Saturday, May 02, 2009

Is Anybody There?

What makes a good film or a good book or a good drama for the stage?  I suppose in the end the answer to this question lies in one’s very own likes and dislikes.  I suppose, critics believe they are objective – more objective than the mass of us normal viewers or readers or whatever.  The other night I was viewing John Kelly’s Arts programme on RTE 1 and his guest reviewers were an actor, a writer, and yes a critic.  My brother Pat and I were wondering how does one become a critic?  Surely, unlike journalism even, these days, there is no specific course for critics?  Surely one cannot take a degree in criticism?  Anyway, be that as it may, I ended up last evening going to Michael Caine’s recent film called: Is Anybody There?   It would seem to me that the film is rendered good, and thereby saved from ignominy, by  Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, Jr.’s (Caine’s real name which he always uses when not acting!) brilliant performance.  He outshines all other actors in the film and makes a rather depressing film enjoyable.

For me this film did not work, and I have not figured out why.  Clint Eastwood’s brilliant film Gran Torino did work.  I juxtapose these films mainly because the plot of both involves the relationship between an old man and a young boy.  I found the relationship between Clintwood and his young boy character thoroughly believable while that between Caine and his young boy character impossible to relate to.  Perhaps this was and is a fault in my own critical abilities.  However, I note that it has got some mixed reviews, though all agree on Michael Caines’s outstanding performance.  I agree to some extent with the assessment given in site though, in giving this film 1 and a half stars out of 4, it is going too far. . However, I agree with it with respect to the following views:

t's a testament to Michael Caine that Is Anybody There?, a squishy drama about the friendship between an unhappy young boy and a regretful old man, is even sporadically palatable.  Caine's deftness at simultaneously evoking remorse and anger, surliness, and sweetness, goes a small way toward alleviating the schmaltz of John Crowley's film, which often wants to be taken seriously, only to then revel in broad, dim humor (sic) that devalues any profound pathos.  (see this link: Film Review)

Is Anybody There? is directed by British filmmaker John Crowley, who has only directed Intermission and Boy A previously. The screenplay was written by TV writer Peter Harness, of Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me previously. This first premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year where it was picked up by Optimum Releasing.

Maybe the fact that this film is far too close to the bone was why I just did not like it.  I am quite ready to admit that this film does not pull its punches with regard to the mortality of the human animal; that life, in short, is terminal and that’s that.  However, I found it depressing, gray and black.  Indeed it has humorous moments, being filled with a black humour which only occasionally evoked a laugh from me though quite a number from the friends who accompanied me.  I began to wonder was it the film or was it me? Now let me tell you about how the film begins. 

The opening scene of Is Anybody There? is a little too close for comfort.  As the camera keeps a very tight close up on an old man’s (Karl Johnson) mouth, the only sound we hear is his breathing, his rather laboured and dying breathing at that. And then we don’t. These are Mr. Arnold’s last breaths. And we feel intrusive, even a little inappropriate, in observing.  Should we really be present at this man’s last inspiration in this world.  Then, a few moments later, we see young Edward (wonderfully played by the young actor Bill Milner) is listening to Mr. Arnold’s last breaths, but this time on a tape he secretly made, on a recorder he stashed under the deathbed. Like most 11-year-old boys, Edward’s curiosity knows no bounds, but less like his peers’, his is focused on death, or more specifically, what happens after. Then the story continues. 

