Friday, August 06, 2010

Solitude and its Graces 6

I remember when I was a schoolboy around sixteen or seventeen years of age a retired teacher, who was our librarian, Dr James J. Carey saying that history really was the most important subject because quite simply every subject had a history and that an understanding of history gave one a good start no matter what subject one chose to study at college.  I remember being quite impressed by this learned gentleman as he was a Latin and English literature scholar and edited many important school books on those topics.  He was also the first person I had ever come across that had a doctorate.  James was wise in his own way and very learned in his chosen subjects, though once I heard him say, upon flicking through a book on mathematics, "Look how much I do not know."  At least this won me over as one of his fans -  James J. never pretended to know what he didn't.

Today, one of the things that annoys me is how poor a grasp of history or even of the developments within any area in human culture that our media seems to have.  When one hears them decrying all those seemingly modern crimes like rape, and especially paedophilia as if somehow these ghastly crimes have suddenly been born out of nowhere or indeed that the Roman Catholic Church has some sort of manopoly in attracting clerics with that psychiatric deviation.  Not being an essentialist or one who believes in ultimate truths carved into great stones set somewhere beyond this universe, I often despair when I hear people say things like, "Murder was always wrong," "Abortion is and was also always wrong," and statements like "Paedophilia was always a crime and everyone knows that."  I despair at their lack of a sense of history in the very overarching sense of evolution or if you like simple development of any kind. 

Very simply, we would not have had the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights but for the fact that six million Jews and some six million others of various ethnic, social and religious backgrounds were systematically murdered by the Nazi death machine.  The Rights of Man only became news when The American Declaration of Independence and later the US constitution spoke about mankind's inalienable rights - in other words only in the last three hundred years or so.  (One of course could also mention the role of The French Revolution in the development of our understanding of human rights.) And also don't forget that slavery was acceptable socially for many years, and that it was also only outlawed in the last several hundred years.  In all of this there was never mention of the rights of women or indeed the rights of children.  These rights took many more decades to develop.

And people say stupid things like "murder and paedophilia were always wrong."  When we lived in the caves we practised murder, and not just in self-defense, on a weekly, if not daily basis in attempting to ward off our enemies - other cavemen.  Cavemen had very little understanding of right and wrong - all as they wanted to do was survive.  Even when humans began to live together, accepted moral codes had to be built up and established over hundreds of years to make community living viable.  One man could not be allowed to take the property of another or have conjugal rights with as many other women as he liked.  No indeed, laws had to be written to govern all the possible behaviours of mankind.  This was an on-going process as mankind only encountered each behaviour as it occurred and then it was consequently noted.  So the above seemingly obvious statements are not what they make themselves out to be at all. 

What I am arguing here is that moraliy and ethics have evolved over generations and have been codified in laws, and written and argued over as our knowledge of such human behaviour developed.  Likewise, our knowledge of paedophilia has grown in recent centuries.  Undoubtedly, it has been there all the time, being a certain kind of sexual relationship, as warped as it appears to us now, because it satisfied certain animal needs within some of the human herd.  Don't forget that we belong firmly to the animal kingdom.  That's why studies on homosexuality, heterosexuality and indeed paedophilia in animals is also important for us because they help us understand the wide varities of behaviours we humans are capable of.  There never were ultimate truths carved on heavenly stones.  Truths evolved as we evolved and learned more about ourselves and about the world around us.

Now, this brings me in a round-about way back to Dr Anthony Storr's wonderful little book Solitude.  His sixth chapter on the Significance of the Individual is nothing short of enlightening.  In fact, it is only in the past four to five hundred years that the concept of the self and of the individual as different from others within the human community emerged.  Now, you will understand the passionate nature of the prologomenon I wrote above to this post.  How many of us really knew that - that the very sense of being a unique individual or self is only that recent?  Now that really makes liars, albeit unconscious ones, of those silly journalists and other silly know-alls who make sweeping statements like "X, Y or Z has always been wrong. Any fool knows that."  Maybe so, but that poor fool is very much deluded, but being a fool we can forgive him far more quickly than you so-called professional and knowlegeable others who make unproven general statements which mislead some, if not most, of the reading public.

