Saturday, December 01, 2007

War and Insanity 3

The Deer Hunter (1978)

It gets easier as one grows older to accept the foibles, inconsistencies, jealousies and sheer anger and hatred that can lie at the centre of the human heart. On an individual level one grows to accept the weaknesses of oneself and of one’s friends and acquaintances. Then and only then can one learn to rejoice in those superior qualities that we humans can show from time to time: - strength of conviction, loyalty, dignity, honesty, integrity, courage, care and love to name some of the more obvious ones. In this light, it’s when we begin to look at the shadow aspects of our own character and begin to tame and integrate them, and it’s when we begin to observe the shadow aspects of our own tribe and accept them that we can learn to appreciate the brighter aspects of our Self and of our individual nations. When we look at both our nations and ourselves in this holistic sense, only then perhaps can we learn to understand even some little of the very mystery that we ourselves really are.

Whatever about accepting ourselves and indeed the mystery of evil in which we are so often embroiled on an individual and on a more universal level, it is almost always very difficult indeed to understand it. I suppose understanding must follow upon acceptance in human affairs. Whether we ever really get to understand the mystery of evil and indeed the mystery of life is indeed a moot question. However, the quest to understand is indeed the spiritual journey of us all, indeed possibly our only one real and meaningful journey. It is, if I may appropriate that existential phrase of Jean-Paul Sartre, our very own unique project.

I have been recently viewing some old films on DVD. The Deer Hunter was one, which I viewed last night, and I believe it has a thing or two to say about the mystery of evil at the heart of man. Most of the story occurs in southern Vietnam and in working-class Clairton, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh. It features the friends Michael, Steven, Nick, Stanley, John, and Axel and they are American steel workers of Rusyn ancestry. Mike, Steven and Nick are soon leaving for service in Vietnam with the U.S. Army. Steven gets married before they ship off, and the following morning, all except Steven go on one last deer hunting trip. The film features Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep. Robert deNiro, who plays the hero, Michael, has said this about acting: “One of the best things about being an actor is that it allows you to live other people’s lives without having to pay the price. It’s not that I find myself to be this fascinating personality, one of the things I had to decide on is whether or not to be an actor or a personality.” Indeed, this is where deNero triumphs as a superb and brilliant actor: - he does indeed get into the mind of the character, the very heart of method acting. Here, he gets into the mind of the Vietnam or Nam veteran realising on screen what it means to be a “killer,” to have the “killer instinct” in that widely accepted way, legitimated by human society – I refer to war of course. War and “official killing” are parallelled in this film with deer hunting. In the most famous quote from the film, “One shot. That’s what it’s all about. One shot,” Michael sums up his philosophy of hunting with his group of close friend’s from the steel works. It is also an ominous and hauntingly ironic line that prefigures the horrific theme of Russian roulette that runs through the film. Could there be a worse action than that of Russian roulette to sum up the depths of evil and insanity? In a way it symbolizes the very pointlessness of war and especially of the war in Vietnam.

Another quote that sticks in our minds is that of the returning Green Beret from Vietnam whom the friends encounter in the wedding scene. When they ask him what Vietnam is like he repeats several times like an ominous chorus, “fuck it!” Already we have the ominous sense of impending doom. The second scene in the film brings to the heart of Vietnam and to the very heart of the matter – the sheer horrific nature of evil. Nick, Steven and Mike are imprisoned by drunken evil Viet Cong captors who are making them play Russian roulette. To engineer their escape, Mike bluffs and tricks the drunken Communist jailors to allow him three bullets in the revolver, in place of just one. The jailors are elated at this insanity, and they increase their bets. Both Mike and Nick pull the trigger once - they both survive, even though the gun has three bullets inside. Then, upon Mike's second turn, he quickly fires the pistol at the Viet Cong, and he and Nick overtake their weapons and kill the rest of the Viet Cong. After rescuing Steve and escaping downriver on a floating tree, an American helicopter rescues them, but only Nick succeeds; the weak Steven falls back to the river, with Mike choosing to drop into the river to rescue him. Steven's legs are severely broken in the fall; Mike carries him until they reach friendly lines. It is interesting to note that DeNero and his fellow actor performed their own stunt here!

