The courage of ambivalence?

Caspar Henderson

The best lack all conviction/while the worst are full of passionate intensity

Few lines of poetry are quoted as frequently in times of political uncertainty and crises as these from W B Yeats’s 1919 poem The Second Coming. But can an absence of conviction — or an unwillingness to rush into it precipitately be a virtue? Such is the argument made by the Irish writer Mark O’Connell in The Courage of Ambivalence, a show first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 12 August.

Using the controversy around Christoph B├╝chel’s barca nostra — the wreck of a fishing boat which sank off the coast of Libya in 2015 killing more than 800 refugees that was presented as an art work at the 58th Venice Biennale — as a starting point, O’Connell investigates the nature of ambivalence, and how central it is to human psychology. The philosopher Hili Razinsky tells him that ambivalence is a central aspect of human existence — central to wanting, judging, loving — while the clinical psychologist John O’Connor suggests that “by tuning in to the hatred we have for those we love and the love we have for those we hate, we can begin to see them in a fuller way.”

O’Connell considers the place of ambivalence in political and public life. Andrew O’Hagan who wrote a remarkable essay about his experience of working with the campaigner Julian Assange, tells O’Connell that he remains entirely ambivalent about Assange, saying “I remain entirely before him, and entirely not for him.” Ambivalence, O’Hagan suggests, can be a bridge to human dialogue.

Image of barca nostra via BBC

Caspar Henderson is an associate at Perspectiva

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