The crying of lot 49

One of the best bits about going on holiday is the long, agonising process of deciding what books to bring.  Amongst the numerous criteria in this procedure, a critical decider (for the Kindle-refusenik at least) is portability. 

It so happened this year that the book that several people have recommended to me is an old classic, and less than 150 pages long – certainly easier to bring to the beach than Middlemarch.

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If you’ve never read Thomas Pynchon, The crying of lot 49 is the place to start; if you have, it’s the book to come back to.  It’s short, funny, immersed in ‘60s hipness, and populated by characters with spectacular names.

Amidst its wisecracks and baroque twists and turns, it deals pithily but profoundly with our search for meaning and truth.

The plot, briefly, is this.  Oedipa Maas is chosen as executor of Pierce Inverarity’s will after he dies.  Oedipa is Pierce’s former lover, and as she peels away the layers of his estate, she uncovers a series of incidents which seem to be linked to an underground postal service called the Trystero. 

Inverarity leaves behind a stamp collection of counterfeits printed by the same postal service; Oedipa sees a drawing of a muted trumpet scrawled on a toilet wall; she learns that Inverarity paid a man to excavate human bones to make charcoal for cigarette filters; she goes to the theatre to see a Jacobean tragedy which also alludes to the excavation of bones and mentions the word Trystero; the director, Randolph Driblette, commits suicide shortly afterwards.  She sees that logo – the muted trumpet – on an office worker’s doodle, a children’s game, a sailor’s tattoo.  Everywhere she looks, there is Trystero, there is the trumpet, Trystero, trumpet, Trystero, trumpet. 

Caught up in the middle of this intriguing web, Oedipa is unsure whether the Trystero really does exist or whether it is an elaborate hoax created by Iverarity to trick her.  She wants to believe in it, she searches for somebody who will verify its existence; and yet, with increasing paranoia, she feels it stalking her like a nightmare.  The Trystero is at the same time not-enough and too-much.

This is the dilemma, familiar to many of us, that The crying of lot 49 addresses so brilliantly.  We are all confronted at some stage by the question of what it means to live, how to make sense of life, where we might find the thing (person, god or idea) who will guarantee our meaning.  But there is always a risk that, in searching for the answer, we come too close to finding it – and lose ourselves in the process.

Facing up to her horrible dilemma, Oedipa concludes she has four choices: “she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disc jockey”.  At the risk of reducing this to a credo, aren’t these the options open to all of us – believing in something, committing to something, breaking down, or accepting one’s lot?  Each has its pros, each its cons. 

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Like the subjects of a painting Oedipa loves, perhaps each is a way of embroidering a kind of tapestry, a way of “seeking helplessly to fill the void”.  If so, we may indeed be helpless, but it is the helplessness that each of us faces which fashions our own unique, creative weaving of meaning.

Après coup

Many people who are considering a talking therapy worry – quite understandably – about having to talk about the past.  Our histories are often painful and, as the saying goes, “what’s done is done”.  We can’t change the past, so perhaps it would be better to leave it be, and look to the future. 

It’s a persuasive argument – but I think it is based on a misconception about how time, along with cause and effect, operates.

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, once wrote that “the noble game of chess” has three main stages – the beginning (with its various standard openings), the final stage (with its standard, decisive endgames), and the middle stage, which comprises “an infinite variety of moves”.  It is in the middle stage where the spontaneous and surprising moves really happen – and Freud suggested that this was the case in therapy too. 

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But Freud also suggested something very strange and surprising about how time works in therapy: while it always has a beginning, a middle, and an end, they don’t necessarily happen in that order.  One of his most startling contributions to how we live our lives is that we cannot change the present or the future, but we can change the past.  And I think this one thing that therapy tries to do. 

Take two everyday situations:

It is evening and you have returned home from work, where earlier a colleague spoke to you a little harshly.  You are angry, furious – so furious, in fact, that you wonder how such a trivial affront could produce such powerful rage.

A friend has been suffering terribly for months.  Having been in a brief and apparently casual relationship, he has been depressed and inconsolable since the break-up.  Again, how can this minor event have crushed your friend in such a devastating way.

How can the cause and effect in these situations be so disproportionate?

Freud pondered this question when he saw patients who were also suffering so terribly from apparently trifling life events.  He wondered if we might want to think differently about suffering, to look beyond the immediate event and beyond our usual understanding of time.