San Andrea Superiore again
The idea that individual self-development is an important pursuit is a comparatively recent one in human history; and the idea that the arts are vehicles of self-expression or can serve the purpose of self-development is still more recent.  Storr shares an interesting story from a Nigerian psychiatrist friend that when he first set up his practice in a rural district, the family invariably accompanied the sufferer and insisted on being present at the patient's interview.  They simply did not have the consciousness or knowledge that the patient might exist as an individual apart from his family.  Storr quotes the learned works of several anthropologists and sociologists who give evidential support to this statement.  Primitive socities just do not have the very concept of individuality or "self."  Let us read some of Storr's words here and assimilate them because they are inspiring and insightful:

The growth of individualism, and hence of the modern conception of the artist, was hastened by the Reformation.  Although Luther was an ascetic who attacked wealth and luxury, he was also an individualist who preached the supremacy of the individual conscience.  Until the sixteen century the ultimate standard of human institutions and activities was not only religious, but was promulgated by a universal Western Church.  (Op. cit., p. 79)
This Reformation made possible the growth of Calvinism, and the establishment of the good old Protestant work ethic.  Hence, it was not long before poverty was regarded as a punishment for idleness and fecklessness, and the accumulation of wealth came to be seen as a reward for the virtues of industry and thrift.

Interestingly, Storr gives us some useful dates in the development of the notions of "self" and individual."  These dates are in themselves astoundingly recent.  For instance, according to the OED, it was not till 1674 that the word "self" took on its modern meaning of  "a permanent subject of successive and varying states of consciousness." (Quoted ibid., p. 79)  The compound "self-knowledge" only came in 1613 while the compound "self-conscious" came as late as 1687.  (See ibid., p. 80 for other interesting compounds of self and for their respective dates.)

Interestingly also, we learn that the word "individual" originally denoted "indivisible," and could be used when dwescribing the Holy Trinity, a married couple, and essentially meant those or that which should not be divided. 

We also learn that traditionally the artist's skills were valued far more than his individuality.  In the light of what Storr has been informing us, this does not surprise us in the least.  Most earlier painters/artists did not even sign their work because originality and individuality were not important.  What was important was craftsmanship and the tradition in which they followed as artists.  Today we demand that an artist display originality and we count this latter as the highest artistic merit possible.  Storr puts this succinctly indeed: "The commercial value of a work of art depends upon its demonstrable authenticity rather than upon its intrinsic merit." (Ibid., p. 80)

Then, further, a judicious study of the OED also gives us some timely enlightenment on the word "autobiography."  The first occurrence of this word was in 1809 from a work by the Romantic poet and writer Southey.  It is unsurpriusing that autobiography deveoloped out of confessional lietrature within the Church which indeed was veritably the seminary or seed-growing garden of Western learning.  St Augustine's Confessions is the first book of this genre within the Church's history.  However, over the centuries, autobiography has changed from being a narrative of the soul's relation with and journey to God and has now morphed into an exercise more like that of psycho-analysis.

Now, surely this is something that every thinking being  should be appraised of, namely that both our very notions of individuality and of "self" as being different from that of others is only some four hundred years old?  This must surely put much of the rubbish people write in generalities about human nature very much into perspective.  My old schoolteacher-librarian friend was right - a sense of history, a sense of the development of ideas, a sense that things just were not always the same, that even our own moral and ethical principles evolved - they were never set in stone by some other-worldly deity.  They evolved like everything else on this beautiful blue planet.  Perhaps if more people had this historical sense there would be far less hatred and far less wars in the world, and perhaps our prejudices would become obvious to us as the lies they really are; that oftentimes what we profess as truths are nothing other than lies and deadly lies at that which are mere masks for hatred and sheer evil.

The Element - Book Review

I always try to have four or five different types of books on the go at the one time - a novel, a book of poems, an autobiograpy, a science book and usually a more general one on personal development and creativity.  The book that falls into that last category is The Element: Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, written by Dr Ken Robinson with the assistance of Lou Aronica, (Penguin, London, 2009).  It fits into that category of personal development, has a nice bright cover and readers like me buy such books in the vain hope of finding the key to success in life.