DeNiro considered his role as Michael the epitome of his career, because therein he explored the general character of the Vietnam vet with a deep understanding of the traumatic effects such experiences have on the human mind. In a way it is an exploration of insanity, too. It asks the question, “How long can a human being remain sane in the horrific situation in which he or she is dropped during the time of war?” Indeed, it could be argued, as some experts in cinema studies have done, that Taxi Driver, in which DeNero also starred as a Vietnam vet, is in a way a psychological sequel to The Deer Hunter, even though it predates it by two years. It’s as if the Michael of the latter was a more purely noble and heroic character and the Travis Bickle of the former was the resulting embittered, psychologically corrupted and evil serial killer into which Michael would undoubtedly be transformed.

In the mid-seventies of the last century there was definitely a malaise and an unwillingness to cope with the after-effects of the Vietnam war. The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) were the first films to portray combat in Vietnam in over a decade after The Green Berets (1968). Instead, the films of the early to mid-seventies, like Coming Home (1978) and Taxi Driver (1976), dealt with the issue of Vietnam rather indirectly, or more metaphorically, as opposed to head-on, like Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now. Because of this, Taxi Driver was able to explore the psychological implications of a mind that has experienced warfare and how that experience actively controls the passions and violent urges of a character like Travis.

I have already adverted to the fact that the game of Russian roulette runs as a motif through this wonderfully disturbing film. In doing so Cimino has managed to capture the sense of insanity and horror and indeed the sheer pointlessness of war. It was a marvellously effective motif to run with. In so doing we the viewers are left very disturbed by a very disturbing film. This is a tragic and depressing film, which we all need to view and to ponder, as it does not spare the tragic consequences of modern warfare and the sheer lostness of little human beings amidst its sheer horror.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

War and Insanity 2

The Death of Innocence and the Restoration of Sanity

I use the word “innocence,” not to denote a person’s lack of guilt before the laws or standards of State, Church or Personal Conscience, but rather to denote that state of being we have all experienced at some time in our lives where we were blissfully positive about the world and all it contains. In short, I refer to that period in our lives that predates our growing awareness of how the world actually is, that blissful period before experience brings us into the real world.

Parents and adults marvel at the innocence of children – as indeed they should. Responsible parents and adults further realise that such innocence is to be cherished, nourished and protected for a certain length of years in the child’s life. Crimes, which forcefully take away a child’s innocence, are consequently adjudged to be most grave, as indeed they should be. Hence society has put in place many laws, rules and indeed organizations and societies to protect such innocence. However, all parents and adults realise that a child must be gradually taught the ways of the world, as he or she grows older. They teach their youngsters about the dangers involved in living in modern society. Gradually, the growing youngster develops layers of experience until they come of age, normally around 18 where they are adjudged to be adult citizens of society.

I believe that William Blake’s wonderful diptych work Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are worth reading again and again by way of reflecting on the polar opposites innocence and experience. Perhaps, with a more psychological hat on, one could say that these antinomies exist on a continuum just like sexuality and other such oppositional realities. However, a perusal of the wonderful Blake’s literary (or indeed artistic) work must wait for another day and another post.

I believe also that sanity is about acquiring experience layer by layer as we grow through life. This is not to deny innocence at all, but rather to cherish it in its allotted time span and then to see it not so much as totally replaced by experience but rather complemented and strengthened by it. Read Blake and ponder and meditate on it. Then do all the personal developmental work about cherishing the child within. All modern therapies refer to this as self-parenting. Having done a fair bit of this myself in the last ten years or so I can say that it has been most enriching and very rewarding. Such work makes one really aware of how Innocence and Experience are dynamically at work in us all through our lives.

Much psychotherapeutic work (be it grief counselling, psychosexual therapy or therapies around abuse in all its forms, self-harm, depression, schizophrenia, the plethora of phobias) finds that working with the inner child is very rewarding. Gradually as the client or patient embraces the inner child they are strengthened and can move forward in their lives. In other words their sanity is strengthened and consolidated.