His idea was that a particular event in the here-and-now often revives a memory of a much earlier event which has since been repressed.  This idea of revival is critical: for Freud there is a period of dormancy between one event and another and the trauma that follows.  When something truly awful happens, at first we cannot react adequately or appropriately (especially if we are very young when it happens); we can only react when this original event is brought to life by a subsequent event. 

There is a strange paradox here: the power of the second event (let’s say, our friend’s relationship break-up) is drawn from the original event (the divorce of one’s parents when one was a toddler, perhaps); but the parental divorce is only made traumatic through the experience of the relationship break-up 30 years later.  It’s not that the latter event evokes an old wound. The old wound does not exist until the later, apparently trivial event brings it to life.

We can think of this another way: when our friend appears to be mourning a relationship with someone he didn’t seem to care for very much, he might be suffering from the break-up of two people he cared for very much indeed.  For him, the break-up and the divorce of his parents are both happening now, simultaneously.

I think there is a surprisingly hopeful conclusion to be drawn from Freud’s theory, for it allows us to re-visit our starting point: what’s done is most certainly not done.

Our distant histories may not have registered consciously – it may seem that there is nothing important to remember, or that whatever happened is too awful to recall.  But their effects play out in our lives – these histories reverberate around the offices, social lives, friendships and romances of today.

Every day, something happens to us which triggers that history.  If we can shine a light on it, discover what it means to us and find a way of bearing what was once unbearable, we can create our history anew – not entirely, of course, but enough to defuse its unseen but keenly felt charge.

Openings and closures

What we think of as therapy usually includes two people.  One of them offers mainly their ears and the other offers their voice.  These two people speak and listen to each other, they have a conversation, and over time a relationship develops.   

In the background are two apparently neutral actors: space (a room, two chairs, perhaps a couch, hopefully a window, etc) and time (a regular time to meet, the length of the session, a dialogue about past, present and future, questions about how long this will take, etc).  

Space stays pretty still and constant, whereas time moves and plays tricks – this session seems to last forever, that session is over in a flash, even though each is the same length.

Great philosophical and scientific books have been written about how we experience time.  I think it is worthwhile to consider the strange and counter-intuitive ways that time operates in therapy. 

So this is something of a digression, but I hope you find it interesting.  It presents us with a problem – the problem of the three prisoners – and its solution.

*

The problem is this:

A warden tells three prisoners, “today one of you must be freed.  I have 5 disks – 3 white, 2 black.  I will attach a disk to each of you, where you cannot see it, and I will keep the other two disks hidden.  There are no mirrors.  You must not tell the other two what colour their disks are.  Not that you would want to, for whoever tells me what colour his disk is, and how he arrived at his conclusion, will be freed.”

In fact, a white disk is fastened to all three prisoners.  So what happens?

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who wrote about this problem in 1945, gave the following solution:

“I am a white, and here is how I know it.  Since I can see that both my companions are whites, I thought that, if I was a black, each one of them would have been able to infer the following: ‘If I too were a black, the other would have necessarily realised straight away that he was a white and would have left immediately; therefore, I am not a black’.  And both would have left together, convinced they were whites.  As they did nothing of the kind, I must be a white like them. At that, I made for the door to make my conclusion known.”

So, all three of them exit at the same time, and with the same reason.

*

Like me, you may have to read Lacan’s solution more than once to understand it. 

Let us call the “I” who speaks in Lacan’s solution A, and the other two prisoners B and C.

Note that A assumes that B and C think thoughts that A himself does not think.  A makes his deduction on the basis of thoughts which A attributes to B and C.  And B’s and C’s thoughts are clearly hypothetical, since they could only think these thoughts if A was black – which he is not.

If A was black, he would be right to attribute these thoughts to B and C, and they would have immediately left.  But as A makes his deductions, he notices B and C have not left.  They are still in the prison cell.

So, A concludes he is white.  

In most logical puzzles of this type, we have reached our solution and there is nothing more to say.  But in this puzzle, time provokes a complication.

Remember - B and C are also white, so they must be in exactly the same position as A, and must reach the same conclusion at the same time.  All three move towards the door.  But here’s the thing: their conclusion – I am white – was based on the lack of movement towards the door.  Now everyone is moving towards the door!  So now, each hesitates and thinks, am I black after all? Each rehearses his process of deduction, and we shall do the same.

