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The Birth of Tenderness

"Enough is a feast" by Arul Irudayam. Used through a Creative Commons license

Here in America, November marks the celebration of Thanksgiving, and we at JCF have adopted the theme of gratitude for the MythBlasts this month. Gratitude is an interesting assortment of feelings, a complex emotion that I think leads one to experience one of Friedrich Hölderlin’s favorite words, zärtlichkeit, which translates in English to tenderness. When I feel gratitude, I also notice that I feel peaceful, warmhearted, generous, gentle, humane, and kindly disposed to the world and those in it; I feel a sort of pervasive tenderness—what Hannah Arendt called “a palpating tenderness toward the things of the world.” (Arendt and Heidegger, Briefe 1925 bis 1975 und andere Zeugnisse, p. 21)

The attitude and emotion of tenderness is a difficult thing to achieve, mostly because a “palpating tenderness” is most reliably awakened while participating in (as Joseph Campbell put it) the sorrows of the world, the understanding of life that exists just beyond one’s grasp. Campbell gives us an example of one such tender moment in a story found in Campbell’s edition of The Thousand and One Nights, when a character in one of the stories, Bedreddin is rebuffed by his son  Agib (both unaware they’re related), for whom he feels an uncanny love: “In thy bright visage is a sign that may not be fulfilled, And there all beauties that incite to tenderness are shown [emphasis mine]. Must I then die of thirst, what while thy lips with nectar flow? Thy face is Paradise to me; must I in hell-fire groan?” (“Noureddin Ali of Cairo and His Son Bedreddin Hassan,” p. 195) Agib’s refusal is a dicey moment for Bedreddin in that he cannot understand his feelings for this beautiful young man, yet he willingly risks his own safety should he offend Agib with his intense pursuit. Bedreddin was inhabiting what Hölderlin would have called, “im zarten Augenblicke,” the tender moments. Acting against one’s own instincts seems to be an important factor in creating tenderness.

Speaking of instincts, zärtlichkeit is word often found in the collected works of Sigmund Freud. In Freud’s psychoanalytic writing tenderness may seem at times to be problematic, but in the final analysis, tenderness is awakened when the sexual instinct is sublimated. One cannot help, I think, sensing a larger truth at work, operating in such a way to insist that sexuality is merely a single thread in the totality of psyche (C.G. Jung certainly thought so). It may well be that the successful transformation of any self-interested, instinctual impulse or desire into generosity and benevolence is the gateway to gratitude and, finally, tenderness; one can’t help but be tenderly inclined to the world if one is grateful for existence, grateful for the experience of life on life’s own terms. That is the sentiment, I believe, behind many of Freud's therapeutic desires, such as the transformation of neurotic suffering into common unhappiness.

I'm always impressed with how tough and tough-minded Freud had to be in order to make us all aware of how we move through life pretending to ourselves (and often unaware of the pretending) and others to be something we are not. He cast a light on the substantial darkness and inner conflicts arising from instincts and desires within each one of us, showed us that our most cherished notions, our highest ideals, were not entirely free from uncharitable selfishness or other base motives. Moreover, one's inner darkness offers one a non-rational sense of wonder and Plutonic richness, and in my gratitude for Freud’s trailblazing, strenuous effort, I find, not surprisingly, a deep tenderness for the old lion. 

To achieve gratitude and tenderness one must act with intention; both require a self-aware choice, and that choice is, more often than not, preceded by a struggle within oneself between the avaricious, self-serving and the heartful, noble motives. But the struggle, properly understood, opens the door to gratitude and tenderness—the territory that, by all indications, Joseph Campbell quite naturally inhabited. 

Perhaps, because Campbell came spontaneously, eagerly, and unpretentiously to self-direction and self-discipline, he was congenitally inclined to attitudes of wonder and awe, particularly in his encounters with the natural world. Astonishingly, while yet in his late 20’s he was developing concepts he would continue to refine over the course of his life: amalgam of Joyce’s ‘aesthetic arrest’ and Campbell’s own unique distillate which he would cite in print some twenty years later as his “first function of any living mythology”: to awaken a sense of awe and wonder in response to the unfathomable mystery of the universe (Larsen and Larsen. Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind: the Authorized Biography. Inner Traditions, 2002, p. 161). 

I think it was Campbell’s remarkable capacity for awe which allowed him to, in large part, choose to move through life with an easy, generous grace, with conscious gratitude and a consoling, sympathetic tenderness that soothed the sorrows of living.


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