Which of us does not get tired, if not frustrated, with our jobs and/or role in life and wishes from time to time that we could earn a reasonable living from something we enjoy doing, from something that is both rewarding and personally nourishing?  Well, I suppose we all have those strong feelings that we could be doing something better and more rewarding with our lives.  In short, that is what this book is about.  It could be read in one sitting in two or three hours as, unlike say philosophy or science or even good psychology one really does not have to stuggle with understanding the arguments.  However, like all such books it speaks interminably in generalities and sweeping statements and really both during it and at its completion the reader will be nodding in agreement saying something like, "Yes, I agree with all that, that is very true indeed.  There is much wisdom here."  And yet that same reader will be disappointed, as I always am with such books, because very little by way of strategies are set out upon the page in such a way as to help you put that "element" you have found into practice, if indeed you are lucky enough to have found it, and then indeed hopefully earn a living by it.

I now read such books, not in the vain hope of suddenly landing the perfect job with the right amount of financial remuneration, but to gain little insights into living life better.  At least all these types of book have the ability to do just that, but no more.  Ken Robinson in this easily-read book asserts that finding your element in life will allow you to live it much more happily and contentedly.  He speaks about our need to connect with our true innate talents, about "growing creatively," and finding our element which he defines thus: "I use the term the Element to describe the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together." (Op. cit., p. xiii).

Robinson also speaks in generalities in which such books as his abound.  He speaks about a richer cultural vision for humankind, of nurturing human talents and of improving human society.  While finding your element is truly about discovering what you really do and about who you really are, it also, he maintains has implications for how to run our schools, businesses, communities, and institutions.  Yes indeed, all this is laudable, but is highly aspirational.  It's very hard to see how it can be put into practice at all.  This is also a major criticism of most self-help or personal develoipment books like this, they have all the general and laudable ideas, all the aspirations and they are all truisms, yet, how to put them into practice is the major lacuna in all such works.

Still I have learned some interesting insights from Ken Robinson, one of which is the difference between imagination and creativity, the demarcation points between both being somewhat blurred in my mind. It is also complementary to my last post on imagination from the perspective of the  psychiatrist Dr Anthony Storr, and that's why I decided to place this particular review here at this time. Robinson sees creativity as putting imagination into action.  It's all too easy to have the ideas, but putting them into action, trying them out is the most important aspect of the whole enterprise.  This is where creativity comes in, because this latter is all about putting the ideas, good, bad or indifferent that the imagination came up with into practice. In fact, in a felicitous sentence, Robinson underscores the difference between imagination and creativity thus: "You can think of creativity as applied imagination." (Ibid., p. 67)

Other intrerseting points for me were given in two chapters with intersting headings, viz., In the Zone and Finding Your Tribe.  The first is about discovering the power of the element at work in you, and this very discoverey is energising to say the least.  Being in the zone is where you are conscious that you are in your element and that energy is literally flowing through you in a very natural way.  I get this natutral feeling when I am either writing or reading my poems or doing M.C. at school functions.  Things come together.  Yes, I have done preparations, but extra insights and wisdom and inspiration hit you and flow through you, giving a more profound order than that of which your preparations made you aware in the first place.  I experienced this "in the zone" feeling twice recently: at the graduation of our sixth years and at a reading I gave of my Irish poems in Arranmore some weeks back.  There was indeed something elemental at work because I had the distinct feeling on both occasions that this was my natural work, that this was what I was good at and that energy was flowing through me.  Another interesting pooint Robinson makes here is that it is not like work at all, that you are energised rather than burning up energy.  If you find your element you can do your work efforlessly, but of course with some initial preparation.   I remember one of our national broadcasters, Pat Kenny saying that he was extremely lucky because his hobby was his job.  Very few people can boast of that.  Pat Kenny is in his element, and he is so lucky to be earning vast sums of money for doing it.

One of the books I am reading at the moment
The second interesting chapter is entitled "Finding Your Tribe" and this is all about finding like-minded souls or kindred spirits.  When I speak with other poets I am energised because we have so much in common.  Finding one's tribe, then, is like coming home in a sense: you have to be welcomed into the arms of the fellowship because it is your spiritual or natural family in a deep sense,  Hence, we should work at finding some place where we really belong.  This sense of deep spiritual belonging with kindred spirits supports and nourishes us.