*

There are three possible scenarios:

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 They can all immediately see that (3) is impossible, because each prisoner can see two whites.

So is it (1) or (2)?  To work it out once and for all, A, B and C must use logic, but they must also observe each other’s reactions.  There are two pauses here which occur when A, B and C communicate with each other. Usually, logical problems of this kind can be seen “all at once”.  But the solution to this puzzle evolves as A, B and C find out about what they do not see – and they find this out over time.   

Time is essential to the logical process, and Lacan describes three “times of possibility”.

*

Something is impossible before the prisoners even open their eyes: three blacks.  This is a given.  So each would know if he saw two blacks, he must be a white. This would be an instantaneous realisation.  It takes only a glance to realise it, so Lacan calls is the “time of the glance”.

A’s next thought requires observing, reasoning and comprehending.  He observes the fact that B and C are both white, and reasons that if either had seen that A was black, they would each think: “if I, C, were also black, B would have left instantly” (or the other way round if B is doing the thinking).  The fact that nobody does leave instantly, that all three stop and think, means that each of them comprehend they are white.

This is a more complex process, and Lacan calls it the “time of comprehending”.

“Hoorah,” thinks A, “I had better declare myself as a white, and quickly, before B or C get there”.  This is the very urgent “time of concluding”.  In A’s mind, it takes B and C the same time to realise that if A were a black, they would be faced with a white and a black and would need to act accordingly.  

There’s a strange paradox here – for B and C didn’t (and couldn’t) actually think this; the thought was imputed to them by A.  But if the situation he considers (A = black) is correct, B and C would be ahead of him – they wouldn’t have needed to spend all this time thinking about it, they would have quickly realised they were a white.  So he has to be ahead of the other two.  If he is not – if B and C beat him to it – he will believe their speediness is because he is, actually, a black.

Lacan says: “It is thus not because of some dramatic contingency, the seriousness of the stakes, or the competitiveness of the game, that time presses; it is owing to the urgency of the logical movement that the subject precipitates [headlong] both his judgment and his departure”.

*

What does any of this have to do with therapy?  I think our puzzle illustrates something about the therapeutic process.  Our thoughts often belong to the “time of the glance” – snap-judgments, automatic deductions, reactions which happen to us without us quite being in control of them.  As we explore things with another person in the room, perhaps our thoughts become more of the order of the “time of comprehending” – there is something more reciprocal in the nature of these thoughts, as we observe the reactions of the other and let them influence our movements.

But it is only in the third “time” – “the time of concluding” – that a really assertive I emerges: I must be a white.  This is perhaps what therapy aims for, and what I think is fascinating is how this assertive I does not emerge out of nothing, or out of itself, but instead emerges from a movement between the self and the other, between the psyche and the external world.

I'm disappearing completely

On David Harewood’s excellent My psychosis and me on BBC2 last week, I heard a moving statistic: people in psychiatric wards get fewer “Get Well Soon” cards that people in, say, cancer or intensive care wards.

Why?  Perhaps because we lack the words to talk about psychosis or schizophrenia or madness or genius, or whatever we choose to call it.

We have moved forward in recent years in opening up about so many of the experiences that constitute human life – the extraordinary, everyday, dizzying, stuck lives that people lead.  We describe this wide range of experiences as “mental health,” and we use words like “depression” and “anxiety” and “stress” to describe them – words which don’t do justice to those expanses of life, but which may help contain the chaos or numb the sensation.

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But we haven’t opened our ears so much to the experiences of people who live with psychosis.  David Harewood’s account pushed us on a little further, and in recounting that bleak statistic that black people are far likelier than their white counterparts to be sectioned rather than accessing treatment voluntarily, highlighted the sharp divides which shape mental illness.

We watched as Harewood stepped back and (re-)discovered the breakdown he experienced 30 years ago – the exhilaration of his mania, the determination with which he pursued the instructions of the voices he heard, the violence he encountered at A&E when he and his concerned flatmates sought help.

It is so valuable to hear someone talk with clarity and feeling about their encounters with psychosis.  That statistic about “Get Well Soon” cards reminds me of the misplaced idea that talking therapies don’t work for psychosis, that therapy is a waste of time.  In my experience, nothing is further from the truth.  There are great differences between how two persons with and without psychosis experience the world, but there are great similarities too – a wish to connect, to find out who I am, not to be cured, but to discover new things, to re-discover old things.

