Iris Murdoch On Interpreting Our Messages To Ourselves

In Iris Murdoch‘s Black Prince (1973), Bradley Pearson wonders about his “two recent encounters with Rachel and how calm and pleased I had felt after the first one, and how disturbed and excited I now felt after the second one”:

Was I going to “fall in love” with Rachel? Should I even play with the idea, utter the words to myself? Was I upon the brink of some balls-up of catastrophic dimensions, some real disaster? Or was this perhaps in an unexpected form the opening itself of my long-awaited “break through,” my passage into another world, into the presence of the god? Or was it just nothing, the ephemeral emotions of an unhappily married middle-aged woman, the transient embarrassment of an elderly puritan who had for a very long time had no adventures at all? [Penguin Classics edition, New York, 2003, p. 134]

Pearson is right to be confused and perplexed. The ‘messages’ we receive from ‘ourselves’ at moments like these–ethical dilemmas being but the most vivid–can be counted upon to be garbled in some shape or fashion. The communication channel is noisy; and the identity of the communicating party at ‘the other end’ is obscure. Intimations may speak to us–as they do to Pearson–of both the sordid and sublime for we are possessed, in equal measure, by the both devilish and the divine; these intimations promise glory but they also threaten extinction. What meaning are we to ascribe to them? What action are we to take at their bidding? A cosmic shrug follows, and we are left to our own devices all over again. ‘Listen to your heart’ is as useless as any other instruction in this domain, for ‘the heart’ also speaks in confusing ways; its supposed desires are as complex, as confusing as those of any other part of ourselves. Cognitive dissonance is not an aberration, a pathological state of affairs; it is the norm for creatures as divided as us, as superficially visible to ourselves, as possessed by the unconscious. (Freud’s greatest contribution to moral psychology and literature was to raise the disturbing possibility that it would be unwise to expect coherence–moral or otherwise–from agents as internally divided, as self-opaque as us.)

We interpret these messages, these communiques, from ourselves with tactics and strategies and heuristics that are an unstable mixture of the expedient, the irrational, the momentarily pleasurable; we deal with ‘losses’ and ‘gains’ as best as we can, absorbing the ‘lessons’ they impart with some measure of impatience; we are unable to rest content and must move on, for life presses in on us at every turn, generating new crises, each demanding resolution. Our responses can only satisfice, only be imperfect.

The Clash were right thus, to wonder, to be provoked into an outburst of song, by the question of whether they should ‘stay or go.‘ We do not express our indecision quite as powerfully and vividly as they do, but we feel the torment it engenders in our own particular way.

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.

Westworld’s ‘Analysis Mode’ For Humans

In the course of a discussion about the various motivations underlying the character Robert Ford‘s actions in HBO’s Westworld, a friend raised the following query:

In what senses would it be good, and in which bad, if human beings could put one another into ‘analysis mode’ like techs can do with hosts in the show? If analysis mode involved emotional detachment, earnest self-reflectiveness, and transparency, but not unconditional obedience.

As a reminder:

Analysis Mode is a state which hosts enter and leave on command…While in Character Mode, hosts seem unaware of what has transpired when they were in Analysis Mode….This mode is used by staff to maintain, adjust, and to diagnose problems with hosts. In this mode, hosts can answer questions and perform actions, but do not appear to initiate conversation or actions….While in Analysis Mode, hosts often do not appear to make eye contact, much like an autistic human, or it could be described as the eyes being unfocused like someone who is day dreaming. However, there are also numerous times when hosts in Analysis Mode do make eye contact with their interviewers.

One effect of the kind of ‘analysis mode’ imagined above would be that humans would be able to transition into a more ‘honest’ interactive state: they could request clarification and explanations of actions and statements from those they interact with; some of the inexplicable nature of our fellow humans could be clarified thus. This immediately suggests that: a) humans would not allow just anyone to place them in ‘analysis mode’ and b) there would be limits on the ‘level’ of analysis allowed. We rely on a great deal of masking in our interactions with others: rarely do we disclose our ‘true’ or ‘actual’ or ‘basic’ motives for an action; a great deal of artifice underwrites even our most ‘honest’ relationships. Indeed, it is not clear to me that such a capacity would permit our current social spaces to be constructed and maintained as they are; they rely for their current form on the ‘iceberg’ model–that which is visible serves to cover a far greater reservoir of the invisible. These considerations suggest that we might ask: Who would allow such access to themselves? Why would they do so? Under what circumstances? (Could you, for instance, just place an interlocutor, on the street, in the boardroom, into ‘analysis mode’?)

As might be obvious, what underwrites the suggestion above is the hope that underwrites various forms of psychotherapy, which, of course, is what ‘analysis mode’ sounds a lot like: that under persistent, guided, querying, we would make ourselves more transparent–to ourselves. Moreover, we could reduce the hurt and confusion which often results from our actions by ‘clarifying’ ourselves; by explaining why we did what we did. As the caveat about ‘unconditional obedience’ acknowledges, we generally do not allow therapeutic analysis to proceed in any direction, without limit (psychoanalysis puts this down to ‘unconscious resistance.’) The ‘bad’ here would be those usual results we imagine issuing from greater transparency: that our current relationships would not survive if we were really aware of each others’ motivations and desires.

‘Analysis mode’–understood in the way suggested above–would perhaps only be possible or desirable in a society comfortable with, and accustomed to, the greater access to each other that such interactions would produce.

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.

