Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Solitude and its Graces 3

Solitude and its Graces 3

The formation of healthy attachment to the mother or significant other is signally important for the healthy mental growth of any child as is its early social development through interaction with children its own age. These two aspects of the early growth of children can never be overlooked, or if it is it is done at a high price for later healthy mental development. Storr refers to the fact in chapter two of this little classic, appropriately called Solitude, that little or no attention has been given to the place of solitude in the child’s early development.

On a personal note one of my earliest memories, if not the earliest, is of myself as a young boy around three or four years old quietly and contentedly playing on my own in the lane at the back of our house in Roscrea, County Tipperary. To this day that sense of contentment in solitude remains with me. I recall also when at school learning a wonderful poem by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. It was called A Christmas Childhood. That poem crystallized all that was good about being a young country boy at Christmas time. The poem is replete with the innocent wonder of childhood, with the sheer clarity of imagination and with actual memories transformed through the prism of that very same imagination.

In line with my thoughts in the immediately preceding paragraph, Storr reminds his readers that many creative adults have left accounts of childhood feelings of mystical union with nature, or “peculiar states of awareness, or ‘Imitations of Immortality,’ as Wordsworth calls them. Such accounts are furnished by characters as diverse as Walt Whitman, Arthur Koestler, Edmund Gosse, A.L. Rowse and C.S. Lewis.” (Op. cit., p. 17) Bernard Berenson describes how he “suddenly felt immersed in Itness” while A.L. Rowse recounts how he felt “an early taste of aesthetic sensation, a kind of revelation.” (Ibid., pp. 17-18) The first of these two writers recalls that he was only five or six, while I remember I was no more than four, but like them I agree that the experience was one of timelessness, an experience with a heightened sense of wonder, but only such an experience as one could taste alone. Solitude was at its very heart.

Storr reminds us, and again it bears repeating today because his timely reminder of the importance of solitude to healthy mental development has not received universal acknowledgement. And, believe it or not, his timely reminder dates back to 1988. However the psycho-analyst, Dr Donald Winnicott, as far back as 1958 had written an important psychoanalytic paper which has become a classic. It is called “The Capacity to be Alone” and in it he states that it is high time that a discussion on the positive aspects of the capacity to be alone should take place. Storr goes on to state clearly:

It is generally recognized that clinging behaviour is indicative of insecurity. The child who will not let the mother leave, even for short periods, is the child who has no confidence in her return. Conversely, the child who has developed trust in the availability of attachment figures is the child who can increasingly experience being left by such figures without anxiety. Thus the capacity to be alone is one aspect of an inner security which has been built up over the years...Winnicott suggests that the capacity to be alone in adult life originates with the infant’s experience of being alone in the presence of the mother. (Ibid., p. 19)

Winnicott, Storr relates, goes on to make the interesting point that “It is only when alone (that is to say in the presence of someone) that the infant can discover his personal life.” (Quoted ibid., p. 20).

From the writings of Winnicott, and from his own experiences and convictions, Storr can state that the capacity to be alone becomes linked with “self-discovery; with becoming aware of one’s deepest needs, feelings and impulses.” (Ibid., p. 21)

Personal integration, then, occurs during those times of solitude, and interestingly Storr reminds us not to forget that it also continues during sleep. After all, we are all alone when we sleep. How often have we been happy to follow the wise advice about “sleeping on it” when confronted with one problem or another? Also the act of learning requires solitude, time and even sleeping on it to assimilate what is learned.

In summary, the, we may say that some development of the capacity to be alone is necessary if the brain is to function at its best, and if the individual is to fulfil his highest potential. Storr finishes chapter two thus:

Human beings easily become alienated from their own deepest needs and feelings. Learning, thinking, innovation, and maintaining contact with one’s own inner world are facilitated by solitude. (Ibid., p. 28)

A fine lone tree at San Andrea.

