The Coven’s Vision of Hell and ‘Repetition Compulsion’

American Horror Story‘s third season, The Coven, ended last night. The show as a whole did not quite meet my expectations–a critique echoed here and here; but still, for various reasons, I quite enjoyed the season’s finale.

Among them was it’s take on hell: each of us has our own private one. Misty, the “swamp-dwelling, resurrecting sweetheart obsessed with Stevie Nicks” ends up in a school biology lab, forced endlessly to kill and dissect a live frog at the insistent bidding of a loud, cruel, bullying teacher; Fiona meanwhile is “doomed to an eternity of being smacked around by the Axeman in the afterlife.”

This vision of hell is not new for American Horror Story; indeed, one of the most chilling twists on our understanding of a ghost’s life was provided by its first season, when we realized that being a ghost meant staying alive forever, stuck not only in a  particular place–the Murder House–but in a particular stage of psychological development, and confronted again and again by conflict with others also locked into dead-ended trajectories of mental being. A ghost is trapped for eternity in the afterlife; unable to die, unable to move on, unable to ‘get over’ anything. It turns out traipsing through haunted houses and spooking visitors is no fun at all.

So hell is other people all right–as some French dude once suggested–but it’s also you yourself, unable to snap out of a groove, a rut, a slippery well whose walls you slide back down again and again.

This kind of hell is one we actively aid in constructing; our own lives, our patterns of behavior, our responses and pathological modes of behavior slowly develop a place–in the mind–that we dread visiting; and when we do find ourselves in its environs, we are unable to escape.

All of this is–as should be obvious by now–as Freud suggested in ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through‘  a neurotic’s suffering, in which:

[A] person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again. This “re-living” can also take the form of dreams in which memories and feelings of what happened are repeated, and even hallucination….’repetition compulsion’…describes the pattern whereby people endlessly repeat patterns of behaviour which were difficult or distressing in earlier life.” (Jan Clark and Jim Crawley, Transference and Projection: Mirrors to the self. (Buckingham 2002) p. 38 -as cited in Wikipedia article.)

The most frightening aspect of the neurotic’s behavior–for those who observe it, and those who experience it themselves–is that it is painful and unpleasant and yet compulsive; the patient seems to experience a powerlessness to exert her will over herself, to bring to an end, by her own agency, her self-inflicted pain.

The hellish afterlife is just that slice of this life which we have found to be the most unbearably painful. It is all the more so for being of our own making.

Note: Milton too, in Paradise Lost, had noted our interactive construction of our own private circle of pain.

The Nature Documentary and the Failed Hunt

Like many middle-class children, here or elsewhere, I watched wildlife documentaries while ‘growing up.’ There was a long-running Sunday feature whose name I forget that subjected one species to its lens each week; there were the full-length movies–sometimes on the big cats (my personal favorite), sometimes on elephants, sometimes on the primates–my parents took me to see in movie-houses; and then later, in my teen years, all too inevitably, there was David Attenborough, clad in parka, his hair askew, striding purposefully along a beach, wading through mud, tramping through a rainforest, showing us the undersides of damp, mossy rocks, and pointing out, in a throwback to Aristotle, that the lower creatures were as worthy of study, as evocative of awe and admiration, as ingenious in their adaptations to their environment, as the higher ones.

A wildlife documentary was, I think, considered an essential component of a child’s education by a certain kind of parent. (As was a trip to the zoo, I suppose.) Even if you weren’t taken to the wild–to say, a national park or an animal sanctuary–viewing a documentary was de rigeur. No middle-class parent would ever be caught saying–in the right company–‘Nature documentaries? What a waste of time!’ The documentary was educational, and that was it. Even if you wanted to shield your child from the gratuitous violence on television and cinema, there was no censorship of predator-on-prey slaughter, no shielding of the child’s eyes when a leopard or a lion clamped their jaws around a gazelle’s neck and slowly strangled it. (An exception to this might have been the anguished response to a recent documentary on life in the oceans in which a which a pair of adult killer whales casually and endlessly toss around, like a broken rag-doll, a baby seal that is clearly alive and remains so till they finally tire of their sport and kill it; the Netflix page for this movie features many comments from parents wishing they had been warned that such frightening acts were included on a documentary that they had unsuspectingly viewed with their children.)

