Saturday, October 24, 2009


My first post might lead the reader to conclude that I live on Planet Ultraviolence, where I'm regularly obliged to fend off savage space hounds in fierce hand-to-hand combat, rather than in a cozy middle-class preserve in one of the safest neighborhoods in the safest city in Europe. (You can, by the way, click on the left of that article to hear a podcast with me in which I discuss the question of street crime in Istanbul.) Istanbul, as I argue in that article, is remarkably safe for a city its size. Not completely safe—I have heard some awful stories—but safe enough that I don't think it's particularly likely that I will be needing to defend myself anytime soon. If you want to be safer in Istanbul, the most important thing you can do is to wear a seat belt every time you get in a car. It would be disingenuous to suggest that I've taken up the martial arts because I believe I my security depends upon my combat-readiness. If I really believed that, the first thing I'd do is buy a gun.

So what's it all about then, Claire?

Here's one part of the answer. Civilization, as Freud wrote in Civilization and its Discontents, rests upon the suppression of instincts—sexual instincts, obviously, and violent instincts. There can be no civilization if people react to frustration in the most instinctive of ways, which is to say, like animals. The lesson is one of the first disappointments of childhood. You may not urinate anywhere you please, and you may not bite the other children. The injunction against hitting and kicking and biting is impressed upon us with considerable severity. As well it must be. But as Freud observed, the act of repression comes at an extremely high cost.

It is a truism of psychoanalysis that depression is anger introjected against the self. The psychoanalysts are right. When at last you are in a social context where it is permissible, indeed encouraged, to haul off and slug something as hard as you fucking can, you realize quickly how much aggression you carry around with you, every minute of the day, how much energy you have spent repressing it, and how remarkably well you feel when you don’t. When you feel your fist make contact with a punching bag or a focus pad, and when you have put all your force, all your anger, all your energy behind the punch, and you fondly imagine that you've just hit that thing hard enough that had it been someone's head it would have exploded like a grapefruit on the business end of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, there is really an astonishing rightness with the world.

If you find this thought unpalatable, congratulations: Your socialization has been successful. But what I'm saying is true, alas. Primal violence is just below the surface in us all, in even the most mouselike of accountants. We just repress it, all the time, and thank God we do.

Let us speak frankly now, among friends. Hitting things feels great. We are not just talking about the familiar endorphin cascade of exercise. I used to be a distance runner. I know enough about exercise-induced endorphins to recognize what is and isn't their effect. I do yoga, too—I am very familiar with the rewards of pious non-violent exertion. This is different. Aggression offers a unique pleasure of its own. The point is unacknowledged by hand-wringing sociologists who lament the problem of violence among feral youths. They seem genuinely to have persuaded themselves that if only these hoodlums were loved enough by society, if only they had ample economic opportunities, they would lose their desire to attack people.

Forget it: They’d still want to. Perhaps they wouldn’t do it, but they would still want to. They’re doing it because they like it. And you’d like it too.

Obviously, there are other reasons to do this sort of thing, but this is certainly one of them.

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