Saturday, October 06, 2007

Beyond The Homeless Mind 2

Going Beyond The Homeless Mind 2

When I was studying at teacher Education College in the last years of the 1970s the authors and sociologists Peter and Brigitte Berger were in the ascendant as major influences not alone in their own field of sociology but also in associated fields like education, philosophy and theology to name but some. One of the ideas or concepts that they coined was that of the “homeless mind.” I guess they were attempting to capture what it was like for contemporary men and women who found themselves lost in a welter of confusion brought on by technological and scientific progress.

I suppose in many ways we are still lost or rather existentially feel ourselves to be lost beings. From my personal experience the young people I teach are more lost that their parents and grandparents; certainly more lost than I felt myself to be at their age. When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies of the last century there were in Ireland of the time still certain structures that had not as yet begun to crack – like say The Church and indeed The State as equally valid possessors and proclaimers of values which for the most part we all followed. However, since then many cracks have appeared in these two sociological structures – witness the various sex scandals in the former and the blatant corruption of the latter. Indeed no profession has remained immune to this cracking or even rupturing of their sacred vessels – a significant minority of priests, doctors, lawyers, teachers, gardaí, politicians and many more professionals (and consequently the structures of which they are members have been tainted) have been charged with various crimes of sexual abuse, physical abuse and corruption. This, of course, has led to the growth of mistrust and a lack of direction, scepticism and even cynicism in the population at large. No wonder people are more lost and less “at home” as it were than the generations that went before them.

The book I referred to in my first paragraph is called The Homeless Mind : Modernisation and Consciousness (Vintage Books, New York, 1974) and is written by Berger, Berger and Kellner. Many of its contentions are still relevant to us in modern Ireland. They argued that in the USA of 1974 individuals had feelings of anxiety and confusion brought on by varied viewpoints and so those individuals tried to lower that cognitive and felt dissonance by adopting separate thought processes for public and private life. This action, along with other facets of modernization, removed from the individual the feeling of belonging and increasingly gave him or her feelings of isolation, therefore bringing about a feeling of psychological homelessness. The authors argued that new ways of doing things had brought about new ways of thinking about things. How much more in the Ireland of 2007 have new ways of doing things brought about new ways of thinking? Most kids today are all au fait with the Internet and many have their own web pages courtesy of Bebo, MySpace, Facebook and many other free web space providers who offer an easily accessible network allowing our youngsters instant access to one another, to news and even to pornography and to possible exploitation in a sea of alternatives which come at them at a rate never before known in society. Children are sexualized and socialized earlier and earlier. They are seemingly being drawn and even pushing themselves into more and more adult scenarios. As a teacher, I worry about the place of childhood in the life of the modern young person. Innocence in its right place and for a certain amount of chronological time in the young person’s life is essential to proper psychological development.

I believe and feel that many of the youngsters whom I teach glaringly show this psychological homelessness that Berger, Berger and Kellner so perspicaciously adverted to in the United States of the early 1970s. Their understanding of the then malaise affecting contemporary American society is still readily applicable to our current situation in an Ireland which is all too new to the financial security and boundless extra cash which lies in most pockets. Marx adverted to the alienation of the worker from the ends of his work and consequently from himself or herself more than a hundred years ago. Philosophers such a Nietzsche had seen this profound alienation of humankind from itself decades previously. Now the chickens have come home to roost. No wonder modern society is so ruthlessly impersonal even a-personal should the truth be told. Who cares about individuals anymore in the mad rush to succeed? Who cares about the handicapped, the ill or the sick? Certainly their relatives. Who else? Their doctors and nurses surely also.

Berger, Berger and Kellner speak of relevant concepts which are carried over into society like "componentiality" and "separability of means and ends." Workers in factories deal only with components not with the whole product. Hence their experience is one of “parts” rather than “wholes”. This in turn implies that they feel not alone alienated but fragmented in themselves. Also they experience themselves as a “means” separated from the “ends” or purposes of their work. The authors also advert to the growing evidence of "anonymous social relations." There is less of a personal touch in the everyday method of looking at the world. Through this and other ideas brought about through technology, individuals slowly lose their identity. This contributes to the feeling of homelessness. It is hard to disagree with this as regards our everyday work lives. The other major process which brings about modernization, and consequently the feeling of homelessness, according to the authors, is bureaucracy. This, I think, goes without saying. There’s nothing new there.

It is only in the last ten or so years that Ireland has become multiracial with significant numbers of Chinese, Poles, Lithuanians and Latvians to name but some of the more numerous racial minorities amongst us and who will hopefully be integrated. Pluralism has become at last a phenomenon for us Irish. Roman Catholicism is just one set of beliefs among many other sets. Modern means of communication have also allowed us access to a plurality of experiences, beliefs and ideas – and no harm indeed. However, many individuals not committed to any well-defined programme of self-discovery or individuation as Jung would have it feel themselves not alone at a distinct disadvantage but very much lost on a sea of confusion where a profusion of beliefs and choices offer themselves as alternatives in what can be a very frightening world for many.