I suspect I’m not alone in noting that as a child, my favorite moment in a nature documentary was invariably the big cat hunt: the stalking, the chase, the kill. But I was disappointed too, to find out that such hunts were not always successful, that those incredibly sleek and svelte felines could be outpaced by those wimpy, skittish antelopes, that on occasion, their claws didn’t find traction and simply slid off the backs of their putative meals; yet another disillusionment, yet another demonstration that in this world, never did the path of the bold run smooth.

So, interestingly enough, while the nature documentary was supposed to be a source of wonder and inspiration, of awe at the beauty of nature, and was intended, at least in part, to function as part of our societies’ syllabi in environmental and conservationist education, for at least one viewer, it also served as introduction to the notion that all was not what it seemed, that many ignoble failures could be experienced before spectacular success could be savored.

An introduction mind, not necessarily a lesson learned and internalized.

Superbowl Notes: The Great Dictator, Sorry, Sports Coach

In 1984, like a good sports fan, I paid diligent attention–as I had previously in 1976 and 1980–to the Olympics, held that year in Los Angeles. Very few events were telecast live; we had to be content with lengthy packages of highlight clips. Included in them was as the triumphant march to an eventual gold medal of the US basketball team, the last amateur U.S. team to win an Olympic gold medal in men’s basketball.   It included, among others, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Chris Mullin and Wayman Tisdale. The team’s coach was Bobby Knight.

From the first time I saw Knight’s Knights play, I was transfixed not just by their dribbling, shooting, and slam-dunking, but also by the sideline antics of their coach. That crimson-faced worthy, seemingly permanently afflicted by a combinatory species of apoplectic fit and asthma attack, raged at all and sundry, pacing up and down like an amphetamine-fueled father in a maternity ward. He did not, then, commit any acts of physical violence–as he would later–but it did not seem it was for lack of intent. To my awestruck eyes, stunned at this sight of an infant’s tantrums embodied in an adult body, it seemed that if he could have, he would have strangled someone, anyone, that had, just for a fatal instant, dared to obstruct his favored methodology of playing basketball. Those nets, ostensibly put up as targets for basketballs, would have functioned just as easily for Bobby as gallows from which he would have strung up those that defied and transgressed his rules.

As you can tell, I was impressed by Bobby Knight; he certainly left an impression. I had never seen a sports coach behave like that. I didn’t realize it then, but I was receiving a quick education in the culture of the American coach, a figure that in this Superbowl week, as is usual, will be deified and exalted by a kind of attention only rarely directed elsewhere at other central figures of American culture.

The peculiar irony of the American coach, of course, as has been obvious to all too many observers of American sports, is that in this land of the Brave and the Free, whose politicians’ speeches are all too often paeans to freedom and the rugged individuality of its citizens, he or she embodies the Grand Vizier of Authoritarianism. No one else, sometimes I think not even corporate bosses, can control an American body and soul as much. Not for nothing did William Gass write in The Tunnel

I suspect that the first dictator of this country will be called coach.

This thought didn’t cross my mind in 1984 when I watched young giants troop sheepishly off the floor to be berated and harangued by the livid Knight, but some form of it remained front and center as I came to observe more of Knight’s partners in the coaching enterprise. It is a cult that finds sustenance quite easily in its accumulated mythology.

This week, and this coming Sunday, we will witness its latest renewals.

Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero and the ‘Hidden Presence of Others’

Michael Ondaatje‘s Divisadero is a wise book, elliptical and allusive in his distinctive style, one replaying close, attentive reading to its many lovely, lyrical lines, too many to excerpt and note. Here is one that hones in on a truth already known to those who create:

Everything is biographical…What we make, why it is made, how we draw a dog, who it is we are drawn to, why we cannot forget. Everything is collage, even genetics. There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross.

Not only are our creations the result of borrowings, imitations, outright thefts, our writings voice-overs of once-read texts, but we ourselves are composites and mosaics. We bear the impress of our encounters, the mark of those we meet; every lover, every friend, every enemy, every parent, every sibling, every teacher, leaves their stamp. Read a writer, you read everything he’s read; talk to a human, you talk to humanity.  We present a distinctive take on our encounters and our histories; we digest and assimilate and repackage–to get all industrial, just for a bit–all our inputs.  But peek around the corner of the persona presented to you and you see a long trail, stretching off into the distance, populated by people and events and markers of many kinds, literary, cultural, artistic, and sometimes even traumatic.