Solitude and its Graces 2

Solitude and its Graces 2

Indeed the human need for attachment cannot ever be doubted, especially in the first twelve months of a little baby’s life. I have already referred to Bowlby’s magisterial and seminal work in “object-relations theory” called Attachment and Loss which appeared in three volumes and which emanated from his work for the WHO on the mental health of homeless children. Therein he observed that human infants begin to develop attachments to particular significant others around the third quarter of their first year of life. Storr points out that this is the time at which the infant begins to protest if handed to a stranger and tends to cling to the mother or other adults with whom he is familiar. Such a solid base in attachment allows the young child to develop with a reasonable chance of good mental health. If a little baby is deprived of such early important attachment to the mother or a significant other it will go through the phases of protest, despair and finally detachment.

As a teacher of some thirty years’ standing I do not deny the importance of a child’s early upbringing. When confronted with the growing number of disaffected and troublesome teenagers in our city schools it is a commonplace to find that the problems they have spring from their early experiences in dysfunctional families. You would need a standing army of many therapists to get to the root of their problems. It is standard practise in social work - and indeed in education these days, with the presence of too few counsellors in our schools, and many of them untrained as well as the availability of Home School Community Liaison officers, who are also a trained teachers - to consider a child’s capacity to make human relationships to be very high on the agenda indeed.

So relationships and the ability to make them are crucial to the mental health of our community. However, as we argued in our last post, while they are crucial, they are not, to use a rather poor cliché, “the only game in town.” There is more that goes to making a mentally healthy human being, things like work, play, games, interests of all types and hobbies of all kinds. These interests could be writing history, penning poems, composing raps, breeding carrier pigeons (a hobby very common when I was young), speculating in stocks and shares, boating, designing aircraft, being a bus enthusiast, a cyclist, playing the piano, gardening or even writing blogs like this author. All these activities, Storr argue play a “greater part in the economy of human happiness than modern psychoanalysis and their followers allow.” (Solitude, p. xii.) Then he goes on to state, and it is hard to disagree with him that we have placed far too much emphasis on the efficacy of human relationships in bringing about happiness to the exclusion of other activities which also to a greater or lesser extent contribute to humankind’s contentment with life. Storr puts this poetically and his sentence is worth quoting here: “The burden of value with which we are at present loading interpersonal relations is too heavy for those fragile craft to carry.” (ibid., p. xiii)

There are two opposing drives in life, viz., (i) the drive to companionship and (ii) the drive to independence or autonomy. No one wants to dissolve into an intimate union thereby losing his/her identity. Somehow both drives have to be reconciled and we need both intimate companionship and autonomy. Hence some relationships founder on the rock of destruction very quickly if one partner happens to be too controlling. Autonomy cannot survive in an atmosphere of over-control or manipulation. Many marriages and indeed work situations can suffer at the hands of someone who is a “control freak” as we tend to put it these days.

The beauty of Storr’s book is that it puts solitude back on the map, that is a solitude which is healthy and healing and nothing short of creative. Even if you are not a creative writer or musician you, too, need your own space, that space in which you can reflect silently and make sense of your own being, unperturbed and undisturbed by others. I have heard it said many times and also read it very often that a relationship which is entered to get to know oneself is often one which will founder. What makes for good relationships is that each of the two individuals involved therein has already found some self-identity within themselves first. Then they are able to explore the further depths which that relationship will bring to their own individual identities.

In short, anything that reduces the canvass on which humankind paints its identity is to be eschewed. What’s called for is an open approach which accepts that our human identity is an on-going task and one that each individual within each successive generation has to begin over and over again, even though they have the artefacts, books and music and all the paraphernalia of culture handed to them by the preceding generations. Any easy salvation promised either by any religion or even any form of psychotherapy, or indeed psycho-analysis is just that an easy salvation. There are no easy ways or short-cuts to happiness and contentment. Many ways have to be tried and explored and the best bits taken from each, even from religions and psychoanalysis and then elaborated and compounded in the most healthy and healing of ways. This will involve working to improve our intimate relationships for sure, but it will also take account of the silent places within us and our very own need for solitude. I also grant here, in homage both to Pascal and Frost that some of those silent spaces can indeed be frightening.

Above a lone tree at San Andrea

Solitude and its Graces

Solitude and its Graces 1

Reading serious philosophy, like that of Kant or Schopenhauer, is both exhilarating and frustrating. I have long been a subscriber to the view that if anything is worthwhile it will require much work and perseverance. Therefore, the struggle and the frustration will be worthwhile – say in working out an intricate maths problem, learning a new language or say even doing serious DIY or learning to play a new game or take up a new sport – because one now has achieved something new and different for oneself.