I have been reading of late Jonathan Glover’s wonderful book Humanity: A Moral History of Twentieth Century (Random House, 2001). This book interrogates our recent history from a moral point of view. It questions deeply humankind’s psychology and motives. It asks the big questions we all ask from time to time: What made possible in our wildest dreams Hiroshima, the Nazi genocide, the Bombing of Dresden, the Gulag, The Chinese Cultural revolution, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and many other atrocities. Glover writes like an angel and paints vivid word pictures of dreadful events. It is a stimulating and thought-provoking book. But more than that it is deeply humane. It deserves to be read by a very wide audience, I feel, because more of us must ask these bigger and harder questions of ourselves, of our politicians whether local, national, European or international. After all, the very survival of humankind is at stake. Anyway Glover’s first chapter is entitled “Never Such Innocence again” and I was bowled over by its passion for experience-enhanced and experience-strengthened innocence, for deeply held human values. Above all I was captivated by his probing analysis of the psychology of evil and his search for a meaningful ethics and a thoughtful morality.

In this chapter he quotes Philip Larkin’s wonderful poem about those queues of men who gathered outside the enlisting offices all around England in 1914 – indeed he takes his title for the chapter from the poem. I’ll quote Larkin’s poem in full here, as I believe it’s well worth reflecting on.


Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day--
And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word--the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again

Monday, November 26, 2007

War and Insanity 1

The Pity of War and the Philosophy of History

The great philosopher of history, historian and archaeologist Robin George Collingwood (1889-1943) once remarked, “The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history.” I cannot find whether R.G. spent any time in active service or combat during WW I but certainly he was an intelligence officer during the conflict. Certainly also, he would be familiar with the ravages wrought on humankind by modern warfare.

A perusal of such ravages, if “ravages” is not too tame a word, reveals that WW I witnessed between 13 and 15 million deaths; World War II, deaths of between 55 and 65 million; wars/conflicts between 1945 and 2000, deaths of 40 million and deaths under Mao are estimated between 16 million and 30 million. (These figures are given by Milton Leitenberg, of the Center for International and Security Studies in a survey published in 2003) R. G., who died at the early age of 54 in 1943, would not have been aware of the huge size of these numbers nor that further wars would wreak worse havoc than the First and Second World Wars.

It’s probably very hard for us who have never experienced the sheer violence, utter mayhem and wanton destruction of war to realize how horrific such events are in reality. We are left to read the written accounts of those who have actually witnessed and experienced these wars; to view documentaries; to peruse the histories; to read the novels and poems inspired by these dreadful occurrences and to reflect on “man’s inhumanity to man,” to quote an old phrase. One poem comes to mind – one by Wilfred Owen, which sums up the “pity of war” as he was to say himself of his own poems; or rather one which captures the first hand experience of one who was to perish himself at the Sambre-Oise Canal just a week before the war ended, ironically causing news of his death to reach home as the town's church bells declared peace.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The biggest victims of war are surely children. What a price we pay for their tears.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Thoughts on Mental Health 3

Actions, Reactions, Over-reactions, Sanity and Insanity

These themes summarised in my above title are upwards in my mind these last few weeks. At school, I have been encountering students who are, indeed, very angry for one reason or another. This is one of the shocking realities that I have been meeting at a growing rate over the past ten years of my professional life as a teacher. The young people I am dealing with on a daily basis are growing angrier – at least a growing minority of them. I must also point out that the pupils I deal with daily are mostly from the lower socio-economic group. I feel that this may be a contributing factor, but believe that similar levels of anger are growing also among this age group in other socio-economic groupings.

