The Problem of Love Unregulated

In the first of his introductory lectures on attachment theory, published under the title The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds, John Bowlby attempts to pay his debt to Freud. Though much of his work emerges from that which Freud’s lacks, particularly with regards to a child’s psychological development, he notes nonetheless how Freud identified the right problems, if not the right solutions.

Central to this is the problem of “ambivalence”, arguably also central to the Oedipus complex. Ambivalence is here not indifference but rather the fraught middle ground between love and hate. Each of us no doubt knows, deep down, of our capacity to hate those we care for most, or even to love those that we hate more than anything. These contradictory impulses are part and parcel of being human, but our circumstances can make them difficult to regulate. We can lean into one or the other. Hatred — never pure, often defensive, delinquent, testing — can be a way of testing those relationships that matter most to us, but which cause us to feel guilt and anxiety. Love, too, can be unregulated, given all too readily to those who we hope will take us under their wing, support us, constituting a kind of “secure base” that each person needs to live.

In thinking about my own adoption crisis this week, I feel that it is an unregulated love that is persistently causing me problems. I want to love, and for that love to be met. But the difficulty I have in regulating the formation of affectional bonds can lead me to love too much too soon. I watch those around me negotiate feelings and relationships and surf the waves of an affectionate coming and going, and I feel an intense desire to take part. But I pull back, and now feel I must pull back, as I settle once again into a difficult knowledge that I am too traumatised to truly get to know other people — not because I do not have the capacity to love, but because that capacity is fueled by too much neurosis and trauma. My love is unregulated. As romantic as it may sound, it causes too much anxiety and guilt to be healthy for me or others. As a result, as I love, I repress, and feelings of “displacement, protection, over-compensation”, as Bowlby observes, give rise to “defense mechanisms … evasion and denials that [any] conflict exists.”

I’m reminded of Bataille’s thesis on literature and evil, in which he explores the somewhat obvious observation that all literature is based on conflict, but precisely because all literature “is communication.” He continues: “Communication requires loyalty. A rigorous morality results from complicity in the knowledge of Evil, which is the basis of intense communication.” Literature, then, is guilty, but in much the same way Bowlby (via Freud) describes. As we explore, through literature, the churning drama of affectional bonds, made and unmade, we come to regulate our humanity through literature’s most extreme gestures.

Yes, literature is about relationships, and the communication that is essential to all relationships must throw caution to the wind, possessed as it is by the knowledge that communication can be painful. When we are fearful of what we might say, which always runs the risk of hurting another’s feelings, we say very little. To communicate effectively is to accept this risk and commune anyway; to embrace the constant making and unmaking of selves.

Bataille’s study begins with an essay on Emily Brontë, whose Wuthering Heights is undoubtedly the most intense exploration of the making and unmaking of affectional bonds. That Heathcliff, who Catherine comes to love so intensely, is an adoptee also cannot be disregarded (though it so often is — Bataille himself only refers to Heathcliff as “a foundling” inconsequentially in passing). The novel’s blistering intensity emerges from this fact, albeit implicitly. Who are these two characters to one another? It is insufficient to simply call them lovers, precisely because their love is so conflicted and unregulated. Catherine at once fills the role of lover, sister, mother to the displaced Heathcliff, who has no secure base, and the intensity of their affair seems (un)grounded by the fact that their relationship is so many things (particularly to him) at once. It leads them to fall so utterly into one another, on a multitude of fronts. Indeed, that their love emerges from childhood is centrally important. They latch onto one another, in their childish world, as if cut off from all other familial bonds. They are like two displaced persons meeting in a void, their love unstructured and unregulated by any sort of paternal or maternal influence. They are everything to one another, such that theirs is a relationship that contains all the contradictions we humans are capable of. In each other, they lose their solitude, but still find themselves a pair still alone.

