Why hell is other people
“We are now alone with each other. People, unaided by nature, suffice to make a hell.…”
In The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning Of Unreason, Ernest Geller writes:
“Once upon a time, nature too made its contribution to our hell but it is now redundant; you can’t stop progress. We are now alone with each other. People, unaided by nature, suffice to make a hell.…everything depends on the people who make up our home and social and work environments. It depends, as the phrase goes, on how we get on with them.”
If you’re reading this, the weather probably has little impact on your life.
We no longer have a direct connection to the natural world. We no longer feel our dependency on its moods and its changes.
Instead, Geller's theory goes, we transfer that anxious dependency to our relationships.
For the most part, for most people, in many parts of the world, the weather has been defeated. We trample its effects with SPF 50, duck-down jackets, air-conditioning, snow ploughs, light boxes, vitamin D supplements, buildings and vehicles that turn it into little more than background noise.
Maybe once in a while we have to cancel a journey due to snow, or sunburn spoils a holiday, or torrential rain derails a walk. Maybe we live in an area prone to natural disasters which is something separate.
But otherwise, it’s not something we fear. It’s not directly linked to our survival. We can just about predict it — the chirpy little sun and clouds icon on our phone screens after we switch off our alarms in the morning.
And we categorise it, name it, slice it up into understandable chunks. We humanise it as if we’ve domesticated it.
We don’t need to worry about our crops failing. We do need to worry about the health and well being of the people we love.
We give them that power. Turn their insults into lightning bolts.
Their rejection into a blanket of snow. Their contempt into icy ground underfoot. Their acceptance and reciprocated affection into nourishing rain.
We don’t worry about whether the sun will come up or not tomorrow, nor do we feel the need to do anything to ensure it does.
But we do worry about whether our partners will still love us tomorrow. We do feel the need to perform rituals to secure that lasting affection — we offer up flowers, meals, precious metals and gemstones as if offering them at an altar. Sign legal contracts (or, as my brother summarises marriage, ‘honey, I love and value you so much that I want to get the government involved.’)
When in truth these rituals have little more bearing than a sun dance. The sun comes up because the earth keeps turning.
Our partners stay with us because they keep loving us, something we have precious little control over.
Or they don’t. And that’s that.
“Maybe the sun keeps coming up because it’s gotten used to you and your constant need for proof” — Bright Eyes, A Spindle, A Darkness, A Fever, A Necklace
Like our ancestors and the weather, we believe there’s a secret code to understanding and manipulating them. Scry through their sly texts, Instagram likes, winks and smiles and there’s a clue as to their true feelings. Then, if you read the signs right and you do the right things, they’ll do the right things. In theory. If they don’t, you must have missed something.
As the Stoics used to say, we value ourselves above all other people. And yet we value their opinions above our own. They are our weather.
Once, when I was about 14 or 15, I performed an elaborate love spell involving rose petals, red lipstick, writing their name however many times on a piece of paper and then doing something or other with it all at midnight.
And it worked! Amazing. Or not.
In hindsight, it was a disturbing thing to do: to believe that there was no intrinsic reason for them to return my affection and I needed to harness magic to ensure that. People like people because they like them, not because they’re persuaded or convinced or bewitched to do so.
We have this ingrained need to feel anxious about some defined area, concrete or abstract, beyond ourselves. All the more so areas which have a direct bearing on our well being and survival.
For much of human history, it’s pretty safe to say that the natural world, especially the weather, was that thing.
A nebulous, misunderstood, ever-changing, dangerous, rewarding, beautiful area beyond ourselves. Something we relied on for survival.
Weather shaped culture. You see it in cuisine — the popular dishes from most countries are based on the best food preservation methods for that climate. Same for clothing, for architecture, for the stories we tell, music, religion, art. It’s what shapes the landscapes where we live.
It meant the difference between life and death, sickness and health, community and loneliness, poverty and riches.
