Ambivalence

 

I love you at ten in the morning, at eleven, at midday. I love you with all my soul and sometimes, on rainy evenings, with all my body. But at two in the afternoon, or at three, when I begin to think about the two of us, and you are thinking about preparing food or your daily tasks, or about the life you are not leading, I start to hate you mutely, with that portion of hatred I keep to myself.

Later, I return to loving you, as we lie down together and I feel that you are made for me, and that in a certain way your knees and your belly tell me as much, and my hands convince me of it, and there is no other place in the world where I might come, to which I would rather go, than your body. You come to meet me in your entirety, and the two of us disappear for an instant, we place ourselves in the mouth of God, until I tell you I am hungry or tired.

Every day I love you and hate you irremediably. And there are days, too, and hours, in which I do not know you, in which you are as strange to me as another man’s wife. Men worry me, I worry myself, my troubles distract me. Probably I don’t think about you for much of the time. You see: who could love you less than me, my love?  

This poem, which I have translated somewhat literally, is by the Mexican Jaime Sabines (1926-99), known intriguingly as el francotirador de la literatura (the sniper of literature). Readers of Spanish can find the original text at the bottom of this post. Although the poem carries the traces of its time and origins – the woman preparing the food and doing the housework, and the fateful phrase ‘another man’s wife’ (which I cannot truthfully translate any other way, unless I ‘adapted’ the poem into a more contemporary idiom) – the underlying premise of emotional ambivalence comes through with a persuasive vitality.

Ambivalence lies at the core of human sensibility, most evidently in the way one is capable of holding conflicting and even contradictory ideas about everyone and everything. In my case this also means ambivalence towards my own long-held opinions and perceptions, which can change their hue and texture over time or else be utterly transformed within nanoseconds; ambivalence towards people and things I hold dear; even ambivalence towards my memories, and – most decidedly – ambivalence towards my own writings, many of which I forget about as soon as they disappear into the void.   

Adam Phillips begins his fascinating essay ‘Against Self-Criticism’, which he can be seen reading on Youtube, with a perturbing insight into one of the most ambivalent – and fundamental – precepts of Christian faith:

‘Jacques Lacan famously remarked that there must surely be something ironic about Christ’s injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself, because actually people hate themselves. Indeed, it seemed rather as if, given the way people treat each other, they had always loved their neighbours in the way they loved themselves. That is, with a good deal of cruelty and disregard.’  

Perhaps, though, our ambivalence is more extensive, and more ambivalent, than our mere self-loathing might suggest. Phillips continues:

‘In Freud’s vision of things we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate, we love; wherever we love, we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can also frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us, we always believe that they can satisfy us . . . Ambivalence does not, in the Freudian story, mean mixed feelings, it means opposing feelings. ‘Ambivalence has to be distinguished from having mixed feelings about someone,’ Charles Rycroft writes, in his appropriately entitled A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (as though an ‘Uncritical’ dictionary would be somehow simple-minded):

It refers to an underlying emotional attitude in which the contradictory attitudes derive from a common source and are interdependent, whereas mixed feelings may be based on a realistic assessment of the imperfect nature of the object.

‘Love and hate’ (Phillips continues) – ‘a too simple, or too familiar, vocabulary, and so never quite the right names for what we might want to say – are the common source, the elemental feelings with which we apprehend the world; and they are interdependent in the sense that you can’t have one without the other, and that they mutually inform each other. The way we hate other people depends on the way we love them, and vice versa. And given that these contradictory feelings are our ‘common source’ they enter into everything we do. They are the medium in which we do everything. We are ambivalent, in Freud’s view, about anything and everything that matters to us; indeed, ambivalence is the way we recognise that someone or something has become significant to us. This means we are ambivalent about ambivalence (and the forbidden, we should remember, is an object of desire, which is why is it forbidden) about love and hate and sex and each other and ourselves, and so on. Wherever there is an object of desire, in this account, there is ambivalence.’

Jaime Sabines’ poem can be heard on Youtube, read by the author, here.

Te quiero a las diez de la mañana, y a las once, y a las doce del día. Te quiero con toda mi alma y con todo mi cuerpo, a veces, en las tardes de lluvia. Pero a las dos de la tarde, o a las tres, cuando me pongo a pensar en nosotros dos, y tú piensas en la comida o en el trabajo diario, o en las diversiones que no tienes, me pongo a odiarte sordamente, con la mitad del odio que guardo para mí. 

Luego vuelvo a quererte, cuando nos acostamos y siento que estás hecha para mí, que de algún modo me lo dicen tu rodilla y tu vientre, que mis manos me convencen de ello, y que no hay otro lugar en donde yo me venga, a donde yo vaya, mejor que tu cuerpo. Tú vienes toda entera a mi encuentro, y los dos desaparecemos un instante, nos metemos en la boca de Dios, hasta que yo te digo que tengo hambre o sueño. 

Todos los días te quiero y te odio irremediablemente. Y hay días también, hay horas, en que no te conozco, en que me eres ajena como la mujer de otro. Me preocupan los hombres, me preocupo yo, me distraen mis penas. Es probable que no piense en ti durante mucho tiempo. Ya ves. ¿Quién podría quererte menos que yo, amor mío?

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