Sometimes these histories of ours are clearly visible; sometimes we carry them around on our sleeves, available for all to see; sometimes the scars are visible and worn with pride. But sometimes we are puzzled by the presence, within us, of something whose provenance seems mysterious. So we attempt to excavate: sometimes by writing, sometimes by looking for the nearest couch and an interpreter with a notepad.

We imagine ourselves self-made, creators of these living, walking works of art we embody. We are that to be sure. But we are aided and abetted by collaborators; those who, with their chisels, put in a touch or two here or there, or with their brushes, added a dab here, a flourish there. So there is accretion aplenty on us; layers and layers of deposited sediment, pushing down on those that came before, compressing and morphing them with their own distinctive pressures.

The texts we embody are not just read by many, they are written by many. And that couch and the interpreter can help us read it when we are confused by its contours, its plot developments; we might need a translation manual, a decrypting key. We imagine we are familiar to ourselves but precisely because of our complex histories, we might become unrecognizable in just that zone of presumed knowledge.

And thus this strangeness can be pleasurable too; we can surprise ourselves, find novelty in that which we imagined contemptuously familiar. Perhaps that is why we push ourselves into encounters with the novel, trusting that in our responses to it, we might find something else about our perfectly strange selves. 

My Imagined Interlocutors

Sometimes I find myself conducting arguments with  myself; ‘in my head’, as it were. I walk along the streets, running their premises and conclusions through my mind; I refine their rhetorical pitch, I rehearse them; sometimes, I find myself overcome by the emotion associated with their content; indeed, one of the reasons I write here is that it helps me articulate those arguments in the written word, to see if they can withstand the light of day, to get them ‘out and about.’ Sometimes they stay in my cranium, revisited time and again, perennial occupants of its discursive spaces. Embarrassingly enough, as my wife has noted, these conversations are often visible to others; I can be seen talking to myself, mumbling and shuffling down the street, perhaps causing alarmed parents pushing strollers down the street to vacate the sidewalk.

Sometimes I notice that I seem to be debating an imagined interlocutor; a contestant, a sparring partner of sorts. Who are these folk?

Some of them can be recognized quite easily.

My brother, for one, whom I grew up debating and arguing with; he and I often disagreed about what we read about in the newspapers and in the books we read together; our arguments were quite passionate. On one memorable occasion, he stormed out of a dinner at a restaurant; my mother and I finished our meal and drove home to find him waiting for us. Now that we live on separate continents, our opportunities for these encounters–in person–have grown sharply limited. Not in my mind though, where I find myself anticipating his reaction to a news item or an event in my life, and responding to it. Sometimes I even subconsciously rehearse these arguments before I travel to India; I don’t always get the time on those hectic trips to actually articulate them, of course.

And then, of course, there is my wife, my constant companion and friend and partner in life’s daily challenges. There is plenty to dispute here, much to plan, and now, as joint stakeholders in the business of raising of a child, fundamental, existential, issues to be debated and resolved. So entwined are our lives, indeed, that I would find it surprising if I did not have more of these ‘conversations’ with her. We are both busy folk, so its only natural that some of these occur with her not physically  present.

Lastly, there are ghostly, not clearly discernible or identifiable figures; perhaps social gadflies who have gotten under my skin, perhaps political figures I deem threatening, perhaps fellow academics who might dispute my writings. Sometimes, on a more benign note, there are friends and acquaintances–and even acquisitions editors of publishing houses!–subjected to a friendly persuasion of sorts. My students too, show up here; I often shape and fashion and rehearse a verbal exegesis intended for them before finally delivering it.

Without this motley crew of companions, I daresay my solitary hours would be considerably less interesting and edifying. The possibility that I might be reckoned an eccentric by those around me seems like a small price to pay.

Satadru Sen on Eagles Over Bangladesh

Satadru Sen has written a very thoughtful and engaged review of Eagles over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War. His generally positive review also strikes some critical notes in it, and I’d like to respond to those. These critical points are all largely concerned with how well the book succeeds as (generally) military history and as (particularly) a history of the 1971 Liberation War for Bangladesh, and about how the narrowness of our focus in the book detracts from that task.