The authors offer no solutions to these problems save advocating the promotion of local communities which strive to anchor individual identity among pockets of citizens. I have also long believed in building up local community spirit whether it is in schools, in team sports, in local communities or housing estates, tidy towns, or in parishes of different religious denominations. This latter has very much diminished in today’s Ireland as new experiences of what communities are come to the fore.

One of the ways to fight the “homeless mind” is to strive to build up these communities in all their forms and representations. Also we must seek to be healers not alone of the souls of others but of our very own souls. This implies the necessary work of self development and individuation acquired either through reading, practice of various complementary therapies, or indeed attendance at psychotherapies of all types. In all this the building up of trust in ourselves and in other individuals is of paramount importance.

Above is a picture of the post office in Roscrea where my father worked as a postman many years ago in the 40s, 50s and early 60s of the last century. I took this picture 2 weeks ago.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Beyond The Homeless Mind 1

Returning Home – Going beyond the Homeless Mind 1

There can be few more consoling thoughts than that of returning home after a long hard day’s work. Home is where we are at ease with ourselves, and safe as it were in our very own nest. My previous post was about returning to the place of my birth – Roscrea – now no longer my home. In my life I have lived in some five different homes – Roscrea, three different homes in the city of Dublin and in Templeogue in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains. However, returning to the place of my birth and early childhood has led to my reflecting on the nature of what it means to have a "home."

In the last ten years I have discovered Italy and have travelled thither at least twenty times. In a way Italy has become a second home for me. I spent one full month learning Italian in Perugia, the capital of Umbria, and a further month some two years later in Rome learning Italian. Do I miss being away from home when I am abroad? What is home for me when I am abroad? What is home for me when I am travelling? I have come to believe or to be deeply convinced that I am truly at home when I am at home and comfortable in my own mind. When I am comfortable in my own skin, when I can live with myself, when I am at peace deep inside then I can truly say that I am a home. In my reading I have often come across the phrase “the furniture of the mind.” To continue or to sustain this metaphor I delight in telling myself that I comfortably sit in the rocking chair in the sitting room of my own mind. There I am safe; there I am at home; there I am beyond all danger; there I dwell in a sacred space that is truly me. It is a space no one can enter unless I invite them thither.

Now let me advert to two books whose titles set me thinking over the years. They, in fact, share a similar title by sharing three words, namely The Homeless Mind. I will refer to both books in reverse chronological order. (I will deal with the second book in another post.) Let me begin with David Cesarini’s marvellous biography of the tormented twentieth century thinker and intellectual Arthur Koestler (1905-1983), entitled Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind, (New York, Free Press, 1999).

Koestler interested me at college back when I was studying philosophy in the late seventies of the last century because he was a polymath who wrote books and articles on philosophy, social issues and science as well as novels. He was one of the most well-known anti-totalitarians and anti-Communists of his time. My lecturer in philosophy adverted to Koestler a few times as we covered totalitarianism in our history of philosophy classes. Koestler's magnum opus, the novel Darkness at Noon about the Soviet 1930s purges, ranks with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as a fictional treatment of Stalinism. He was a multi-linguist and spoke Hungarian, German, English, French, Hebrew, Russian and some Yiddish. Add to that heady mix that he was a brilliant intellectual and passionate about women and you have a recipe for a complex human being.

However, our man Koestler was also a deeply troubled and disturbed human being. I personally have no evidence for this outside what I have read on him and by him. However, what he did write was shot through with a darkness of vision to make even the most optimistic of readers not a little depressed.

When he and his third wife died in a mutual suicide pact in 1983, he left a bequest for the establishment of a university chair in parapsychology. Ever restless both physically and mentally, he would no sooner set himself up in one home than he was on the move to another. This deep sense of uprooted-ness and homelessness is what interests me here. As a ''homeless mind,'' Koestler was typical of many central European Jewish intellectuals of the twentieth century. The fact that his subject did not make much of his religion is grist to Cesarani's mill, since he believes that ''the attempt to flee Judaism was the quintessential act of the modern Jew.'' The troubled Koestler was always in search of a home for his mind, I contend, like many of our contemporaries today who are uprooted, lost and alienated from themselves. Koestler, A Jew by race but not by religion, an atheist who took his own life, a man cursed with the torment of a deep identity crisis, who had quite a few fraught relationships, who has been accused of rape – indeed his biographer Cesarini claimed that Koestler beat and raped several women, including film director Jill Craigie. The resulting protests led to the removal of a bust of Koestler from public display at the University of Edinburgh. Questions have also been raised by his suicide pact with his last spouse. Although he was terminally ill at the time, she was apparently healthy, leading some to claim he persuaded her to take her own life.

