ultimately say, “Well, it helps kill time.”

I don’t want my time dead. Time is meant to be lived!Those who are not hopeless are worried that one day their lives will end. And, if you live long enough, of course, you long for it to end. That’s been my desire in recent times. I only hope to become extinct. But before all that, you must try everything. Have children. Behave in such a way that monuments are built to you. Rule the world! Have streets and theaters named after you. Write your autobiography. These are ways to staying alive, and this seems to be a preoccupation with being human.

When I was younger and was not ill, I didn’t mind how long I lived. Now that every step of my life is painful, I long for death. If being human has any other special aspect it is that in every human being there are two people. One who sits in judgment on the other. The worldly, the doing person, acts irresponsibly, or nobly, or wisely, or foolishly, according to the mood or the situation. But inside him, further away, is an abstract spiritual being who never changes and who sits in judgment on him.

This situation becomes evident when we hear people say, “I was ashamed of myself.” Who is ashamed of whom? It is this duality between the active living organism and the contemplative inner-self that sits in judgment that constitutes the whole human being. This is, I think, what constitutes a human being.

Quentin Crisp

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