Ambivalence is Beautiful

Ambivalent is not generally considered a desired state of being. We don't hear a lot of, "Oh, I am so freakin' ambivalent about you!" No, it seems we are supposed to be clear and certain, our feelings focused, sure, and — here's the catch — monolithic.

Me, I rarely feel one thing. I get a call from a friend asking me to go out and I think, "Well, I kinda wanna. But I'm tired. And driving's a drag. And while I might want to go out, I'm not sure I want to go out with that friend — not tonight. But maybe it'll be fun. And I should get out more often. And I haven't seen him in ages."  I closed this train of thought but I could go on, Beckett-like.

Ambivalence is not just a state but a necessary state. It is constitutive of this thing we call life: to feel is to feel multiple, even opposing, things. Freud imagined us as being constituted by a fundamental ambivalence of life and death, Eros and Thanatos. And I know just how he feels.

Of course, just because it's constitutive doesn't mean it's desired. We constantly refine, edit, discipline ourselves. This is what it means to be part of a culture, part of the social. I may be aroused in the street but I don't pleasure myself there and then, not usually.  So perhaps ambivalence is a "natural" state — whatever that means —  to be overcome. We seek to cut down ambivalence with the scythe of certainty.

But, frankly, I like ambivalence. Not always and on all things. It's nice to have certainty, to be sure and clear as one takes on the world. But such certainty also yields assholes, adamant pricks, self-deluded righteous idiots. Such monolithic pathos makes for crappy, simplistic art, lousy reductive television and movies that are at once a colossal expense and bore.  

Life happens in and amongst the play of sentiment. Life is not just ambivalent: it's multivalent. We think and feel multiple things at the same time. And rather than trying to subdue or quash said teem, I want to speak and feel in elaborate baroque harmonies. 

Imagine, for a moment, when talking with a lover if all parties embraced ambivalence, welcomed multivalence. Imagine the generosity and the openness towards the other this would entail. We wouldn't demand that our lovers love us every second with every fiber of their being. We'd know, we'd understand, we'd expect — nay, we'd welcome — their ambivalence, their indifference and their distaste. And we'd know that their love was even greater for it.

Imagine if film, TV, art all did the same. The Wire wouldn't be the exquisite oddity it is — such complexity, such greatness, would be the norm and our theaters would be filled with models of behavior that weren't inane but, on the contrary, fostered generosity, multiplicity, the beautiful play of complexity that is life.

It's true that leadership seems to demand monolithic focus. A leader, we imagine, speaks with certainty, with clarity of vision. I know this demand has kept me from a certain professional success — clients ask me questions and I see all the different sides. In fact, I'm very good at seeing all the different sides and laying them out. I see complexity clearly. Someone, however, has to pull the trigger. And that person is rarely me. Why?  Because I'm ambivalent.

Still, I return enthusiastically to this ambivalence. I don't try to silence it. On the contrary, I work as best I can to articulate it — to give voice to the chorus of sentiments that stream through me, that are me, that are life. To me, the teem of life is beautiful and I'd have it no other way. 


what the Tee Vee taught said...

That certain professional success that has eluded you is the same professional success that Daniel Plainview so thoroughly captured. As you can be seen as the non-Plainview, you can be hopeful about more enjoyable personal relationships... at least with your boy.

I will take issue with this: if we do imagine all parties welcome a certain ambivalence or multivalence, our big-time-commitment relationships simply wouldn't exist... well, maybe not so simply, and perhaps they would exist, but it is the demand for certainty that keeps these relationships together.

As half-ish of marriages don't make it to the death part, it can be seen that even when people really really really want certainty, it's hard to maintain.

I don't mean to suggest you're overlooking any of this, but as human animals are completely shit when on there own, it seems quite useful to hide that ambivalence much of the time, less we lose those who not only support us, but allow us to be in the first place.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Excuse my tardy reply: I was out of town tending to long term relationships. So, yes, of course. I tried, in one feeble line, to capture this: "And we'd know that their love was even greater for it."

My point is this: love does not efface ambivalence — it exceeds it. And in its generosity, live doesn't try to eliminate ambivalence: it lets it be.

Of course there is an ambivalence of weakness just as there is a certainty of strength; there is an ambivalence of strength just as there is a certain certainty to ambivalence.

Mostly, I just wanted to write a certain certainty because it's absurd.

Eugene Chen said...

I remember when John Kerry specifically lost his campaign - due to accusations of being too "nuanced". People are afraid of ambivalence because it opens the door to extreme vertigo - there is no answer to the ultimate questions!

I admit I am impressed and intimidated and suspicious of people who are "passionate". Sometimes, they do seem happier though.

Eugene Chen said...

Still, this post gives us a reason to feel passionate about ambivalence. And for that, we thank you. Where is the tip jar on this thing?