Friday, January 08, 2010

Sometimes the Centre cannot hold 1

My title, needless to say is Yeatsian, and I desire it to carry all that intensity. Yeats' wonderfully potent words in the Second Coming fill my mind. Let me re-mind you of those apt words:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
As I write these words, these lines sum up the plight of the Post-Celtic-Tiger Everyman and Everywoman. These words capture the sense of being cut adrift on a sea of confusion, the sense of being cast forth unprotected before the elemental force of nature and convey the sense of being abandoned. Abandoned by whom, one might rightly ask? Government or culture or values or what? Let me repeat those deep and prescient, if oft-quoted words: "The centre cannot hold."

As I'm sitting here in a soulful silence, my mind wanders to the plight of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, the twin politicians from the DUP, and ponders how their world has disintegrated. Things have fallen apart for them, and to some little extent I sympathise, but my sympathy is coloured and lessened by my Southern politics - not of a very green or nationalist variety I hasten to add - and my native suspicion and deep dislike of those who take the extremely moral high ground and preach at the rest of us. The problem with taking the moral high ground is that one is setting oneself up for a fall - and, my goodness haven't they both taken some fall? Feet of clay and all that! Readers of these pages will know that I have been far more scathing in my criticism of those who are equally hypocritical within the Catholic Church, especially those who have covered up scandals. In many senses, then the centre has not held at all for very many. But maybe, maybe, that is all part of the human condition?

And again all of the foregoing is grist to the psychotherapist's mill and to that of the existentialist philosopher and counsellor. Anyone who, perchance, has been reading these pages, will know that I have a deep interest in psychotherapy, having studies it for some two years. Be that as it may, I have just finished reading the first chapter of Rollo May's lovely little book Man's Search for Himself, the first chapter, again, of R.D. Laing's influential little book The Divided Self which he wrote when he was only 28 and was only a brief few years qualified as a psychiatrist. Then, other equally existential works of literature, outside the psychological sciences, come to my mind, Albert Camus' wonderful The Outsider, which I have reviewed in these pages, Saul Bellow's equally existential novel, Dangling Man, which I read when I was studying the Irish language. I read that little book on the throw-away remark of one of our Irish lecturers, Eoghan Ó hAnluain, when we were discussing the sense of alienation or "stoiteachas" in Irish literature. This was the novel Eoghan recommended to go along with reading some of Máirtín Ó Díreáin's more existential poems.

In Dangling man, the protagonist Joseph is confined to a Chicago boarding house while he waits to be drafted for the Second World War. He very seldom ventures forth to wander the streets of the windy city, instead confining himself to reading philosophical books about and from the Enlightenment. He is the "dangling man," the man dangling between two worlds, or more existentially between two identities. And that's what existentialism is all about really - finding one's identity if one can, finding one's true centre, some centre that can hold, that must hold if we are not to go nuts. The novel ends with Joseph being finally called up, and leaving his friends and family to begin a new life in the army. Essentially, a very unexistential word, alas, Joseph is searching for some meaning in his life. Undoubtedly Saul Bellow, in this his first novel, which established him as a major American writer, was heavily influenced by the French existentialists like Sartre and Camus (whom, I hasten to add, rejected this title).

And in all these musings, the Yeatsian quotation comes strikingly to mind. My goodness me, it is even apt when musing on the present snow-covered or snow-bound state of Ireland and our seeming lostness at its untimely intrusion. I don't hear too many people saying, but sure that's life, after all it's only the weather. That we are not prepared for it - apparently 1963 was the last extreme occurrence of such nasty and stubbornly icy snow. Anyway, forgive these digressions. However, that's one of the things I have always liked about the existential school of philosophy - that they allowed all life's experiences to surface and be treated as important as such experiences are of life, real lived day-to-day experiences.

