Writing And Therapy

Writing can be therapeutic. Not just autobiography and memoir, the obvious venues of this particular kind of clinic; letters, novels, short stories, poems, screenplays, can all enable a ‘working through‘ because they call upon a kind of ‘remembering,’ a dynamic ‘free association,’ unprompted and unbidden, that trawls through the various levels and layers of our consciousness. Writing is a form of communion with oneself, so it is not surprising that self-discovery and its partner, self-construction, take place at the writing desk, on the writing pad, on the word processor screen, through the pen and the cursor. To find ourselves returning to the same themes again and again in our writing is to learn a great deal about ourselves; the avoidance of particular topics can also serve a similar function. (Unsurprisingly, writers are often finicky about where and when they choose to write; patients and therapists often are. Peter Gay‘s description of Freud’s clinic in In Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Master and Victims in Modernist Culture [Oxford University Press, New York, 1978] is instructive and revealing.)

Therapy is a kind of story-telling with two authors engaged in the co-construction of a narrative that works for both: the patient emerges with a ‘new’ tale trailing out behind, and slowly taking shape in front; the therapist’s tale of healing receives a new twist, even as it sets the healer on a new path. Writers take this dual task on themselves; as a ‘story’ emerges–whether ‘fiction’ or ‘nonfiction’–they engage in forms of ‘transference‘ and ‘countertransference‘ with themselves, letting a new self emerge.

Full disclosure: I write here, on this blog, because in addition to serving as a scratchpad for test driving thoughts that sometimes find their way into other writings–academic and nonacademic–of mine, I intend this activity to serve as a therapeutic exercise. Unsurprisingly, many of my posts are self-indulgent reminiscences, unapologetic exercises in nostalgia mongering, tales of times and people long gone. But they have often provided a great deal of understanding to me, enabling me to view the past through many different perspectives, often helping to dredge up dormant memories and making associations and forming conclusions that would have otherwise remained inaccessible to me–and my family, which now includes my daughter. Among the many writing projects that await completion by me, three are memoirs of one sort or the other; I look forward to working on them and completing them not just because I will have completed a writing task, but because I expected to be transformed by the experience.

Note: Writing and art as an ‘official,’ institutionally recognized form of therapeutic modality–for PTSD, for instance–has a fairly distinguished history. In my remarks above, I’d wanted to indicate that all those who write are engaging in–whether they know it or not–a similar activity. We all need–whether we know it or not–some kind of therapy. We just get it in different ways. That is why, among other reasons, that human creativity takes so many different forms.

On Bad Memories And Moving On

A few weeks ago, while stumbling around on Facebook, I found an old ‘acquaintance’ of mine: a man who, over thirty years ago, went to the same boarding school as I did. I poked around further; his page was not guarded by his privacy settings from snoops like me. On it, I found a group photograph taken in my boarding school days: a dozen or so familiar faces stared back at me. I hadn’t seen them in thirty-five years. I poked a bit further, as I clicked on their tagged faces in the photographs, and visited their friends’ lists. On one of them, I found a Facebook profile of a ‘senior,’ someone who used to be a member of the class that had supplied the prefects for my last year in boarding school. (I left my boarding school after the tenth grade, after two short years there; this gentleman was the member of the graduating class that year.) On his page, I found photographs of a class reunion, conducted on the campus of my old boarding school. There they were, the members of that graduating class, the ‘Sixth Form,’ ex-prefects included, lounging about in suits and ties,  all of them grey-haired, some pot-bellied, reenacting their glory days by posing in front of various school locations, swapping tall tales about the good ‘ol days.

I stared and stared. Here they were, the officially sanctioned bullies of the senior class in school, the ones given license to enforce the school’s draconian disciplinary code in their own particular style: they could make you run punishment drills, the dreaded ‘PD’s, for a wide-ranging list of offenses; they could hit you with cricket bats or hockey sticks, or just slap you hard across the face if you were deemed insolent; they could tell you to go get your trouser pockets stitched up by the school tailor if you were caught walking around with both hands in your pockets; and on and on it went. They could, and they did. Power of the absolute varietal was granted them, and they exercised it; here, there was no shyness to be found. And it corrupted them, if their interactions with those below them, their subjects, the ones who dreamed of becoming abusers themselves when their turn came, was any indication.