A memory from Harewood illustrates how this might be so difficult for the person with psychosis.  Recalling an audition he attended as a young actor, he is reminded that he turned up three hours late, and said to the casting director: “I’m fine, I’m well, really really well, but it’s difficult when you’re an alien, and I’m disappearing completely”.

It is difficult when you’re an alien – especially if you have nobody to bear witness to your alienation.  To be thought, but not be able to think…  To be the stage on which an incredible drama unfolds, but not be able to act on that stage…  To feel lived in, but not to live…  To feel one’s sense of self fade into the background…  To disappear completely…

Most of us have had a glimmer of this isolation, this unreal sensation.  Some of us confront it head-on, some of us bargain with it, and there may be richness and suffering in either way of being.  But as a society, we must give people the opportunity to find their way the best they can.

Amidst the gloom of NHS pressures and deepening social anxiety, Harewood met a group of young people with psychosis in Birmingham who, through their local NHS Early Intervention Service, can meet up, share experiences, form friendships, get degrees, pursue passions, find girlfriends and boyfriends – all with support on hand when things get rough.  These services are established up and down the country, and hopefully they are making a difference.

And some of the greatest projects are set up by local communities, the voluntary sector and by people with psychosis themselves.  The Psychosis Therapy Project is a specialist psychotherapy service for people who experience psychosis in London, and does wonderful work in giving people the time and space to explore their inner and outer worlds. 

I work as a therapist there, so perhaps I am biased, but the work they/we do is dear to my heart.  Enabling a person who is disappearing completely to re-appear, to find something of themselves, seems to me a sign that, in some ways at least, society is moving in the right direction.

The game of love and chance

For as long as human history can recall, philosophers, poets and singers have explored the subject of love from every possible angle.  Year after year, generation after generation, epoch after epoch, we ask the same questions, find the same answers and make the same mistakes. 

All of which leads people to wonder:

What’s wrong with me that I find being in love – or not being in love – so hard?  Why can’t I get past these niggles and insecurities?  When will I learn?

Where love is concerned, we come down mighty hard on ourselves.

We are bombarded with apps, self-help books, not to mention blogs, which offer us the promise of love.  Some guarantee they will match us with a perfect mate using scientifically proven algorithms; some promise our money back if we’re not satisfied; others tell us that really, love is not so important – we should just hook up, get laid, have fun, and move on.

The message from the world of dating seems to be clear: love is a risk-free game.

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But in his recent book In Praise of Love (decidedly not a self-help book), Alain Badiou declares that in the modern age of Tinder and Grindr and Bumble and so on, this notion of love being an innocuous add-on to one’s lifestyle is itself a dangerous one.  He quotes with horror the advertising slogans of a French dating app, Meetic: “Be in love without falling in love!” and “Get perfect love without suffering!”  Can whoever dreamed these up ever have been in love?

Contrary to these promises, engaging with love is always perilous.  It breaks the rhythms of normal life, disrupts the flow of who we think we are - which is why it has so often been compared to madness. 

Even love affairs which begin online get their spark not from one person picking another person from a menu of faces and vital statistics, not from one self-interested consumer selecting another, but from something unanticipated and unpredictable, a chance encounter, an unexpected emergence of something which seems impossible.

Badiou is concerned with the idea that love is not all-important – that there are other, better ways to enjoy oneself, ways which “avoid any deep and genuine experience of the otherness from which love is woven”. 

Perhaps we could say that sex without love is contractual: I will gain pleasure through your body.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as both parties consent.  But Badiou’s point is that without love, both parties remain separate.  Whereas in love, the relation with the other person (in all his or her otherness) is the end, not merely a means to the end.

That means that love cannot be about communion or “becoming-one” with the world, as with religious love. Instead, when we are in love, we (me and my partner) see the world together through the prism of our difference.  Love is the way we experience life from the point of view of two (which is the point of view of difference), and not one (the point of view of identity).

Two people meet - a chance event, a random encounter, a break from the order of things.  And then, eventually, the randomness must stop, and something like a routine must begin, a routine that endures and creates a new truth – until that initial chance meeting seems like it was destined.