Enter, our tragic hero, or rather tragicomedic hero Clarence (Michael Caine) who arrives at Lark Hall. We know right away that Edward will at last come to appreciate this old person “as a person,” and that this grumpy, slightly befuddled retired magician will soften, thanks to Edward’s youthful influence. In this, the film doesn’t offer up much that’s new. Still, Is Anybody There? provides an insightful and sensitive look at the pain of isolation and the connections between people, no matter their ages.  However, as I have stated I found this relationship between the old man and the youngster not at all credible, and I am more than well aware of S.T. Coleridge’s great insight of the “willing suspension of disbelief.”  I, in short, just was not willing to suspend mine.  This, I feel, must surely be the fault of the film.  I say this, having willingly suspended my disbelief for the film Gran Torino.  I note that one of my favourite Film Review sites Rotten Tomatoes gives it 67% on the Tomatometer.  This, I feel, is a reasonable rating for a fairly good film, though in no sense an excellent one.  Michael Dwyer, the Irish Times film critic gives it four out of five stars, an 80% rating.  I believe that is far too high and that the Tomatometer is far more realistic a rating, while 37.5% as given by Slant Magazine is more than likely far too critical and far too low indeed.  I’ll give it a percentage of 55%.  However, my final words are:  This is Michael Caine’s film and the 76 year old actor scores a 100% on anyone’s rating.  Well done Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, Jr.

Above, the great actor Michael Caine at his very best in Is Anybody There?

Fathoming Freud 3

The Old and the New in Freud:

What separates Freud from many fellow psychiatrists and scientists, and, indeed, he considered himself very much a scientist, was the fact that he was so widely read.  Our man was a voracious reader and read much from many branches of knowledge: history, mythology, psychiatry, physiology, philosophy, literature in German and English, the Latin classics and from his own special interest archaeology as well. (It is interesting to note that one of his first great disciples and later greatest critic, Carl Jung, was an equally broad reader.  Few other psychiatrists had and have such a broad range of knowledge and wisdom at their disposal.) I probably have left some areas of his reading out even when I give this wide list of his interests.  I enumerate these interests purposely to show that Freud was no mere speculative genius writing in a vacuum.  He was such a marvellous genius, but he had much wisdom, knowledge and indeed science to draw upon.  From such wide reading in the classics and in literature he would have been well aware of the dream world and the world of the unconscious.  Of course, it is a common and gross error to say that Freud discovered the unconscious – no, that was there in all of life and literature already.  However, Freud was the first to study it systematically and clinically.  He himself would have said scientifically.  I will allow that he did so if we take a broad definition of what science is.  This is the way our author Mark Edmundson puts it:

Freud was both old and new.  What he said about the psyche was shockingly novel, and, as such, a part of the Viennese cultural revolution.  Yet, what he said also drew on old wisdom.  Freud compounded his work not only from clinical observation, but from reading Sophocles, Shakespeare and Milton.  He also drew on fairy tales and folk wisdom as well as that fund of information – to him often closer to the truth than the educated believe – everyday common sense.  (Op.cit., 42)

Psychoanalysis, the Jewish Science

Needless to say, the Nazis immediately hit upon the new science of psychoanalysis as being of Jewish origin.  Obviously anything that questioned the instincts of the human animal in all their murkiness was more than suspect.  That the Nazis were unconsciously living out their unconscious instincts and desires in such an orgy of violence and hate was something they would have suppressed and repressed.  I suppose when it comes to repression, the Nazis were extremely good at this, and unknowingly so which is part of the very definition of the word.  Likewise, I believe that the population in general, who denied what might have been going on before their very own eyes, were more than likely victims of their own repressions.  After all we do grow in self-knowledge as we age as human animals and also society grows to some extent in such awareness also.  Admittedly, these latter points are somewhat contentious.  Every single human being has to learn everything anew for him or herself as they grow older – we learn by repeating the mistakes of our forebears.  Perhaps to say that wisdom is cumulative is wishful thinking.  In this regard, that’s why we are constantly being mired again and again in wars and disputes and violence.  Anyway, the Nazis sought to sanitize psychoanalysis and came up with a Nazi or Aryan variant of the same.

