April 30th, 2011

In response to Michael’s call, I’ll do my patriotic duty, stiffen the upper lip, summon up the blood, and offer¬† RBC readers some fact-free speculation about yesterday’s Royal Wedding.

My text is Philip Larkin’s famous poem:

They f*ck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

That’s William’s childhood for you. So why is he apparently pretty normal? How has he chosen and been chosen by such a solid, balanced and nice girl as Ms. Middleton? (That’s a fact. She has been with William for ten years, and navigated with total assurance between the dysfunctional royal family and the slavering hacks of the British tabloid press. She has the Right Stuff.)

There’s a puzzle in the Larkin/Freud theory, brought out in a later couplet:

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Adam and Eve messed up Cain; what chance did Enoch have? Five generations later, and Lamech is saying (Genesis 4:24, KJV):

If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.

So how come are we still here?

Modernize the paradox to Ug and Lucy 100,000 years ago in Africa, and it doesn’t go away. Augustine solves progressive deterioration by the double revelations of the Old and New Covenants. Aescyhlus gets Orestes out sane and free from under two psychopathic parents by the invention of Athenian criminal justice (with Athene’s divine thumb on its scales). Sigmund Freud proposes karmic freedom through costly and trademarked analysis. Apart from the little problem that analysis does not in fact work, the theory does not explain how humanity can have reached 1900 before neurotically autodestructing. (All right, it came very close in Freud’s century.)

William and Kate’s marriage suggests more prosaic explanations: regression to the mean and homeostasis. Parents tend to have more average children than themselves on any genetic dimension. Culture also tends to iron out anomalies: royal children may have strange parents, but these hire robustly normal nannies. And the mind, like the body, also has powers of self-healing (see Luria and Sacks).

Given half a chance, the psychic boat tries to right itself.¬† One of the main ways it does so is through the choice of mate. Like cats and apes eating herbs when they are sick, we humans seek partners who will help us recover from the injuries we have suffered in our lives – from incompetent parents if we are unlucky. It looks as if William has done exactly that. God bless ‘em both.

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16 Responses to “The royal wedding as refutation of the Larkin/Freud hypothesis”

  1. Dan Staley says:

    Good post. Thank you.

    So how come are we still here? … prosaic explanations: regression to the mean and homeostasis. Parents tend to have more average children than themselves on any genetic dimension. Culture also tends to iron out anomalies … Given half a chance, the psychic boat tries to right itself. One of the main ways it does so is through the choice of mate. … we humans seek partners who will help us recover from the injuries we have suffered in our lives

    Many years ago now I shared a house with an 8th-grade teacher. He was always emotionally down around parent-teacher conference time. During this time he’d invariably come home and say: “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, yet still try his best to break the mold and make some good kids.

    I trust he’s still trying to help kids break free and be productive, non-screwed up adults, as are hundreds of thousands of other teachers. Which is the best reason we should break their liberal cartel and loose the kiddos to the market. [/snark]

  2. James Wimberley says:

    Dan: you’re quire right that education is a very big part of the culture side. I guess that there’a a lot of self-righting help-seeking there too: kids often latch on to good adults if they are around. Dad’s a compulsive gambler and Mum is always at the pub, so spend time with Aunt Trixie or Mr. Chips.

  3. bdbd says:

    She does seem like a nice young woman (from the vast distance I infrequently view her) and I wish them the best of luck, along with everyone else who takes the leap into coupleness.

  4. Swift Loris says:

    They fill you with the faults they had

    And maybe some of their virtues, too. By all accounts I’ve ever read, whatever huge faults Diana had, she was a terrific mother, determined in particular to bring up her sons as “normal,” self-aware people rather than privileged narcissistic royalty.

    And Charles, whatever his huge faults, has been very open about his own miserable childhood and reportedly gave his sons significantly more time and attention than he ever got, at least until his marriage to Diana began to deteriorate (at which point–perhaps understandably–he began going off on his own for extended periods).

    Both parents were dysfunctional in their intimate relationships with other adults, but it appears that they gave their kids enough love and support to make them feel more secure as individuals than Charles and Diana ever did themselves. I’d be astonished if William and Harry ever made the kind of complaints about their childhood that Charles has, or if they think of their parents as having been “incompetent” where their upbringing was concerned.

    The “mystery” posed by Larkin’s little ditty seems insoluble only if you take it as an absolute, which it clearly is not.

  5. NCG says:

    This is one of the good things about our media culture — at least now, people can look around and see that other people seem happy, and try to find out why. This probably happened somewhat in all size villages and such, but before, people used to not put their business in the street the way people do now. So perhaps the contrasts weren’t as apparent.

    As for education, we could use more of it. Early education. Parent education. Home visits by nurses and lactation specialists. The whole she-bang. It would pay off, and it would create jobs. Why we don’t do these things I don’t know.

    My favorite metaphor for procreation is a Ponzi scheme, btw. We get old, we get depressed, we think life has no meaning, then we have these cute little babies who distract us and make us happy (I don’t believe those surveys that say otherwise, that’s just the sleep deprivation talking…), even though they are a ton of work. We trick them into existence to make ourselves feel better. They grow up and do the same.

  6. NCG says:

    Oh and also by the way, therapy *can* work. I don’t know all the varieties, but I know from my own experiences that it can be extremely helpful. Just don’t go to those ones that just sit there and don’t say anything. Shop around!

