Friday, July 27, 2007

And consciousness is...



So Many Questions, So Few Answers

So many questions, so few answers. That’s the beauty of the arts. Recently I took a photograph (last Easter to be precise) of the outside of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. What caught my eye was the quotation from Camus, not the beautiful architectural miracle of the building. As you see from the above photograph, the quotation runs: “Si le monde était clair l’art ne serait pas” which translates “If the world were clear there would be no art.” How true, yet the same Albert Camus nearly drove himself distracted in his pursuit of clarity, that is, in trying to make sense of the world and of the human project we call life. He ended up by believing it to be meaningless. At least that is my memory of struggling with The Myth of Sisyphus, Words and The Outsider which we had to read for philosophy class.

What brings these thoughts to my mind at all? Well I’ve always been fascinated with philosophy, which to my mind asks all the good questions, the deep questions and it is an approach to reality, a way of asking questions that can be applied in any place, at any time irrespective of the company you are in. Also every single subject under the heavens has its philosophy e.g., the philosophy of science, the philosophy of chemistry, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of language, the philosophy of architecture, the philosophy of politics, the philosophy of psychology, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of history and so on. All of these philosophies exist – if you don’t believe me check them out. Realise that a history of philosophy is considerable different to a philosophy of history. Just thought I’d slip that one in as it always caused me to think and to ponder a little more deeply when I was at college.

Then there were those big hard questions which people asked from time to time, but which a lot of scientists, and even philosophers of a scientific bent, wrote off and still write off as meaningless. That brings up other questions itself – what is meaning? What is the meaning of meaning? What is the meaning of meaninglessness? If meaninglessness has a meaning then it is contradictory per se. Okay, this is a bit stupid in a way, I’ll admit, but nevertheless infinitely interesting.

Then there is that famous or infamous question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This very question, according to Martin Heidegger characterized as the most fundamental issue of philosophy. Try googling that question and you come up with around 69 million possible sites to hit on. Now there, and there are those that say it’s a meaningless question. (Actually this, of course, is a total exaggeration as the 69 million refers to every possible combination of all the above words in every possible site. So it's a lie - Lies, damn lies and statistics!) Well, if it is, there are an aweful lot of people asking this stupid question. I’m a ttempting a little humour here – I hope that’s obvious! The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in attempting to answer this question begins with what I consider two beautifully suuccinct and wonderfully enlightening lines: “Well, why not? Why expect nothing rather than something? No experiment could support the hypothesis ‘There is nothing’ because any observation obviously implies the existence of an observer.” See the following link: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nothingness/

Okay, this is exactly what I want to bring up here, namely that there exists an observer who perceives and who is conscious. This leads me to what I think is the most central question in philosophy, psychology and neuroscience namely – What do we mean by consciousness? What do I mean by my being conscious as I type these lines? Hence this question and all its cognate questions relating to what we mean by “subject” and “object”, by “my subjective experience” and “your subjective experience.” What is the “real” world without “my subjective experience of it?” Can anyone really experience the “real” world in itself, per se? Can I really know the world apart from me and my experience of it? What is the meaning of “real” anyway?

As a practitioner of meditation for well over twenty years now I am somewhat used to asking questions about what my consciousness means? As I meditate sometimes I ask myself the question – “Who am I who observes these thoughts like clouds crossing the sky of my mind?” This latter is an interesting meditation I find. This is akin to asking the more philosophical question – What is consciousness? I remember reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge many years ago and I remember his talking about the eye and perception – the eye is set up to see in a certain way, and this means that it cannot see in any other way. The eye cannot, according to S.T. Coleridge, step outside itself to see itself. He was using this analogy to express his believe that everyone started with their own basic assumptions before engaging in any argument – in other words everyone is biased and prejudiced from the start. There seems to be no objective ground. Or is there? Big question. Don’t know the answer, but it is intriguing, is it not?