I have written here already about that pioneering psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, R.D. Laing. This youthful twenty-eight year old doctor, set himself the idealistic goal of "making madness and the process of going mad, comprehensible." (The Divided Self, 9) He went on to say that a further purpose of his classic in psychiatry was "to give in plain English an account, in existential terms, of some forms of madness." (Ibid., 9) Again what comes across is this man's sheer humanity. He said that what he wanted to convey above all other considerations was "that it was far more possible than is generally supposed to understand people diagnosed as psychotic." (Ibid., 10)

Let me mention a current relevant topic that is aired on the Live Line radio show, presented by Joe Duffy here in Ireland. It is broadcast mid-day on RTE Radio 1 channel. One of the topics they are discussing is that of the use of ECT, or Electroconvulsive Therapy, the pros and cons thereof. They have had doctors and patients, from either side of the divide discussing this major and controversial psychiatric therapy. However, all agreed that it was a last ditch effort to cure the patient when all else had failed. But those prescient words of that young 28 year old Scottish Doctor, Ronald Laing re-echo in my mind, and they should in all our minds. Here's another little taste of what he said in the preface to the pelican edition of his classic:
In the context of our present pervasive madness that we call normality, sanity, freedom, all our frames of reference are ambiguous and equivocal. (Ibid., 11)
How right he was and still is. As I listen to the present debate, I am astounded as to how short a distance we have come in our understanding and practice of psychiatry since Laing wrote these prophetic and incisive words all those years ago. What is normality anyway? Who is setting the demarcation lines? Who was calling a halt to the madness of the Celtic Tiger? Who was questioning the madness of greedy bankers, of amoral entrepreneurs and greedy insatiable speculators? Who was questioning the tidal wave of greed that had overcome our country. Maybe the demise of the mythical beast, the mythical tiger, is what is needed to regenerate the poor long languishing Irish soul. I refer to spirituality here, not, of course, to religion,which as a social phenomenon has been prey to all the worst excesses of all other social phenomena.

Now, let me say a little about Rollo May, and I must acknowledge my having read a lot of Yalom and this latter scholar's influence on making me once again search out old scholars whom I read in little doses many years ago. I refer here, of course, to Rollo May's wonderful book "Man's Search for Himself." Having finished re-reading chapter one the following are the points that strike me.

This book is essentially and existentially about finding oneself given all the confusing alternatives with which we are faced in contemporary society. What struck me about this little classic was that it is very fresh for a book that was written in the early fifties, shortly after the Second World War. Freud, May argues, saw sexual repression as the key to early twentieth-century malaise at the heart of humanity while Otto Rank saw the feelings of inadequacy, inferiority and guilt as being responsible, while Karen Horney firmly laid the blame at the door of the competitive nature of society which made humankind hostile to others and inevitably to itself. However, May himself blamed the existential feeling of emptiness which lead to deep anxiety as the causal principle of all modern human malaise. In this, I still feel, that May's prognosis is all too apt and fitting for modern man and modern woman in an altogether too dehumanizing environment.

May begins his book by quoting a favourite poet of man, viz., T.S. Eliot and words from his famous poem "The Hollow Men":
We are the hollow men We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion...
The Hollow Men
The Feeling of Emptiness: This does not simply mean, he argues, that modern people do not know what they want. In fact, it goes much deeper - they do not know what they feel. This I fully appreciate, as recently I have been working very closely with autistic children as a Resource Teacher and quite often come across some of those I teach who cannot name how they are feeling. For them this is a developmental disability, but for humankind in general, it is a deeper more psychologically lost phenomenon to do with the meaning of existence. Interestingly, May refers to that rigidity which was typical of the Victorian era and which lingered for a long time in more puritanical circles in the USA. He goes on to say that strikingly when rigidity reaches its climax it's then that the conditions are right for total collapse and implosion. (see Man's Search for Himself, p. 8) Here, I refer back to my opening paragraph and to the wise and perspicacious words of the prescient Yeats - The centre cannot hold.

May, to my surprise and delight, refers to what we teachers have long heard over the span of our careers, namely, BOREDOM! I have deliberately printed the foregoing word in upper case to highlight this very contemporary expression of malaise. How often have I seen it written glaringly on Facebook profiles. Modern man, May argues, "dies of boredom" because his life has become so meaningless.

I will return to this topic tomorrow, as quite simply I have run out of steam!

To be continued.

Above winter sun through the bare-limbed trees, Phoenix Park, December, 2009

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