I was tempted to write, as a lurker, in the comments space, “Did you guys reminiscence about the time when you were bullies and beat up those younger and weaker than you?” But I didn’t. They’d moved on; they had to. My memories remained; they had been stirred up by the photographs I had just viewed, and I’d already found other ways to integrate them into my life. (Including writing a book, in progress, about my boarding school days.) The academic philosopher in me also said that these were not the same persons I knew; they had changed, they wouldn’t know what to make of my gate-crashing remark.

I clicked out, and moved on. And wrote here instead.

The Endless Surprises Of Memory

Memory is a truly wondrous thing. A couple of weeks ago, I met an old friend’s younger brother for lunch in midtown Manhattan; we were meeting after over thirty years. We ordered food, grabbed our trays, and headed to a table, our conversation already picking up pace as we did so. We talked about our high school days (his brother and I had been in the same class; the ‘kid’ had been a year junior); I asked about his sister, whose home in Delaware I had visited a few times during my first years in the United States; we laughed uproariously, as all those who reunite seem to do, when recounting tales of days gone by, which now suddenly seem more peculiar, more distinctive, with their ever-increasing vintage; and of course, we talked about my friend, now physically absent, but who loomed larger than life as the reason which had brought our two lives together. In the course of our conversation, I made note of how I  used to walk over to my friends’ home in New Delhi; the section of town I lived in was about a mile or so away, and walking and biking roads offered an easy connection. As I offered up this little recollection, a thought went through my mind; my friend’s house, like all those in planned ‘residential colonies’ in New Delhi, had an alphanumeric address consisting of a ‘block’ letter and a number; it seemed to me I could remember it. (Mine was S-333; the three hundred and thirty-third residential ‘plot’ in ‘S’ Block. Quite obviously, I remembered this address; only a nihilist cannot remember his childhood home’s location.)

This fact, of my being able to remember my friend’s old address, caused me some astonishment; I sought confirmation of this remarkable feat. I asked my friend for some; he supplied it. I had remembered his childhood home’s address–I-1805–clearly and distinctly. I had not thought about this alphanumeric combination for over thirty years now; and yet, somehow, by dint of being placed into a context in which it was relevant, I had been able to summon up its details with little difficulty. Other details came flooding back too, unprompted and unbidden. I felt an older self within me stir; amnesia fell away.

I will freely admit–as an immigrant who lost his parents a very long time ago–to being obsessed with memory and nostalgia and recollection. (I am surprised that I did not do more academic work on memory, given my interests in the philosophy of mind and the conceptual foundations of artificial intelligence; I am unsurprised that I was deeply fascinated by the work my friend John Sutton did in the same field.)  Here again, was another instance of why this particular human capacity captivated me endlessly. And I could not but wonder yet again about the nature of my self, and of the interactions of memory with it: how much remained, ‘locked away,’ in the recesses of my cranial stories, merely awaiting for the right contextual cue to be reinvigorated; are there other discoveries and understandings of myself possible as a result?

The Mixed Pleasures Of Attending Our Own Memorial Service

Wanting to attend our own funerals, our own memorial services, is a fantasy with a long and distinguished pedigree. (As is the associated fantasy of wanting to read our own obituaries.) With good reason. If things have worked out well, many of our friends and family members will be there, hopefully all well-dressed. Importantly, we will be the focus of attention, the center-show, at most times. Some folks will occasionally deign to speak to each other on topics that do not directly pertain to us, but we will at least feature front and center in any formal addresses delivered from the podium of choice. Perhaps there will be photographs of us, all showcasing our ‘best sides’ and our best memories; an artful act of editing that will show our lives in the best possible way, constructing a narrative that will suggest all went well, we only made friends, we always looked happy, we went to wonderful places, we ate great food, we did great work–you get the picture (literally.)