I will finish this post with another interesting insight that Robinson offers us about the diffrence between Western and Eastern minds.  In a study Westerners and Asians were asked to look at a series of pictures and to describe what they saw.  Essentially, Westerners tended to look at thge foreground and to focus on what they consider to be the subject of the photograph.  Asians, on the other hand, focus more on the whole image, including the relationships between all the elements in the picture.  Also in Asian art there is much less emphasis on portraiture or even on individual subjects.  In Asian art and culture there is less emphasis on the individual and more on the collective.  This seems obvious to me, now that I have read it boldly stated by Ken Robinson, but I had never formulated it in actual wordsWestern Philosophy, as also Western Culture, has always been concerned about the significance of the individual, the growth of the self, the importance of that individual and his or her freedom.  Let us listen to Ken Robinson's own words here as they are enlightening indeed:

Western philosophy since the ancient Greeks has emphasised the importance of critical reasoning, logical analysis, and the separation of ideas and things into catergories.  Chinesse philosophy is not based as much on logic and deductive reasoning and tends to emphasise relationships and holism.  (Ibid., p. 151)
Finally I liked the fact that Dr Ken Robinson is into the Mother Earth or Gaia as one great organism and into us as a smaller but great conscious organism that is one among many others on that greater organism that is Mother Earth.  He tells a lovely story from Dr Jonas Salk, the famous discoverer of the polio vaccine: "It's interesting to reflect," Salk said, "that if all the insects were to disappear from the earthg, within fifty years all other formns of life would end.  But, if all human beings were to disappear from the earth, within fifty years all other forms of life would flourish."  (Quoted ibid., p. 259)

In short, what the learned Doctor meant is that now we human beings have become trhe problem by polluting and destroying the great Mother Earth who gave us birth.  We need much imagination and creativity if we are to stop such on-going destruction of both our own species and of every other species with whom we share this wonderful, if at times, painful world.

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.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Solitude and its Graces 4

Solitude and its Graces 4

Returning to Dr Anthony Storr’s interesting little book Solitude I wish to divide this post into two sections (a) the uses of solitude and (b) enforced solitude, two subheadings which correspond respectively to the titles of chapters three and four of the book.

(a) The Uses of Solitude

(i) Grieving: Solitude has been found to be extremely helpful to human beings over the course of their history. One such use it has been put to is in times of grief. It has been well said, and it is a truism, that while the death or loss of someone dear is very traumatic, that only time will help the bereaved soul heal, and often it is silence or some periods of solitude that helps heal that broken and bereaved soul. Storr recounts how in rural Greece bereaved women wear black and grieve for a period of five years, and how during that period they visit the graveside regularly, hold mock conversations with the dead man – a sort of catharsis is at work here. (See op cit., pp. 30-31) It is hard not to disagree with Storr that coming to terms with loss is a difficult, painful, and largely solitary process which may be delayed rather than aided by distractions. The bereaved may (or indeed may not) learn that the meaning of life is not entirely constituted by and in our personal relationships, and that life without intimate relationships can also have a meaning.

(ii) Another interesting point which Storr makes is that solitude also aids us in coming to grips with any sort of change in our lives. This is because habitual attitudes and behaviours often receive reinforcements from external circumstances. Likewise, that is why I feel that my two months living in the South of Italy each summer allows me to sleep on whatever chances there are or must be in my life back at home. Getting away from the normal everyday routine helps me put things into perspective and sort out the real priorities in life. Hence, the use of the word “retreat” in everyday parlance like, “I have a little retreat in the West of Ireland or in San Francisco or in Italy or wherever.” A retreat is, then, a place where I can get my act together, to use a cliché. In Catholic circles a retreat is where one goes to search the soul, meet one’s God in the silence – a spiritual exercise.

(iii) Buddha and Jesus and most of the great religious founders had fairly long intervals of silence in their lives where, they, too, worked things out. Today noise is ubiquitous, almost necessary for modern society to function at all, and we who live in cities are becoming inured to it. Indeed, we are the sad victims of what is called sensory overload. To get beyond the bombardment of all our senses with stimuli of one form or another, silence is a much needed antidote, like an oasis in a desert. TM and meditation practices of all kinds are also important for the overloaded soul to get rid of the weights it is carrying.