Cesarini argues that Koestler was a self-hating Jew who sought to cover up and deny his real identity or his roots – he was always a complex ambivalent Jew – dangling between extremes of belief and atheism. He drank heavily, got into fights with French intellectuals and American policemen and wrecked a long line of automobiles. Above all, he was a compulsive womanizer, who married three times, had innumerable one-night stands and thought nothing of juggling five members of what he called his ''harem'' simultaneously.

And so Arthur Koestler is a good example of a tormented and troubled human being and intellectual who truly was homeless in mind or restless in mind. Such mental homelessness, such mental restlessness bespeaks a troubled and troublesome man. Not a little therapy could have been of great help we feel. The truly mentally balanced human being, I contend, will be at home with himself or herself, perhaps troubled on occasion, but never beyond help when they are open enough to invite others in – friends and relatives, and even professional psychiatrists or psychotherapists betimes, to share their concerns on a more homely hearth.

The above photo of a delicate cobweb strung across a tombstone is in Roscrea Cemetery where my father's people are buried. Life is just as tenuous as that, I think, betimes. I took this photo two weeks ago.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Back to my Roots 1

Returning To Your Roots 1

One analogy for the personality is that of the onion with the central layer being that of infancy and then all successive layers corresponding to the distinct periods of human growth. In this model, one never really escapes one’s past, and one can with ease, mostly unconscious, go from one layer to another – back to the centre or out to the periphery and back again. We are also well acquainted, from late in the last century, with returning Irish Americans looking for their roots. There was also the screening of Alex Hailey’s famous novel Roots in the late seventies and early nineteen eighties on our TV screens. There the emphasis lay on the roots of the African American.

Our family, the Quinlans, had our own returning long-lost Irish American cousins who came back to the old homeland to search us out. This evening I am sitting in Grant’s Hotel, once called The Pathé, in Roscrea, County Tipperary. My two brothers and I have returned to our birthplace for a family reunion. It must be best part of 30 years or more since we were all here together as teenagers.

As I drove into Roscrea earlier this evening I had a dry feeling in my mouth, brought on, I think, by my realization of how swiftly the years have passed. These were the streets where I had run and played as a young boy up until we moved to Dublin when I was 6 years of age. I remember once being lost in these streets when I was only about four years old. I still recall the fright in my soul, the shock to my system as I felt myself in free fall – my well-defined known world had been left behind and the strange frontiers of unknown places had been momentarily breeched by a not-too-adventurous wee boy. I remember an elderly man, or an adult whom I deemed to be elderly from my youthful perspective, attempting to stop me in my tracks in case I ran out into the roadway. I recall being so frightened that I even managed to break free from his enclosing hands about my little waist. In many ways I am still that little boy, a little less lost perhaps, but I am distinctly he. Indeed, we never forget our past even if we wanted to.

In this town are the graves of my great-grandparents, grandparents, an uncle and a baby brother along with many cousins needless to say. We will go visit these graves and attempt some cleaning up of the latter some time tomorrow. Graveyards are strange places really – they are quiet, tranquil and mostly beautiful. For most of us they can be comforting insofar as they allow us a tangible monument to our beloved departed. When we go to the graves of our departed relatives we meet them in a special way; but more than that we also meet ourselves in a unique way. We encounter what it is that makes us human. We meet ourselves at the edge as it were. We come up against all types of feelings and emotions that well up from the very depths of our being. In short we realize what it means to be mortal. That’s what it’s all about essentially – how we deal with our finitude, our contingency of being, that our very nature is all about growth and growth in its essence implies death. To look at nature or any representatives of the Animal Kingdom (among whom we number human beings needless to say) we must take cognisance of the fact that birth, growth and death are what life is in itself. We will also become aware that to live means to die and that the two are so closely related that we are living and dying at one and the same time.

My two brothers and I chose to stay for two nights to make the most of the weekend. On Saturday morning we visited the graveyard where the Quinlans are buried, took some photographs of the graves and vowed that we’d return sometime in the spring to clean up the headstones and make their epitaphs legible again. St Cronin’s Church is only beautiful and is built of sandstone quarried locally at Carrick where my father was born. That quarry is right above the old homestead. The Church has some beautiful stained glass windows. I’ll upload a few pictures I took of these wonderful windows in this and later posts.

Then we walked around some old haunts from our youth, the three of us remembering various different bits from our childhood – the beautiful primary school that Gerard attended in the early sixties and the dispensary where we were all vaccinated. I remember the needle well and also my screams as I got what was called by the acronym the BCG. I still have those scars on my left shoulder. We also recalled the old malt house that is to be renovated and turned into a public amenity. Then we walked up Gaol Road by the Court House, the oldRoscrea Castle (Butlers’ Castle) twin-towered Gaol and on then to visit where we spent some two hours looking at the wonderful exhibitions contained therein.

Above I have uploaded three small images of Roscrea town taken on Saturday 22nd September when we returned there for a family reunion. These shots were taken around 10 A.M.

P.S. I wrote the above account this evening a little more than a week after our visit to Roscrea