And then there is the matter of the eulogies. Ah, what sweet joy. To hear our friends speak glowingly and tearfully about us, to hear them recount tales and anecdotes in which we come off so well, in which even our faults are beautifully incorporated into a larger picture of goodness–who would want to forego such an opportunity? Some of our creative friends might even have produced several drafts of the eulogies they deliver, thus ensuring a carefully crafted final product that will do the most justice to a description of our lives and our virtues. If the logistical details have been sorted out, there will be good food and drink, and once the effects of those kick in, and some of the tears have been wiped away, there will be, among your friends, much merriment and conviviality. We might even hear more stories about ourselves; more clever punch lines that we delivered on many a memorable occasion in the past. It will be the kind of party we often wanted to throw, but were never quite able to pull off; it was too hard to get everyone together in one place. Now, we don’t even have to clean up.

But we should be careful to not tarry too long and we should slip away as the service and the after-party winds down. For we might notice, much as we did as the attendees gathered and talked among themselves as the services kicked off, that our friends and families have lives that will persist and continue even after our deaths; once the service is over, and as dispersals take place in the parking lot and lobby, we will begin to fade ever so imperceptibly from view. The world awaits; we had our turn on the stage, exit left directions have been issued, and now we must depart. To delay our departure will only be to receive further evidence of what we fear most of all: our erasure from this world. Other forms of existence await us hopefully: perhaps as memories and continuing influences in the lives of those we loved. Those will have to do for now. (And ever?)

Why It’s Okay To Mourn, To Cry For, The Passing Of Strangers

Many silly things are written when celebrities die. One is that you cannot speak ill of the dead. Another is that you cannot mourn for those whom you did not know personally. A variant of this is that visible expressions of grief for those you did not have personal acquaintance with are ersatz, inauthentic, a kind of posturing.

The folks who make the former claim are simply clueless about the nature of the public life. The latter are clueless about how emotion works, about the nature and importance of symbolism and its role in our memories, and thus our constructed self.

Consider for instance that I tear up on the following occasions:

  1. Watching this musically mashed-up tribute to Carl Sagan;
  2. Watching a Saturn V rocket lift-off (or reading about the death of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee while testing Apollo 1);
  3. Watching fighter jets at an airshow, or indeed, even listening to the roar of a fighter jet’s afterburners as they are lit.

I did not know Carl Sagan personally. I did not know any of the astronauts on the Gemini and Apollo programs. I did not know Grissom, White, or Chaffee personally. I do not know any of the pilots who perform at airshows or whom I have seen taking off on many occasions. Indeed, one might ask, why tear up when watching or listening to any of these things? Man up! Be authentic! Stick to the known and the personal.

Sorry, no can do. Carl Sagan was an important influence on my education and philosophical and intellectual orientation as a child; to watch that little mash-up of Cosmos is to remember my childhood, one spent with my parents, watching Cosmos on Sundays at home. And my father was a pilot who flew fighter jets; I watched the Apollo 11 documentary with him as a child. My parents are no more. Need I say more about why I tear up when I undergo the audio-visual experiences listed above? Planes, rockets, astronauts, men with crew-cuts, memories of the moonrise. How could I not?

The emotions we feel are wrapped up in the deepest recesses of our selves; they reflect memories accumulated over a lifetime, traces of experiences, formative and supposedly insignificant alike. This is why, of course, when we listen to music, we can conjure up, seemingly effortlessly, a mood, an atmosphere, a remembrance, a time long gone. Music is perhaps the Proustian Madeleine par excellence. We listen to music when we read, write, walk, run, make love, work out, play, talk to our friends–the list goes on. We grow up with music; it becomes associated with our lives and its distinct stages. We listen to some songs again and again; they become almost definitive of a particular self of ours.

So when a musician dies, one whose music we have listened to on countless occasions, it is natural to feel bereft; we have lost part of ourselves.

To ask that we confine our expressions of sympathy and sorrow to only those we know personally is indeed, not just ignorant, but also morally dangerous; it bids us narrow our circle of concern. No thanks; I’d rather feel more, not less.

Richard Holmes On Biography’s ‘Physical Pursuit’ Of Its Subjects

In an essay describing his biographical work on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Richard Holmes writes:

[A] biography is…a handshake….across time, but also across cultures, across beliefs, across disciplines, across genders, and across ways of life. It is an act of friendship.

It is a way of keeping the biographer’s notebook open, on both sides of that endlessly mysterious question: What was this human life really like, and what does it mean to us now? In this sense, biography is not merely a mode of historical inquiry. It is an act of imaginative faith.