Interestingly, the Nazis did not close the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute.  Rather, they took it over and put it under the leadership of Dr. M.H. Goring, a first cousin of Reichsmarshall Hermann Goring.  Again, given their propensity for repression, they declared that the Jews were a people particularly beset by the Oedipal Complex and possessed a violent, sexually charged unconscious.  Also they were prone to infantile sexuality.  Once again, it is somewhat disturbing to read as to how far Jung colluded with the new Nazi or Aryan variant of Psychoanalysis.  I believe that Jung was quite ego-driven during this stage of his life and certainly did not want to rock the boat or call any bad publicity to his Analytical Psychology Movement as he called his approach after splitting with Freud more than twenty years previously.  Indeed, Jung gave a series of lectures in Dr Goring’s new Institute in Berlin and they are heavily laden with Aryan propaganda and Nazi bias, e.g.,

The Aryan unconscious has a higher potential than the Jewish; that is the advantage and disadvantage of a youthfulness not yet fully estranged from barbarism  (Quoted ibid., 44)

One can say, without the slightest doubt, that this statement from Jung is highly racist.  Given the power of the Nazis, it is hard to say that anyone of us would do differently ourselves.  We all like to protect our own backsides if we are to be really honest.

Freud not Shocked:

I have stated this already in previous posts and written quite widely on it.  However, I attribute such importance to this point that I shall repeat it in different words, and hopefully from a different angle, here.  Our man was so accustomed to the dark depths of the human psyche that he was not shocked at all by the rise to power of the Nazis nor by their racism, violence and their sheer hate of the Jews.  Ego, reason and Civilisation, and indeed the Superego (our conscience as formed by being socialised by our particular culture or society) are indeed very strong, but only just.  Once the lid has been lifted off the Pandora’s Box of the Unconscious Id, then all hell will break loose.  Freud’s therapy was essentially one of coming to terms with these hidden and repressed and suppressed desires and instincts; that we must learn to make the unconscious conscious; that we must befriend, as it were our demons, and in so doing tame them.  This for him was real analysis.  It was the opposite to denial and all about a radical acceptance of our very animal nature.  In this painstaking way we would become freer and more whole.  Not that we would become ebulliently happy or have found some elixir of life.  Far from it.  Rather, we would be somewhat more content and possess a greater stoic equanimity.  That was the most we could expect from life.

As Peter Gay has astutely observed, what Freud essentially did was that he taught us all that there was more to understand and less to judge about people than most of us had previously imagined.  This has always impressed me about Freud – that is, how he was one of the first modern scholars and psychiatrists who simply did not judge others.  Rather, as a true clinician and scientist, he observed and learnt, and in so doing could help us in unravelling the very mystery at the heart of humanity.

Above I have uploaded an illustration of Freud surrounded by his statuettes, symbols and ornaments.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fathoming Freud 2

Blake Allusions

Edmundson allows his literary predilections to surface at least twice in his book. Firstly he tells us that Hitler and Freud would have been what Blake would have termed “spiritual enemies.” (Op.cit., 3) Then he proceeds to argue that Blake’s poetry prefigured Freud’s thinking in certain aspects as regards the strength of the inner person as it were. He quotes Blake thus as referring to himself as “very weak & an Old Man feeble & tottering, but not in Spirit & Life not in the Real Man The Imagination which Liveth for Ever. In that I am stronger & stronger as this Foolish Body decays.” Our author maintains that Freud was similar to the great pre-Romantic poet, William Blake in this strength of soul, this power of the Real Man. (See ibid., 20)

Freud thrived on Opposition

Our author is most especially right in this contention – the great founder of psychoanalysis did thrive on opposition. In this one can only admire, and indeed praise, Freud for his courage, obstinacy and determination. Perhaps this was the real Jew in him? Perhaps, but I feel it was more – it was his sheer integrity and honesty. He never sought to make his findings sweet and palatable for his hearers. Oh no! The great father of psychoanalysis sought to disturb the comfortable as well as comfort the disturbed.

Freud, then, had major difficulties – firstly because he was a Jew in a city which had long been anti-Semitic, and secondly because of his controversial ideas which in most cases he would never modify despite open hostility. (There was one important exception to this statement here – I will return to this at a later time.) The founder of psychoanalysis was gravely embarrassed at his father’s servility and lack of courage when he told the young boy how he was assaulted one day by a Christian and did not retaliate at all. The young Freud was mortified and outraged and these feelings stayed with him all his life.