That they come together alone is surely a product of their tandem disintegration. Heathcliff’s particular disintegration, however, is heavily foregrounded by the circumstances of his life, but Catherine nonetheless joins him there, drunk on the liqueur of his passionate abandon and dispassionate abandonment. As a result, they die together, first figuratively and then all too literally, such that, as Bataille argues, an “[i]ndividual] death is but one aspect of the proliferative excess of being”, constituted by “the negation of the isolation of the ego which only experiences ecstasy by exceeding itself, by surpassing itself in the embrace in which the being loses its solitude.” Bataille argues that this is a process of doubling, but what seems to further exacerbate this process in Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship is that Heathcliff is already doubled in his solitude. The adoptee is, at base, a divided self. The fraught ambivalence — which, again, is not passive indifference but perhaps the furious engine of passion — of their relationship explodes from Heathcliff as an always-already gothic figure, who arrives in West Yorkshire like a boy already dead, so displaced is he from his genealogy, the spectral product of an unspoken reproductive relation between persons already disappeared.

It is this displacement that allows Heathcliff to feel so at home on the heath, and with Catherine he affirms his disconnection from all but her. “They abandoned themselves, untrammelled by any restraint or convention other than a taboo on games of sensuality”, Bataille writes.

But, in their innocence, they placed their indestructible love for one another on another level, and indeed perhaps this love can be reduced to the refusal to give up an infantile freedom which had not been amended by the laws of society or of conventional politeness. They led their wild life, outside the world, in the most elementary conditions, and it is these conditions which Emily Brontë made tangible — the basic conditions of poetry, of a spontaneous poetry before which both children refused to stop.

Yesterday I spoke about Freud’s belief that the advent of psychoanalysis consecrated the victory of “intellectuality over sensuality”. In Wuthering Heights, Catherine and Heathcliff exist beyond this world explicitly. The conflict that haunts them, as they transition from children of passionate abandon to adults in the world, is that their prior sensuality is denied them. “Society is governed by its will to survive”, Bataille notes — perhaps echoing the Virginia Woolf’s previously discussed observation that society is itself an authoritarian father. “It could not survive if these childish instincts, which bound the children in a feeling of complicity, were allowed to triumph.”

But such is the chaotic maternal function of their childish bond. The doubling that Catherine and Heathcliff experience in their asexualised childhood romance is nonetheless productive (if not reproductive). The intensity of their childhood passions constitutes a kind of immaculate conception, in which new selves are provided apart from the strictures of a (then still emerging) Victorian world. The love triangle that emerges, when Catherine is implored to marry Linton, necessitates the cauterising of her displaced childhood on the moors. Though she remains in the same environs, it is time to put down roots — a process that Heathcliff himself resents, perhaps because it had previously never been promised to or framed as a possibility for him. Catherine, though led wildly astray by Heathcliff, is at home; Heathcliff himself is forever estranged. That Catherine has chosen to let go of their sovereignty, no longer able to affirm the abandon of childhood, destroys him, destroys his double, and leaves him bitter in the reality of his own disjointed upbringing, which is now no longer an exploratory childhood virtue but an adult inconvenience. Heathcliff feels alone again, and leans instead into what Bataille describes as “the revolt of the man accursed, whom fate has banished from his kingdom and who will stop at nothing to regain it.”

His love unregulated in adulthood, Heathcliff takes the side of a childhood “Evil” against the moral strictures of a social “Good”, bestowed upon grounded persons by a paternalistic (and patriarchal) society. He becomes a gothic Peter Pan, who resents the foreclosure of child-like productivity by the repressive mechanisms of social (re)production. Though it is a world based on an apparent rationality, Heathcliff (and Bataille) recognise it as a “reason that has come to terms with that arbitrary element born of the violence and puerile elements of the past.”

There are two paths available to both Catherine and Heathcliff, though each is undone by the opposing ones taken. In describing “the steps by which an infant or child progresses towards the regulation of his ambivalence”, Bowlby frames these paths as follows:

If he follows a favourable course, he will grow up not only aware of the existence within himself of contradictory impulses but able to direct and control them, and the anxiety and guilty which they engender will be bearable. If his progress is less favourable, he will be beset by impulses over which he feels he has inadequate or even no control; as a result, he will suffer acute anxiety regarding the safety of the persons he loves and be afraid, too, of the retribution which he believes will fall on his own head.

