January 2014

Nicholas Vajifdar


Even Unto the Fourth Generation: On "Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family: Permitted and Forbidden Stories" by Valeria Ugazio


The best scholars and scientists work without let-up to render their findings as precisely as possible, only to see their careful conclusions diluted first by journalists and then in the chatter of the people; their frustration is multiplied by how their ideas will exert their greatest influence in their most diluted form. One of these diluted ideas, in contemporary American chatter, is that Freud was wrong about nearly everything, and that neuroscience proved this. Nowadays most depictions of talk therapy focus on the comedy of its inefficacy or self-indulgence, while the phrase "they did a brain scan or something" can end almost any argument. Without a doubt, Freud deserves any criticism that can be intelligently made against him; on the other hand, something important in his thought has been forgotten, namely the sense of life as a personal drama set in motion by the nature of one's childhood and family.

When it comes to remembering this important truth, I can hardly think of a more exciting and enjoyable mnemonic device than On Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family: Permitted and Forbidden Stories by Valeria Ugazio, first published in Italy in 1998 and translated into English in 2013. The book is extremely rich with insight and shares the following quality with other great books: nearly every page contains a thought that could sustain an entire, lesser book. Nevertheless, the overarching argument can be stated concisely: that every person participates, unconsciously or not, in what Ugazio calls "semantic polarities"; that these polarities establish themselves through our families, especially family conversations about relatives that should or should not be emulated; and that, by paying attention to these semantics, we can make some sense of our psychological pain.

Ugazio trains her gaze on four disorders of the mind and the respective semantics in which they took root. "The central thesis of the book," she writes, "is that people with phobic, obsessive and depressive organizations and eating disorders have grown up and are still part of conversational (usually family) contexts where specific meanings predominate." Phobics have acquired a "semantics of freedom," in which their family heroes take risks and travel the globe with their heads held high, while others cower at home, unable even to advance their own concerns. The obsessive is associated with a "semantics of goodness" -- the pole here running between selfish hedonists and those who deny their will like nuns. Eating disorders occur within a semantics of power, in which the world and, more to the point, the family, is split between those who have control and those who lack it. And depressives participate in a semantics of belonging, oscillating between community and schism, wanting to go to the party and at the same time desperate to leave. This précis doesn't do justice to the subtlety of Ugazio's distinctions, which gain drama from her frequent narrative illustrations. Furthermore, it's unlikely that any introspective person reading these chapters could resist analyzing their own semantic situation or the situations of everyone else they know. The effect is of watching some long buried artifact getting expertly excavated, or of watching the guests at a costume party get unmasked one by one. For Ugazio, conversation, of all things, is the great, glowing foundry in which we come to terms with being born. Simply running your yap sends out ripples that strike all listeners deeper than they know, and this is especially true for children, the subspecies who (haven't you noticed?) most adults don't care to credit with the faculty of hearing.

The phrase "semantic polarities" could be profitably switched out for the drama of becoming, because this is what Ugazio describes. Everyone wants not only to acquire certain material or sensual benefits but also to become the sort of person who would acquire these benefits, and to be seen as this precise sort of person in the eyes of others. An apartment in a rich neighborhood, an enviable spouse, a job conferring high income and prestige -- all of these are in a sense only decoration, or the material manifestation of the metaphysical desideratum -- to become a "winner" in life. But why did that child grow up wanting to be a winner? People from a certain walk of life might assume that this aspiration is universal and those who deny it are just trying to rationalize their lifetime of loss. But this isn't accurate. The semantics of goodness, power, independence, and belonging suggest entirely different shapes to a desirable life. What's frightening is the essential arbitrariness of these goals. The mind furnishes rationalizations, sham syllogisms -- I have a knack for business, therefore it's the most reasonable course for me to start my own business -- when in fact these desires are usually suggested by stories heard long ago and now soaked into the unconscious.

These semantic distinctions may also make sense of debate, especially on the internet. When I hear certain words, holy to others, like "entitled" and "privileged," I feel nothing; they pass through me like neutrinos. On the other hand, words like "cruelty" and "magnanimity" move me powerfully; it's like I've heard "his master's voice" (my head tilting like the Victor dog's), although the substitution of "cruelty" for "privilege" might seem like only a cosmetic tweak. For Ugazio, such changes, on the contrary, strike very deep -- privilege being a child of the semantics of power and cruelty being a child of the semantics of goodness. The reason we have such trouble understanding each other is we've been cast in distinct dramas. Consider a passage that every investment banker knows by heart: the "always be closing" speech from the move version of Glengarry Glen Ross. Intended as nightmare invocation of life devoted to "winning," and to no other good, a semantics of power can transmute it effortlessly into something golden and inspiring.

As a prototype of her depressive personality she selects this passage from Kierkegaard's diary: "I have just now come from a gathering where I was the life of the party; witticisms flowed out of my mouth; everybody laughed, admired me -- but I left, yes, the dash ought to be as long as the radii of the earth's orbit... and wanted to shoot myself."

The cyclical pattern of wanting to belong and then becoming disgusted and withdrawing corresponds to the rise and fall of the depressive's mood. A family context in which some swim in the main stream while others are regarded as freaks will associate itself with the semantics of belonging, and often from there depression. It's at this point that Ugazio makes one of her boldest points, firing hard against the notion of "chemical imbalance" as the main cause of depression, as opposed to its main symptom.


