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Empathy // Numero Magazine

The Beast & The Other by Katja Eichinger
published in Numero Magazin, Spring Summer 22, Empathy issue

We are born as beasts. Cute ones, admittedly. But those tiny hands, button noses and that softest of skin merely distract from the fact that we start out in life as highly emotional, uncivilized creatures, helplessly dependent on others. And yet, even at our most primal, at a time when we’ve yet to acquire reference points and the powers to reflect, we assign meaning. We develop ideas of what it means to love and to be loved. No matter how beastly these concepts may be, they stay with us, often buried under all the emotional rubble we accumulate as adults.

The US-Palestinian cultural critic Edward Said described psychoanalysis as a process of psychic archeology. A way of uncovering the places within us which exist beyond the limits of rationality and social conventions. In his brilliant lecture “Freud and the Non-European” in 2000 at the Freud Museum in London, he talked about the idea of the counterpoint, a concept from musical theory, as a way to integrate all the different elements of our identities. It’s a lecture about how to live with the plurality within and without. Plurality within oneself and within other people. At a time when large segments of Western societies seem like they’re living in a parallel Harry-Potter-on-meth universe and when Western democracy is experiencing a clear and present danger from the far right and the extreme populists, this seems incredibly relevant.
The concept of the counterpoint, as executed to perfection in the music of JS Bach, refers to how multiple melodies can be independent and yet form a harmonic whole. Voices intertwine, clash and battle, only to find themselves coming back together again. The counterpoint is a technique which can contain tension and dissonance and also provide sweetness and release. Bach’s sacral music is all about transcending the pain and limits of earthly existence while the music he wrote for aristocratic courts is the audio equivalent of a champagne orgy. Whether it’s boredom or despair, Bach’s counterpoint will get you to the other side.

Democratic societies need counterpoint. Indeed, they cannot exist without it. Democracy is the continuous struggle to create harmony out of a multitude of melodies. Our constitutions are our baselines. Our laws set the range for how far the various voices can go.

The plurality of the counterpoint seems obvious – it’s what we pride ourselves in when we compare our democratic societies to autocratic states or dictatorships. And yet, even before the pandemic, we had been finding it increasingly difficult to accommodate other voices along with our own melodies. There’s Us and then there’s The Other, and it feels like only one of the two are allowed to survive. The attention economy of social media, which fosters the drama of the extreme, has promoted an environment where we are increasingly retreating to binary oppositions – woke vs. populist, science vs. esoteric, progressive vs. far right. All of this against the steady growth of class divisions and the gap between rich and poor. Rather than allowing complexity and dissonance, we prefer to bang our drums as loud as we can, to drown out other voices. That’s not music – that’s noise.

In the simplicity of the one-track-environment, we feel supported and understood. It’s the safe haven from the cacophony of the outside world. A retreat from the threatening Other. It seems like we’re all yearning for a place where we can be beasts again. Craving a return to our earliest experience of love. To the kind of love we felt as babies when we melted into the arms of our primary caregivers (often our mothers). When we couldn’t tell the difference between their bodies and ours. When we were one with them. That warm, fuzzy feeling, when there is no separation, no threat, no conflict. When all that is solid melts into milk.

When our little milk parties are disrupted, we react with anger and wrath. Any form of conditionality or relativizing turns us into angry tyrants. We scream and howl, become insufferable, lose ourselves in outrage or righteousness when that someone distinguishes themselves from us and becomes an Other. When that Other is no longer wholly aligned with our values and beliefs.

Indeed, how can we not explode when someone insists on spouting some blatantly ludicrous conspiracy theory which exacerbates racism or sexism? I go into panic-meets-fury hyperdrive when I see anti-vaxxers wearing Star of David placards. It’s not just that they are fashioning themselves as victims of a totalitarian state, they are essentially denying the horrors of the Holocaust. That’s not something I can accept. These are not people I can play with. And yet, what if one of them is a sibling, a parent, a neighbor, a colleague, a friend? Someone we love. What we you do then? Is this the end of music? The end of empathy?

Fascism can be defined as the inability to accept that identities can be complex and even contradictory. Anybody who’s migrated, anybody who’s moved social or cultural class is only too aware: Who we are doesn’t make sense. To be human is to be implausible. Our identities are complicated; conflicting versions of ourselves are always at work: Who we are, who we’d like to be, who we think we should be, who we think others think we are, who we fear we might be… all of these ambiguities are whirling around the unconscious spaces that were formed when we were still cute little beasts.
Fascism works on the premise of eliminating all these ambiguities. It creates homogenous identities that have no room for conflict. The obvious example being Nazi Germany, where you couldn’t be German and Jewish at the same time. Any form of complexity is shouted down, eliminated or – in the language of today’s wellness industry – cleansed and detoxified.

I’m referring to the wellness industry here, because it’s not just the Chick-fil-A-eating, gun-slinging, Fox News-watching, Daily Mail-reading parts of society which have problems accepting complex identities. The industrial yoga-complex – of which I consider myself a participant – with all its talk of love, oneness and mindfulness, is having a hard time living what it preaches. When my idea of love is that there can only be one great sentimental melody and that all “negative energies” (whatever the fuck that may be; really, the word “energy” should be reserved for conversations on physics) are to be purged, the Other can be difficult to integrate. Not just in regards to other people, but also in regards to the parts within me that I don’t particularly like or that I’m ashamed of. The parts within me that don’t make any sense.

It’s hard. Indeed, it often feels impossible to accept the unacceptable. And yet, if we’re ever to get out of our current mess, we’ll have to move beyond our current binary cacophony toward a new counterpoint. In psychoanalysis, it’s the Oedipal stage during which the child learns to integrate new voices and widen its concept of love. When a third person or third element – for example, a father figure – enters the love bubble between child and primary caregiver, the child may feel threatened. Love ceases to be a one-on-one dynamic which offers safety in fusion. Instead, it turns into a complicated triangle. This may cause the child to be angry and reject this third other. Yet, the child has to learn to integrate the other in its mental space, accept an additional melody, see the world from their point of view, empathize. In other words, develop a concept of love beyond that of total fusion. Because that’s how we learn to accept and appreciate not only others, but also The Other within ourselves.

It seems that as a society, we might have to get over our collective Oedipal complex. To let go of our regressive fantasies of love as fusion. Let go of the idea that as individuals we need to be faultless, unfailing and coherent. And that any misstep shall be met with the wrath of Twitter. Let go of the idea that somewhere, there’s a pure version of myself which I’ll reach if I only do enough sun salutations. Instead of engaging in omnipotent fantasies of purging, cleansing or eliminating unwanted elements within myself, it might be more helpful to develop empathy for The Other within me and within others. Empathy is crucial if we want to put an end to “othering.”

To have empathy does not mean to disregard our constitutions and democratic principles or indeed tolerate anybody who does so. The rule of law is still stronger than all the noise on social media. And yes, Holocaust denial is illegal. So I live in hope that those Star of David placards will be deemed unlawful. In the meantime, I’ll have to push myself to find better arguments and continue the dialogue about Germany’s past so we can learn from it. Engage even though I really don’t want to. Accept that this is a moment of extreme dissonance, but that my inner beast must learn to sing along to new, incredibly complex harmonies.