It is interesting that the author also points to an important insight, namely that our founder “did his best work when he had opposition in front of him… He once remarked that for all to go well, he needed to have a close friend to confide in and a spirited enemy to oppose…” (Ibid., 25)

Freud and the World of Shadows and the Dark:

Another point on which I am indebted to Edmundson is his reference to Auden’s beautiful elegy for Freud, the existence of which I never ever knew. A quick perusal of this poem which can be read here -Auden on Freud - leads me to quote the following stanzas by way of reference to the shadowy world of our unconscious, to the dark world of our animal instincts, lest we spiritualise our basic nature out of existence:

For about him till the very end were still// those he had studied, the fauna of the night,//and shades that still waited to enter//the bright circle of his recognition. (Stanza 5)

Of course they called on God, but he went his way// down among the lost people like Dante, down// to the stinking fosse where the injured// lead the ugly life of the rejected,// (Stanza 14)

and showed us what evil is, not, as we thought,// deeds that must be punished, but our lack of faith,//our dishonest mood of denial,//the concupiscence of the oppressor. (Stanza 15)

but he would have us remember most of all// to be enthusiastic over the night,//not only for the sense of wonder// it alone has to offer, but also// (Stanza 25)

because it needs our love. With large sad eyes//its delectable creatures look up and beg// us dumbly to ask them to follow:// they are exiles who long for the future// (Stanza 26)

that lives in our power, they too would rejoice//if allowed to serve enlightenment like him,//even to bear our cry of 'Judas',//as he did and all must bear who serve it.//(Stanza 27)

One rational voice is dumb. Over his grave//the household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved://sad is Eros, builder of cities,//and weeping anarchic Aphrodite.//(Stanza 28)

In the above stanzas the highlighted words are, of course, my doing. I have highlighted them to show Freud’s great discovery of the unconscious, of its shadows and darkness, of its many repressed areas and those aspects of our personalities that we openly deny and yet are there unbeknownst to us. All these neglected, ignored, rejected or denied areas of our psyche must needs be attended to. It was his great discovery to proclaim and advance a working method of psychotherapy called psychoanalysis, which worked its healing magic through making the unconscious conscious. That was essentially Freud’s gift to the human animal, and a great, if painful, gift it is, which brings in its wake much enlightenment.

Because Freud was so aware of the human animal’s instinctual side, one could rightly say that in this he was frighteningly correct. He was not surprised at the rise of National Socialism or Nazism as he really understood the human animal with all its suppressed desires and motives. From looking deep inside his own mind – after all he did do his own analysis as he informs us and did a fairly full analysis of his own dreams – and into those of his patients Freud was well acquainted with the night and the shadows in humankind’s heart. That it should come out in hate and murder and mayhem, the great man was in no way surprised. As the Nazis came into his apartment the sick old man got up from his famous couch, on which he had now in recent days lain because he was so ill, left his study and watched as the fascists left his apartment with all his wealth and the passports of his family. He merely remarked dryly that he had never ever got such a large payment for any one visit. Edmundson remarks that the old man said succinctly: “Something like this (the Anschluss and the rise of Nazism in Austria) was inevitable, I am not sure that from my standpoint I can blame them.” (Ibid., quoted 53)

Above I have uploaded a picture of Freud and two of his sons. Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939) with his sons, Ernst (1892 - 1970) and Martin (1889 - 1967), both of whom are wearing military uniforms. Jan 01, 1915

