Saturday, March 29, 2008

Freud - From Breakdown to Breakthrough

I have been reading Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams these past three or four weeks.  Here I would just like to offer a few preliminary remarks before I eventually summarise my findings in these pages.  This blog has become for me a way of getting to grips with Freud's thought.  I am also conscious that I am reading into Freud as well as reading him.  Realising this, I hope that these musings will be consequently a tad more objective.

It has never ceased to amaze me that many people who suffer from neuroses and even psychoses like manic depression (bipolar disorder) or schizophrenia can be and are extremely creative individuals.  The character who springs to mind very readily is the late Spike Milligan, writer, musician and comedian, who not alone suffered from manic depression, but who went on to write a book called Depression and How to Survive it (Arrow Books, London, 1994) with Professor Anthony Clare.

On a personal note, a number of friends who have had what we colloquially call "nervous breakdowns" have ended up either writing or painting their experiences - some even managing to get some of their works published or sold.  After my own encounter with my "demons" (or even perhaps more precisely and accurately my "daimon" = In psychology, the Daimonic is the unrest which forces one into the unknown, leading to self-destruction or self-discovery) I ended up writing a novel with a veritable tour de force of released energy - I did not get that book published at all, the whole writing of it was cathartic and therapeutic.  I did manage to get a very different book published some 4 years after my initial breakdown.  Hence, I have always looked on my breakdown as more correctly termed a breakthrough.  Metaphorically, then, I can say that both good demons and bad demons were released for me -'eudaimons' and 'cacodaimons.'  

1. Anyway, my autobiographical introduction has this point, namely that Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams was his way of working through his own personal crisis.  Ritchie Robertson, in his wonderful introduction to my Oxford World's Classics edition of the book refers to Freud's "creative illness." (op. cit., x)  Immediately before and during his writing of this famous book (which was published in 1900), our author like any other human being was much stressed out.  His father had died in 1896 and Freud was overcome with grief.  Also he was working very hard indeed, was rearing a family and the consequent worry brought on what we today might call a breakdown, or more correctly breakthrough.  He worked through his illness by methodically probing his past.  The Interpretation was Freud's main therapeutic activity.  As Robertson points out this book is "among other things, a disguised autobiography, drawing on the dreams that provided Freud with the material for self-analysis." (Ibid., xi)


2. This book's guiding metaphor or motif is that of journey.

3. The key concepts on which his theory is based, namely that of primary and secondary processes, are explained near the end of the book.  See this link for my treatment of these Processes.


4.  Freud shows great scholarship, especially classical and he begins his book with a review of dreams and their role in classical literature: Aristotle,, Lucretius, Cicero and Virgil to name but some.  In other words Freud is not just writing for a medically learned audience, but also placing his work right at the very heart of culture itself.


5.  Freud deals with many specimen dreams - famous one by Joseph in Genesis 41 and some samples from the dream book of Artemidorus of Daldis (2nd century AD).


6.  Freud analyses these dreams scientifically, he believes, by using his famous method of free association.


7.  He makes the contentious claim that all dreams are essentially fulfilments of wishes.


8.  Freud tried valiantly to make anxiety dreams fit in with his overarching theory in point 7 above.  His efforts were and are adjudged not to be very successful.


9.  He outlines his important distinction between the latent and manifest contents of dreams.  The latter content is obviously what is shown to us in the dream while the former refers to the hidden or unflattering or even unwanted content.


10.  Dreams are not alone central to the individual psychic life but are also pivotal in our culture at large.  He notes that the Oedipus Complex can be noted clearly in many of Shakespeare's works as well as essentially in Sophocles' Oedipus


11.  Latent dream thought is shaped into our actual dream by four processes: (i) Condensation - a fusing of different dream elements, (ii) Displacement - transferring emotional intensity from centre to the periphery of dream-thought, (iii) Adaptation which often leads to illogicality and (iv)  Secondary Revision.


12.  In the final chapter Freud warns us that our journey will descend once more into darkness, uncertainty and speculation.  In other words, Freud is reaching his major conclusion with respect to dreams, and that is that all psychical activity is determined by the pursuit of an unconscious purpose.


