20 June 2016

Psychological Insights

—The burden of guilt

I would have to describe a great many unamorous experiences to explain why I left Hungary again, this time for good—and so soon after offering to die for her. It seems I loved my country as ardently as if she were a woman, and just as inconstantly.

As love is an emotional glimpse of eternity, one can't help half-believing that genuine love will last forever. When it would not, as in my case it never did, I couldn't escape a sense of guilt about my inability to feel true and lasting emotions. This shame was surpassed in intensity only by my doubts as to whether my lover had ever really loved me, when she was the one who ended the affair. In this I'm like most of my skeptical contemporaries: since we no longer reproach ourselves for failing to conform to absolute ethical precepts, we beat ourselves with the stick of psychological insight. When it comes to love, we reject the distinction between moral and immoral for the distinction between "genuine" and "superficial."

We're too understanding to condemn our actions; we condemn our motives instead. Having freed ourselves from a code of behavior, we submit to a code of motivation to achieve the sense of shame and anxiety that our elders acquired by less sophisticated means. We rejected their religious morality because it set man against his instincts, weighed him down with a burden of guilt for sins which were in fact the workings of natural laws. Yet we still atone for the creation: we think of ourselves as failures, rather than renounce our belief in the possibility of perfection. We hang onto the hope of eternal love by denying even its temporary validity. It's less painful to think "I'm shallow," "She's self-centered," "We couldn't communicate," "It was all just physical," than to accept the simple fact that love is a passing sensation, for reasons beyond our control and even beyond our personalities. But who can reassure himself with his own rationalizations? No argument can fill the void of a dead feeling—that reminder of the ultimate void, our final inconstancy. We're untrue even to life.

—Stephen Vizinczey, In Praise of Older Women

Painting: Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of a Woman in a Black Tie