A question like what is the brain is a biological and physiological one. Okay we can study that physically and experimentally - there are no huge problems there. But then ask the question, what is the mind and you have a whole host of questions – what does it mean to think? Is that a biochemical operation solely? Can consciousness be reduced to bio-chemicals? What is personality? In other words does your personality equal your mind? What is intelligence? What are emotions? Are they just neurotransmitters at base? What gives all these neurochemicals shape and form as a mind? After a while you’ll have no end of questions. Where is the mind located? Is it in the brain only? When does a bundle of neurones become a brain? And so on and so on! I think I’ll have to go back and read a book I read in 1984 when studying for my Masters – The Psychology of Consciousness by Robert E. Ornstein. It is a marvellous introduction even though it is a bit dated now. (Pelican, 1984; originally written 1972)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Of Mimics and Mimicry



The Importance of Mimics and Mimicry

As a child I always loved mimics, or those entertainers more commonly called impressionists. From the mid-sixties to the early eighties the famous impressionist Mike Yarwood dominated our television screens. My brothers and I used laugh so much when Yarwood came on. He did famous impressions of Brian Clough (soccer manager), Robin Day (broadcaster), Harold Wilson (the P.M.) and Ted Heath (also P.M.). Lenny Henry, Jim Carrey and the late great Peter Sellers were/are other noteworthy impressionists. Perhaps the greatest series to poke fun was the satirical puppet show called Spitting Image which ran on the UK TV channel ITV from 1984 to 1996. This programme was justifiably famous for its excellent puppet caricatures of The Royal Family.

When I was at school there was always one or two in our class who were good mimics of our teachers. We used love it when they’d get up in those short intervals between change of classes and imitate the out-going or in-coming teacher. The impressionist loved the both the thrill of entertaining his captive audience or running the risk of being caught. These days the students at school still imitate their teachers and they derive a considerable amount of pleasure therefore.

I’d like briefly to return to the Greek word “mimesis” from which the word “mimic” and “mimicry” and indeed the word “mime” takes its origin. Aristotle defines “Mimesis” in his Poetics as “imitation of an action.” This seems very clear-cut indeed, but Aristotle also had in mind what Kearney calls in On Stories “a creative redescription of the world such that hidden patterns and hitherto unexplored meanings can unfold.” (p. 12) In other words the mimic is adding something new, an interpretation of the character, say. I’m thinking now of two or three good mimics we have in Fifth Year at school. I have allowed one or two to mimic several of our staff, including myself, of course – I would not allow it otherwise. I became aware of another aspect of my own self, about how the kids saw me, about how they would exaggerate certain personal characteristics they found funny. There seems to be a need deep inside us to identify with others, to humanise them and to bring them into our own world-picture. For a child to mimic his teacher is natural and good; for an adult to mimic his boss is also healthy.

Kearney points out that both historical and fictional narratives have this “mimetic” function in common. He also points out that those teachers of old who told us that mimesis was where “art holds a mirror up to nature” got the whole thing wrong. Indeed they did. They forgot all about the actor, painter or writer or sculptor who engaged with his/her subject, brought their own unique personal interpretation to whatever was being worked upon. Let’s go back to one of my favourite quotes. It’s from the Talmud and goes: “We see things not as they are, but as we are.” In other words we bring our own opinions, biases and prejudices, or in tamer less controversial terms our own interpretation to our subject matter.

Historians as well as novelists, scientists as well as philosophers, mathematicians as well as theologians all bring their own unique interpretations to the subject for debate. Let’s not forget that. There is no direct clinical unbiased road to the “real truth of the matter in itself.”

We learn by imitation, by putting ourselves literally in “the other person’s shoes” and by a feat of our imagination we try to be that other person even for a few moments. In this way while fun could be the immediate result of such acts of imitation, identification with the adult, learning other roles in life are equally, if not more important goals.

By way of finishing this entry today I should like to bring a few disparate threads together. I have already mentioned how Anthony Storr is my favourite psychiatrist and psychotherapist of all time because of his sheer humanity and his passionate and compassionate take on human beings. While Storr argues that psychotherapy can never be one of the pure sciences and criticizes Freud for saying that it is, interestingly he compares psychotherapy with history and the psychotherapist with the historian. Why? Well they are both involved in historical narrative. The historian, who does his utmost to be aware of his own biases and prejudices, and who tries to be as humanly objective as possible, seeks to reach a certain truth about a certain period in history – it’s always going to be an approximation of course. Likewise the psychotherapist is dealing with an historical narrative. The difference is the psychotherapist has the “narrator” there in front of him. By building up a caring and trusting atmosphere the therapist allows the client to tell his/her own story as fully as possible.

Above I've pasted a picture I took of some pupils at school some 4 years back. Many of these lads are excellent mimics!

What's in A Story?





Needing Stories

What child does not like a good bedtime story? Who among us does not like a book with a captivating story to bring on holidays? That’s why there are bookshops in the airports after all – to sell books to those poor travellers who have forgotten to bring them. What cinema-goer does not like to sit on the edge of his/her seat for the next twist in the storyline?

