Saturday, January 09, 2010

Sometimes the Centre Cannot Hold 3

I have mentioned so many times in these posts that we humans have outrageously exaggerated our own importance. I base this view mostly on my lived experience. One of the great stories of the Bible is that of the Tower of Babel where a certain group (representatives of Everyman and Everywoman) decide to build a tower that will scale the heights of heaven and bring humankind into the court of the gods. (I remember, way back in 1976, having a wonderful Biblical scholar, Dr Michael Maher teach us the Bible. Thankfully he was an academic, and not a Bible thumper. He approached it with literary and good sound exegetical skills. The Bible remains for me a marvellous compendium of Ancient Near Eastern Literature, not an inspired script as I age and grow into an open and benign agnosticism.) Anyway, it was from Michael's lips that I first heart the word "hubris" to describe humankind's pride - the illusion, or perhaps more correctly, the delusion that he/she is the very pinnacle of creation. Thinking that we are top of the pile has led beyond delusions into wreaking havoc on the world and its wondrous environment - dear long-suffering Gaia - and, being well on the way to destroying others of our own species in the countless wars that have engulfed and still do this small planet. And this, all because we think, nay believe, that we are important, or too important at any rate. ( Now, I owe a lot of my views here, though heavily personalised and shaped by my intuitions and personal reasoning, to my reading two great contemporary British philosophers, viz, A.C. Grayling and John Gray, who are critics one of the other.) If I bring these thoughts to their logical conclusion, I truly believe that not alone is humankind racist against its very self, but also specist insofar as it exploits, ill-treats and destroys other species both animal and plant. Anyway, that is a topic for another debate, but at least the reader can see the drift of my thoughts.

Now back to the questions of psychiatry and good sound mental health. Humankind's obsession with power and control in all areas of its little life has long been its Achilles heal. In all areas - State, Church, Medicine, Education etc. - power rears its ugly head and one faction within any of these areas of human endeavour believes another totally misguided. And so today "truths" are open to debate and thankfully the singular The Truth has long been dismissed and put to bed. The trouble emerges when one faction believes that its truth is The Truth. Here base, and often unconscious, motivations rule - the instinct to control and wield power.

Returning to the words of the great Dr Ronald Laing, written as far back as 1964 one wonders how much has really changed:
Psychiatry could be, and some psychiatrists are, on the side of transcendence, of genuine freedom, and of true human growth. But psychiatry can so easily be a technique of brainwashing, of inducing beaviour that is adjusted, by (preferably) non-injurious torture. In the best places, where straitjackets are abolished, doors are unlocked, leucotomies largely foregone, these can be replaced by more subtle lobotomies and tranqillizers that place the bars of Bedlam and the locked doors inside the patient. Thus I would wish to emphasize that our normal adjusted state is too often the abdication of ecstasy, the betrayal of our true potentialities that many of us are only too successful in acquiring a false self to adapt to false realities.
Now a little about objectivity versus subjectivity or vice versa. I was lucky to have done a traditional Arts degree once upon a time, namely a B.A., and I was equally lucky to have studied Gaeilge and Mathematics as the two subjects of that degree. That led me to value both the arts (subjectivity) and science (in this case mathematical science - objectivity) as equals on the human stage of activity. There are those who value one of these above the other. I remember once discussing the nature of teaching way back in the late 70s of the last century - as to whether it was an art or a science. There were people who argued both sides of the debate with equal energy and conviction, and thankfully a third group, to which I belonged, who believed it was both. And then there are the Social Sciences - where do they fit it? Well, they are human sciences which try to describe humankind in its totality - taking into account many more subjective as well as objective factors. Then there are The Humanities which vere almost totally towards the more subjective frame of reference. Then, of course, there are the Natural Sciences which are almost 100% objective. But even this latter statement can be contended insofar as with the use of electron microscopes the observer influences the behaviour of the observed data. Perhaps subjectivity and objectivity are not really what they seem after all?

Then, add into that mix, the obsession of humankind with power and then you have a very unstable compound indeed. Laing uses a lovely French quotation on the front pages:
Je donne une oeuvre subjective ici, oeuvre cependant qui tend de toutes ses forces vers l'objectivité. E. Minkowski
What one loves here with Laing is his admitted subjectivity which is searching for an objectivity in the vein of Minkowski. And so, our man, Laing begins his wonderful little humane book, The Divided Self. (1960, 1964) with a thrust towards integration (The psychiatrist Anthony Storr uses this word "integration" as the polar opposite of "dis-integration" as the goal of good psychiatry and good psychotherapy.) Let me quote the opening paragraph in full and notice how it is practically fully in harmony with what May was saying in his equally classic little book Man's Search for Himself:
The term schizoid refers to an individual the totality of whose experience is split in two main ways: in the first place there is a rent in his relation with his world and, in the second, there is a disruption in his relation with himself. Such a person is not able to experience himself 'together with' others or 'at home' in the world, but on the contrary, he experiences himself in despairing aloneness and isolation; moreover, he does not experience himself as a complete person but rather as split in various ways, perhaps as a mind more or less tenuously linked to a body, as two or nore selves, and so on. The Divided Self, p. 17)
And so Laing launches into his existential exploration of the world of madness - a young 28 year old psychiatrist, wishing to reach out and to "heal" in that deeeply humane urge that is the heart of the medical profession. One is immediately caugh up in his deeply passionate and idealistic belief in the human project as well as in the medical project of healing. Personally, I am caught up in the almost universal and total sweep of the project, romantic existentialist that I am:
Existential phenomenology attempts to characterize the nature of a person's experience of the world and himself. It is not so much an attempt to desribe particular objects of his experioence as to set all particular experiences within the context of his whole being-in-his-world. The mad things said and done by the schizophrenic will remain essentially a closed book if one does not understand their existential context. (Ibid., p. 17)
What I love about Laing is that he opened up a whole world, the world of so-called madness, and made of it an open book which declared unto the world that most of us are madder than we admit and far less sane than we can possibly imagine.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Sometimes the Centre Cannot Hold 2

