BAD FOR US by John Portmann


The Lure of Self-Harm
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Musings on why we do bad things to ourselves.

Portmann (When Bad Things Happen to Other People, not reviewed, etc.) approaches the problem of self-harm by looking first at how much we really know about what is good for us. Prevailing social attitudes, he asserts, are the means by which we determine what acts, whether to ourselves or others, are harmful. He examines several specific kinds of self-harm that he says one might want or need to do at least on occasion, based on society’s current moral expectations. These are masturbation, sadomasochism and voluntary slavery, prostitution, humiliating oneself on a talk show, posing naked in front of a camera, not striving to reach one’s potential, drug abuse, and self-neglect. All are illustrated with examples from literature or life. Next he considers briefly four ways in which self-harm can be inflicted: physically, spiritually, socially, and emotionally. In the second part, he turns to self-control, focusing first on the phenomenon of unnecessary self-control. He illustrates this idea by describing at considerable length the present-day behavior of undergraduate men in the locker room at the University of Virginia, where he finds that they hide themselves from the view of other men to protect their sexual reputation. He then considers the limits of self-control, as, for example, in clinical depression. In the final section, Portmann gets down to his central thesis, the paradox that both a sense of self-control and loss of self-control are essential. He uses the word “raving” to designate an intentional leap into rebellion, an act by which one throws off self-control in order to find one’s true self. From the point of view of an observer, the one raving is harming himself, but from the raver’s point of view, he is trying out a new identity. The danger, of course, is that the raver who has little self-control may put himself on a self-destructive path. However, says Portmann, those with adequate self-control have the ability to cut their raving short and pull back from the brink of disaster. In essence, raving is a mark of strength, the act of an individual consciously liberating himself from a restrictive culture. Self-harm is its risk.

Earnest and drawn-out.

Pub Date: July 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-8070-1618-7
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Beacon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2004