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fathoming Freud 1

Freud’s Fathoming

Freud spent his whole life attempting to fathom what was at the heart of the human psyche – if it’s not somewhat contradictory to use the metaphor ‘heart’ with respect to the mind. In doing so he constructed his famous archaeological or topographical or layer model of the psyche namely – conscious, preconscious and unconscious strata(depths or layers) of the mind. Needless to say, Freud had been obsessed with archaeology. Then, we are all possibly as well, if not more, acquainted with his structural model of the psyche – that is, the model with which practically everyone who knows even a little about Freud is acquainted with, at least with the terminology which has entered common parlance, namely Id, Ego and Superego. These according to Freud are the major components of the self or mind or personality, call it what you will for the moment. It is very important to note that this structural model puts these three major components in the unconscious. These Ego, Id and Superego are not topographical regions or layers as it were as we saw in his archaeological model. Rather they are distinct agencies at war or in conflict with one another. Indeed, for Freud human beings were not yet fully evolved. Hence there was a split or a rift in their very nature. In other words human beings were torn between their dark bestial motives (Id) and civilized conduct and demeanour (mores and manners and morals of society). On the one hand then there was humankind's animal nature (Id) and its cultural aspirations.(promoted by the Superego) Hence, humans are literally driven to seek pleasure, but society and civilization reign this rapaciousness in because control of passions is necessary - otherwise there would be murder, rape and strife of all kinds. In all of the above, I am conscious that when reading, and more specifically writing about the thought of John Gray in these posts, how closely the two men are to one another in their contentions. I was also surprised to note how little Gray referred to Freud in his work.

Fathoming Freud:

Freud was indeed a very complex man and I have written much on him in previous posts over the years in this blog. However, here I wish to refer to some insights into the man which I gleaned from the wonderful little book by the American literary scholar Mark Edmundson which I have been discussing in the last two posts. It also fascinates me how influential Freud has been outside the areas of psychiatry, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy where one would assume he has been most influential. However, he has also influenced sociology, politics and literature. Indeed, when it was mooted that the great man should get the Nobel Prize, scholars were divided on the issue as to whether he should get it for science, medicine or literature. In any event, he was never to receive it, though he should definitely have loved it given his penchant for public recognition and honours.

Freud loved cigars, and even though he suffered greatly from cancer of the jawbone for some sixteen years, pointed refused to give them up. At the height of his consumption, he smoked twenty a day. He even had to have an enormous prosthesis fitted, which he wittily called “the monster.” His nurse in these later years was his favourite daughter Anna who was also official heir to his intellectual work in being a psychoanalyst and the greatest proponent and exponent of his work. It was she who helped him take it out, wash it and replace it. Edmundson informs us that when things were “especially bad, he sometimes used a clothespin to open his frozen, aching jaw so as to wedge one more [cigar] into his jaw.” (Op.cit., 13-14)

Freud’s Fearlessness:

Without a shadow of a doubt this is one of the essential attributes of the great psychiatrist and psychoanalyst that comes through in The Death of Sigmund Freud right from the beginning to the very end. One cannot but admire this inner strength. Courage is not the virtue that comes through in anything I have read about Carl Gustave Jung – he was more inclined to go with the current social and political situation. Right from the start of his life, Freud had an inner strength and the courage of his convictions. He really did not care whether his theories upset people or not. Now he never set out deliberately to upset people, but he always knew that the truth was always better than wafer-thin lies. If he was convinced of something being true, he told it straight and that was it. This, I also admire greatly in him, and from my reflective living and psychotherapeutic training, I can aver to be really and truly healing in the final analysis, if you forgive the dreadful pun. Take for example one of his early theories, viz., the Oedipus Complex which shocked the world with the view that all male children want to have sex with their mothers and do away with their fathers. Freud seemed incapable of holding back views if he held them strongly at all. As well as that, he would have pondered and researched them for much time, so anything that he might have said or written were done so with a determination solidly supported.

