Emotional Rescue: Shame and the Depressive Posture in George Eliot

By Adamson, Joseph | PSYART, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Emotional Rescue: Shame and the Depressive Posture in George Eliot


Adamson, Joseph, PSYART


Vulnerability to both shame and the longing for approval and love is the core of what Silvan Tomkins has called the "depressive posture," one that is found frequently among certain types of highly creative personalities. As Tomkins describes the depressive's relationship to the other, as first formed in the parent-child dyad, the parent shows great affection and love to the child but also alternately distances her with shame, anger, and contempt when she is perceived as offending or falling short, thus creating a strong corrective identification with the parent. Thus arises a magnified greed for both love and respect, in which the latter become fatefully tied to achievement. The quest for love and respect through communion, concern, control, and achievement underlies the major themes of George Eliot's life and work. The dynamic nature of this depressive drama is particularly well illustrated in Eliot's last great novel, Daniel Deronda.

keywords: George Eliot, Silvan Tomkins, affect and script theory, shame, distress, depression

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2009_adamson01.shtml

At the beginning of her career as a novelist, when the identity of George Eliot still remained a secret, acting as her agent George Henry Lewes wrote a letter to John Blackwood which included, and not for the first time, a cautionary note about the author's particular susceptibility to criticism:

Entre nous let me hint that unless you have any serious objection to make to Eliot's stories, don't make any. He is so easily discouraged, so diffident of himself, that not being prompted by necessity to write, he will close the series in the belief that his writing is not relished. I laugh at him for his diffidence and tell him it's a proof he is not an author (Letters 2: 363-64).

Eliot's "diffidence" is a theme sounded throughout her life. In these early years of publication Lewes took pains to make Blackwood aware of his friend's unusual sensitivity and easily "shaken confidence," her anxiety about "excellence" and fear of "failure" (2: 276-77). Even twenty years later, at the height of her success and celebrity as installments of Daniel Deronda began to appear, Lewes continued to shield her. He cautioned Blackwood's son, when he was to lunch with them, not to mention any "criticisms" of the novel: "Mrs. Lewes is so easily discouraged and so ready to believe and exaggerate whatever is said against her books that I not only keep reviews from her but do not even talk of them to her" (6: 218). To Blackwood himself, long educated in the matter, he spoke yet again of the lengths he went to ensure that "nothing comes to her ears or eyes that would sound or read like objection, being so well aware of how she would lay hold of it as a proof of her forebodings being justified. And I don't let her see even the enthusiastic criticisms, for many reasons" (6: 219). Eliot's deep-seated vulnerability, her fear that her readers would not "relish" what she wrote remained as intransigent as ever. She continued to be as prone to depression and longing for approval as she was to feeling criticized and depressed even in the face of praise.

In spite of Lewes's teasing remark about her unfitness for authorship, her very susceptibility is in fact a proof that she was very much the sort of person who becomes an author, someone with a magnified need to excite and hold the interest of others with her writings. Silvan Tomkins, whose affect and script theory will be the theoretical basis of this paper, observes:

In contrast to the paranoid, such an individual's deepest hope is to achieve communion with others, to be as close physically as possible, to talk with others, to excite them, to please them, and to do what will evoke both love and respect from them. Perhaps the clearest difference is found in the attitudes toward the eyes. One is afraid lest human eyes see him; the other is afraid lest human eyes not look at him. …

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