(iv) Mysticism: Storr then mentions mysticism, which indeed could have been mentioned with reference to the Buddha and Jesus above or with reference to mystics like John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart but he chooses to discuss it within a more secular context and refers to accounts of solitude left by Admiral Byrd who manned alone an advanced weather base in the Antarctic back in 1934. Byrd wanted to see how good solitude was for his soul. This courageous admiral and William James both experienced what Storr calls “oceanic feelings”, feelings of “oneness” or “unity” with the universe in their experiences of solitude. Another way of putting this would be that they had an experience of encountering the limitless or the unbounded that is, an experience of “the oceanic.” Storr discusses Freud’s view of mysticism as being one of mere regression to an earlier state of that of the infant pining for the mother’s breast as being less than satisfactory. His discussion of that point is interesting and can be read on pages 37-39 of the book. I shall return to Freud and religion in a later post. That topic is beyond the scope of this short post at the present.

(v) Interesting also is the fact that ecstatic states of unity are sometimes, happily rarely, associated with an acceptance of and even a wish for death. The association of such ecstatic states of mind with death is somewhat understandable, Storr maintains. That’s because those rare moments are “of such perfection that it is hard to return to the commonplace...” (Ibid., p.40)

(b) Enforced Solitude

This chapter deals essentially with imprisonment which is mostly where enforced solitude is experienced. Needless to say, it is not a very happy experience and it mostly always breaks its victims down to a shadow of their former selves. This chapter is replete with evidence of such detrimental effects of enforced solitude on prisoners over the years that I shan’t recount too much of the evidence that Dr Storr advances here.

(i) Solitary confinement results in restlessness, insomnia, inability to concentrate and partial failure of memory, a Danish report detailed. Self-mutilation and suicidal attempts were also reported. Also detainees complained of inexplicable fatigue. After prolonged isolation many feared resuming social relationships.

(ii) Solitary confinement is about breaking the prisoner down, stripping him of every vestige of humanity. The cell is small and dark. It usually has only one window which is placed well above eye level so that the prisoner can see nothing of the external world.

(iii) Storr also adduces evidence from written accounts of solitary confinement and techniques used during and before such confinement in the former Communist States. Those suspected of crimes against the State in this scenario are arrested, usually in the middle of the night, and assumed to be guilty, and are never told what crimes they have committed. One can see how real Kafka’s famous Josef K is, that he is not just the figment of an ill author’s mind.

(iv) Storr gives a good account of Brain Washing as used by the former Communist States. There has been much research done into this, and in scientific circles it is called Sensory Deprivation. Above I referred to Sensory Overload in modern society. Well, this is the polar opposite, a hell of deprivation. The effects of sensory deprivation are: falling intellectual functioning, poor or no concentration, inability to follow any train of thought, obsessional and uncontrollable thoughts. Also suggestibility is greatly increased – the prisoner will believe anything. Prisoners also suffer from visual and even auditory and tactile hallucinations. They also often experience panic attacks.

(v) Storr mentions that both blindness and deafness can cause mental suffering and agitation as it did with Beethoven and Goya who both went deaf.

(vi) Interestingly, too, Storr mentions at some length the use of sensory deprivation on political prisoners in Northern Ireland. Many of these captives experienced hallucinations and believed that they were going mad. Psychiatric examination of these men after they were released showed the following on-going symptoms: nightmares, waking tension and anxiety, suicidal thoughts, depression, headaches and peptic ulcers. Eventually Edward Heath put an end to the use of this sensory deprivation technique.

(vii) Some few survivors: There are some very rare cases of people who have survived lengthy periods of captivity and solitary confinement. Storr mentions two, Dr Edith Bone and the famous, or infamous, Birdman of Alcatraz (See ibid., pp.48 and 56). These are extremely rare birds indeed, if you forgive the pathetic pun.

