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

In all Senses

We are creatures bounded by our senses.  In a way they define who we are.  I refer here to our five senses which hardly need naming, viz., hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and smelling. I have used the gerund or present participle or verbal noun, call it what you wish, to express the active sense of the senses as it were.  Not that I subscribe to a purely empiricist take on the world.  I am open to the possible existence of "things" or some reality beyond the senses or my senses of them, though, of course, I have no direct evidence of their existence.

There I was last evening viewing the Late Late Show on RTE 1 our national broadcaster, hosted by the inimitable Pat Kenny.  That irrepressible naturalist, one Sir David Attenborough, gave an impressive interview with the show's host.  Towards the end of the interview, in reply to the question as to whether he was a believer in God or not, Sir David replied that he was an agnostic, that he simply did not know whether God existed or not, but that the wonder created in him by the very mystery of music led him to believe in something "spiritual." Whatever music is it certainly  can create within one a powerful emotional, and indeed spiritual response.

Then, I was reading an interview with the great Benedictine monk writer and philosopher Mark Patrick Hederman O.S.B. who in describing what a monastery is for to his interlocutor, said the following:

For me, a monastery is a connecting link, a powerhouse...It's like art.  Artists are animals whose antennae pick up the storm before it arrives, what Heaney calls "the music of what happens" ... You are waiting and listening especially...It's listening to the signs of the times.  Spirit is manifested in people, in places.  There are psychic histories in places...In the monastery, we sing in Latin at Vespers, so prayer for us is liturgical.  It's wonderful.  It's like a river, being in some kind of movement.  Singing and breathing are very important.  It's breath and earth.  It's not about mind.  The Irish Soul in Dialogue, (Stephen J. Costello, ed., The Liffey Press, Dublin, 2001, 117-123

It need hardly be stated here that our modern culture is dominated firstly by the visual.  Every advertiser worth his or her salt understands this profoundly.  Images sell products.  Everywhere we go our eyes are literally assaulted by these self same images.  They demand our attention, indeed steal our attention both consciously and unconsciously.  Secondly our culture is dominated by the verbal - by the spoken and by the written word.  Words like images are everywhere.  As the late great Dr Anthony Storr, that brilliant and most sensitive of psychiatrists says in his wonderful gem of a book on music:

Both musicians and lovers of music who are not professionally trained know that great music brings us more than sensuous pleasure, although sensuous pleasure  is certainly part of the musical experience.  Yet what it brings is hard to define.  (Music and the Mind, Anthony Storr, HarperCollins, 1979, xii)

In this same book Dr Storr goes on to quote the musical expert John Blacking that the acts of singing and dancing preceded the development of verbal interchange. (Vide, opus citatum, p. 12)  I can quite believe this contention and am at one with both Storr and Blacking that such is the case, that singing and dancing are indeed logically prior in time to the emergence of verbal interaction.  One need only thing of the very potency of the rhythms we make when dancing.  People seem to have a primal need to express themselves in dance and sound or song.  After a while we begin to be in rhythm with one another and also in tune with each other.  Such seems to be the nature of the human beast as it were.  Language would appear, I believe, to  be an elaborate complexity of communication worked out at a higher cerebral level. 

And so to return to the title and the opening words of this piece of writing we are creatures who are in every sense of the word bounded by our senses.  And yet we are creatures who ask questions of meaning of the world of perceptions communicated to us by those very senses.  Hence we are sensual creatures seeking a  meaning to those sensations, seeking as it were some strange world of meta-sensation, some metaphysical world of meaning.  And sometimes music that ever-strange and moving supranational and supra-lingual phenomenon moves us beyond sensuous pleasure and brings us into some sublime and spiritual territory which is so hard to be captured in concepts or in words.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of a poster of the great music composer Puccini at Lucca in Toscana, Summer 2006

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Exhausting the Well

Sometimes exhaustion just about sums things up.  Often inspiration, that elusive and much invoked writer's source of ideas, is singularly lacking.  These words are merely wrestling with each other on this page to catch a few stray thoughts and attempt to shape them into some meaningful formation.  That, I suppose is the philosopher's plight, if not that particularly of the creative writer, that he pushes and pushes his questions as far as they can go.  When he can go no further what is left for him to do?  It often seems to me that collapsing in some state of mental exhaustion is his only option.  Constant questioning, which true authentic philosophy is, does like the proverbial drip upon the stone, wear its object down or at least wear a good groove in its surface.

Julia Kristeva (born 1941), the Bulgarian-French philosopher, literary critic, novelist, feminist and psychoanalyst among other designations, who can be seen as straddling the structuralist and post-structuralist movements in continental philosophy, favours a subject always "in process" or "in crisis." In this way, she contributes to the post-structuralist critique of essentialized structures, whilst preserving the teachings of psychoanalysis.  She says that we all suffer from the malady of existence, or from the pain or pathology of living or being.  In other words she argues that we suffer from hurt and confusion in virtue of being born human.  The Irish dramatist, Brian Friel, says rather philosophically and indeed with positive sentiments that such "confusion is not an ignoble condition."  Indeed it is not.  A friend of mine who gave the funeral oration for his father described this experience as "ennobling."  I agree heartily with him.  I have given several eulogies, the most notable of which was one for a work colleague and friend, Mr Brendan Leahy, R.I.P.  I, too, found so doing ennobling and enriching if at one and the same time confusing.  I like Richard Kearney's summation of Kristeva's contribution to the sense of confusion left in philosophy's wake.  I'll quote him rather extensively here as I feel it is worthwhile to ponder.

...Kristeva who is a philosophical psychoanalyst, maintains that there are three ways of dealing with the "melancholic imagination", as she calls is, with our sense of separation and pain and want and lack, and they are: art, psychoanalysis or religionUltimately philosophy does not provide the answers.  Philosophy gets you to question and then leads you to the limits of what can and cannot be answered; but when you reach that limit, art, psychoanalysis and religion take over; psychoanalysis at the level of the unconscious, art at the level of aesthetic experience and imagination which goes deeper than philosophical reason and religion and faith.  Some choose one of those three, some people a combination of all three, some people none of them - they just remain neurotic...  (The Irish Soul In Dialogue, Stephen J. Costello, ed., The Liffey Press, Dublin, 2001, 142.)

Tonight I feel exhausted, my mind frazzled by sheer tiredness, my spirit sapped of any inspiration, my heart sore. Truly with Kristeva the subject of my being, my soul (my word) is "in process" or "in crisis."  Accordingly it is content to be so, to rest, indeed to sleep in confusion; to leave such process and crisis open to the possible suggestions from the dream world of our great, often untapped, unconscious depths.

Above I have uploaded a picture of me at an old disused "dry well" in Sienna, Tuscany, Italy, July 2006.