Friday, December 17, 2004

Freedom with a sigh: Lord Byron and Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is the phenomenon where hostages or prisoners form a powerful relationship with their captors. This can sometimes become a real complicity, with prisoners actually helping the captors to achieve their goals or to escape the authorities.

But in fact we all suffer from a sort of Stockholm syndrome towards all of the restrictions in our lives. Generally speaking, human beings can’t handle too much freedom.

Restraints on our freedom are important for us to be able to function as sane human beings. And if these restraints aren’t real, we tend to make artificial ones. We are everywhere in chains. But we grow to love and depend upon our chains.

One of the themes of Jean-Paul Sartre existentialist novel Nausea is the idea that, if we could admit it to ourselves, each of us is free to do whatever we want. If we wanted, we could at any moment run naked down the street. Or punch a random person in the face, or jump off a cliff, or leave our families, or quit our jobs, or swear at the Queen etc.

But we’d also consequently have to accept full responsibility for our actions. Fear and anxiety (‘nausea’) in the face of this epic responsibility leads individuals to hide both their freedom and responsibility from themselves by lying to themselves. Sartre called this ‘self-deception’.

Leave the dice alone
There was a good example of self-deception in a scene in The Office. Talking to the confessional camera, Tim justifies his unwillingness to take a risk and leave the job that bores him thus (I’m paraphrasing):

“You roll a dice in life. And yes, right now I’m probably on a three. I could roll again and get a six. I could definitely be a six. But I might also get a one. Sometimes it’s better just to leave the dice alone.”

The Prisoner of Chillon
Lord Byron spotted this phenomenon some time before Ricky Gervais or Jean-Paul Sartre, and captured it perfectly his long poem, The Prisoner of Chillon. The poem relates the story of François de Bonnivard, a political prisoner held for four years in the dungeons of Chateau Chillon on Lake Geneva.

This is the last verse:

It might be months, or years, or days
I kept no count, I took no note-
I had no hope my eyes to raise,
And clear them of their dreary mote;

At last men came to set me free;
I ask'd not why, and reck'd not where;
It was at length the same to me,
Fetter'd or fetterless to be,
I learn'd to love despair.

And thus when they appear'd at last,
And all my bonds aside were cast,
These heavy walls to me had grown
A hermitage-and all my own!
And half I felt as they were come
To tear me from a second home:

With spiders I had friendship made
And watch'd them in their sullen trade,
Had seen the mice by moonlight play,
And why should I feel less than they?
We were all inmates of one place,
And I, the monarch of each race,
Had power to kill-yet, strange to tell!
In quiet we had learn'd to dwell;

My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are:-even I
Regain'd my freedom with a sigh.

You can read the whole poem here.

1 comment:

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