Relationships have always been essential for survival. Just not in the same way. Now they are the bedrock of our emotional lives, the thing we depend on for sanity, not for survival. At the same time, our relationships do dictate the quality of our lives which makes it all the easier to justify treating them as necessary for the continuation of our lives.
I like looking for universal principles and underlying ideas. This need to see something beyond ourselves, something fear-inducing, something that burns up our mental energy with its unfathomable twists and turns, is (I believe) one such human constant. Hell is other people — not because they are intrinsically bad, but because relationships are inherently uncertain and uncertainty is the worst torture imaginable.
Relationships are, of course, important and rewarding. It would be ludicrous to dispute that.
But does that justify this romance obsessed, running in the rain with a bunch of roses, torturous tendency to treat Romeo & Juliet as an ideal, rather than a cautionary tale? Are we going to pass that off as the creation of Medieval poets and 1940’s advertising executives? Or is it a simple manifestation of our drive towards dissatisfaction in whatever form makes sense?
It makes for good art. Over the top, dramatic romances lead to wonderful paintings, sculptures, books, poetry, plays, songs, operas and the like. Romance is a relatively non-toxic, socially acceptable addiction. It has become the norm to act like your life depends on your relationships. To call your partner your ‘everything’, to feel responsible for their emotions, to work tirelessly to secure their affection, to be glued to them, to be in constant contact, to elevate them above all else.
For a while last year, I went to Codependents Anonymous meetings. I am not codependent (if anything, I’m the exact opposite) but I wanted to learn what makes a healthy relationship and where the boundaries are. Although I rarely spoke in meetings and stopped going after a few months, I’m grateful for everything it taught me.
Turning other people into our own private hell may be common, but it’s far from healthy. It’s destructive- of ourselves and of our relationships. It’s a recipe for emotional burnout. For resentment. For reinforcing self-destructive behaviour.
So why do we do it?
Here’s the rest of the paragraph from Geller (note: I have not read the entire book and found this section via Anthony Storr’s Solitude):
“There is every indication that this realm of human relationships has taken over that overwhelming load of anxiety and sense of precariousness which had once attached to the natural world. This realm now has a peculiar quality which once characterised the natural world…a sense of a tight pattern, lurking danger and fatality, which at the same time cannot be apprehended or controlled by rational of intelligible methods.”
"The great Chthonic Terror is that the dark may swallow the light, may gobble it up, terminate or destroy it. That the night will conquer the day; that the sun will not rise, that the fires will go out, that cold will triumph, that all will be dead. Light is life, dark is death. This is not symbolic at all; this is actual and biological.
Everything we can do to allay the Terror, to assist, persuade, seduce, propitiate, cajole, reward or bully the sun which, for all its power, seems oddly fragile and recalcitrant, we must do and will do. Anthropologically, sun encouragement rituals are nearly as universal as anything is, from the Aztecs to Beltane. They are gruesome, expensive and ruthless. They are creative, beautiful and symbol rich.
Think of the Aztecs, cutting out the hearts of young women to appease the sun. Think of an almost psychotic husband, shooting his wife for a suspected affair, or perhaps an attempted affair. Think of a Druid on the Solstice or a tribe after a rain dance, satisfied that their rituals worked again. Think of me as a teenager, thinking my own rituals had worked too. Think of my friend’s boyfriend in school, attempting suicide after she split up with him — she lived in England, he lived in California and they had never met. She asked why? He answered because I thought this would make you like me again.
Love and life and warmth and happiness and sun and people are all so tangled up in our minds as one big interchangeable thing we crave. And the flipside is what we fear; indifference and death and cold and sadness and loneliness. Anything we can do to assuage the fear of being alone, to identify the patterns and be certain that the sun will continue to rise and people will stick around, is surely worthwhile.
I don't think it matters as such whether Geller and Maitland are right or wrong per se. It's just one way of looking at this thorny problem.