Saturday, February 15, 2014

Anguish is Caused by the Failure to Dominate a Situation: Henri Laborit and Alain Resnais’s Mon Oncle d’Amérique

I don’t know much about the field of ethology, which is the study of behaviors, both in humans and in other organisms (ethos and ethnos share the same route; they deal with ways of acting and being).  And so I can’t tell you much about the French ethologist Henri Laborit, other than that he appears as himself in Alain Resnais’s 1980 film, Mon Oncle d’Amérique, where he offers some very intriguing insights into how poorly adapted the human animal is for modern social life.
The film presents us with three protagonists (or case studies): René Ragueneau (Gerard Depardieu), a Catholic office worker in a textile company; Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia), a Jacqueline-of-all-trades who is variously a communist agitator, stage actress, and higher-up at the company where René works; and Jean Le Gall (Roger Pierre, who looks vaguely like Jean-Pierre Léaud), a teacher turned civil servant turned writer.  We follow them through the various twists and turns of their lives while Henri Laborit offers commentary about the basic (and primitive) behaviors that they engage in.  As Laborit tells it, there are four primary behaviors: consumption (eating, drinking, fucking), combat, flight, and anguish.  Anguish doesn’t really sound like a behavior; it is rather the inability to do anything to control a situation and prevent an undesirable outcome.  Laborit states that “anguish is caused by the failure to dominate a situation.” In a state of anguish, a subject suffers not just from an unpleasant circumstance, but from the knowledge of his or her own impotence.

He illustrates this with an experiment on a lab rat (and I think it is safe to say that animals were harmed in the making of this film).  In the experiment, a rat is placed in a cage with a partition down the middle.  A buzzer goes off and, after a few seconds, a mild electrical shock will strike the rat if it doesn’t flee through a little doorway in the partition to the other side of the cage.  In the first stage of the experiment, the rat rapidly figures out how the system works and learns to flee in a timely fashion.  This is the flight behavior.  In the second stage, the door in the partition is locked and the rat, upon hearing the buzzer, goes into a frenzy of impotent panic before experiencing the shock.  After a while, it stops reacting and just lies there, getting shocked and presumably hating itself.  In stage three, a second rat is introduced into the cage, and when the buzzer goes off and the first rat finds the door closed, he vents his fury by attacking the second rat.  And in this scenario, even though the rat can’t avoid the shock, he does not fall into a state of motionless anguish, because he can vent his fury through combat with the other rat.

Henri Laborit.
We humans, Laborit tells us, often find ourselves in situations of impotence and anguish.  Maybe—and this is illustrated by our three protagonists—we are stuck in a romantic relationship that frustrates us; maybe we are harassed by a coworker whom we can’t avoid.  Whatever the case, we don’t have the options open to the rat: combat and flight.  If we assault our coworker, we’ll go to prison.  If we stop going to work, we won’t be able to support ourselves.  And so we vent our fury on our own bodies, either through psychosomatic illness (René has an ulcer; Jean has kidney stones) or, more destructively, suicide.  It’s a rather bleak picture of the human condition, to suggest that the frustration of these basic animal drives is making us miserable.  But Laborit asserts that until we understand that these are the drives we have to deal with, we will not be able to prevent outbreaks of catastrophic aggression and violence (and he’s thinking big picture: he means war and genocide), let alone illness and suicide.

Post-script: Although Laborit did not know this at the time (1980), peptic and duodenal ulcers are caused by the h. pylori virus.  While stress can exacerbate the condition, recent medical findings suggest that it probably doesn’t cause it.

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