13.  Also Freud stresses in this final chapter his theory of regression.  In fact Freud puts diagrams before us for our perusal because being originally a neurologist trained by Charcot in Paris he sought to represent the direction of psychical energy within the mind.  As Robertson succinctly puts it: "Freud gave these conceptions spatial form because he still thought, as in his "Project", that it would eventually be possible to locate them within the brain as described in neurology." (op. cit., xv)  Consequently in dreaming energy flows in a counter direction to say all our motor requirements in the body. (see ibid., xv and following.)

Above I have uploaded a picture of a statue of Irish Famine victims in Boston which I took in March 2002 while on a visit there with my cousin Paul. The Irish Famine led many to search for their dreams elswhere.

"If this be madness there is method in it"

Readers will immediately know that my title is a quotation from Shakespeare's Hamlet, the words spoken by Polonius who is commenting on Hamlet's "antic disposition."  As to what madness is no one can quite agree.  As I have outlined in my last post the demarcation lines between sanity and insanity may not be that particularly clear.  The late great Roy Porter (1946-2002) in his marvellously illuminating Madness: A Brief History (Oxford, 2002) quotes this same Polonius and praises him for his perspicacity in being unable to define madness and being content to state merely that "what is't but to be nothing else but mad." (op.cit., 1)  There are even scholarly psychiatrists (admittedly in a very small minority indeed) who doubt the existence of madness itself. (Whether these scholars doubt the necessity of their own professional specialism is not at all too clear.  I presume they are aware of the blindingly obvious contradiction).  I refer here to the likes of Professor Thomas Szasz of Syracuse University, New York who says that madness is not a disease but rather a myth promulgated by psychiatrists for reasons of professional advancement and "endorsed by society because it sanctions easy solutions for problem people." (Ibid., 2)  I can only presume he's not that popular with his professional colleagues.

Be that as it may, I have already referred to the fact that I believe in treating all human beings as human beings, just that.  One of the worst offences those of us who are not physically challenged make against our disabled brothers and sisters is to talk about them in the third person rather than addressing them in the second.  A similar offence, I believe, is to treat the mentally ill in a like fashion.  I have already not only alluded to but also quoted extensively the wonderfully humane existentialist psychiatrist R.D. Laing in these pages before.  See this link Laing for my considerations of his writings and thought.   He approached all his patients as persons with feelings, not as cases of "madness" to be "cured."

One of the greatest contemporary scholars of the subject in question here, namely madness or insanity - more kindly called mental illness - is Dr. Richard Bentall, one time Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool and current Professor of Experimental Clinical Psychology at the University of Manchester.  In his preface to his masterful Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature (Penguin, 2004) he says the following which I deem profoundly obvious and extremely heartening and essentially positively wholesome as regards the essence of the human condition.  Read Richard P. Bentall's words below and savour them.  I'll indent them for emphasis.  Maybe after reading them you will not use such loaded words as "mad" and "fool" lightly again.

Scientists like ordinary folk and psychiatric patients, are flawed, emotional and excitable human beings who are sometimes wise and sometimes stupid, sometimes lovable and sometimes bloody irritating.  By talking about my own experiences, both positive and negative, I have attempted to highlight an important theme of this book, which is the vanishingly small difference between the "us" who are sane and the "them" who are not.  At a recent conference I was introduced as "Someone who has done more than most to move the dividing line between sanity and madness", which I think was a compliment.  In any case, in these pages I have tried to demonstrate that the differences between those who are diagnosed as suffering a psychiatric disorder and those who are not amounts to not very much.  This is an important insight because of its implications for psychiatric care.  As I hope to demonstrate in a later publication, the dreadful state of our psychiatric services is not only a consequence of muddled thinking about the nature of psychiatric disorders, but also a consequence of the way in which psychiatric patients have been denied a voice by being treated as irrational and dangerous, like wild animals in a zoo.

(Op. cit., xiv)

Friday, March 28, 2008

If this be madness...

These thoughts are meant to be provocative.  Can we define what is meant by madness as all?  Can we even define what we mean by sanity?  As these two terms are polar opposites like any other such pair one might care to mention the problem lies as to where one might draw the line between them.  An apt and perspicacious quotation that readily jumps into my mind is one from John Dryden which runs:

Great Wits are sure to Madness near alli’d
And thin Partitions do their Bounds divide...