We need our artists, whether of the print or visual, musical or dramatic media to care for our "soul" as a people, to cater for our spiritual needs in the broadest sense of this term. Our artists are the carriers of the cultural genes if I may be so bold as to weave a rather clumsy metaphor. They literally are the thermometer of how our societies are faring. Creativity is the very soul of culture.

Let me return now to Rollo May. What are the tenor of the contentions of this great psychoanalyst's book? Briefly, his argument in his book Man's Search For Himself, which was first published in the early 1950s, is that the dilemma of modern man is centered on on his sheer loneliness and anxiety - in other words his alienation. In short, May, was one of the first existentialist psychoanalysts. That probably goes without saying.

Emptiness: May likes the term "emptiness" to describe the predicament of modern humanity. Remember he was writing in the early 50s and following decades in the wake of the Nazi terror wrought on the Jewish nation and on other minorities. He was all too conscious of that horror as well as the universal realisation of humankind's dislocation and confusion of identity as a result. The fall out of two world wars was just that - an alienation of humankind from their previously more roundly formed identities. Suddenly, it was not too clear at all who this modern person is or what his or her destiny is.

Other characteristics of this emptiness is that people not only don't know what they need or want; they, in fact, do not even know how they really feel. In this regard, they fail to make any authentic commitments in their lives. Other ways of putting this is that they feel lost. Their sense of identity is fluid or fluctuating, to say the least. I love the example May gives of this sense of fluidity of identity by quoting an anonymous client: "I'm just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of me." (Man's Search For Himself, p. 4)

In speaking of this sense of lostness, of boring routine, of what May calls emptiness and which he later describes as a sense of powerlessness, he tells a wonderful story about a quintessentially "hollow man" or angst-ridden worker:
A bus driver in the Bronx simply drove away in his empty bus one day and was picked up by the police several days later in Florida. He explained that, having gotten tired with driving the same route every day, he had decided to go away on a trip... When it was announced that the company had decided not to turn him over for legal punishment but to give him his job back again if he would promise to make no more jaunts, there was literal as well as figurative cheering in the Bronx. (Ibid., 9)
Too often, May argues that "meaningless boredom" results in "futility and despair" which brings those who can afford it and are open to it, to psychotherapy. For others, there is some release to be found in a legion of addictions and other fearful and illegal pursuits. Here is a particularly incisive short paragraph on the modern dilemma:

The human being cannot live in a condition of emptiness for very long: if he is not growing toward something, he does not merely stagnate; the pent-up potentialities turn into morbidity and despair; and eventually into destructive activities. (Ibid., p. 11)

Essentially, or rather existentially, the experience of emptiness results from a feeling of powerlessness. There is nothing as disempowering as powerlessness, if you forgive the clumsiness of the language here. I have experienced this horrible sense of powerlessness and/or emptiness when I suffered from a deep bout of depression some twelve years ago now. Apathy and lack of feeling, May suggests, often result from this sense of despair and futility, and that sense of apathy and lack of feeling are also defences against anxiety. Anxiety or angst is at the heart of modern living, and it is also the quintessential heart of existentialism per se. In short, May argues that emptiness (vacuity) and powerlessness lead to painful anxiety and despair.

Such anxiety is basically experienced as a threat to personal identity, a threat to the very self. To call the present age an "age of anxiety" is nothing short of a truism on the verge of becoming almost a cliché, but for all that, a very real experience indeed. However, it is also quite chilling to realise that an age of emptiness or vacuity is ripe for the exploitation of totalitarianism, and, needless to say, May quotes the rise of Nazi Fascism as an example of what dangers can fill this black hole of despair. Today, let's ponder what could fill the emptiness and vacuity left in the wake of the demise of the Celtic Tiger.

May's insight into the lostness of the fifties of the last century is as relevant today as ever:

We are anxious because we do not know what roles to pursue, what principles for action to believe in. Our individual anxiety, somewhat like that of the nation, is a basic confusion and bewilderment about where we are going.
People go to psychoanalysts when they experience some conflicts in their lives, whether neurotic or psychotic. Most of us fall into the former category and we experience neurotic anxiety, that is anxiety that is totally disproportionate to the real danger, and which existentially arises "from an unconscious conflict" unresolved within us. Here is where Freud's great strategy of making the unconscious conscious - in short, this is the essential definition of his therapy, namely, psychoanalysis.

However, May is illuminating here as he informs his readers that "anxiety like fever is a sign that an inner struggle is in progress." (Ibid., 27) Then he finishes, to my mind, with the clincher argument that it is awareness of ourselves that is the cure for anxiety. (see ibid., p. 27)

Above bare-limbed winter trees in the Phoenix Park

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