  7. James Wimberley says:

    Princess Diana apparently tried hard as a mother in spite of her screwed-up marriage, enmity of her royal in-laws, limited intelligence and education, and unstable and narcissistic personality (going by the famous TV interview). The perfect mother stuff is very hard to believe. My argument does not depend on her and Prince Charles being monsters, which they were not. Real monsters can and do wreck the lives of their children beyond human repair. Fortunately they are rare.

  8. James Wimberley says:

    NCG: my claim is merely that psychoanalysis doesn’t work as as advertised as a cure for major mental pathologies like phobias, rages or depression. Therapy works to alleviate unhappiness and increase self-understanding, sure. So do friendship and religion. If the tool you have is analysis, every problem looks like a neurosis.

  9. Bruce Wilder says:

    In defense of Freud, I’d remind all that his overall thesis was not that humans make lousy parents and therefore screw up the emotional lives of their children, but that civilization requires the suppression, containment, rationalization and denial of irrational instinct. We live in the virtual reality of civilization created through social construction and by institutions; “normal” is just well-compensated adjustment to playing games in that virtual reality as a means of satisfying organic and instinctual, animal needs. The power and productivity of vast networks of peaceful social cooperation create civilization’s material comforts, but the effort to maintain the peace against instinctual impulses, treachery, savagery and cruelty, through religion, philosophy, law, economics, clinical psychology, and a politics of endless argument and hortation, frequently falls short, along the frayed edges and in the dark cellars. The ease of life, and the expanding scope of personal power, which accompanies successful political and economic organization on an increasing scale, actually increases the challenge: the madman has enormous potential power to harm others in our fragile, interdependent world, and there are a lot of people three standard deviations from normal in a world with six or seven billion people.

    The successful separation of functional power from ritual action has a long history, which arguably began with the Greek invention of the Olympians. The Merovingian Kings had their Mayors of the Palace and the Japanese Emperors, their Shogun, but the British model of constitutional monarchy, in which the Royal Family are supposed to eschew the privileged and decadent self-indulgence, as well as political power, of the enormously wealthy, goes well beyond the sovereignty of Parliament. The Royals, as exemplars of family life, which began with George III, whose prosaic interests in agriculture and happy marriage conferred political advantages, took full form with the good and bad example set by George IV, and his operatically troubled relations with his mad father and his angry wife. The instruction in style and manners, and the tension between tragic soap opera and fairy tale, began there.

    The Royals no longer govern. But, their participation in ritual and fishbowl celebrity still plays a part in our collective struggle to govern ourselves. They are the longest running reality show.

  10. Bernard Yomtov says:

    I think there may be some confusion here between psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, whuch has many forms. AFAIK, both James’ claim about analysi and NCG’s about therapy are correct.

    As for parents, well, there are no perfect ones. Some are better than others and a few are monsters.

  11. NCG says:

    James Wimberley: sounds like I misunderstood you. (Thanks to Bernard Yomtov too for the clarification.) I thought you meant all forms of therapy. I found cognitive behavioral therapy extremely helpful for panic attacks that I had after a car accident. The CBT and a lot of time fixed almost all of it. Phobias are more common than I would have thought. Once people find out you have or had one, they start to volunteer. Car ones in particular are common, which in retrospect should not have surprised me.

    I do agree it might not work for the most serious depressions, but I think it could help the more medium ones. In fact, if I didn’t already have a pile of student loans, I might want to become a therapist. (Not sure if I’d be good at it or not.) I found it so helpful, and I already had religion and friends. I think therapy is the *bombitty.*

    And I wouldn’t want people to give up just because the first person they went to didn’t help, or to be too embarrassed to try it.

    As for a more analytic process, that might be fun. Can’t afford it though. But all I know about that is from Woody Allen.

  12. Robert Hagedorn says:

    Ever wonder what Adam and Eve actually did? Do a search: The First Scandal.

  13. calling all toasters says:

    James: I don’t know who is “advertising” psychoanalysis these days, but there is a vast literature supporting its efficacy for mental disorders such as, oh, say, depression. I doubt anyone is recommending it for phobias, which is well-handled by behavioral techniques, and very few recommend it for the most severe mental disorders, such as schizophrenia. But for lots and lots of serious problems it has a track record of working very well.

  14. Swift Loris says:

    James, there are no “perfect mothers.” My phrase was “terrific mother,” and I’m reporting what any number of people have said who actually observed Diana’s mothering. She had a limited education, but she surely was of at least average intelligence, as are most mothers. It doesn’t take a genius-level IQ and a fancy academic degree, thank goodness, to raise psychologically healthy children.

    I know it’s fashionable to hold Diana in low esteem these days; it seems to be a sort of pushback against the excessive worship she received while she was alive and just after her death. But the fact is she had some outstandingly good qualities, and it’s too bad those seem to have been forgotten in our righteous horror at her TV interview and other unfortunate escapades. Her charity work was tireless, especially for AIDS and land mines, and in some cases concealed from the media at her insistence. She was known for her great warmth, generosity, and ability to empathize. Obviously she had trouble exercising those qualities with people she believed were doing her wrong, but there’s no reason to think she didn’t lavish them on her sons.

    Bottom line, I think the princes’ evident robust normalcy is much more likely due to Diana’s and Charles’s parenting than in spite of it.

  15. Brett Bellmore says:

    Why are we still here? I prefer the simplest explanation: Maybe because Larkin was wrong?

  16. James Wimberley says:

    Brett: you agree with something I wrote! Now that’s an occasion.

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