Saturday, August 12, 2006

Judging Judy

I’ve never met Judy, but it seems that Bertrand Russell had her pegged way back in 1930:

When I speak of ‘the sinner’, I do not mean the man who commits sins; sins are committed by everyone or no one, according to our definition of the word. I mean the man who is absorbed in the consciousness of sin. This man is perpetually incurring his own disapproval, which, if he is religious he interprets as the disapproval of God. He has an image of himself as he thinks he ought to be,
which is in continual conflict with his knowledge of himself as he is. If, in
his conscious thought, he has long since discarded the maxims that he was taught
at his mother’s knee, his sense of sin may be buried deep in his unconscious,
and only emerge when he is drunk or asleep. Nevertheless, it may suffice to take
the savour out of everything. At bottom he still accepts all the prohibitions he
was taught in infancy. Swearing is wicked; drinking is wicked; ordinary business
shrewdness is wicked; above all, sex is wicked… The one pleasure that he
desires with his whole soul is that of being approvingly caressed by his mother
[father], which he can remember having experienced in childhood. This pleasure
being no longer open to him, he feels that nothing matters: since he must sin,
he decides to sin deeply.
That’s from the Unwin Books reprint (1961) of Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness. Whoever annotated the book thought the emphasized sections of that excerpt described Judy pretty well – except for that bit about Judy’s mother fixation, which was corrected, in pencil, by the annotator.

Obviously, Russell didn’t have Judy when he was writing Chapter II "Byronic Unhappiness" but the annotator recognized another of Judy’s boring habits in the first page of the chapter:

I am persuaded that those who quite sincerely attribute their sorrows to their views about the universe are putting the cart before the horse: the truth is that they are unhappy for some reason of which they are not aware, and this
unhappiness leads them to dwell upon the less agreeable characteristics of the
world in which they live.

Suitably rephrased, I bet that sentiment was just the thing to stop Judy in her tracks when she started banging on about the absurdity of human existence, The Myth of Sisyphus and all the rest of that existentialist crap.

If Judy was swearing, drinking, dealing and fornicating her way through the sixties, she was probably a war baby. Which explains why I never met her at any parties when I got around to doing a bit of swearing, drinking and fornicating on my own account the following decade.

But bad language, drinking and the rest, do not a happy Judy make, particularly if they’re driven by her neurotic desire to "sin", as Russell and our annotator confirm in the last chapter of the book:

The man who suffers from a sense of sin is suffering from a particular kind of self-love. In all this vast universe the thing that appears to him of most
importance is that he himself should be virtuous. It is a grave defect in
certain forms of traditional religion that they have encouraged this particular
kind of self-absorption

Now that we know the cause of Judy’s unhappiness, there’s time for one last reflection on how Judy’s traditional religion has affected her relations with other people:

To be the recipient of affection is a potent cause of happiness, but the man who demands affection is not the man upon whom it is bestowed. The man who receives affection is, broadly speaking, the man who gives it. But it is useless to give it as a calculation in the way in which one might lend money at interest …

Poor Judy – continually trading off sex for professions of affection. If only she’d read the book for herself, she might have found the way to a more genuine and abiding sense of happiness:

Happiness is of two sorts, though, of course, there are intermediate
degrees. … [they] might be distingushed as plain and fancy, or animal and
spiritual, or of the heart and head … The happiness of my gardener is of
[the first sort]; he wages a perennial war against rabbits, of which he
speaks exactly as Scotland Yard speaks of Bolsheviks; he considers them
dark, designing and ferocious, and is of the opinion that they can only be
met by a cunning equal to their own. Like the heroes of Valhalla who spent
every day hunting a certain wild boar, which they killed every evening but
which miraculously came to life again the next morning, my gardener can slay
his enemy one day without any fear that the enemy will have disappeared the
next day. …the fount of joy is inexhaustible and it is ‘they rabbits’ that
supply it.

But, you will say, these simple delights are not open to superior people
like ourselves. [Now, isn’t that just typically Judy?] What joy can we experience in
waging war on such puny creatures as rabbits? The argument, to my mind, is a
poor one. A rabbit is very much larger than a yellow-fever bacillus, and yet a
superior person can find happiness in making war on the latter…

Maybe that’s how Judy finally achieved happiness – perhaps now she looks back on her youth as a successful personal war on sexual frustration. Who knows? Only Judy and a few blokes with fond memories of this night when they met a chick who’d had a few too many.

(Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo)

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