If the book has an archenemy, it's what Ugazio calls "homo clausus," borrowing the term from Norbert Elias. This conception of the human soul as an impermeable object, sufficient unto itself, will remind many of Charles Taylor's "buffered self" from A Secular Age. This concept has a history, Ugazio convincingly argues, and its prevalence in society may explain the rise of certain mental illnesses. Homo clausus reminds me of the ending of Coriolanus: great, prideful, and undefeated (except when it came to pleasing others), Coriolanus stood ready to destroy his home city, Rome, until his mother begs him for the umpteenth time to give up his revenge and satisfaction. Finally, Coriolanus relents. It's an enigmatic moment. As often happens in Shakespeare's most compelling scenes, the motive is seemingly invisible. But the meaning of the play might be Ugazio's meaning: in the end, you can't kill your own mother, meaning all the things that make you up and you can't overpower the context in which you were born. Even the proudest man has to submit this truth at some point: he isn't his own maker.

Two sources supply most of Ugazio's examples: her patients' stories and the plots of old novels. Novels are useful because of their concern with inner emotional turmoil, set into motion often by the smallest of controversies. But I detect a deeper connection between the novel and Ugazio's semantics. The novel, as a form, elevated village gossip to the heights of epic; at least four novels often reckoned to be the greatest begin with nothing so lofty as an anecdote about a crazy neighbor. Don Quixote has Alonso Quixano; Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff; The Brothers Karamazov, the patriarch Fyodor; and even the title of Du côté de chez Swann literalizes how the embarkation point for the novel is often just walking by a neighbor's house and wondering why the hell he acts the way he does. (The story of Swann's love affair with Odette is of course conveyed to Marcel through the sort of family conversation that Ugazio makes her focus.) Perhaps the European-derived novel has enjoyed the popularity and admiration it has precisely because it focuses in its greatest examples on the drama of observing, in a family setting, those who have taken a wrong turn in life; the greatest novelists grasped intuitively the power of these stories, and now Ugazio has made it explicit. And this may explain to some extent the unpopularity of high modernism among readers who have no trouble with David Copperfield -- under modernism, family gossip seems exiled from the novel, the emphasis turning toward the surface effects of language rather than toward what the language means in a specific social and emotional context. The more solitary the characters are, the less they seem connected to the great taproot of life. As Ugazio argues again and again, this solitariness and self-sufficiency is a modern myth.

Ugazio emphasizes the importance of opposition in the creation of a personal semantics. One is always acting unconsciously versus someone, or in emulation of another, and so one of her first questions when a patient demonstrates an obsession with, for example, timidity is to ask "Who in your family is timid? Who is assertive?" The arid feeling of some modern fiction, in which the main character is a deracinated male confronting bald "existence," comes from its lack of this opposition -- even someone who lives alone, day in and day out, does this in opposition to all absent figures and in rebellion against old entanglements -- they color his solitude and give it form and substance. I write "his" because many of the myths of self-sufficiency that Ugazio rails against so thrillingly are believed by men, which is a very different thing from saying that all or most men believe in them.


"When she married, she soon realized the danger of ending up in the same position as her mother" -- in a sense, this is the key insight or pattern that all the characters in this book engage in. A life takes place in the shadow of previous lives and nervous jokes about becoming this or that parent conceal a serious obsession with being in some sense a duplicate of another soul. Nevertheless, the family memory seems to extend back at most to the great grandparents -- which stands in eerie parallel with the Biblical warning, in which Jehovah calls himself a jealous god who will visit the sins of the father even unto the third or fourth generation. Once again, the myth of autonomy becomes undermined, as we are forced to exist in a complex web of imitating and counter-imitating, stretching back sometimes a century or more.

Part of the book's appeal is its structure as a series of mysteries. Here, Ugazio is introduced to what appears to be, as Dostoevsky sarcastically titled the first chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, "a nice little family:"

"We get along very well together," says Lucia, "perhaps that's why we don't feel the need to be with others. And we are also independent."

"Boys don't interest us," Mara added more directly, ending with a wry smile, "we can do perfectly well without them."

These and other passages remind me of the early stages of an Agatha Christie novel, the pleasant surface concealing something that threatens to burst out violently.

The picture of the human condition that this book paints is a bleak one. Northern Italy, where Ugazio practices psychotherapy, is one of the most advanced societies on earth. Violence from war and crime has been severely curtailed; deadly disease among the young and middle-aged is in check; education is widespread and often quite affordable. Nevertheless, in the midst of this prosperity can be detected the hidden ruins of a million private hopes. Trying to become a certain sort of person, the individual is thwarted again and again, but, crucial to the survival of their dissatisfaction, the individual can't get rid of the aspiration -- it would be easier to lop off their own forefingers. Some aspirations are touchingly modest. I was struck by the sadness of this sentence: "Three years earlier he had graduated with distinction at Milan Fine Arts Academy and was due to move to Rome to become a set designer, but the development of his symptoms made this, and other plans, impossible." The size of the rebuke from life in comparison to the humility of the first few steps is extremely troubling to read and accept. Another searing pair of lines: "[H]e had been much admired for his sporting prowess in his youth. But no one was upset when he left." But Ugazio's book is clearly written out of compassion for this kind of private suffering, and she brings humanistic and scientific learning to bear where it should be brought to bear: to help individual people make sense of their lives. This book deserves a much greater reception than it's gotten. It belongs in the great tradition of works that join art, individual psychology, and social science, and ranks with A Secular Age, The Culture of Narcissism, and The Master and His Emissary in terms of writing that alters with a easy click your view of the whole landscape.