I still don’t understand why I minded so much that Harvey had fucked another woman. It was right at the beginning, before he gave me my own toothbrush at his flat. We had no agreement about what we were doing with each other. Still, when I found out about it three years later, I felt pulverised. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t unbreak what was broken – perhaps because I found it so hard to grasp quite what it was.
In his 1921 essay ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’, Freud makes fleeting reference to a ‘Prince Rupert’s drop’. Describing the sudden, panicked dissolution of an army at the moment when the leader is lost, he writes: ‘The group vanishes in dust, like a Prince Rupert’s drop when its tail is broken off.’
Also known as ‘Batavian tears’, these little tadpole-shaped glass droplets have puzzled physicists for centuries. The bulbous end is strong enough to withstand being shot or repeatedly beaten with a hammer, but if you snip off the spindly tail – which can be accomplished with an ordinary pair of scissors – the whole thing explodes into powder. How could an object simultaneously be so indestructible and so fragile?
Made in north Germany by dripping molten soda lime or flint glass into water, the drops were first brought to Britain in 1660 by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who gave five of them to King Charles II. He passed them on to the Royal Society, where Constantijn Huygens asked the author/scientist/philosopher/poet/fancy-dresser Margaret Cavendish to establish what was going on with the curious glass beads. She concluded, wrongly, that they must contain a core of volatile liquid that vanished on contact with air.
In 2016, the mystery was finally solved using integrated photoelasticity, which illuminated the stress lines inside the droplet in glowing rainbow bands, allowing scientists to track ‘the repeated bifurcation’ of ‘self-propagating cracks’ that lead to the shattering. Armed with this new information they finally understood what had been holding the droplets together in such a peculiar way. Everything is set in place at the first moment of contact with water: the surface of the molten glass cools and contracts faster than the core, creating an outer layer that presses inwards. This is counterbalanced by the centrifugal push of the slower-to-cool heart. This results in a very particular distribution of stresses, beginning with the highly compressive tensions on the rounded surface of the drop which leave the warmer, still agitated molecules too little space. These are then compacted into one another, creating an incredible suspended energy at the nucleus of the drop. An alteration to the overall balance of forces releases them from their perfect state, but this can only be effected from a particular point – the spindly tail – below which the unlikely and uncomfortable interrelation of molecules proves stubbornly unshakeable.
Without any knowledge of the dynamics at work in the droplet, Freud nonetheless managed to employ the metaphor perfectly. It’s an example of his astonishing, infuriating capacity to extrapolate the imperceptible from the perceptible without being able scientifically to prove the link. He explains that there are invisible forces at work holding groups of people together, but that these are inevitably offset by forces that split them apart. In a large, organised group like an army, people might appear to be held in perfect formation by their multidirectional allegiances to one another and to their leader, but this can change in an instant. If, in order to function together, they have put aside their greed, rivalry and rapaciousness for the sake of the greater good, these disavowed characteristics might suddenly reappear due to a shift in conditions. The example Freud uses is the immediate dispersal of the Assyrian army on hearing that general Holofernes has lost his head: ‘The loss of the leader . . . brings on the outbreak of panic . . . the mutual ties between the members of the group disappear, as a rule, at the same time as the tie with their leader.’ Without their commander around to give orders, enforce rules and bolster the idea of a higher purpose, the individual soldiers are no longer compelled to be ultra-disciplined, and may revert to being regular, self-interested individuals. Whereas the army might have sustained itself with the notion of its members being extraordinarily good to one another while being extraordinarily bad to their adversaries, now the ex-members could choose to be good or bad to anyone according to their own drives and impulses. They might steal from, or trample over, their compatriots in an instantaneous outbreak of egoistic voracity. Equally, they might become terrified that former friends would suddenly turn on them.