(John Dryden (1631–1700), British poet. Absalom and Achitophel)

Here Dryden suggests the close proximity of genius to madness.  Perhaps he was right.  However, like tolerably good philosophers or even tolerably good scientists, we shan't be too quick to rush to judgement on this moot question for the moment.   It is here that the thorny questions of Power and the Abuse of Power come in.  In other words who is qualified to make the judgement between what is madness and its polar opposite, sanity anyway?  Psychiatrists, sociologists, philosophers, doctors or family members? 

What inspired these rather strange and bothersome thoughts?  Well the answer is a film - yes a film.  I have long felt that good films like good literature should set us thinking.  If a book annoys or disturbs us perhaps it has achieved something important.  Likewise, I suggest that a film that shakes us up somewhat and sends us out into the night air somewhat chastened has achieved something of no little importance.

The film in question is There Will be Blood directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring the inimitable and extraordinarily talented Daniel Day-Lewis.  This film is nothing short of brilliant in a magnificent and disturbing way.  The cinematography is superb and brings us face to face with a landscape that is brutal, brutish and harsh but grand, vast and mysterious as we have always imagined the West of the American continent to be.  In fact it is so good that one can imagine immediately that one is actually back in the West from 1898 through to 1927. It is a film about greed and power and money and oil, that blackest of gold.  The film is about more indeed.  It plumbs the darkest recesses in the soul of man, those dark areas of hate, greed, jealousy and envy.  Daniel Day-Lewis is in practically every scene in the film and like Shakespeare said of Julius Caesar he strides across the screen like a colossus.  The character he plays, called Daniel Plainview, will do anything to succeed in this world: he will walk on others, he will hurt, maim and murder.  He believes in revenge and very readily gives into anger and allows it to drive his success. He sees the world as a hard, bitter and cruel place where you have to be hard, bitter and cruel to succeed.  The only other person on the planet he loves is his son  (adopted from a fellow worker who was killed in an accident early in the film) – but even there, he uses the image of his son to just gain the trust of others. He needs them to see him as a family man, because it’s easier to trust a family man.  So even his love is superficial. 

Daniel Day-Lewis's character is counterbalanced brilliantly by the sly, slippery con-man of a minister whom, needless to say, Plainview sees through.  Paul Dano plays this part wonderfully and is a fitting foil for the leading actor's mighty talent.  Here  again, this character Eli Sunday is only using religion as a means of making a profit.  In a sense he is a prophet looking for profit if you forgive the pun.  Robert Elswit's photography is breathtaking. Then the score is hauntingly beautiful and disturbing and is brilliantly created by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood.  Without a doubt we can say that this score is a direct echo of Daniel Plainview's soul.  At times the music is classical and quaint and comforting; at other times it is experimental and atonal and contrapuntal - symbolizing the noise in Daniel's soul or echoing the pounding of the drilling for oil.

So much for this fine film.  Just go and see it.  In fact go and see it a few times and ponder... Yes ponder on it.  It got me thinking about sanity and insanity, madness and more madness.  It also got me thinking about power and how men use power to crack and crush the weaker among us.  And power can be found in all spheres of life.  It wears many types of clothes as it were - a soldier's, a policeman's, a priest's, a prophet's, a teacher's, a doorman's, a bouncer's or any other character's uniform you care to mention.  Power really does go to the head and it corrupts all from the lowliest to the highest.  And madness and sanity, what are they at all?  Who defines them?  Who says where one begins and the other ends?  Perhaps those making the decisions are corrupt and are signing committal papers to asylums for those they do not really like and for whom care little.  I'll finish with a quotation which is always my wont.


And what is an authentic madman? It is a man who preferred to become mad, in the socially accepted sense of the word, rather than forfeit a certain superior idea of human honour. So society has strangled in its asylums all those it wanted to get rid of or protect itself from, because they refused to become its accomplices in certain great nastinesses. For a madman is also a man whom society did not want to hear and whom it wanted to prevent from uttering certain intolerable truths. - Antonin Artaud

[Antonin Artaud (1896–1948), French theatre producer, actor, theorist - in Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag (1976).]

