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June 20, 2005


On Being Misunderstood

The Labors of Hercules

Part I: "Proteus" in Ulysses.

In James Joyce's "Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man," Stephen Dedalis had been almost exclusively cerebral. Chapter three of James Joyce's subsequent work, "Ulysses," is entitled "Proteus," a reference to the sea god who could achieve different shapes at will. The episode begins with a paragraph that introduces the reader to the challenges facing Stephen Dedalis in turning his gaze to the external world:

"Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signature of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawarack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But then he adds: in bodies...."

In other words, when turning to a focus upon the external world, Stephen is faced with the "ineluctable modality of the visible," the need to wrestle with, struggle beyond the simply perceptual mode of sensing the visible. How does one get behond the thingness of things, the way they look and occupy space? How, at the same time, can one face the need to wrestle with the limits of the intangible.

Joyce anwers this by engaging the reader in the Protean nature of thought, where items and events are many things at once: their past, their present, their meanings in another's mind. Stephen's 'pure' stream of consciousness in this chapter, as his thoughts twist and mutate in response to the outside world, also reveals an undertone of physical suffering, with recurring themes of mortality, decay, death and dying.

Part II. The Labors of Hercules.

Thoughts about Proteus also relate to one of the mythological Labors of Hercules, which was to wrestle with Proteus, the monster sea god who kept changing shapes from serpent to lion to bear. Hercules managed to hang on and hold onto Proteus despite the transformations.

The attempt to think and write about feeling misunderstood is faced with a similar predicament: one must hang on despite the anxiety over metamorpheses. Attempting to grasp the feeling of being misunderstood, the shame of being seen by others as a person one does not feel oneself to be, is very much like wrestling with Proteus: it keeps changing shapes.

Part III. The "Padded Cell."

The feeling of being misunderstood leads to feelings of agony, along with wishes to express anger and rage. One defense in the face of all this is to, metaphorically, put oneself in a fantasied "padded cell" where it would be safe to unleash the agony and anger from within. The "padded cell," in response to feeling misunderstood, also serves as a fantasy of being alone, unexposed to the gaze of others, protected against the shame of feeling misunderstood.

Thus, we might provisionally define the experience of feeling misunderstood, and its associated feelings of shame, as a strong sense of discomfort, a discrepancy between the way one imagines one is and the way one feels or imagines one is being seen; it is a discrepancy between the way one wants to be and the way one fears one is, together with the exhausting efforts to control the one way one appears.

Part IV. Fantasies of Invisibility.

The shame of feeling misunderstood can also drive the fantasy of invisibility. Being invisible functions to avoid conflict, hiding the wish to look or the very fact of looking or the pain of being seen as one does not want to be.

There may be a sense of freedom in fantasies of invisibility, but at the same time this engenders great anxiety about being overlooked, perpetuating a vicious cycle of feeling or being misunderstood. This situation is represented by Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man" (1947). The protagonist slowly comes to realize that invisibility still requires the active participation of the one not seen.

However, lacking a solid inner stabilizer, the "invisible man" comes to confound his values of good and evil, honesty and dishonesty, which depend upon who happens to be looking through him at any particular moment. When he tells the truth, he doubts himself and is hated, but when he tries to give others the the incorrect, absurd responses that they want to hear, he is loved. When he presents himself as others want to see him, they receive a feeling of relief and security about and with him.

But the price is high, because in order to please others, to tell them what they want to hear, he ends up feeling like his "tounge [is hanging out and wagging] like the door of an empty house in a high wind" (Ellison, p. 573)

Part V. Oedipus on Being Misunderstood.

In response to the painful shame of feeling misunderstood, of appearing to be one who does not really know about what one says or does: "HENCE THEREFORE BE DARK!" Oedipus declared as he blinded himself for having descended to a state wherein he could not see what he realized he should have been able to see. Oedipus attempted to control the way he was seen by the people of Tebes and, in doing so, engineered his own downful.

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