As Freud had stated six years earlier, ‘Hate . . . is older than love.’ He argues that the human organism is originally repelled by anything that comes at it from the outside – anything that isn’t itself – but gradually learns to tolerate, even to love, the encroachments the world inflicts on it. Still, the underlying revulsion never fully goes away, but is simply held in check, ready to be activated by circumstance; we’re all soldiers, drilled to walk in formation but ready to break ranks, smash and destroy, if ever we spot the right opportunity.
Three pages on in the ‘Group Psychology’ essay, where Freud begins to dismantle all the ideas he has only just proposed (such as the structural importance of a leader to a group), he refers to Schopenhauer’s famous freezing porcupines, drawn together by their need for heat, but pushed apart by their prickles until, according to Schopenhauer, ‘they had discovered a mean distance at which they could most tolerably exist’. Here, Freud claims, ‘The evidence of psychoanalysis shows us that almost every intimate emotional relation between two people which lasts for some time – marriage, friendship, the relations between parents and children – contains a sediment of feelings of aversion and hostility, which only escapes perception as a result of repression.’ For Freud, it is fundamentally impossible for people to love one another unambiguously. Aggression, hatred, repulsion, rivalry always coexist alongside – or underlie – attachment, cooperation and affection. The closest, most life-sustaining bond is haunted by its opposite; a helpless newborn, desperately needing sustenance and protection, is also bound to be aggravated by touch, sickened by suckling, enraged by the frustrating action and inaction of its carers.
Babies scream because life hurts, attachments disappoint, the world is one gigantic, up-in-your-face horror. This is what you notice first, before socialisation attempts to persuade you otherwise. And then, if all goes well, you forget. Things become organised, start to make sense, appear tolerable, controllable even. You come to like, love, trust, lean on the people who have inflicted this weird existence on you. Or at least you are prepared to overlook a great deal of difficulty in order to sustain your alliances.
Love is never unequivocal. So it stands to reason that a part of me must have disliked Harvey all along. I’d just been waiting for the right conditions to unleash my hatred on him. But what made these particular conditions so right?
It’s New Year’s Eve 1976, five days before my seventh birthday. My family are at the same event we go to every year: a party at my godmother’s place in Gloucestershire. She has by far the biggest house of anyone we know: an ersatz stately home – a Victorian copy of a Georgian pile – complete with columns, gamekeeper’s lodge, lake, folly, even a ha-ha. She has always seemed to me a supremely calm, kind, blow-dried woman. My sister and I have been told that this is the family we would live with if both our parents died. It’s a spectacular house, but we very much hope our mum and dad will stick around to bring us up. We’ve read Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and are fully indoctrinated into the belief that biological parents are best. You wouldn’t want to be left in the clutches of someone who was probably only pretending to care about you as a favour to someone else, however serene and elegantly coiffed they might appear.
It’s the early part of the evening, when children are still allowed in the drawing room. We’ve never stayed up till midnight – not at New Year’s Eve or any other time. It’s all a bit of a mystery what goes on then, but the signs are a little worrying. My mum, dad and I are sitting around the end of a long, mahogany dining table, with me at the head. Kate Dartford – Levi’s mum – is perched on my dad’s lap, directly across from my mum. The reason for this, ostensibly, is that there aren’t enough chairs to go round. I would be very happy to move, to sit on my mum’s lap and give Levi’s mum the chair, but it all becomes a big, awkward joke about space and chairs and laps. I have the idea that my mum is deeply uncomfortable, although it might just be me. I also think Levi’s mum is acting a little weirdly. Is she laughing too much to cover something up? Does she want to stay there? Or is she biding her time till she finds a way to excuse herself ? I feel frightened and angry. It’s hard to see what’s making us all agree to this. Why would my dad take the risk? By showing my mum and me what it might look like if all the relations between us suddenly changed – if Levi’s mum was the correct person for him to have on his lap, and my mum and I were separate from him and from each other – it’s as if he’s issuing a threat. The question is whether he knows he’s doing it, or whether his enjoyment is blinding him to the possible significance of the seating arrangement. In either case I hate him for it. It doesn’t take much to snap the tail and, before you know it, everything’s broken.