So let’s not beat ourselves up because we find love hard.  It is hard, it does make us suffer, it doesn’t go to plan!  But, as Badiou has Socrates declare in his recent translation of Plato’s Republic, “Listen you youngsters!  Anyone who doesn’t take love as their starting-point will never discover what philosophy is all about.”

On feeling anxious

In my last blogpost, I talked about how feelings can sometimes mislead us.  When whatever it is we are feeling has become separated from an idea which might, once upon a time, have caused that feeling, the feeling floats away and takes on a life of its own.

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We feel anxiety when a sensation has become utterly unmoored or disconnected from whatever it is that caused it – where, in effect, we have a feeling about nothing.  That’s where anxiety is different from fear: we feel scared of something, something specific; whereas anxiety seems to centre around a black hole, a big nothing.  Part of anxiety’s dread is its meaninglessness.  It literally has no meaning, because the idea that would give it some meaning has become lost.

A couple of years ago, I went to see a production called Morbid Abnormal Me, starring two friends: Shea, anxious, beset by a fear of death that structures her relationships, her Christmases, her childhood holidays, her almost everything; and Nora, her friend, who is fascinated by Shea’s fear of death, her wish to be alive, which seems extraordinary to Nora, who has plumbed the numbing depths of depression.

There was a wonderful moment where Nora finds out that Shea was born several weeks premature and sees this, perhaps rightly, as the root-cause of Shea’s anxiety.  “This is the bit that Nora loves, that everybody loves,” says Shea - the creation of a something around which the anxiety can be tethered.  

Except, as Shea knows, this isn’t quite how anxiety works.  Anxiety thrives on absences, on the failure of “cause and effect” to explain things.  If anxiety does have an object, it is a nameless, faceless kind of object that can never quite be grasped.

But without wishing to stand up for anxiety, at least it doesn’t play tricks with us – it has nothing to hide.  Unlike other feelings, it doesn’t deceive us with a false meaning, because it doesn’t have any meaning. It is the moment when the story of our lives starts to unravel, when all sense seems to slip through our fingers, when we feel most anxious.  This is what makes anxiety feel so terribly disturbing: the dreadful moment when one notices that things do not hang together.

When we are anxious, we feel it in our bodies.  Physical sensations often express what cannot be spoken in words.  Perhaps what makes us most lonely, what we are most desperate to share with another person, is the very thing which is most difficult to put into words.

And yet, something happens when we try to put our feelings into words. By talking, we transform feelings into communication, and isolation into relationship. If we want to be recognised, we must speak and we must be listened to.

On feelings

We hear a lot today about the benefits of “getting in touch with our feelings”.  Being aware of and in tune with how we feel is seen as healthy – it’s much better to be sensitive to our feelings than to bottle them up, ignore them or become controlled by them.

This raises some interesting questions for me.  What’s so special about these feelings and emotions?  Why is feeling, say, anger or sadness or joy seen as more “truthful” or authentic than a thought, idea or action?

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Often, we know that we are feeling a particular way, but we are not sure why.  The idea of “waking up on the wrong side of the bed” is a good example of this.  You’ve started the day feeling annoyed, but there’s nothing you can put your finger on that explains who you feel quite so hacked off.  Maybe you take it out on the cat or the bus driver, but it’s not really them who has annoyed you.  It’s as if the idea or the event that caused the feeling has got lost somewhere along the line. 

In this way, feelings can be deceptive.  I might think I resent my boss, when in fact I resent my father; or I might feel worked up about something that happened yesterday, but what is really riling me is some long-forgotten slight that happened 20 years ago.  The feeling has become separated from the idea or the occasion that caused it, and so that feeling has attached itself onto something or somebody else. 

This happens all the time in dreams: isn’t the reason that dreams are often so bizarre that the images we “see” and the emotions we feel in the dream are so at odds with each other? 

But it happens when we are awake too.  We feel something deeply, but we feel it out of context, and that makes us confused.  It may even make us doubt or distrust the feeling we have.  After all, what can I learn from my feelings if I can’t work out what caused them?

And yet, despite their unreliable nature, it is only by talking about how we feel that we start to learn something.  I was going to write “by talking about our feelings…,” but perhaps “talking around our feelings” would be better.  By talking with somebody else, allowing ourselves the time and space to go round in circles, we may discover (or re-discover) something which has up to now been hidden.  It may be painful, but it may also provide us with some relief, even a feeling of freedom.