With philosophy, one of the things I like to do is to let the ideas settle in my mind for a while, play with them, leave and come back to them. That way I find I end up being able to grasp something of the import of the ideas the particular philosopher is expounding. Therefore, while I continue to struggle with Schopenhauer, I need to take a break from writing about his philosophy until I have digested his ideas somewhat more. To write about his ideas now would end up with my style being unclear which would give any reader indigestion.

And so other thoughts come to take the place of Schopenhauer like the volumes of poetry I miss perusing which are all at home in Ireland, the various novels I have lined up to read now that I’m on holidays and just the sheer joy and relaxation of having absolutely nothing to do but simple be. Simply being, of course, can be problematic for some. In other words some of us hate being alone, become bored very quickly because there is no activity to fill our waking moments. Schopenhauer, whom I have decided not to reflect upon here, ironically comes to mind. He gives us, I believe, as I have explained in a previous post, an interesting insight into boredom, and why it is such a universal complaint among us humans. He argues that boredom is a distraction-free state which very soon reveals to us many underlying unpalatable truths about ourselves, and indeed about our very existence – our insignificance, our meaningless existence, our inexorable and inevitable deterioration and eventual death. There is a lot of truth in this contention.


I am here in Italy on my own, quietly surrounded by the verdant hills of Calabria and the azure Ionian sea, calmly lapping barely 500 metres from my front door, with the swallows nesting somewhere in the eves above me, with the promise of cricket song all night long, the blessing of a warm and friendly sun by day and the gentle presence of a full moon bathing its rays in the calm sea by night. Yes, I am alone, but happy, peaceful and content. The great nineteenth century Cardinal and theologian, John Henry Newman was wont to use the Latin adage with respect to solitude – “Nunquam minus solus quam cum solus” which translates “Never less alone than when alone.” For this orthodox religious man, obviously he meant by this felicitous aphorism that he felt closer to his God when he was alone. We moderns, who might be somewhat religion-less or agnostics or atheists or new age spiritualists, can still benefit from this wisdom insofar as we might feel closer to our own spiritual centre, to our own creative hub or to our own soul, or inner being or inner self. You see, the formulations of expression are different, but I believe the essence is the same.

Dr Anthony Storr, the late great British psychiatrist whose books are always an edification and enlightenment to read, has written quite a little classic called Solitude (Harper Collins, 1997) which I read last summer here in Calabria, but did not get around to writing about it in these pages. Fortuitously, it is still on the shelves in the lounge. He has some interesting things to say about solitude which are worth repeating here, reflecting upon and assimilating. This book is worth reading for the epigraphs alone with which he begins each chapter in this little classic, and that task would only take you a matter of a few minutes.

Without doubt the human being is a social animal and yet most of the major creative geniuses of history have been loners. Storr mentions the following, but there are surely hundreds, if not thousands, of others who could be mentioned: Descartes, Newton, Locke, Pascal, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein. Some of these men of genius, he points out, had transient affairs with other men or women: others like Newton remained celibate. (See Solitude, p. ix.)

While human attachments and intimacy are central to human well-being and happiness, Storr argues that they are not the only things which make for human contentment. As he puts it, the modern insistence that “true happiness can only be found in intimate attachments, more especially in sexual fulfilment, does not allow a place for characters like Gibbon.” (Ibid., p xi) Edward Gibbon, the author of the monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, had been notoriously unlucky in love – he had to forsake his one true love, Suzanne Curchod on the order of his father, but went on to live a very happy and fulfilled life as he himself and many of his friends attest. While sexual love may have played little if no part in Gibbon’s life, his many other relationships were rewarding.

Storr argues his case for the importance of solitude, alongside social interaction needless to say, very well. Like everything else in this world, it is indeed a question of balance. For some reason from the time of Freud onwards we Westerners have got the balance wrong. I wholeheartedly agree with Storr that the notion, which has its great big taproot in Freud, that heterosexual fulfilment is the sine qua non of mental health is very much an extremist position. Demonstrably this is not the case. We only have to look at the Gay Pride parades even in Dublin, Ireland, to realise that there are other ways to happiness. And then, even outside sexual activity, there are other ways to happiness and contentment too. As I have said, it is a question of balance and not a question of “this is the way life is, and that’s that.” No, with Hamlet we can agree that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of” in our philosophy.