Holmes bases this view of the work of the biographer on two claims about the art, the first one of which claims that:

[T]he serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed.

Biography is a famously reviled literary genre–sometimes described as fantasy, sometimes intrusive voyeurism, sometimes ideologically motivated hatchet job. Holmes is right to describe it as being animated by an ‘endlessly mysterious question.’ (He is also perspicuous in describing it as a ‘handshake’ and an ‘act of friendship’ of sorts.) That question’s mystery–which becomes ever more prominent when we think about its unanswerability with respect to ourselves–does not make the attempt to answer it necessarily ignoble or ill-motivated. But it does bid us be circumspect in assessing how much of the biographer’s task is ever ‘complete.’

To acknowledge that difficulty note that Holmes adds a variety of physical emulation to the task of the biographer: we must be where our subject has been in order to assess what his experiences there might have been like, and thus evaluate what their contribution to his life’s work were. Thus the Nietzsche biographer must make the hike to Sils Maria and ascend the heights that surround it. There, perhaps, one might investigate what Nietzsche had in mind in his constant invocations of the ‘clean air’ he experienced there, and wonder about the sordid life he might have left behind. Because we are not disembodied intelligences, but rather embodied beings in constant interaction with our environments–physical, mental, and emotional–Holmes’ injunction is a wise one. The biographer who writes of Jack Kerouac without undertaking a long road-trip on American highways, and does not wonder about what effect the sights seen therein–big skies, the black asphalt stretching to the horizon, the lonely houses and farms, the lives of fellow travelers–could have had on an endlessly restless and fertile imagination is crippled, fatally, in his task.

But even as we set to work in this dimension, we realize how much is still hidden away from us, how much remains inaccessible. We are still left to play, unavoidably, with our speculations, distant third-person reports, and autobiographical confessions of dubious fidelity. Perhaps this is why Holmes concludes by describing biography as an ‘act of imaginative faith.’

Notes: This essay begins with what must be a distinctive entry to the ‘not-so-humblebrag’ genre:

By the time I had finished my eight-hundred-page biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1974, I was nearly thirty.

Adam Phillips On “The Leavisite Position” On Reading

In the course of his Paris Review interview on the Art of Non-Fiction (No. 7, conducted  by Paul Holdengräber) Adam Phillips says:

If you happen to like reading, it can have a very powerful effect on you, an evocative effect….It’s not as though when I read I’m gathering information, or indeed can remember much of what I read. I know the books that grip me, as everybody does, but their effect is indiscernible….The Leavisite position…is that reading certain sentences makes you more alive and a morally better person, and that those two things go together. It seems to me that that isn’t necessarily so, but what is clear is that there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about. [link added]

As I noted in these pages a while ago, we often do not remember what we read. An acknowledgment of this fact can provoke considerable anxiety as one ages: time is speeding by; I must savor each moment; and yet, I am spending them in a pursuit which leaves no tangible trace. Then, as I noted, we should pay attention to the fact that:

The act of reading is pleasurable in itself; it is not a means to an end, it is an end of its own. While reading, we are…transported. The encounter with the book is refuge, journey and scholarship all at once….While reading, for that period of time, we enter into dialogues and conversations with several selves–the author and ourselves, at the bare minimum–in several registers. The end of the reading of a book is not, and should not, be occasion for ‘outcomes assessment’; it might be more appropriate to mark it with farewells to a companion that is able to–for the hours that we let it–remove us from a world ‘full of care.’

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. If we are to be continually instructed to stay in the proverbial here-and-now, then how should we best do so? Reading a book sounds like a very good answer.

The ‘unconscious evocative effects’ Phillips speaks of are crucial. We–or at least the conscious components of ourselves–might not remember the details of the books we read, but the experience changes us nonetheless. We spent our days differently; there were distractions we ignored or only partially paid attention to; we altered somehow–to use an overworked phrase–our neural pathways.  We have, even without our knowing it, changed our orientation to the world’s offerings. That melancholia we feel, that sudden upswing in our mood, that unaccountable response to a movie, poem, a child’s pranks, an adult’s intransigence; an archaeology on them might yet reveal to a more omniscient species the bookish well-springs of their provenance.

There are no free lunches in this universe; but nothing goes to waste either. Read on.