Thursday, December 18, 2008

Nutted By Reality

In Act III, Scene iv (lines 178-79) of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the play’s eponymous hero, Hamlet, turns to his mother and says: “I must be cruel only to be kind./This bad begins and worse remains behind.” The fact that the line, “cruel to be kind” (which expresses an ancient idea, incidentally), occurs in the midst of a scene in which Hamlet is berating his mother for betraying the memory of her dead husband—Hamlet believes she is an adulterer and is guilty of incest as well—is significant. In the vernacular, “cruel to be kind” typically means that one must inflict pain on another for his or her own good—that is, the harsher the medicine, the better to effect the cure. “Cruel to be kind” is a standard sort of psychological strategy used by parents on children, which is what makes Shakespeare’s use of it all the more audacious, as in this case it is a child (son) speaking to a parent (mother). What’s more, it’s a child speaking to a parent about her sexual behavior.

The euphemistic version of “cruel to be kind” is most often expressed in the form, “this is going to hurt me a lot worse than it hurts you,” which reveals the masochism underlying the expression. And masochism, as Gilles Deleuze has pointed out (in Masochism: An Interpretation of Coldness and Cruelty, English translation 1971), operates by explicit or implicit contract, that is, the role for each participant is determined beforehand, prior to the enactment of dominance and debasement.

As might be expected, popular music has explored this psychology with great acuity. And according to Peter Lehman, there was no popular musician better at expressing masochistic desire than Roy Orbison. Discussing the hysteria implicit in Orbison’s “Running Scared,” Peter Lehman writes:

At the end of “Running Scared,” Orbison’s voice thrills at the unbearable suspense of wondering whether his girlfriend will chose [sic] him or his phallic rival: “Then all at once he was standing there/So sure of himself, his head in the air/My heart was breaking, which one would it be?/You turned around and walked away with me.” I will return later to the importance of the Orbison person’s passivity and paralysis, but notice here the suddenness with which the rival appears (“all at once”) and the drawn-out moment during which the outcome is unknown (“my heart was breaking, which one would it be?”). Only the last word of the song relieves the suspense. The song’s happy ending is almost irrelevant given the virtual panic that pervades the song: “Every relationship I’d ever been in, the girl already had one going when we first met. Even as far back as kindergarten” (Kent 1994, 291). Although Orbison seems unaware of it, such a pattern itself bespeaks masochistic desire, since being attracted to a woman who already has a boyfriend raises not only the risk of failure but also, in the event of success, the specter of the rival’s return. (Roy Orbison: The Invention of An Alternative Rock Masculinity, 93)

One might well include in the list below many songs by Roy Orbison, but I’ve tried to give a sense of the way masochistic desire has been explored in popular music.

The Top Ten Acid-Laced Sugar Cubes All About Being Cruel To Be Kind:

“Cecilia” – Simon and Garfunkel
“Cold, Cold Heart” – Hank Williams
“Cruel to Be Kind” – Nick Lowe
“Girl” – The Beatles
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” – Marvin Gaye
“Lyin’ Eyes” – The Eagles
“Maggie May” – Rod Stewart
“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” – Kenny Rogers and The First Edition
“Running Scared” – Roy Orbison
“These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” – Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood

Incidentally, the title of this blog is taken from a song by Nick Lowe (on Jesus of Cool, 1978) because I thought the phrase sufficiently captured the peculiar psychological torment of masochistic desire.

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