The Kenya Forum | Diving into the Abyss: Unraveling the Enigma of Masochistic Tenderness - The Kenya Forum

April 6, 2024


Recognizing masochistic tenderness as a paradox to be transcended rather than embraced is essential for society to reach its highest moral potential.

More by Waweru Njoroge

Diving into the Abyss: Unraveling the Enigma of Masochistic Tenderness

Diving into the Abyss: Unraveling the Enigma of Masochistic Tenderness

The oldman in the cripplechair
Died in transit through the air
And slopped into the road.

The driver of the lethallory
Trembled out and cried: ‘I’m sorry,
But it was his own fault’.

Humans snuggled round the mess
In masochistic tenderness
As raindrops danced in his womb

But something else obsessed my brain,
The canvas, twistedsteel and cane,
His chair, spreadeagled in the rain,
Like a fallen birdman.

-The Fallen Birdman by Roger McGough

As a young student, I was introduced to the world of poetry through Jack Hydes’ anthology, “Touched with Fire: An Anthology of Poems.” Among the selections in Section B, “the light of the setting suns,” was the poem that you have just read. Even now, years later, the third stanza of this poem remains deeply ingrained in my memory, resonating within the recesses of my mind. In this reflection, I aim to share my sentiments and delve into the profound impact this particular stanza has on society as a whole.

Beyond the Surface: Delving into the Dual Nature of Human Response

In his evocative poem “The Fallen Birdman,” Roger McGough presents a chilling exploration of humanity’s complex relationship with tragedy. Through vivid imagery and sharp language, McGough reveals a profound paradox ingrained in the human psyche – an intricate interplay between compassionate empathy and a morbid fascination towards the grim. As we witness the narrator’s retelling of a tragic accident, we are confronted with the unsettling yet captivating response of the bystanders, encapsulated by what the poet terms “masochistic tenderness.”

Initially, the scene depicted in the poem is deeply disturbing, with its graphic portrayal of violence and despair. However, as McGough’s unflinching narrative draws us in, we find ourselves unable to look away. There exists a primal curiosity that overrides our natural aversion, compelling us to explore the raw emotions of the moment further. We become akin to rubberneckers on a highway, slowing down to gaze upon carnage despite our souls recoiling in horror. This dual nature suggests underlying currents that are often left unexamined – the ability to find ‘release’ in witnessing misery, and the unsettling fascination that accompanies sorrow when confronted with the suffering of others. Exploring this contradiction not only sheds light on our inner emotional landscape but also exposes the blurred boundaries where our darkest curiosities merge with our capacity for compassion and mercy.

Masochistic Tenderness: Seeking Meaning in the Midst of Suffering

Wrestling with the concept of “masochistic tenderness” forces us to confront the complexity of human nature. The phrase poses challenging questions: What drives this cruel pull towards the darker facets of existence, towards the abyss of suffering that we typically strive to avoid? What primal instincts are at play? And how can we balance empathy with the voyeuristic allure that often accompanies it? Confronting these tensions is essential to understanding the paradoxical nature of the human experience.

One interpretation suggests that witnessing such visceral displays of tragedy serves as a stark reminder of our own mortality and fragility. The sudden and violent unraveling of a life, symbolized by the image of the fallen man fused grotesquely with his wheelchair, shatters our illusions of stability and control. In confronting the stark reality of mortality, we are forced to confront our own vulnerabilities and limitations, which can be unsettling and disorienting. Perhaps our masochistic tenderness towards the suffering of others serves as a way to grapple with the big questions about life and death, giving us a brief peek into the mysteries of existence.

Echoes of Instinct: Tragedy in Modern Life

Yet, beneath this philosophical interpretation lies a more primal impulse – an evolutionary legacy that drives us to confront and internalize scenes of trauma and death. For our ancestors on the brink of mortality, the ability to analyze and learn from such scenes was crucial for survival. Our modern-day fascination with tragedy could thus be seen as a distorted echo of this primal instinct, transformed into a voyeuristic indulgence by the safety and privilege of modern life.

Furthermore, our fascination with tragedy holds a psychological dimension, driven by our innate urge to establish control and certainty amid chaos. By assigning blame and rationalizing the victim’s fate, we strive to bring order to a disorderly world, finding comfort in the illusion of our own agency. This quest for control manifests in our consumption of curated portrayals of tragedy, enabling us to maintain a detached perspective while satisfying our morbid curiosity.

Navigating Uncertainty: Illusions of Control

Our captivation with grim tragedies transcends mere curiosity, delving into the depths of our psyche and unveiling underlying psychological needs and coping mechanisms. One such need is our inherent craving for reassurance and validation in the face of uncertainty and mortality.

The driver’s frantic attempt to assign blame and justify the tragedy in “The Fallen Birdman” epitomizes this longing for reassurance. In times of chaos and distress, humans instinctively strive to impose order and control on their surroundings. By attributing fault to the victim, the driver seeks to construct a narrative that reinforces the illusion of control – the belief that misfortune can be evaded through flawless conduct.