Freud on the United States:

Our learned founder of psychoanalysis was no lover of America, while fully realising and appreciating that he had many worthy and capable followers there. I find his views on the U.S. most interesting, indeed. Firstly, he abhorred its obsession with money – the sacred dollar. He believed that they suffered from a hideous disease called “dollaria.” There, he felt, all success is reduced to money solely. The society of the U.S. was far too commercial and far too superficial for him. He also believed that all the Americans were prudes and that, in this, moneymaking had somehow absorbed the libido. They also lacked a “passionate depth” for him. But most of all he abhorred American politics where the group had in effect disempowered the ordinary citizen’s individualism. I’ll finish with a wonderful anecdote from Edmundson’s wonderful book and let the reader chew over it:

“We are bringing them the plague,” Freud purportedly said when he and Jung and Ferenczi disembarked in New York in 1909. “We’re bringing them the plague, and they don’t even know it.” (Ibid., 32)

Above I have uploaded a picture of Freud's bookcases from the Freud Museum in London. This picture is in the public domain!

Freud and Hitler 2

In 1909, the year with which Edmundson opens his modern classic on psychoanalysis and the rise of fundamentalism, Freud had not long returned from a major conference in America where he was hailed as a giant intellect and major mover in the world of psychology and psychotherapy. He had been accompanied there by his closest disciples: the triumvirate Jung, Ferenczi and Jones. America’s leading philosopher and psychologist, William James, turned up to hear the great man speak. This was the Freud, renewed, reaffirmed and strengthened, who would have walked the streets of the Vienna where Adolf Hitler walked as an unknown and unemployed reject of society.

Edmundson points out that prior to 1909 Freud’s work was mostly concerned with “the dynamics of desire,” (op.cit., 7) while after this watershed date he was to become ever more preoccupied with the issue of authority. In other words, our author sees Freud as beginning to become obsessed with the type of person this unknown Hitler would later become. This is the strength and unique insight of our American author, that he sees this interesting parallel between the lives of two very different men: one a famous genius and the other an infamous mass-murderer. That the former street rat would become the Chancellor of Germany and one of the most powerful men in the world by 1938 would have surprised and frightened most individuals, but not Freud. Through his profound exploration of the human psyche he could see this evil coming.

After the first twenty or so pages our author brings the action forward to the fateful year of 1938 and recounts the first five months of that year rather painstakingly before Freud escaped to freedom on June 4th on the Orient Express.

Freud’s Character:

Freud was a particularly complex man full of contradictions. Who isn’t, one might ask? Well, let’s say he was particularly so. One central contradiction was that he was very much a therapist who loved to deconstruct authority and authority figures for his patients and in his writings in general on the one hand, yet on the other he liked to rule his Psychoanalytical Society with an iron fist. His was an iron fist in a silk glove, to use a rather overworked and trite metaphor. He was also a man who liked to be a person of standing in society. One can see his ego writ large in these contentions argued by Edmundson:

Freud was interested in conventional success, in money, in fame, in having a sterling reputation, in maintaining an impeccable bourgeois household. (Ibid.,16)

His egotism is also self-evident in his seeking of the rank of Professor, mainly because it provided him with more respectability. He also sought prizes and honours though he often claimed that he did not do so. Then as our author rightly says, we can get a good insight into his ego-driven vanity in the following account:

Though Freud declared time and again that he hated to be photographed, it sometimes seems that there were times in his life when he did little but.. In his photos, Freud seems to be trying to look ever more wise, stable, authoritative, and commanding. (ibid.,19)

He was also a man, at least when younger, to throw himself blindly into passion and love. For instance, when he first fell in love with Martha Bernays, he fell furiously in love. Our author points out that he would write her many wildly adoring letters in which he often fumed with jealousy. Freud could be equally passionate about his male friendships. There is some evidence, though it is quite slight that Freud was bisexual and the same has been said of Carl Gustave Jung, though once again the evidence, while there, is not thoroughly convincing. Edmundson instances relationships of passionate intensity with his close disciples Wilhelm Fliess and Carl Jung and with his older mentor Dr Josef Breuer. (See ibid., 16-17)

Likewise Freud, our author avers, was a very passionate thinker who stuck by his strongly held views through thick and thin. Freud never liked to be contradicted by anyone, especially his disciples whom he felt should follow the gospel of psychoanalysis without demur.

Above a picture of Freud with his mother Amalia.