Friday, August 06, 2010

Solitude and its Graces 5

Continuing with Dr Anthony Storr's book Solitude we come on to Chapter 5 which is all about the imagination.  Among the many things that separate us from our animal brothers and sisters, the imagination scores high.  Non-human animals cannot adapt to a changing environment as we can.  Much of our behaviour is learnt, and if the environment changes we can adapt very quickly, given the powers of our imagination..  However, the animal whose behaviour is governed by pre-programmed patterns is at a singular disadvantage and that's  one of the reasons why many species have died out in the past and continue to do so.  Survival cannot be guaranteed unless intelligence and imagination take over.

It takes imagination also to pass the time and to make sense of our lives on this earth.  Oftentimes the powers of the imagination can and do keep us from going mad, or getting very bored, as modern youngsters keep reminding parents and teachers.  Anyone gifted with a vivid imagination will never get bored, I believe.  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.

I remember also many years ago Senator David Norris commenting on the then Troubles in Northern Ireland when that situation was very turbulent indeed, that the failure to bring about peace resulted in short from a gross lack of imagination on both sides.  I think there was a lot in what Norris said then.  There is a singular lack of imagination still in international politics where this or that country resorts to war and forgets about Churchill's famous dictum that "jaw-jaw is better than war-war." 

Then, Storr makes an interesting point that it is invariably the discontented who triumph and who go on to be happier; that it is invariable this discontented individuals who push their imagination further both to survive and to get what they want from life.  This learned psychiatrist maintains that dissatisfaction with what is, what he calls "divine discontent" is an inescapable part of the human condition.  (See Solitude, pp. 63-64).  It is as if the hunger of the imagination preys continually on human beings, especially on the more well off, who will go any lengths to get what they want from life.  Often the most successful people in life are the most imginative, even if they can be the most driven.  Here are the wise words of Anthony Storr and indeed we can learn a lesson from them as regards our treatment of the more underdeveloped and developing cultures:

Western man has treated with appalling cruelty the Aborigines in Australia, the Indians of both North and South America, the inhabitants of Africa and india, and many other groups.  But given the restless inventiveness of the West, displacement of traditional groups of men is probaby inevitable, even when segregation and extermination have not been deliberately employed.  Discontent, therefore may be considered adaptive because it encourages the use of the imagination, and thus spurs men on to further conquests...  (ibid., p. 64)
Storr criticises Freud's view of phantasy or imagination in both young child and older adult because he felt that it was essentially escapist, or a turning away from reality.  On the other hand what Storr is arguing for here is that far from being escapist phastasy or imagination can be a great preparation for encountering, grappling with and even overcoming obstacles presented in that very reality.  In Storr's view Freud was far too pessimistic and rational to allow for the positive possibilities linked to the imagination.  At the risk of being obvious once again, in this Freud was nothing short of Schopenhauerian in his view here.

Storr goes on to outline all the things that we would miss without imagination: religion, music, literature, painting, sculpture and so forth.  Even science depends very much upon phantasy or the imagination.  Most of the great discoveries were made from an initial leap of the imagination as it were, a leap in imagination which indeed was then built upon with observation and reason, but more often than not that leap came before the other two.  Possibly one of the most extraordinary leaps of the imagination, in this case from his dreams, was Kekulé's daring suggestion for ring structure of organic molecules which he got by dreaming about the snake eating its tale.

Dr. Donald Winnicott
Storr quotes the pioneering psychiatrist Winnicott once more in this chapter who wrote with respect to the developing child that "It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living." (Quoted ibid., p. 71)  And so with Storr and Winnicott we may presume that there was and is always an element of play in creative living.  We adults, too, benefit much from creative play.  Kekulé lectured his students thus:  "Learn to dream gentlemen," and he might just as well have said, "Learn to Play gentlemen."

To finish this post I should like to refer to the struggle between the subjective and the objective in us.  This is a profund mystery which the philosophers as well as the psychiatrists and psychotherapists have been struggling to come to terms with for years.  As I write these words the subjective me is composing these objectiuve thoughts, having taken then from Storr, digested them as best I can and has spit them out in the order you the reader see now this instant on this page.  This subject can think about and indeed question what he is doing as he is actually doing it.  Where the subject (subjective) ends and the object (objective) begins is anyone's guess.  It's just not that clear cut and that's what makes philosophy and philosophy of mind so interesting, this self-reflective and/or self-reflexive ability of the subject in making himself or herself the object of his or her observations.

In light of this, Storr interestingly from a psychiiatrist's point of view, maintains that "the subjective can be so over-emphasised that the individual's world becomes entirely divorced from reality.  In that case we call him mad." (Ibid., p. 72)  At school we have a brilliantly academic autistic boy who lives in his own world most of the time.  The reality that is going on in his mind is very seldom shared by what's going on in anyone else's mind at all.  In fact it is a struggle for us his teachers to get him to relate to other pupils, to even begin to share some common reality which could be called the objective shared world.  He writes and draws comics continually, but never thinks of an audience besides his mam and dad and possibly his teachers.  Sometimes I think he has an audience of one as this boy can be content to be on his own for most of the day and to live in his very own subjective world..  In Storr's sense he is truly mad, but mad in a lovely unharmful and innocent way. 

Storr goes on, once again drawing upon the psychiatrist Winnicott that the individual can suppress almost completely his inner world in such a way that he becomes over-compliant on external reality.

And so, dear reader, I leave you to ponder these complex thoughts as best you can.  I apologise if I did not quite express them as clearly as I would like.

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