Saturday, March 01, 2008

From Breakdown to Breakthrough



Words have always fascinated me, and this not solely in a purely linguistic sense.  I have also been for many years engrossed in matters meta-linguistic. (After all I am a language teacher - trained both in teaching Gaeilge and Italian) Needless to say one can go further than meta-language and ask fundamental questions about language and about its role in society and in finding meaning in life itself, and further still to purely philosophical questions as to the possible meanings that life can offer up to us to keep us going. These individual meanings, as we humans explicate and explain them, are themselves expressed mostly in language. (Of course, we can also express meaning or meanings in forms other than the linguistic - sculpture, painting, ritual, sports and music being other routes of such expression.)

However, being enthralled by words has been the medium of search for meaning and identity in my life.  In a way, words have been both a source of meaning and lack thereof.  Let me explain.  Many years ago I was at college in Mater Dei here and Dublin.  I was young, impressionable and very idealistic - one might say I was a Utopian Socialist - if I may be so bold as to ascribe to myself a description Richard Kearney, one of my favourite contemporary Irish philosophers, uses to describe himself.  I have also mentioned the name of Albert Camus in these posts before, partially because his sparse and spare use of language intrigued me, and also because his bleakness of vision and the passion with which he wrote of such bleakness hit me deep somewhere in my unconscious mind.  Added to that he questioned everything about life, and this I loved.  I remember having to read his famous book The Myth of Sisyphus which I found riveting to say the least.  Why?  Well, it was all to do with words really - the power of words.  Let me explain...

One of Camus' oft-repeated quotes or sayings is this one: - "The language of free men is the language of clarity."   This language of clarity Camus pushed to the extreme.  Again I admit that this is the wont of philosophers - to push their thinking to its logical conclusion.  However, such pushing to extremes can end up against brick walls can it not?  I have already stated in these posts that I don't know whether Camus himself ever suffered from depression or not.  I just don't know.  Perhaps some reader of these words might know.  However, be that as it may, while he dubbed himself the quintessential absurdist he eschewed both the extremes of hope and despair.  One continued with one's task - one grinned and bore one's task or one's fate, even if it be that of pushing the proverbial rock of Sisyphus up the hill to have it inevitably roll back down again and again. In The Myth of Sisyphus, which Albert Camus wrote when he was in his late twenties, he lays out his theme at the start of the section “Absurd Freedom.”  Therein he states:

    I can deny everything in that part of me that lives on uncertain longings, except the desire for unity, the appetite for resolution, the insistence on clarity and cohesion.

I have bolded and italicised a section of the above quotation because I feel Camus' insistence on "clarity and cohesion" to be part of his angst as it were.  Why should we insist on clarity if that very insistence in the end will drive us stark raving mad.  I write these last few lines as one who suffers from endogenous depression of the unipolar variety and who has spent some time in a psychiatric hospital.  Hence my question above as regards Camus' own state of mind.  I am casting my mind back on my own life.  When I was 27 I was writing a thesis called Faith and Theological Method in The Works of John Henry Newman and sitting and doing well in my examinations.  However, I was also working through a minor nervous breakdown or bout of depression at the time.  I can only say that I was diagnosed with a bad dose of the flu and with exhaustion by my then medical doctor.  Depression was never the diagnosis. However, I did work my way out of that depression.  Roll on some thirteen years and bang right at the age of forty I had a major nervous breakdown requiring seven weeks hospitalisation.  All I remember from the first minor breakdown was my desire to get things clear in my mind - my desire for the Camus-like "clarity and cohesion" which I feel do not really exist in human life anyway.  During the second or major breakdown words in the shape of thoughts hijacked my mind.  I had a sense of no longer shaping my thoughts.  My experience at forty was that my thoughts and my words were shaping me.  This was a scary and terrifying experience because I was no longer in the driving seat, my ego was no longer in control. In fact the vehicle which carried my personality or psyche was running out of control completely.  And so the there was breakdown, down, down, down...

And yet another analogy comes to my mind - a significant and meaningful one I believe.  That second major breakdown was like that of one who throws oneself off a high diving board (I deliberately am not using the analogy of a trained diver because that shows too much control over the medium - my analogy is of a poor swimmer or non-swimmer even who throws himself or herself forth) and plunges headlong into the water.  I experienced myself as being that untrained diver going down deeper and deeper.  I was lost, confused, confused, lost, but more, I was gasping for air, I was drowning.  And then the bottom.  Yes, the bottom.  When one reaches the bottom the only way is up.  One kicks one's feet off the floor of the pool and one ascends.  One's head breaks the surface of the water and one breaths in the air in gulps.  Above at the surface, lifeguards in the shape of nurses and doctors and family pull one clear.

Then weeks pass and things become clearer and clearer after the fog of medication and the weeks of various therapies have worked their magic.  Things do become clearer but in a slow, slow way, rather like the way new grass grows on a lawn newly-seeded or like the way one makes a jigsaw.   In this way Break-Down becomes Break-Through.

Let me finish with a longish quote from an interview with my favourite Irish philosopher, Richard Kearney (RK in the following piece).  He, too, suffers from depression. He is being interviewed by another philosopher Stephen J Costello and I'll indent it for emphasis and clarity:

RK: ...Not that burnout is always the result of egoism; that's not what I'm saying.  It's just the body and the psyche reminding you that you can only do so much and you have to acknowledge limits and boundaries and borders.

SJC:  And a breakdown can lead to a breakthrough.

RK:  Absolutely.  And it's not only the Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross image of the dark night of the soul, das Nichts (the nothing), which is the very seed of the Godhead, "God beyond God", as Eckhard says.  It's also the existentialist notion, which I am very partial to, In Kierkegaard and Heidegger, of the being towards nothingness, of the being towards death, as the breakthrough to authenticity, where you let go of the ego-driven desire to impose power and to let things be in their being.  We don't do that naturally.  We have to be brought down into the mud.  Eckhard called it "letting go"; it's the abandonment of the self, which leads to a deeper self.  It's not that it leads to you becoming nothing, as Beckett said.  That doesn't come naturally to us; it has to be beaten into us by existence.  It's a black hand that comes and pulls you under.  (The Irish Soul, ed., Stephen J.Costello, The Liffey Press, 2001, 148)

Above detail of a horse's head from a statue at Pistoia, Toscana, Italia, July, 2006

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