Interestingly enough Storr quotes a wonderful little insight from Freud which is worth giving due consideration to. Once, when the father of psychoanalysis was asked what constituted psychological health, he answered the ability to love and work. (See ibid., p. 8) Now this is a particularly balanced statement. Like what Shakespeare said about Scripture we can all, including the devil, take statements from any author or expert to prove whatever we like. Once again, it is a question of context and balance and of knowing the author’s work in detail. In that way one does not skew the results, end up giving an extreme viewpoint, misrepresenting the author or whatever. It would seem to me that Freud was particularly balanced in his answer here. We all do need love and intimacy, or what the great John Bowlby, psychiatrist and possibly the greatest expounder and exponent of the “object-relations theory” in psychoanalysis called necessary attachments to significant others, and especially so in early life. This goes without saying. However, once again, the balance comes in when we say to ourselves, “Yes, Bowlby is correct indeed, but attachment is not everything. It is not the whole of the story. This, my friends, is balance.

I remember years ago an old teacher I knew talking about an old proverb which was often quoted in the Gaelic, and it translates thus: “Always fear or suspect the man of the one book.” In other words, be sceptical of those who preach one line on a topic only and get the balance all wrong. That’s the brilliance of philosophy because it teaches its user to think about topics from as many angles as possible and not, to use another proverb which has become quite a cliché, to “put all one’s intellectual eggs into the one basket.”

Storr finishes his first chapter in this delightful little book with a quotation from the great Dr John Bowlby whose wonderful work grew out of research he had done for the WHO on the mental health of homeless children. Bowlby argues well that “intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves,” but Storr adds a wonderful qualification to this obviously true statement by saying that such intimate attachments are “a hub... not necessarily the hub.”

What has always impressed me about Storr is the wonderful perspective of balance we get in his books. And here he brings in the wonderful balance of solitude which I have described above and which I am experiencing here and now.

A fine solitary tree at San Andrea.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Struggling with Schopenhauer 4

Some basics about his philosophy

I always find it very hard to start into writing an account of any thinker, be he or she a philosopher, a theologian, a scientist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a poet, a novelist or whatever. However, the best strategy for a blog is simply to start anyway as if you were introducing the subject to a friend. Having read an introduction to his work from Bertrand Russell, Bryan Magee, Roger Scruton and Irvin Yalom the following are the points that spring to mind.

Firstly, unlike the majority of philosophers, Schopenhauer, who lived from 1788 till 1860, was very much a pessimist. Hence, you know immediately he’s not going to be writing some drivel about Utopia or offering any easy or facile answers. In fact, to come to grips with his philosophy you will have to work hard as every sentence has to be thought over and worked out logically. Also an insight into Kant’s philosophy, at least the rudimentary points thereof, is a sine qua non as much of Schopenhauer’s work is a working out and extension of the former’s thoughts.

If you are a religious sort and somewhat suspect of atheists, then don’t read Schopenhauer as you simply won’t like him. He was an unabashed and avowed atheist like Nietzsche and Freud after him. In fact these two loved Schopenhauer’s work and were intimately acquainted with it. It could be said, indeed, that they borrowed not a few ideas from the crotchety old German philosopher.

Again, he is a very widely read and deeply acute intellectual who prefigured in his work insights like repression and the unconscious that we find in Freud. Roger Scruton calls him one of the last great systematic philosophers:

Many historical philosophers are known for their speculative systems, in which a complete account of reality is promised or attempted. Hegel is one of the most accomplished of the system builders, though his close rival Schopenhauer is equally ambitious and rather more agreeable to read. Modern philosophers are not system builders in general. (Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey, Manderin, 1996, p. 2)

Scruton’s point put my mind at ease, and indeed stimulated my interest as I love systematisers, those rare beings who try to make sense of the totality of things, of reality in total. They are ambitious and passionate writers, and then the fact that Schopenhauer was offering no panacea or easy way through difficult problems also whetted my appetite for this very rudimentary study of this great philosopher.