Just last week in class I was admonishing an eighteen-year-old student on his misbehaviour. This student reacted angrily to my admonishment. I was somewhat expecting this reaction as I was tired and more than a little peeved with the general level of attention among the group. However, at this stage, another student who had been quietly doing his work literally exploded at me. He was sitting at the very back of the class, well away from the culprit I was dealing with. In reflection this boy’s explosive reaction at literally “nothing” was tantamount to throwing a match into petrol. Another teacher describes this boy’s behaviour as “nuclear.” Anyway, I was bowled over by this level of unprovoked anger, if not aggression. I defused the situation as best I could and got on with the class. The next day I witnessed the same student reacting aggressively with another student – indeed he gave him a punch in the face. I reported the matter to his year head. The following Monday, this very angry student was absent. When I saw him in class on the Tuesday, I noticed that he had now “two fine black eyes” – “lovely shiners.” I made no comment, needless to say, and nodded knowingly to myself. Now, a week later I have learned that he has since been suspended for telling the games teacher to “fuck off” publicly for substituting him at a football match. Why am I not surprised?

In the marvellous film Mississippi Burning from 1988 we witness Agent Ward (Willem Defoe) ask Agent Anderson (Gene Hackman) the wonderfully potent and significant question, “Where does all this hate come from?” My question, in line with Agent Ward’s is, “Where does all this anger come from?” The above angry boy is just one of a growing number of such pupils in all of our schools. The young man alluded to in the above paragraph is the last in his family living with an alcoholic separated mother. Also I feel that he is on some drug or other which is making him react to or over-react to perceived or imagined insults. There are other angry young men also – one who comes from a family where the father is in prison for having sexually abused the older girls when young. Okay, the list goes on and on, and I won’t bore the reader with it. I’m sure, also, that the list of such problems in bigger schools is even worse than I’ve enumerated here.

The mental health of our young and not so young citizens, I believe, is at a crossroads. In fact, from what I am witnessing both at school and on our streets at the weekends I see growing evidence of excess, debauchery, drunkenness and senseless violence. I, like most adults my age, avoid the centre city (Dublin is where I live) if at all possible when I’m socializing. I have witnessed too many young men and women puking up their guts on the pavements, knots of young men often threatening violence, if not actually punching and kicking one another. What has gone wrong? It would seem to the objective observer that drink and drugs and fast living are proposed as an answer to the stress of modern life. Have we actually lost our way as a society? Alas, it would appear so.

Material possessions bring with them many attendant ills – the dulling of the finer qualities and senses like a sense of the beautiful (aesthetics), a moral sense of right and wrong (morality, ethics), appreciation of the finer things in life like family, job satisfaction, self-development, the importance of the imagination and creativity and the supreme value of simplicity of lifestyle. The more complex and pressurized society becomes people lose a sense of their own value in themselves and for themselves - "to have" become more important than "to be." This last point would seem to me to be the major factor leading to the present unprecedented rise in anger in Irish society. The sheer pressure to acquire more and more things ("to have") has left human beings bereft of any anchor at all in their lives – this to such an extent that they are alienated from themselves, from their real authentic core and essence as a human being. In short, they have forgotten what it is like simply to be! Is it any wonder then that so many young people are full of anger, that they over-react and explode at the least provocation or perceived provocation and that insanity is gradually consuming our society and our sanity is in peril?

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of the surf at Dún Chaoin, in the heart of the Kerry Gaeltacht.

Thoughts on Mental Health 2

The Psychiatrist, the Classical Scholar and the Long Suffering Medieval Historian: Institutions versus Individuals 2

In my last post I was again talking about mental health issues. This is a theme I return to again and again because maintaining our sanity in a world that is so various, so stressful, so diffuse, so dislocated and so scattered; so “incorrigibly plural,” (as the poet puts it) and, in short, so alienating, is surely the most important task any of us has to face on a daily basis. In another word, the world is often “insane.”

These thoughts were provoked by the recent death of the great Irish psychiatrist, Professor Anthony Clare and my perusal of his series of wonderfully insightful books, In The Psychiatrist’s Chair, I, II and III. They make splendidly easy reading - especially at bedtime - and each interview is marvellously perceptive.

Anyway, I was referring in my last post to two “great” men of academia – Oxbridge no less, viz., Sir Kenneth Dover and the much-suffering don, the historian Trevor Aston. In short, Aston ended his life by a cocktail of drink and drugs, and many of his friends felt that Sir Kenneth’s actions – a letter of reprimand – pushed the manic depressive and alcoholic Aston to this dreadful action. Needless to say, this is the “feeling of friends” rather than the “thoughts of objective observers.”

