Monday, August 16, 2010

The Imagination and Michael Murphy

1. Prolegomenon

The Healing Power of the Imagination

I am firmly convinced that the power of our imagination is crucial to our survival in this world.  As imaginative creatures we are never victims of our immediate situation - we can always imagine an alternative if we train ourselves to do so.  I am not arguing for a total "suspension of disbelief" here, though.  I am talking about the ability to imagine fairly realistic alternatives and the avoidance of being overwhelmed by sheer disempowering depression or paranoia or anything else that disempowers us as we engage with real everyday life occurrences.  I will briefly recall here what Dr Anthony Storr calls humankind's great ability to adapt over its evolution and he attributes this ability to its marvellous powers of imagination.  Because we can imagine things to be different we can become creative to make that happen.  Quite simply, that's why we have survived as a species - we used our imagination, which is obviously our superior intelligence at work, to live in community, wear clothes, grow crops, hunt better etc.  See this post in this blog at this link: Storr

I also contended in that post, and it is important to re-iterate it here that it takes imagination also simply to pass the time and to make sense of our lives on this earth. For instance the power of the imagination will prevent us from getting very bored, and boredom is a modern pervasive malaise of which youngsters keep reminding us parents and teachers.  The failure to engage the imagination, then, often leads to all kinds of depredation such as vandalism and violence against other persons.   Anyone gifted with a vivid imagination will never get bored, I believe, and hence will not be perpetrators of anything they might regret doing.  Then it also takes imagination to show empathy with others, to try to see if I can put myself in this or that person's situation as best as I can. Without imagination I could never show empathy or even sympathy for another.

However, the human imagination can also heal the soul and lead one's psyche to a state of greater integration.  I speak here from personal experience.  As I have mentioned many times in these posts I have experienced one major breakdown in my life which happened, typically enough at 40 years of age - the equally typical mid-life crisis.  My recovery from this required both psychopharmacological and more humanistic/spiritual interventions like talk-therapy, music therapy, writing therapy and art therapy.  Luckily enough the hospital I was in had all the best facilities as I was well insured.  Had I not been, I dread what the conditions would have been like.  However, what I am getting at here is that I had always been highly imaginative and had always written a lot.  Therefore, engaging with all the other creative therapies was an easy step for me.  I continue to meditate and a couple of years after leaving hospital where I spent seven very restful and healing weeks, I managed to write and publish a book.  I continue to this day to write, to keep accounts of my dreams in special dreambooks I buy for the purpose and to engage in meditation, and I often use visualizations which I write for myself and use while meditating.  All of this is simply about healing my soul and arriving at a higher and more holistic integration of my psyche or soul or personality or self - call it what you like. I have written a further book of visualizations geared to healing our somewhat broken and unintegrated psyche or soul.  I have not of yet found a publisher for this book, but I am currently working on that.

II  Review

Bearing in mind what I have said above about the healing and integrative powers of the imagination,  I should like here to write a short review of an absolutely brilliant book that I read over the course of the day this Saturday just gone -  it is Michael Murphy's wonderful memoir called At Five In The Afternoon: My Battle with Male Cancer (Brandon, Ireland, 2009).  This is essentially a book about the healing power of the imagination, about the healing power of psychotherapy, in this specific case the healing and integrative power of psychoanalysis.  A fellow Mayo person, the former Uachtarán na hÉireann, Mary Robinson, writes an equally wonderful introduction.

What would I call this book?  I'd call it a memoir of one man's life interwoven finely and creatively with his struggle with cancer.  Anyone engaged with therapy of any kind will be most aware that one can boil all therapy down - through the crucible of the various complaints, sufferings and issues with which clients present their therapists of whatever school - into the underlying, all-pervasive and over-arching problem of mortality, that is, namely dealing with our very own death.  Behind whatever problems we come with to therapy this is the shadow that lies all too often unseen, but never unfelt, in the therapy room.  Here I speak from experience.  In this wonderful memoir, then, Murphy manages to interweave his struggle with making sense of life - all his life - with making sense of his death as starkly portrayed throughout the text as the Grim Reaper ready at all times, not alone to wield his knife, but to stick it in.  Indeed, the grim reaper is present in every line of this superb and  masterly book.