Tillich On Symbols, Religion, And Myths

This week, I’ve been teaching and discussing excerpts from Paul Tillich‘s Dynamics of Faith in my philosophy of religion class. (In particular, we’ve tackled _The Meaning of Symbol_, _Religious Symbols_, and _Symbols and Myths_, all excerpted in From Religion To Tolstoy and Camus, Walter Kaufmann, ed.)  I suggested to my students before we started our conversation that hopefully, on its completion, they would find the rhetorical use of “just/only a symbol” or “merely symbolic” , or “just a myth” to be quite interestingly problematized. I’d like to think it was.

Tillich’s contributions to our understanding of religious language, knowledge, and practice–which show the influence of existential and psychoanalytic thought in channeling both Nietzsche and Freud–are manifold and important, and I cannot do justice to them here. But it is worth reminding ourselves of what they might be by pointing in their direction.

First, Tillich attempts to distinguish ‘symbol’ from ‘sign’ to indicate the abstraction, origins, and applications of the former. This characterization lends itself to a broader philosophical discussion about abstraction and meaning-making in general, and which allows an invocation of the use of symbols and signs in natural and formal languages. Most importantly, it invokes questions central to our reckoning of art and poetry: how do these create meaning, what kind of ‘access to reality’ do they afford us, how do the poet and the artist enable a species of experience unlike any other? Second, he tackles squarely the existential nature of the questions–the meaning and the purpose of life, the relations of our finite life to a potentially infinite existence–that lie at the heart of a certain species of religious engagement. This permits a reckoning of the nature of the human condition such that the kinds of questions that Tillich alludes to, matters of ‘ultimate concern’, that transcend the finite particulars of human life, can be understood as being forced upon us so that non-engagement with them is not an option; this also allows analogies to be drawn about how certain kinds of philosophical questions are, as it were, ‘posed for us’. Third, he redefines ‘God’ in a way that removes a certain species of sterile debate–that of disputing the general theistic conception of God–from the domain of religious thought and draws the atheist into the existential fold; fourth, his treatment of ‘myths’ and ‘mythologies’ offers us a new understanding of religious sentiment and attitudes and allows for a criticism of reductionist attitudes to knowledge; (The discussion here of ‘demythologizing’, the attempt to render myths meaningful in alternative orders of meaning, and the ‘broken myth’ is masterful.); finally, he argues that the defenses of religion’s mythologies by ‘literalism’ contribute to a devaluation of religious thought and sentiment.

Tillich’s treatment of religious symbols and language is historical and anthropological and cultural, one that affords a distinctive answer to one of philosophy of religion’s most central questions; religion is an outward, concrete manifestation of an existential, perennial, unconscious impulse, relying on symbols and stories to engage with questions fundamental to the human condition.

Adam Phillips on Self-Knowledge and the Unconscious

Adam Phillips, psychotherapist and essayist, can be a frustratingly elliptical writer. There are allusions, suggestions, shadings and hints in every passage. (I seem to dimly remember a frustrated reviewer in the New York or London Review of Books complaining about this characteristic slipperiness.) From these though, the diligent reader can often find a perspicuous insight, and perhaps even more interestingly and appropriately–given the very indirection of the prose–raw material for speculation of his own.  The following passage is an interesting sample: sometimes direct, sometimes suggestive, sometimes inclined to a mysterious universalization:

If the Enlightenment Freud instructs us in a new science of self-knowing–of familiarizing ourselves–the post-Freudian Freud suggests that the problem of self-knowledge is itself the problem, the symptom masquerading as the cure; as though we have turned the self into an object (the project of the Enlightenment Freud), even an idol, and psychoanalysis can now help us unlearn this modern religion of self-hood. The unconscious–whatever is strange, or seems foreign about ourselves–is exactly what makes our old habits of self, like knowing and understanding, sound irrelevant, off-key. An inner revisionist, it disarms our competence, like someone suddenly pointing out to us that we have been playing chess with the rules of draughts. The unconscious, in other words, is what stops self-knowledge turning, it always does, into self-caricature (self-definition  is always complicit with self-mockery). When we make a slip of the tongue, something in us speaks out of turn. It does not speak more truthfully, but it speaks as well. And at that moment, we don’t know where it came from. It gives us pause. In psychoanalysis, as the critic Mark Edmundson says of poetry, ‘one must affirm invention at the expense of argument.’

First, the mysteries: what does it mean to say that ‘self-knowledge always turns into self-caricature’ or that ‘self-definition is always complicit with self-mockery’? Perhaps that attempts at total self-knowledge runs the risk of constructing distorted images of ourselves? But why the ‘mockery’ and the ‘caricature’? Why not idealization and praise? Phillips goes no further than the bare statements he provides us. What makes them tantalizing–or frustrating, depending on your perspective–is that Phillips had the option of making a much weaker and more plausible claim but chose not to. We are left to puzzle this out.

Second, more interestingly, a  conception of the unconscious as the grab-bag term for whatever is unknown about ourselves. Though it is not clear what is meant by the unconscious being our ‘inner revisonist’ it is transparent what role it plays in our view of ourselves: where we find mystery or inexplicability in our understandings of ourselves, where are our attempts at self-knowledge come to a grinding halt, we point to the unconscious. It is a universal explanans of sorts, one that points to the uncomfortable fact that we are strangers to ourselves and will remain so. And as the closing quote suggests, it is the unconscious that gives us grounds for being inventive about ourselves, for imagining that within us lurks far more complexity than we might have imagined, many more selves than the one(s) immediately visible.

Excerpt fromTerrors and Experts, Faber and Faber, London, 1995.