At ten o’clock, it’s time for the children to disappear. This particular house has about fifteen bedrooms, some of which are spooky and only semi-furnished, while others are flamboyantly decorated and welcoming. The children are guided towards the shabby rooms at the top of the house, the lower-down ones being reserved for more esteemed visitors. We’re quite used to this – we know that they eat better food, wear better clothes and sleep in better rooms than us. My sister and I always wake up early after parties in our own house to steal the chocolates, Bath Oliver biscuits and real butter that would otherwise never make an appearance in our lives.
As soon as we feel we’ve left enough time to make the adults believe we’re sleeping, we reconvene in one of the best bedrooms and look for ways to amuse ourselves. This particular bedroom has a number of spectacular features: an en-suite bathroom with bidet, Liberty peacock-patterned wallpaper, a plume of real peacock feathers (collected from the peacocks in the garden), low lighting, a huge bed and a chintzy antique china washing bowl and jug.
I have no idea how we came up with that night’s special activity. I don’t think there was a leader telling us what to do. There were probably a few abortive attempts at fun – wink murder, bouncing on the bed – before it all came about quite haphazardly, one idea building on another until we hit upon the perfect enterprise. An en-suite bathroom obviously had potential – there were bottles, taps, Crabtree & Evelyn soaps and lotions. The game involved gathering tissues, cotton wool and loo paper, soaking them in either the jug or the bowl and throwing them at the wall. You could cram a lot of violence into the launch – you wanted your missile to land with a satisfying splat – but then the slow creep down the wallpaper was unexpectedly mesmerising. It turned out to be the game that had everything. You could play it competitively or non-competitively, either going up against one another on the grounds of bundle size and hit height, or noodling away in a corner, perhaps making 3D polka dots or spirals. It was all at once a physics experiment, a protest, an art form and an act of catharsis.
I suppose we must have become a bit noisy. Or maybe it was the light under the door. Or perhaps we just kept going till after midnight when someone came up to collect us. Anyhow, eventually we were discovered. My godmother screamed and ranted, unleashing on us what seemed to me a pure form of hate. Naturally, she was angry at her own children, but they would never have done it without us. We were foul, destructive, despicable, thoughtless. Couldn’t we see the blisters forming in the new wallpaper? The murky stains along the edge of the pale carpet? Why, why, why? What was wrong with us?
Thank goodness my parents were, are, still alive and we were never thrown to the mercy of this woman. Having seen the flip side of her immaculate exterior, I suspected she might not have had the wherewithal to love us in quite the right way.
My mum and dad also stayed together, confounding my almost constant suspicion: why did my dad sometimes join us late on holiday, apparently due to some unforeseeable last-minute work emergency? Did he really have to crash-land his glider and wait in a field to be rescued, having phoned home from a call box, every other Sunday? What kind of conversation was my mother having with my godfather, so close together on the garden wall that sunny afternoon? There were secrets, I was sure, but accessing them seemed impossible. You couldn’t ask outright, and everything clung together too well for the underlying forces ever to be exposed.
Since looking up Batavian tears I’ve occasionally found myself wondering about the original gift to the king. It can’t have been just five drops, although this is what history tells us. If Charles II gave five to the Royal Society then surely there must have been at least six. Wouldn’t you need to shatter one for the gift to be credible? Maybe there were ten . . . fifteen . . . a hundred. Perhaps Rupert and Charles sat around cracking them all afternoon before they decided to preserve the last handful. And how many did the scientists then have to smash before they felt satisfied with their fantastical, speculative theories? Did they enjoy destroying the delicate, pretty little trinkets belonging to the king? What a strange, terrible, exciting present – something you have to defile in order to appreciate.
It’s almost impossible to paraphrase Freud without feeling like you’re missing out all the important bits. Every part seems to depend on every other part – and this is in spite of what Freud himself called his ‘Viennese Schlamperei’, referring to a kind of slapdashness born from trying to jot too many ideas down too quickly. (Pressurised, like hot glass in cold water?)