A couple of preliminary remarks. My co-author, PVS Jagan Mohan, and I self-consciously restricted ourselves to documenting the air operations in our book. We chose this narrow perspective for two reasons: a) to make our task manageable and b) to not obscure the treatment of the air operations. The definitive history of the Bangladesh Liberation War and especially the conflicts that preceded it might yet have to be written, but attempts have been made and we did not intend to try doing so ourselves. There has been no history attempted though of exclusively the air component of the war. (Incidentally, our book is only the first volume of an intended two-volume project; the second will cover air operations in the Western Sector; this should give you some indication of the magnitude of the task at hand.) We took our contribution to be toward filling the gap in the aviation history literature and not necessarily to contribute to the very interesting debates that surround the genesis of the Bangladesh war, its conduct, and so on.

Now, in general, air war histories and naval warfare histories are more specialized in their focus than the conventional war history. Books on the Battle of Britain, for instance, detail the air operations–the dogfights, the bombing etc–in far more detail than anything else; what they primarily focus on, which we do as well, is the operational context: the aircraft used, the decisions that led to the planning of air campaigns as they proceeded, the technical infrastructure, some detail on combat tactics and so on. We do not expect these kinds of histories to provide the kind of political histories or context that Sen finds missing. In large part, this is because, prior to the First Gulf War and the 1999 NATO Kosovo campaign air power, despite what its most enthusiastic proponents might say, has not been the primary weapon of choice in accomplishing tactical or strategic objectives; it has supported boots on the ground. Given this, it is only natural that histories of air campaigns are largely operational histories, with some strategic and planning detail provided to make sense of operations.

Now, on to Sen’s more specific critiques.

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Combating Envy with the Quotidian

Last week, I suffered a crippling, sickening, attack of envy. For one day, soon after I had awoken and fixed myself my morning cuppa, a missive arrived, confirming for me not just someone else’s spectacular success, but also the darkest assessments I often entertain about my professional and intellectual worth. I tried to put these thoughts aside, immersing myself in the logistical routines that occupy the early part of the day: fixing breakfast, dropping off my daughter at daycare, riding the subway to the library, reading Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. But my mind was only partially diverted.

I could, if I wanted, wallow further in the envy that had afflicted me; I could go back, again and again, to confirm for myself, the details of my diminution in the face of another’s overwhelming achievements. I hectored myself to not do so, but self-flagellation can sometimes be a hard impulse to resist. So, on arrival at the library, I sat down, logged in, stared at the screens that enabled all manners of unfavorable comparison, and completed the flogging.

Eventually, well aware I was spinning into a spiral of self-loathing, I turned to work. I wrote for most of the morning, slowly sipping on a rapidly cooling cup of coffee; later in the day, I bought myself lunch and ate it at my workstation as I continued a long editing task–whittling down a large body of text into a more manageable chunk that I could then start to rewrite into more readable form. I agonized over which chunks to excise, which sections to toss into the trash, which to retain. Because I was looking at an older piece of writing, I was occasionally brought up short by a passage that seemed particularly clunky; how had that ever gotten past me?

Later in the day, made distracted and anxious by my writing, and assailed again by the same emotions that had got my day off to such a bad start, I allowed myself yet another moment of wallow-in-the-Mire-of-Envy. But that was it. From that point onward, I grew increasingly engrossed in my word-reduction endeavors: I became increasingly ruthless, pruning with ever bolder abandon. Murdering darlings became easier as time went by and what’s more, I was quite starting to enjoy it.

And then, the close of the work day was at hand; I had written a few words; I had deleted many more. I packed up, headed for the subways, and was rewarded by its resident deities with a seat during rush hour. I returned to Divisadero. Then, once at the gym, barbells banished any remnant distractions from my mind; acute muscular exertion tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully. Finally, at home, I bade goodnight to my daughter, ate dinner, finished watching The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, and went to bed.

Nothing had changed in my resume; but somehow, as usual, an absorption in the here and now, in my daily particulars, in the things I enjoy, had managed to divert me from the emotions that had, earlier in the day, figuratively brought me to my knees.

An old lesson learned again, and no doubt, to be learned again in the future.