Thomas More as Lord Chancellor Of England
(viii) However, partial enforced solitude has been shown to be good. Alas, all these cases related to people, who had once been in authority and who had held very high official rank within the state. Hence, while they were confined to towers or dungeons or prison cells they were not tortured and were indeed accorded many privileges that the ordinary prisoners did not receive. This list is short, too, though many of the names will be familiar to most readers: (i) The Roman philosopher Boethius who wrote his famous Consolation of Philosophy while in prison in Pavia. However, he was finally tortured and bludgeoned to death in 525 AD. (ii) Sir Thomas More who wrote “A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation” while in the Tower of London, (iii) Sir Walter Raleigh who wrote his book called The History of the World while in the same Tower of London between 1603 and 1616 – He was eventually executed in 1818, (iv) John Bunyan, the famous evangelist and preacher who wrote Grace Abounding and The Pilgrim’s Progress while incarcerated and (v) the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky who spent four years in a Siberian prison camp from where he got much inspiration for his many novels.

(ix) Storr ends by referring to a famous television conversation between Anthony Grey and Arthur Koestler where they both discussed their experiences of having been imprisoned, the former in China and the latter in Spain. This was a very insightful conversation where Koestler said he had on occasion: “a feeling of inner freedom, of being alone and confronted with ultimate realities instead of with your bank statement...” (Quoted ibid.,p. 61) In other words solitude, Koestler is saying can move us from the trivial plane to the tragic or absolute plane. This again, gives me a Schopenhauerian moment, namely that Arthur Schopenhauer would vehemently agree with Koestler’s contention here: that life is inevitably tragic, and that death is the inevitable, inexorable and ultimate end of what we know as life.

(x) However, some good can and does, if rarely, come out of evil. Anthony Grey said that when he was shown a painting by a Chinese friend of a lotus flower growing tenderly out of the mud that his spirit was lifted. It is surely better to end on this little but not insignificant positive note. Unlike Schopenhauer, neither I nor Anthony Storr is a pessimist.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Review of Empire Falls

Review: Empire Falls by Richard Russo

It is indeed one of life’s pleasures to read a really good novel. Empire Falls was given to me by a colleague who is an English teacher. He informed me that one idea he had in the past few years was to read as many award winning novels as he could going back over the last twenty years – all the Booker Prize and Pulitzer Prize winners. That way he said he got to read the best of books. Anyway he lent me Empire Falls as one he considered a good read.

As our own famous Irish broadcaster, Mr Gay Byrne is often fond of saying about a good book: “This is a thumping good read.” As one would expect from a Pulitzer Prize winning novel this book tells a gripping story which literally keeps the reader doing just that – reading, and happily forgetting many of life’s little tasks like doing the laundry or preparing dinner or going down to the local shop. As you will infer the writer of these comments is on holidays.

The story is set in Empire Falls, Maine where the Whiting Family, owners of the once vibrant mills and the shirt factory have sold out to a multinational. Richard Russo is a wonderful storyteller who creates equally wonderful and believable characters. He also has a deep compassion for all his characters whether they are good, bad or indifferent beings. This reader found his portrayal of them rich, insightful and understanding. There is no one character in the book one could hate, not even the last Mrs Whiting who presides like a black widow spider over the declining fortunes of the town in which both mill and shirt factory have been closed down for these last twenty years.

The story evolves as each of the well-drawn characters interacts and rubs off one another. One does not even have to use the famous Coleridgean formula “willing suspension of disbelief” as the story moves along so naturally and as the characters are so believably real.

Some of the lesser characters add a more comedic subtext to the weightier themes of the novel expressed through the interactions of the main characters. These lesser characters make us laugh. For instance Bea, Janine’s mother who does not mind pointing out her daughter’s folly in reducing her weight and dumping Miles for that “banty little rooster” called Walt or even her own piles, and is quite comfortable sitting on her haemorrhoid cushion during the football game. She is not averse even to commenting on her daughter’s frozen nipples at the game. Bea, who is in her late sixties, is the owner of a pub and does not mind shifting kegs and all that goes with owning a bar, including dealing with obstreperous customers. Fr. Tom, the old priest with Alzheimer’s provides much light relief also and gives us a belly laugh or two. The funniest and most entertaining character is Miles’ father Max who also provides necessary comic relief in counter-balance to the heavier storyline. His son Miles, reflecting on Max’s character sums him up by saying that his father: “lived so comfortably within the confines of a two-word personal philosophy: so what?” (Empire Falls, Vintage, London, 2002, p. 204) Max has lost most of his teeth, pays absolutely no regard to his clothing and invariably has crumbs and pieces of food from his last meal stuck in his two or three day beard growth. He is a survivor, a total bohemian who loves his beer and for whom depression is a word he cannot even possibly understand. The reader loves to see him coming onto the stage if I’m permitted an obvious if awkward metaphor as he will enliven an otherwise seriously deep or philosophical mood.