I remember as a child always been delighted when our Uncle Tom would visit. He was a great man to read or to tell a story. We thrive on stories because they can bring us to the lands of our imagination. Last Friday night I was in town to meet some friends for a drink. It was a wild and wet night – a great night for the thousands of followers in Dublin of that great weaver of tales – J.K. Rowling. Her throng of devotees were out in their hundreds, and many of them were dressed up like characters from her fantasy series. Amazon has said that 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' was the company's largest new product release ever. It said its global pre-order sales total was 2.2 million - a 47% increase on its previous record which was for 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'. What is it about this series of books that has caught the attention of the world? What is it saying about modern society? We need to ask these questions – we may get some insights into who we are and what we really want in life.

Let me attempt to suggest a few ideas. One of the main reasons for stories is that of sheer escapism. Mentioning this word alone conjures up immediately in our minds a very specific genre of stories called Escape Stories. There have been thousands of these written over the years. The great autobiographical novel Papillon by Enri Charrière is one famous book about escaping that comes vividly to mind. Charrière insists on the book’s literal truth. Whatever about that, it is a brilliant story well told. Then all those famous film directors are constantly seeking good stories. The world needs stories just as much as it needs food and water, it would appear. In many ways, humanity cannot “live on bread alone” as Jesus said. Humanity needs the enriching of the imagination, and one way that is done is by stories. We need our stories and we need our myths.

There are many great genres or types of stories. I have mentioned Escape Stories. There are also Stories of Origin – all races and all nationalities have their own traditional stories of the foundations of their people. Then there are Love Stories, which make their readers weep with the depths of emotion. Then there are Victory Stories and Success Stories and Horror Stories and even Stories of Defeat, though this last is merely the flip side of success and is normally recounted by the victor or by the successful narrator. Then, of course, there are Detective Stories and Mystery Stories and last but not least Science Fiction Stories.

One marvellous book I read on holidays recently was On Stories by Richard Kearney (Routledge, 2002) who is Professor of Philosophy at Boston College and U.C.D. Take a look at Kearney’s webpage at Boston College and you’ll be impressed by the sheer academic, and indeed creative, output of this genius. He shares one thing in common with that other genius about whom I have already written in these pages, Richard P. Feynman, Nobel Prize winner for Physics, and that is his singular ability to communicate with a non-scientific and a non-scholarly audience. This is a rare gift indeed, to be able to be at the one and the same time an academic genius in one’s own field and also a populariser of one’s subject.

This book is doubly brilliant - it is written with a lightness that shows an exquisite acquaintance with language while it carries a depth of insight into humanity and into philosophy, to both of which we are introduced with such enthusiasm that we are immediately captivated by the author. One might say that what a Professor of Philosophy might have to say on stories would be heavy and confounding. How wrong we would be. What we find, rather, is “serious stuff dealt with a light hand” in the words of Roy Foster. I loved this little book profoundly. I’ll read it again and again. Why? It is at once light and profound; enthusiastic and life-enriching; encouraging and at times disturbing.

Ah, to tell a story, to listen to a story, to share a story is such a profoundly human thing. To listen to the real life story of another human being is a privilege. To tell your story to another human being is to reach out to the other, to say this is me, this is what I am about, this is where I came from, these are the ways I got here and there is where I am going. As Kearney puts it, when you tell your story: “you interpret where you are now in terms of where you have come from and where you are going to. And so doing you give a sense of yourself as a narrative identity that perdures and coheres over a lifetime. That is what the German philosopher Dilthey called the coming-together-of-life …meaning the act of coordinating an existence which would otherwise be scattered over time. In this way storytelling may be said to humanise time by transforming it from an impersonal passing of fragmented moments into a pattern, a plot, a mythos.” (p. 4)

If modern life is anything today it is confoundingly plural. We are in an age of sheer information overload. We are constantly being bombarded by a multiplicity of choices. There is always some new device better than the previous one. To cope with this infinity of choices one might almost need not alone a secretary but a few of them to point out all the available options. Modern life then, as I say, is plural, overloaded with information (much of it irrelevant to our real needs), lacking direction and indeed fragmented. When a patient or client comes to a counsellor or psychotherapist they are, in a word, fragmented, and no wonder, because they live in an equally broken world. The task of psychotherapy is, if you like, to try and allow the client or patient put some shape or pattern or form or unity or integrity on this feeling of disintegration. In the words of Anthony Storr, about whom I have written much in these pages, the task of psychotherapy is indeed the integrity of the personality. For integrity let’s substitute the words “unity” or “wholeness”.