What interests me in this interview with Sir Kenneth is how rational and cold he is and how much of an organization or system’s man he is. His beloved Oxford college, Corpus Christi, is far more important for him that the mere painful and distressing situation of anyone individual.

While Clare in his commentary does not find Dover totally cold and bereft of feeling, he does find that he displays that typically English “stiff upper lip” syndrome. (These are my terms for Clare’s analysis, not his, but I think I am rendering his thoughts fairly accurately). Let me quote here Clare on men and their emotions as I find him very good on this area: “It is interesting how often when talking to men, the issue of emotions and unease concerning their expression comes up. Martin Bell spoke disparagingly of “parading” his emotions. Sir Kenneth struggles hard to manifest an unemotional persona, but reveals that not far underneath is an irritable, potentially aggressive individual, who hints at quite violent fantasies, which he experiences in the setting of a struggle between his sense of order and rationality and the dangers of unfettered emotions and impulses.” (In The Psychiatrist’s Chair, III, p. 84)

One can only marvel at Dover’s self-possession and control and his sheer honesty, but I find myself astounded and taken aback by his unfeeling candour which reveals a total ruthless lack of feeling for Aston’s suffering and that of his family. In his autobiography, which is obviously supremely honest, he admits having thoughts of murdering Trevor Aston to get rid of this blot on his copybook, to use a poor metaphor. Clare quotes from this work, Marginal Comment, these clinically cold words: “But it was clear to me by now that Trevor and the college must somehow be separated. My problem was one which I feel compelled to define with brutal candour: how to kill him without getting into trouble.” (Ibid., p. 82) A friend was to defend Dover’s sentiments here as on a par with Henry II willing the death of the turbulent priest, Thomas à Becket. Needless to say, Aston’s friends were outraged at such coldness and indifference to the dreadful suffering of their loved one.

Dover admits in this interesting interview that he disabused his mind later of murder in these very clinical words: “Because at that stage, having discarded the idea of doing something illegal…” It is significant, surely, that he uses “illegal” instead of “immoral” – a scholar always choosers his words well and precisely!

This interview, I find riveting also, because of Dover’s lack of any sense of guilt. Here again his words are insightful to say the least: “I don’t really go in for guilt. I don’t feel guilty... I don’t know if I’m defining guilt very narrowly but I associate guilt with the feeling that one ought to be punished… and I don’t in fact have that feeling. This may be a deficiency in some way.” (ibid., p. 101-2) Whatever, about this lack of guilt I find the last sentence very honest in its openness to admitting that his character may be flawed. We cannot fault him in such an admission.

Dover admits to having “a prosaic attitude” to life (ibid., p.104) and that death is often welcome in that it is “an end of suffering, an end of grief.” (ibid., 103) As the interview goes on it is particularly clear that Dover is in line with atheistic materialism, though he does not use this term and is possessed of a biological view of the human being (op. cit., passim). However, “utilitarian” may be a more apt description of Dover’s particular outlook on life and my “atheistic materialist” reference may serve to do him an injustice. When asked what he sees as the purpose of life, he replies, “to be useful.”

What interests me in all this, then, is Dover’s attitude to the emotions; his attempt to keep a lid on that Pandora’s box as it were; his tendency to see institutions as more important than individuals - to see the “cult of individuality” (my words) as somewhat suspect and to see cultural “realities” and artefacts as more important in the scheme of things to the feelings of little human beings. All in all, his is a logical world, which seems to have little time for the non-rational, never mind the irrational. For a Greek and Latin scholar one can only marvel at this seeming contradiction. His whole clinical and utilitarian approach to life is singularly lacking in feeling and one wonders how far adrift this may be from more totalitarian and fascist beliefs.

I shall return in later posts to Dover when I will discuss the psychology of religion, because here, too, this learned don is insightful in no small measure.

Above I have uploaded a picture of some rocks I took on the pier in Howth some four years ago!