However, the novel is also a serious one which deals with weightier themes like the meaning of life and indeed just living an authentic life no matter what we decide to do in or with it. Even the crueller and seemingly uncaringly hard character like the cop Jimmy Minty who was at school with Miles has his more serious and feeling side as the following small snippet of conversation indicates. The cop had found Miles sitting in his car outside the house where he used to live as a boy:

“What you were doing over there yesterday. I do the same thing sometimes.”
“What’s that?”
“You know. Just drive over, sit in the car and try to figure it all out.”
“All what out?”
Minty shrugged, “Life I guess. The way things turn out. I guess some people would think it pretty weird me ending up a cop.” (Ibid., p.93)

Indeed the above little scene sums up the theme or one of the themes, of this novel very nicely indeed. The theme I’m referring to is the struggle with life’s meaning, that is, making some sense of it all. In that sense this novel is almost Schopenhauerian in scope. I make this last reference as I have been recently discussing Schopenhauer’s philosophy in these posts and my own struggles in trying to come to grips with his thoughts.

The central character of the novel is Miles Roby who is a very reflective and philosophical character who is living through a mid-life crisis. He is 42 and is the manager of the Empire Grill, the local fast food joint. He regrets the fact that he had to come home from college, having completed only three of his four years there when his mother was dying. Circumstances did not allow him to resume his studies. Consequently, he feels a failure, and doubly so as his marriage is also on the rocks and his wife Janine is suing for divorce. He is living over the restaurant while the rival for his wife’s affections, Walt, is now living in his house with her. Added to that, he has a young fifteen year old daughter to think about.

Miles has a lot of thinking and soul-searching to do. He ponders his long dead beautiful and sensitive mother and retraces a marvellous, almost idyllic week, which he spent with her in Martha’s Vineyard when he was a little boy of eight or so. There he remembers his mother having met a Charley Maine who treated both his mum and him royally. He also remembers witnessing the fact that she had spent a night with the same Charley. And so Miles has much to do in putting the jig-saw of his life’s meaning together. Then there are his regular meetings, every so many months, with Mrs Francine Whiting, the owner of the restaurant for whom he’s working. She also owns anything that’s worth anything in the town, as well as having an intricate involvement in his life as a boy and as a young man, the import of which he is also struggling to unravel. Russo brings us right into this sensitive character’s mind and we begin to think and feel with him. However, we do get impatient with his inability to move and take decisions because he does do far too much navel gazing.

Interestingly Mrs Whiting is presented as a magisterial and sage character. She speaks extremely well, is extremely bright and has an aphoristic style which sums up life rather too easily and readily. Russo paints her as almost omniscient in the way she sums up people and life. She has all the answers, and certainly she has Miles wrapped around her little finger. In fact he is simultaneously in awe and afraid of her. This is another thing he will have to work out in his life.

Miles is also a good Roman Catholic with a strong religious bent he inherited from his late mother, and a far too moralistic streak for which his father chides him for on occasions, saying that his mother had ruined him. Miles goes to the Rectory, humorously referred to as the Rectum, most days during the week where he talks with his friend the young priest and where he is painting the church as a voluntary gesture. Russo writes well and realistically in this small subplot or parallel story. There is only one part of the outside of the Church which Miles won’t paint and that is the steeple as he is afraid of heights. Here again his father Max taunts him for his lack of physical courage. This is a lovely parallel story because it symbolically represents his fear of tackling Mrs Whiting and in unravelling her strange involvement in his life.

In summary this is a very good novel. On my scale I’d award it 8 out of 10, and I will now read any of Russo’s novels I come across in the future.

This book was also made into a TV mini-series featuring the great Paul Newman in his last acting role.  See the following link  Empire Falls.