THE BELIEVER was first published in April 2003. The literary magazine was created by Dave Eggers of McSweeney’s Publishing in San Francisco, and friends who planned to “focus on writers and books we like,” with a nod to “the concept of the inherent Good.” Its editors are the novelists Vendela Vida and Heidi Julavits, and editor Ed Park, who also edits for The Village Voice. Sheila Heti and Ross Simonini are the magazine’s interviews editors.
Mr Siegel and I have been been continuing a conversation over several years about his ideas. I will be posting some excerpts from our conversations about Commitment over the next few weeks (March 2012). The photographs shown here are by Ryan McGinley. - Sheila Heti, The Believer Logger
In 3 Parts:
Commitment, Self Destruction and Bad Communication
BELIEVER: How do you enter into romantic or sexual relationships?
STANLEY SIEGEL: I like to enter into a relationship thinking about it as an exquisite union for an exquisite moment in time, and for me the goal is — rather than to work things through over a long period of time — to know when things should end. When we stop serving each other and some form of deformity enters, those are times that I want to think about doing things in an opposite way.
BLVR: But isn’t there something to be said for growing through periods of discord, pain, when things aren’t working, and then you stay with the person, and things transform together, and you come to a different place?
SS: It’s an interesting idea, and it’s the conventional idea, and we’re taught to value that. Even in the discipline of psychology, that’s considered healthy and normal. I’m not talking about not going through suffering; I think that’s part of the process of giving. We can suffer, and in the process of that suffering, be exactly as loving and generous as we think we should be. It’s when we stop that—that’s when I think we should listen to ourselves and not abide by convention would suggest of us.
BLVR: Culture seems to be moving more in that direction. The idea that you will have a mate for your whole life—fewer and fewer people have that experience. So that doesn’t reflect reality anymore, but that still reflects our aspirations. Is there anything good about that aspiration, do you think?
SS: Uh, no. [laughs] I don’t think it’s a better aspiration than the aspiration of having wonderful, extraordinary relationships that have their moment and end. I think that’s just as valuable an aspiration. What if you’re a person who has extraordinary intensity and also intuition about things?
I think the idea of thinking about things as permanent and long-term has created so much trouble; put so many demands and pressures on people, that for me, it makes the idea of it being an aspiration impossible. It’s curious that we in Western cultures—and many cultures—favour the idea of working it through with someone, rather than working it through alone.
BLVR: So if we’re paying attention to our intuition, we should end a relationship when we can no longer access the parts of ourselves that are the most profound?
SS: That’s exactly right; when you have the feeling that you’re no longer being the best person you can be.
BLVR: So what would be the most honourable and loving type of commitment to make to somebody, in light of the idea that you might leave them if the relationship no longer feels good?
SS: I think what we can commit to is honesty, trueintimacy, trust, kindness, generosity. I think it’s better to commit to qualities of who we are and who we want to be, and offer that, than to commit to the idea of being with someone forever. When you stop living those qualities you value, for whatever reasons, that’s when you have to really stop and think, Why am I not being that way? And then to try to be it again. And then again.
THE BELIEVER: Is it a good starting point for people to believe in themselves as fundamentally good and able to take care of themselves?
STANLEY SIEGEL: Yes. I trust that what the body does with its immune system—which is to heal itself—I trust that mentally and emotionally, we have the same capacity and thrust towards healing ourselves. Sadly, I think so much of what we, culturally, think of as a pathology or evil or as immoral, is a manifestation of that healing effort.
BLVR: So do you not believe that people can be self-destructive?
SS: That’s a really interesting question. If I really strip away everything that I’ve ever been taught, I think that I have to trust and believe that it’s how we are forced tothink about something which leads us to self-destructive behaviours. I think when we allow for a true desire, it takes the natural healing process and it doesn’t become extreme. But if we’re told we shouldn’t do something, and we can’t, and that we’re bad or sick or evil or immoral, I think we internalize that punishment and we self-punish, which then leads to the self-destructive behaviour.