This book is a tour de force of personal integration.  As I read it I became quite envious of its author's handle on his subject, that is, his easy and comfortable handle on the meaning and purpose of his own life.  He has been through the wringer, not alone through the emotional setbacks of childhood, which all of us experience to a greater or lesser extent, the pressures and stresses of the workaday world, and then the stab of the Grim Reaper's knife in the form of Prostate Cancer.  This assault of cancer on his very being - what I have called the Body-Soul in these posts because I could never subscribe to the Cartesian dualism which separated both - is handled in realistic terms and graphically expressed.  One call feel the knife not alone cut into the body but also into the very quick of one's own being.  The author's being, his manhood, his inability now to have "lead in his pencil" or "to get it up" are all there on the line.  However, it is presented in a realistic, sincere and authentic and truthful way.

This book is a tour de force in scholarship as well as one of personal integration also, as Murphy is a highly educated, learned and wise man who carries his learning and his widom lightly as one would expect from a highly integrated or individuated human being.  Personally, I loved the quotations from Irish, French, Spanish and Latin as these are languages with which I am familiar myself.  Again, I should like to point out, that they are never self-obviously spoiling of the text as they are so finely interwoven with the overall meaning and purpose of the same.  Murphy weaves a beautifully rich tapestry of meaning garnered from every experience he has had in life - from all the wounds that life has inflicted on him, and also from all the good things that have smiled like the sun on him, from all the nourishing relationships - he recounts the help of three very strong women friends also suffering from cancer - that have sustained him, especially the one with his partner - Terry. 

The blurb calls this a "beautifully layered book" and that it is indeed.  I found myself re-reading many sections and many passages because they read so well as the words are so enchanting and so alluring.  Every paragraph has distinct layers all right and the more you read them, like a good poem, the more they yield up further depths of meaning.  Murphy writes like an angel - his prose has the quality and texture of good poetry, so it is no surprise to learn that he studied literature - both English and French - at college and has written several books on the poetry of the Irish poet Desmond Egan.. The title is a reference to the time of the bullfight in his beloved Spain - a las cinco de la tarde - which he uses as an allegory for his own battle. But what one expects to be a rumination on death and dying or even how to cope with these issues opens out into a celebration of his rich and eventful life which was always in search of meaning.  The book, rather, gives an impressionistic account of the trials and tribulations that have made him the man he is and all this is finely and lovingly interwoven with his love of his hometown, Castlebar, of his family‘s historical roots in the area and with the very joys of living.

In summary, then, this present writer was fairly bowled over by this wonderfully multi-layered text which often reads like pure poetry which is both a tour de force of personal integration and of scholarship.  This book is esential reading for anyone involved in therapy whether as a client or a therapist.  It is also required reading for anyone who seeks to go on the journey to further self-integration or individuation or simply to find some meaning in their lives.  This is a wonderful book which puts male cancer firmly on the agenda up there with female cancer and is a fitting tribute to the integrity of both the psychotherapeutic profession and also of one exceptionally brave and wonderful human being - Michael Murphy.  I'll finish this post with the final words from this very fine book:

I have told it like it is, what I have seen and what I have heard.  I have said it, and my saying is true.  Because of the cancer there's no longer any space available to hide in; neither is there any time left over for being silent.  I have told the truth to save my life.(Op. Cit., p. 270) 

And, then, like the true psychoanalyst that he is, Murphy turns his attention to the state of the reader's soul or psyche after his/her reading of this memoir. He asks us simply, "And how're you now?" Indeed, how am I now? I am richer, so much richer; wiser, so much wiser, having made the acquaintance in words of one very fine human being. For this, I am very thankful indeed!

Michael Murphy's website can be accessed at this link here: Michael Murphy.

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