Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Children of Darkness



Darkness is a pervasive theme in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth.  The play opens with three witches one of whom says ominously, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”

The protagonists are Macbeth and his wife Lady Macbeth both of whom are described as ‘children of darkness’ by the Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley.  It is worth quoting Bradley in some detail.

“These two characters are fired by one and the same passion of ambition; and to a considerable extent they are alike.  The disposition of each is high, proud, and commanding.  They are born to rule, if not to reign.  They are peremptory or contemptuous to their inferiors.  They are not children of light, like Brutus and Hamlet; they are of the world.  We observe in them no love of country, and no interest in the welfare of anyone outside their family.  Their habitual thoughts and aims are ... all of station and power.”

Ambition in itself is a good thing.  But when ambition is coupled with the characteristics highlighted in the quote above, it paves the way to darkness. 

Psychologist Karen Horney (1885-1952) listed ten sources of inner conflicts which give rise to neurotic needs in people.  One such source is ‘the neurotic need for power’.  This need expresses itself in craving power for its own sake, in an essential disrespect for others, and in an indiscriminate glorification of strength and a contempt for weakness.  People who are afraid to exert power openly may try to control others through intellectual exploitation and superiority.  Another variety of the power drive is the need to believe in the omnipotence of will.  Such people feel they can accomplish anything simply by exerting will power. [as summarised by C. S. Hall et al in Theories of Personality]

The similarity between Bradley’s (a literary critic) and Horney’s lists of characteristics of the power-hungry is striking.

We come across people who suffer from this “neurotic need” all too often in our surroundings, not just in politics.  Horney’s solution for this problem is that the person should understand (or be made to understand) that his/her worth does not lie in sitting on a throne pretending or claiming to be a god/goddess.  Psychologically healthy life lies in learning to live with other people on a kind of equal footing, accepting them as they are as well as accepting oneself without the facades of the inflated ego. 

Horney, however, added that the neurotic is not flexible.  Hence the change is not at all easy.  In the words of the literary critic, that neuroticism is the “tragic flaw of the character.”


Not all neuroticism makes people children of darkness.  The simple fact is that most of us possess certain degrees of neuroticism of one kind or another.  The problem is when we start inflicting other people with the fallout of our neuroticism.  It is then that we become the children of darkness and create a world where fair is foul and foul is fair. 

20 comments:

  1. A good Read sir. Talking about Neurosis I had Anxiety Neurosis

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    1. You know what, Datta Ghosh, I too suffer from the neurotic need for power in my own supposedly intellectual way :)

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    2. That is more of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Striving towards Self Actualization. :)

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    3. Yes, you got it absolutely right. And I'm glad you got it right.

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  2. Indeed sir, Lord and Lady Macbeth were children of Darkness. But what do you think of Othello? Is he a susceptible dark character or 'child of light' led to darkness?

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    1. Really, Brendan, it's not very easy to classify people. In the sense that Bradley meant and I mean now, Othello is not a child of darkness. He was indeed a child of light until Iago came into his life. The problem with people like Othello is not darkness but innocence, naivete. Strange, given the fact that he was a warrior.

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    2. Yes really, it isn't easy. But can one only classify based on tragic flaw?

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    3. A tough question, Brendan. I'm still thinking.

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  3. Yes such people do exist, we come across them all the time. Self-obsessed and power hungry and very very ambitious.Interesting read. Where do you get the ideas from to write on such diverse topics?

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    1. I used to read all kinds of books, Nima. A wide interest. In a way, it was a Faustian quest for knowledge. Even now, if I din't have to work and earn my livelihood, I'd spend my time reading books.

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  4. No one ever could portray the indepth ness or dwell deep into human character like master genius Shakespeare..liked it as it reminded me of my college days

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    1. Shakespeare has lasted 4 centuries because of that genius. Glad I could take you back to your college.

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  5. Out of all other neurotic needs you chose the need of power. This makes me ask you, why?
    Once while browsing the internet I found the answers to my question, I came to know about my neural need. That helped me to ease up certain things in my life.

    Is this need of power somewhere related to you?

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    1. I'm the least power-motivated organism in the world, Namrata. I may have certain complexes (like superiority complex), but if I wanted power I could have got it umpteen times in umpteen ways. I think power is the most idiotic thing an individual can acquire. What pleasure will I or any intelligent organism get by bossing over others? I dont know that language of power at all.

      I focused on this issue simply because I'm living with some people who are having that problem. People who refuse to understand the meaning of real power.

      Don't misunderstand my response to Datta Ghosh. That was a challenge to her. Not to me. Not to you.

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  6. "Psychologically healthy life lies in learning to live with other people on a kind of equal footing, accepting them as they are as well as accepting oneself without the facades of the inflated ego."

    Paradoxical, in a way. "Equal footing" is a very complicated term. It just doesn't involve one person, but also the other person in the equation. And both of them should be sensible to get this message at the same time - " to accept the others as they are"; which means, everybody in this world should get this message at the same time, and if they get it, probably the term ' neuroticism" will die. And probably, just a wild imagination, there will be no reason for soldiers, psychiatrists, police to exist. Goodness wins and what else is left? Heaven is on Earth.

    According to the second law of thermodynamics the entropy of an isolated system never decreases; entropy being the measure of disorder.
    Personally, I don't see much difference in a society too.

    Thanks, you provoked many deep thoughts. This is a random rambling of it all. :)

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    1. Sun, happy to have you here, especially with entropy - a concept I love.

      Science cannot work much in human societies except for giving more technology and gadgets. In human societies, entropy works. Miracle works. The "equal footing" that I postulated is a very simple concept: you understand me and I strive to understand you. Let us see how much we can understand each other. If we can't do it at all, let us leave each other alone. Otherwise there will be chaos.

      Keep in touch. I think we will make good company.

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  7. Need of power is something very basic and perhaps lies in everybody's sub-conscious...you've nicely explained those persons for which this need overwhelms all other... Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are great examples ...

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    1. Is power a basic need, Maniparna? Ask that to the launderer. Or the sweeper. Or to your teacher.

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  8. Phew.. highly interesting and intellectual.. Humans are obsessed to make otherwise simple life complex :).. I believe it is the side effect of having larger brain and the ability of abstract reasoning.. No wonder i just love babies and animals :P

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    1. Nice response from you, Roohi. The intellectuals make things complex. Rather, they perceive the complexity behind the apparent reality.

      I too prefer the company of my young students to that of any adult. Reason: you've already said it. :)

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