Monday, June 16, 2008

Idling With Ivor 2



Every system needs its leaders, those who lead the onward progress of the institution.  However, every system also needs its prophetic and critical voices, too.  These prophetic and critical voices are, in truth, the conscience of the system, a conscience which can and often does prevent the institution from recklessly forgetting the individuals or clients or users of that very system.  Professor Browne has been truly one of those prophetic and critical voices within Irish psychiatry.  In this post I wish to continue my personal review of his wonderful memoir Music and Madness.

The Field:

I was fascinated with the fact that Ivor's father had leased or rented a field for his children and their friends to play in; wherein he would plant his own vegetables.  I was also fascinated by the fact this man managed to bring the seaweed (used as fertiliser - a traditional Irish practice) up from the shore to his "field" by rigging up a funicular system with pulleys and hooks and buckets.  The children learned good lessons in co-operation through this practice.  One can easily picture how this field became a veritable paradise for young children and their friends.  Being from a country background myself I have always loved the freedom of fields - the mystery, the magic and the wonder of it all - the very home of one's childlike imagination.  And then this insight into his father's treating his children to pints of Guinness Plain porter:  "We'd have a couple of pints and then go home for tea.  In this way I started drinking at the age of ten.  I suppose than nowadays my father would be in trouble for encouraging children to drink." (Op. cit., 21)  I can only marvel at the naturalness of this - Guinness as a refreshing drink after work rather like the way wine is drunk on the continent.  No hint of abuse of drink there!!

Obsession with Music:

Ivor's father was an accomplished musician who played the mandolin and guitar.  It is no wonder  than he became obsessed with music.  Throughout his memoir we have intriguing accounts of Ivor's addiction primarily to the trumpet (which, unfortunately he had to abandon because of that old Irish curse, TB) and also to the uileann pipes with which he used drive his colleagues to distraction through his practice.  Our man loves Jazz, Irish Traditional Music and Classical as well - altogether an very catholic taste in music.  We should expect no less from such an open-minded person.  My own uncles and aunts on my mother's side were all traditional musicians and some of them were dyed-in-the-wool traditional musicians with no time for other types of music.  This is an altogether too narrow an approach for me.  Throughout this memoir Ivor names his favourite jazz musicians, the first records he bought (78s), the Irish musicians in Comhaltas Ceoltóirí with whom he played and whom he befriended and the marvellous classical music concerts he attended when he was a Doctor and student at Harvard University.

I will return briefly here to another favourite psychiatrist and author namely the late Anthony Storr who wrote a wonderfully edifying book called Music and the Mind, (Collins, 1992) which attempted to pinpoint what exactly music is and what its role in human life and culture is.  It is a gem of a book with profound insights into the importance of music to our mental health:

In spite of its widespread diffusion, music remains an enigma.  Music for those who love it is so important that to be deprived of it would constitute a cruel and unusual punishment.  Moreover, the perception of music as a central part of life is not confined to professionals or even gifted amateurs... (op. cit. xii)

It will never be possible to establish the origins of human music with any certainty; however, it seems probable that music developed from the prosodic exchanges between mother and infant which foster and bond between them...Today we are accustomed to considering the response of the individual to music that we are liable to forget that, for most of its history, music has been predominantly a group activity. (Ibid., 23)

Languages are ways of ordering words; political systems are ways of ordering society; musical systems are ways of ordering sounds.  What is universal is the human propensity to create order out of chaos. (ibid., 64)

Music can enable brain-damaged people to accomplish tasks which they could not master without its aid.  It can also make life livable for people who are emotionally disturbed or mentally ill.  (Ibid., 107)

I had better bring to an end my quotations from Storr to whose wonderful writings I have been addicted for years and return to Ivor Browne.  I'm sure Ivor, as an addict of music will forgive this personal foible.   I'm sure also from my reading of Music and Madness that music was and is the unifying mystery that linked the whole enterprise of life together in some strange and wonderful harmony.  Music is of the soul and is and can be when used properly essentially therapeutic and healing of the wounds of the soul.  Hence it is no wonder that a therapist should choose such a wonderfully appropriate title for his memoir. 


Some wild flowers in my front garden, Jily 2007.

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