Above I have placed a picture taken from the cave as one looks up from its depths towards its mouth, June 2003

Monday, March 24, 2008

Pleasure Principle versus Reality Principle

These two principles also advanced by Freud are standard and readily understandable.  Freud argues that the young baby realises early the importance of the pleasure principle.  If the little child cries and is fed quite often when it does so it begins to realise that its needs can be met, its hunger and thirst satisfied and that such leads to real pleasure and gratification.  Now, it would be great if we lived in an "ideal world" where all our needs, wants and desires were satisfied.  But such is not the real world.  Instant gratification is not the way of life.  Everything comes at a price.  The child also learns very early on that sometimes when he/she cries their needs are not met immediately.  In other words that child is beginning to learn that harsh reality is just that - harsh!  It is almost superfluous to state that Freud called this meeting with harsh reality the "reality principle."  The child now embarks upon a more balanced take on life - fine it is well and good that ones desires, needs and wants are met, but that such does not happen a lot of the time.  The young child quickly learns to balance the "pleasure principle" with the "reality principle." 

The "pleasure principle" does indeed belong to the "primary process" as described in the immediately previous post to this.  Another way of saying this is that it it is one of the energies or forces (my words) or principles (Freud's word) that belong to the world of the unconscious, to the world where the "primary process" reigns.  In his structural paradigm of the psyche he points out that most of these principles take place in an area of the mind called the id.

When I was at college in the seventies of the last century I remember my lecturers in the sociology of education pointing out a notion or concept called "delayed gratification."  This sociologist insisted that this was a characteristic of more middle class social groupings.  These people knew, for instance, the value of education (at all levels) and so saw that it was necessary to study hard and for long hours to gain good results in exams and hence gain entry into university.  More middle class social groupings can make decisions based on "delayed gratification", i.e., they will give up their part-time job so that they can study better and attain better results.  While "instant gratification", namely the part-time job with poor wages, gives a gratification in the here and now, and is mostly a characteristic exhibited by the poorer social classes.  This has long been my own experience at school.  The young adolescent boys whom I teach today come from a more working class background.  The contention of my erstwhile sociology teacher is indeed true of my "boys".  They must have gratification of their desires as soon as possible.  Obviously they have learned that they cannot have them here and now.   For the latter they have substituted "as soon as possible."  Most will not go on to university, but rather choose to get a job which will give them money which will soothe their pleasure pangs.  Those that do choose to go onto third level choose more practical courses with high employment possibilities.  They will also find a part-time job at weekends to keep them in cash.  They will also inevitably marry young and have a family of 2 or 3 children which seems the norm for them.  They will when they are 40 and when their children are reared wonder where their lives have gone and what they have "achieved" for themselves. 

I had not realised at the time how much my sociology professor or her science had borrowed from Freud.  This does not surprise me now, because of my understanding of the enormously wide influence of Freud on ideas in all areas of culture and civilization.

Now, in the growing person there will always be a tug of war between the "pleasure principle" and the "reality principle."  The latter will keep the former "real" as it were.  That is one of the things I have always appreciated about my joy as a teacher and educator of adolescent boys that they keep me their teacher "real" and will tell me in no uncertain terms when I'm "talking shite."  To those of you unacquainted with this last expletive, merely elide the final "e" from the Anglo-Saxon term and you have it!   Anyway, another way of expressing this Freudian insight is to say that the "reality principle" keeps the lid on the Pandora's Box of the "Pleasure Principle."  Can you imagine if we functioned solely on the level of the pleasure principle at all times.  We would have no capacity at all to delay gratification or estimate any consequences of our actions.  We'd have to have everything "now."  We'd ask lovely looking women to copulate with us on the spot etc.  Okay this might be an exaggeration , but the reader will get my drift.  It is interesting to note that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his wonderful Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde without knowing Freud's work.  Robert Louis died in 1894 when Freud was only 38 and had not written much of his major work.  Stevenson's book is a gripping story of the conflict between  the pleasure principle and the reality principle.  When Dr Jekyll takes his newly discovered potion he becomes Mr Hyde, a cruel, a cruel totally selfish monster, all of whose sexual and aggressive impulses are totally unrestrained.

So now we have a lot of terms to play with - many of them close terms though not fully synonymous with each other.  They do of course overlap.  Hence, we have terms like unconscious, primary process, pleasure principle and id, all of which intersect in meaning but are not fully synonymous, but each adds a high degree of colour and more characteristics to describing the less consciously known side of our human psyche.