Schopenhauer could speak German, English and French fluently and obviously Latin and Greek, the languages of learning in those days, and managed to ten languages in all by the time he died. I also read somewhere in my research that he was wont to write his marginal notes in the language of the text he was then reading.

Another fact about this great philosopher heartened me and that is the fact that you will find absolutely no nationalism in his work at all – not a hint. He had no time for causes other than his own deep inner searchings of his mind. Bertrand Russell asserts that his appeal has always been less to professional philosophers than to artistic and literary people who are searching for some philosophy to underpin their intellectual and artistic pursuits. (See A History of Western Philosophy, Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1979, p. 722) However, I feel that since then, with the researches of such scholars and intellectuals like Bryan Magee into his work he has been more widely appreciated.

His Emphasis on Will

Interestingly enough his emphasis is mainly on what he calls the will and this in itself is characteristic of much of nineteenth century philosophy. Being the pessimist that he was, with a belief in the centrality of the tragedy to the very essence of life, it will be no surprise to any of his readers to find that for Schopenhauer that the will is ethically evil. However, Russell does point out that while this was so it was metaphysically fundamental to Schopenhauer’s system, while marvelling at such an amazing opposition which he say only a pessimist could come up with. (See Russell, ibid., p. 722)


Schopenhauer names three great influences on his work, viz., Immanuel Kant, Plato and The Upanishads. These could be seen as representing kindred systems, or at least offering each offers a systematic way to interpret reality as a whole. Russell disputes how much of an influence Plato had on him while Magee argues soundly that Schopenhauer had well worked out his own system by sheer reason before he discovered the philosophies of the East in Hinduism and Buddhism. The fact that these philosophies mirrored his own findings by reason encouraged him to read them more and more. In fact our man had two busts in his study – one of Kant and one of the Buddha.

Russell sees the work of Schopenhauer as being “tired and valetudinarian,” as valuing quietism and sheer inaction rather than attempting to reform society. (See Russell, ibid., 722) Yet, one could hardly expect anything else from a pessimist and one who believed that the essential nature of life was tragic anyway. A pessimist would see all efforts at reform as futile anyway. However, his observation is a correct and worthwhile one.

Prickly and Arrogant

That Schopenhauer was prickly and arrogant no one who knew him would attempt to deny, not even his mother who knew her son only too well. He was as prickly and as arrogant intellectually as he was temperamentally. He had quarrels with most of his professors. In Berlin in 1811 he heard Fichte lecture, but went on to despise him as a fraud and a charlatan. When he became a privatdozent at Berlin University in 1819 at the age of 31 he conceitedly put his lecture on at the same time as Hegel’s because he despised this man’s work so much. He also believed that the latter, like Fichte, was a charlatan and a fraud who merely used language to mystify their hearers rather than to clarify the thinking of the audience. Needless to say no one turned up at Schopenhauer’s lecture according to most of my sources, while one mentioned that a handful turned up while Hegel’s lecture hall was packed out. Schopenhauer gave up lecturing on the spot and began to study as a private philosopher from then on. This strong-willed man would be beholden to no one and never to any institution. Once again one has to admire his balls as the Americans put it; respect his deep belief in his own ability; his refusal to compromise his thinking or water it down in anyway; his ability to take all the flack and criticism that would go with such strong views. As Russell puts it, after this rather embarrassing occurrence, he settled down to the life of an old bachelor in Frankfurt.

I will finish with a few unrelated but interesting points which highlight his eccentricity which at this remove is nothing short of delightful, though I should not like to share a table with such a misanthropist as Schopenhauer. He always kept a poodle, which he called Atman (or Atma) which means “World-Soul) and he was wont to talk to it in public. He also walked for two hours every day, played the flute religiously, swam in the cold Main river daily all year round, read The London Times, smoked a long pipe, and even hired correspondents to hunt up evidence of his fame and reputation. It is not surprising either to find that he was anti-democratic and was vehemently opposed to the 1848 revolution – given his merchant background, how could we be surprised?

There is enough for anyone to mull over above by way of a very short introduction to his thought. I will have to struggle some more with him before I go further.

Above a picture of the young Arthur Schopenhauer at Venice.