I know that there are people who have sexual fantasies about hurting themselves in some way, but I would want someone to look at how they eroticise that feeling of hurting themselves, and honour that instead of reject that. I would ask them to think more deeply about what the purpose of the hurting is; what it’s trying to do. Have they eroticised a tremendous sense of powerlessness, helplessness? Have they eroticised shame? Where does it come from? What does it mean? To think about it as an attempt to heal something deeper, rather than seeing it as being masochistic.
BLVR: Do you feel there’s a connection between how one lives and one’s sexual fantasies? For instance, if one has masochistic fantasies, then maybe they’re making also masochistic choices in their lives?
SS: First of all, I wouldn’t use that word, which is probably one difference between most psychoanalysts and myself. If you see a fantasy as being a solution, then you can’t see it as masochistic.
BLVR: Cause “masochistic” means you’re not actually helping yourself?
SS: Right. And certainly there are people who find pleasure in not helping themselves, but it’s paradoxical. Because we form our sexuality in such an isolated way, and a compartmentalized way, our fantasies can exist in that way, too – in a compartment. When you open that door, and you examine the meaning of the fantasy, and the purpose of the fantasy, then what wascompartmentalized is connected to a whole history, and it tells you about what it is you’re trying to solve.
BLVR: So let’s say somebody has a fantasy of being bound and gagged. And you find out that in their childhood theyfelt bound and gagged. They couldn’t say what they really meant, and they could never express themselves. What would it mean to solve that?
SS: Right. So instead of necessarily going back into your history in a deep process of psychoanalysis, you can usethe fantasy; you can use those feelings of being bound and gagged, and you can find a partner with whom you can enact that. In order to find the partner with whom you can do that, you have to go through a series of conversations, and a series of exchanges, and a process of getting to know the person, in which you actually have to speak, so you’re not really gagged; you have to talk about your sexual life, and find about theirs. So you choose a partner who not only shares the fantasy, but with whom you’re compatible in other ways. So you’re using the fantasy to meet the person with whom you can have the conversation, the respect, the generosity, which both allows you to act out the sex and also heals the problem.
BLVR: How does it heal the problem?
SS: Because the problem was that you felt bound and gagged, and that you couldn’t speak, and that no one would listen to you, and that you didn’t matter. So now you’re using sex to choose a partner with whom you cantalk, with whom you can discover, and with whom you can be yourself.
BAD COMMUNICATION - March 12th, 2012
THE BELIEVER: You believe that people are fundamentally good; that we’re not so much making mistakes in our lives because we’re messed up in some permanent way, as something else. So what are our problems indicative of?
STANLEY SIEGEL: Generally, I think our problems — or symptoms — are our extraordinarily creative attempts to solve something, and that they appear as problems or symptoms because that’s how society finds them, but when we look deeper at them, they are a deep, human effort to solve something. If there’s a problem in a relationship—whether that’s anger or detachment—if you stop thinking about it in terms of the relationship, and rather in terms of what it’s solving for you, and respect it, and honor it, instead of pathologizing it, I think you’ll get to the answer of what to do more quickly.
BLVR: So what’s an example of pathologizing?
SS: Pathologizing would be saying, “We’re angry at each other, we have bad communication in the relationship.” So you would try to improve your communication.
BLVR: Yes, that’s how most couples counselors would approach it. How would you reframe it?
SS: Well, if you’re having bad communication in a relationship, ask yourself what it is that you’re trying to communicate that isn’t getting communicated, and what that means to you. Why it is that you don’t want to communicate it.
BLVR: So it’s not negative—that you can’t communicate. It’s positive—it’s that you might not want tocommunicate?
BLVR: Is there some way of generalizing and saying why people might not want to communicate? Is it because if you don’t say things, you’re protected from the judgement of that person?
SS: Yes, and from yourself. Also, once you put something into words, there’s a finiteness to it, which means that you have to accept a whole series of other things.
BLVR: So if you communicate yourself to another person, you’re putting yourself into words and becoming more finite?
SS: Or defined.