Seeking Solace in Separation: The Human Yearning for Reassurance

This yearning for reassurance manifests in our inclination to distance ourselves from the victims of tragedy. By empathizing with their suffering from afar, we seek to reassure ourselves that we are not destined for a similar fate. We persuade ourselves that the victim’s circumstances are unique to them, that their misfortune arose from their own actions or inadequacies. This detachment enables us to uphold a psychological barrier against the prospect of tragedy striking us, reaffirming our belief in our own invincibility.

Moreover, this need for reassurance and control is deeply intertwined with our fear of the unknown and the unpredictable nature of life. Tragedies remind us of the fragility of existence and the arbitrary nature of fate, stirring up feelings of anxiety and vulnerability. In response, we grasp for a sense of agency, clinging to the belief that if we adhere to certain rules or behaviors, we can avoid a similar fate.

But there is a cautionary to be headed. This quest for reassurance comes at a cost. By attributing fault to the victim and distancing ourselves from their suffering, we risk diminishing their humanity and dignity. We fail to acknowledge the systemic factors and external circumstances that may have contributed to their plight, instead opting for a simplistic narrative that absolves us of any responsibility or accountability.

Nature’s Complicity: The Silent Witness to Human Despair

McGough’s utilization of vivid imagery within “The Fallen Birdman”, elevates the poem to a realm where nature becomes an active participant in the unfolding tragedy. The line “raindrops danc[ing] in his womb” encapsulates this notion, imbuing the natural elements with a sense of sadistic glee. The choice of the word “womb” is particularly striking, as it typically connotes warmth, safety, and nurturing. However, in this context, it takes on a sinister undertone, implying a cruel and indifferent environment where even raindrops seem to revel in the misery of the fallen man.
Furthermore, portraying the fallen man’s wheelchair as a “fallen birdman” adds another layer of complexity to the imagery. This metaphor not only emphasizes the fragility of the human condition but also introduces the idea of observing tragedy as if it were avant-garde performance art. The contrast between the graceful, soaring image of a bird and the harsh reality of death and disability creates a dissonance that is both unsettling and thought-provoking. It invites the reader to contemplate the voyeuristic nature of our fascination with tragedy and the ways in which we distance ourselves from the rawness of human suffering by viewing it through a lens of artistic interpretation.

In addition, by personifying nature as a silent yet complicit observer of the unfolding tragedy, McGough underscores the indifference of the natural world to human suffering. The raindrops, typically seen as symbols of renewal and cleansing, are transformed into indifferent spectators, adding to the sense of isolation and despair surrounding the fallen man. This portrayal challenges the romanticized notion of nature as a benevolent force, highlighting its role as an impartial backdrop against which human dramas unfold.

The Paradox of Modern Sensibilities: Scripted Suffering

In our modern media-saturated society, we are provided with convenient, scripted outlets to indulge the primordial impulses towards violence and suffering that McGough hints at in his haunting poem. An avalanche of visuals surrounding human anguish and brutality bombards us constantly through entertainment, news media, and online – a ceaseless barrage of suffering rendered digitally for our consumption. We can engage voyeuristically with the most graphic violence, yet they are safely contained within screens and framed in visually palatable ways.

This deluge of scripted suffering caters to a peculiar side of human psychology. The tenderness we publicly display towards these contrived depictions of anguish provides a socially-sanctioned cathartic release – a purging of dread and alleviation of culpability through vicarious commiseration with the suffering we witness at a remove. By empathizing with stylized representations of violence and victimhood, we indulge the very “masochistic tenderness” that so troubled McGough, while insulating ourselves from true ambient misery. The tragedy unfolds, but at a sanitized distance.
And yet McGough’s searing depiction should give us pause. For we must remain conscious that the “masochistic tenderness” he renders so vividly represents a deeply paradoxical state of being. Our avid, nearly compulsive consumption of violent imagery stems from the same deep psychological wellsprings as our most tender humanitarian impulses.

Dignity Amidst Despair: The Importance of Respectful Narratives

If we are to resolve this paradox of tenderness and objectification that McGough locates at the core of our psyche, we must strive to embrace an ethic of empathetic tenderness untainted by voyeurism’s powerful undertow. To turn our gaze inward and bear witness to authentic suffering not out of morbid fascination, but out of compassion and a desire for justice and positive change.

Unflinching yet unsensational portrayals of human anguish and injustice, such as those depicted in McGough’s powerful poetry, offer valuable reminders against indulging our most primal instincts. They serve as reflections of the darker contradictions within ourselves, urging us to confront the complexities of our humanity.

Instead of passively consuming sanitized or sensationalized violence from a distance, we should engage with depictions of suffering that maintain dignity and respect for the victims. This means turning our attention towards narratives that honor the human experience without glorifying or trivializing pain.

Recognizing masochistic tenderness as a paradox to be transcended rather than embraced is essential for society to reach its highest moral potential. McGough’s evocative imagery of “Humans snuggled round the mess” serves as a powerful reminder to break free from the cycles of objectification and brutality that influence our consumption and portrayal of violence.

The fallen birdman symbolizes the need for us to face uncomfortable truths head-on, rather than turning away or numbing ourselves to the harsh realities of the world. It calls for an honest and unflinching examination of the ways in which we engage with suffering and injustice, challenging us to strive for greater empathy, compassion, and societal change.


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