All in all, Freud, I believe opened up the veritable mystery the human psyche is in all its highs and lows, in all its splendour and beauty on the one hand and in all its murkiness and ugliness on the other.

I have uploaded a picture of my footprints on Donabate Beach, Summer 2006.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Primary Process and the Unconscious

This blog has become for me a way of not alone getting to grips with who I am or with my life project,  namely shaping my personality and owning it as a personal construct in as far as that is possible, but also it has become a way of coming to terms with some of Freud's ideas.  Whatever about those common criticisms of Freud like his preoccupation with reducing practically everything down to sexuality, his contention that dreams are essentially  wish fulfillment and that the unconscious is a virtual pathology rather than a quarry from which many creative influences originate, one simply cannot ignore his thought as it forms the very foundations on which any notion of psychoanalysis must be constructed.

To my mind he is a deep explorer of the human condition and over the next few posts I wish to explore this contention.  Also Freud was a wide and learned reader - in fact he quotes Gulliver's Travels by our own Jonathan Swift in his Interpretation of Dreams (1900) which I am reading at the moment.  I have not read far enough into it to write a good review, but I promise that I'll place one here in the next few weeks.  Added to this, I love the fact that he writes beautiful prose - in fact, he translates beautifully into English, which to me is a rare treat.  I have read both philosophy and theology translated from the German and it is not an aesthetic experience at all.  However, Freud's angelic prose makes up for previous disappointments.

Anyway, another of Freud's insights which I like is his contention that there are basically two processes going on in the human psyche - a "primary" and a "secondary" process.  As a practising psychoanalyst and a former neurologist he was scientifically trained to make educated observations of the working of the human mind.  These observations might not be rigidly scientific as we now understand the scientific method, but I would content that his observations were clinically sound.  I will describe these in reverse order. Conscious events obey what he called the laws of "secondary process."  This latter process describes the ordinary world of logic.  When I look around me I see the light at a pedestrian crossing turning red, a motorist stopping and then some pedestrians crossing.  Simply put, this is the world of cause and effect.  If I stub my toe off the foot of the bed I yell in pain etc. In other words events have occurred in an orderly process.  If my sixth year students at school study their Irish they will do well in their exams.

However, the "primary process" operates without regard at all for logic or for reality.  A strange form of logic rules there - a very, very "fuzzy logic" indeed.  There are no concepts like the syllogistic reasoning of Aristotle, no concept of mutual contradiction or mutual exclusion in this process. For example, we have animals that talk, humans with animal heads, animals with human heads in our dreams - dreams are very much part of this "primary process."   Another person's fear of cats and dogs may have all types of origins from fear of the sex act as a child to a sense of dirtiness associated with animals and many more reasons besides.  Deep in our unconscious its action or energy (my words) or process (Freud's) is mostly governed by the laws of what Freud calls the "primary process."  In the world of the unconscious and of the primary process different tenses are mixed up - dreams can go from past to present to future and back again and again with no eye at all to the logic of time.  This primary process is also at work in our everyday behaviours: - so, my friends expect me to love them even after they have insulted me.  My anger at my parents can be directed at say something as objective as the government's bad handling of the crisis in our hospitals.  My longing  for my comforting mother can become my craving for fancy foods - that is, comfort eating or comfort foods, call it what you wish.

if today I am a people pleaser who will do anything to please others and to have a quiet life well then maybe I still have a real and abiding fear of the my rejection by my parents all those years ago.  Likewise if I was afraid either they or God would punish me for bad thoughts or bad acts, the fear of that punishment or threatened punishment still remains in force even after my parents are long dead.

To finish this post, I will once again finish with a quotation from Dr Michael Kahn:

One of the goals of psychodynamic therapy is to take the important issues out of the realm of the primary process and into the realm of the secondary process.  If I begin therapy burdened by this fear, my therapist and I will be pleased if I learn (deeply) that there is no longer anything to fear, that there is no authority wanting to punish me.  (Basic Freud, p. 22)

Above I have uploaded a picture I took about 5 years ago in the Dunmore Cave, some 10km north of Kilkenny City.