Catherine, at first, seems to follow the path of the “Good”, but Heathcliff nonetheless believes that he has chosen the right path for him. He remains set against the world around him. When he marries Catherine’s sister-in-law, opening himself up to her advances, he nonetheless sets about destroying that relation from within, affirming marriage as a callous travesty if only to treat his wife so poorly. Heathcliff violently affirms his own transgressions of a social good, embittered further still by the memory of a wild and unstable upbringing. Catherine is Heathcliff’s mirror image. What destroys her is not the traumatic loss of her childhood but the sickly sweetness of its denial. She denies what Heathcliff affirms, but the results are no less tragic. Each love is unregulated and uncontrollable, never capable of settling into a Stoic ambivalence.

Wuthering Heights seems to function as the perfect literary case study for Bowlby’s attachment theory, taken to extremes. It is a fraught interrogation of irrational behaviours, born of attachment, separation and loss. It may seem strange, after reading any by-the-numbers summary of Wuthering Heights, that Heathcliff is still retained as a romantic and even attractive figure. How can someone so evil and bitter still be framed as a romantic figure? But Emily Brontë explores with a compulsive honesty what Bowlby argues we have otherwise struggled to accept in our self-understanding — that is, “that behaviour, whether in other organisms or in man himself, is the resultant of an almost continuous conflict of interacting impulses: neither man as a species nor neurotic man as an afflicted sub-group has a monopoly on conflict. What characterizes the psychologically ill is their inability satisfactorily to regulate their conflicts.”

In the space of literature, and particularly across the heath in Wuthering Heights, this observation is given free reign. Heathcliff and Catherine are not framed as psychologically ill, separated from the society they transgress as patients for medicalised study, but as fantastical extremes that exist wholly within that which would otherwise exclude them, as figures of poetry who are dissolved into the libidinal economies our own lusts, betrayals and experiences.

We have often used the figure of the adoptee (or orphan or displaced child) in this way: as a literary intensifier of our most everyday communications. But to feel this way in reality, as a subject at the mercy of what Bowlby calls “libidinal greed and hatred”, is still so seldom understood. In my own experience, I must say that hatred is an alien feeling. I seldom feel resentment towards those around me. But the pain felt, particularly this week, is surely the product of a libidinal greed.

Bowlby writes:

If a baby and young child has the love and company of his mother and soon also that of his father, he will grow up without an undue pressure of libidinal craving and without an overstrong propensity for hatred. If he does not have these things there is a likelihood that his libidinal craving will be high, which means that he will be constantly seeking love and affection, and constantly prone to hate those who fail, or seem to him to fail, to give it him.

But adoption modifies this tendency, at least in my experience. Hatred is not projected outwards but inwards, such that the overwhelming pressure of libidinal craving is rebound on a subject given up, who feels an overabundance of love for others but a deficiency of love for the self, such that to be an adoptee, separated from the mother at an early age, gives rise to a feeling of being fundamentally unlovable. The truth, as friends have so frequently told me this week, is quite to the contrary. Though a difficult thing to internalise, it has been heartening to hear from so many, who learn of an overwhelming struggle against suicidal tendencies, that they love that I am around. The guilt and anxiety that arises is perhaps one learned from adoption as a fact of life. My mother, though she loved me, felt incapable of providing the things an infant needs.

The difficulty that emerges from this is one of asking that one’s needs be met by others. The libidinal greed for company, for companionship, is set against an anxiety that knows others may not have the capacity to provide what is desired. To be an adoptee is to feel like a social burden, and this is far more true in adulthood than in childhood. Childhood is a time of abandon, freedom, irreproducible sovereignty, which adulthood demands be foreclosed. A secure base is necessary to feel at home in one’s own company. Home is set, and so we journey outwards. Adoption inverts the process. We journey outwards in search of a home, and home is a more difficult thing to provide than we think, particularly to a love that overflows unregulated, and which, even when home is established, cannot be contained by its bounds. It is to live in conflict far more acutely, to live in a world of poetry, held at a distance from social normality, where extremities of feelings are not so much distanced in fantasy but inhabited in reality. It is to roam the heath of childhood on the underside of this world.

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