To cope with the hopelessly fragmented and confoundingly plural world a good dose of traditional storytelling is needed. I’m thinking right now of pupils I’ve taught over the years and indeed some adults with whom I have worked as a teacher who found it so hard to tell their stories, indeed found it so frightening to trust any other human being with even a small piece of their personal narrative. We need to tell our story, because in so doing we are giving pattern, shape, form and meaning to our lives. We are giving it a personal shape and a narrative structure which comes alive and sings the song of our very own souls.

I’ll finish with another short quotation from Kearney: “From the word go stories were invented to fill the gaping hole within us, to assuage our fear and dread, to try and give answers to the great unanswerable questions of existence…” (pp. 6-7)

Above are pictured two good friends of mine in the Donegal Gaeltacht - Colin and Seán, both primary school teachers. Friends like telling stories do they not?

Medieval Pilgrim



The First Chapter of an Abandoned Novel

(When I wrote this eight years ago the character of the Pilgrim Aonghus was clear in my mind, but I had no real story to tell about him. He was very much a character in search of a plot whom I had long forgotten about until tonight as I searched through old floppy discs. However, I think the writing is good and should be saved)

The going was tough, but the air was crisp and bracing. He could smell the clay as he climbed. The tufts of grass that sprang between the stones and rocks were a delight to him, the mosses that greened the mountainside a sure sign of perseverance, of survival in the bleakest of places. He began to breathe more heavily now as the steep incline took its toll on his ageing body. Soon there would be nothing but rocks and jagged stones with absolutely no signs of vegetation or growth. Those were the barren stony places of life. But still this ancient pilgrimage was always worthwhile, worth the sacrifice, worth the pain. The pain always blocked out or expiated the sins and shadows of the past - at least for a while anyway. It was a penance that was good for body and soul. Stopping to catch his breath, he looked down at his bloodied feet. However, on such a bountiful day as this, they did not grab his attention for long. He was almost half way up the Cruach. There was no one else on the mountain. He was alone in the world. He stood and looked around him. The water of Clew Bay spread a grey-blue cloak of mystery before his eyes, but alas, there was no sun today to coax her hidden treasures from the depths. Aonghus remembered all the times he had climbed this holy mountain during his sixty years pilgrimage on this sacred earth, especially the times when the sun had shone. Sure, there were the many times that it had rained, when the going was so much tougher. He thanked the Lord of the Universe now even for those tough days. Today was a fair day, almost a nondescript day, neither brilliant nor brutal. Yet for a pilgrim, it was a blessed day, a day to rejoice in being alive.

Taking some stale bread and a little cheese from the pocket of his coarse brown habit, Aonghus chewed pensively. He was glad that he had made arrangements to stay with his sister Aoife who lived with her husband Conall and their extended family or derbfhine in a small fortified settlement not far from the foot of the Cruach. The O’Connell’s were small landowners in these parts, owning thirty cows and enough grass to give them good grazing. He had delighted in the warmth of their welcome. He would spend the night with them. The ancient Gaelic traditions of welcome and hospitality for the stranger were what set our people apart. St Patrick had truly found rich soil for the new seeds of Christianity to grow in the Gaelic race, thought Longhops. He looked forward to the ancient stories of the Red Branch Knights and of the Fijians themselves that would greet his ears tonight. Still looking out over Clew Bay, speckled with its many tiny islands, he took his leather flask from his shoulder and slowly drunk some water.

From here on the going would be much tougher and rougher. The second part of the journey was the steeper, full of huge loose stones that were sharp, jagged and deadly. To fall up here on this lonely peak would inevitably mean death. Still, facing and overcoming that fear was half the challenge. Our people have been climbing this reek for thousands of years. Our history goes way back into the mists of the past, like this very mountain. There was something exhilarating in doing this climb, something that went deep into your very sinews and bones and deeper still into the marrow, into your very heart. Its secret lay in the struggle to climb, to keep going despite the pain, the sore and bloodied feet and the sweaty brow. The secret was the struggle and the struggle was the secret. To walk this way was to walk into communion with the Creator of the Universe, or with Christ, the Pantocrator. It was also in some small way a taste of the passion endured by the Saviour. Moreover to walk this way was to be in step with our pagan ancestors. At the great feast of Lughnasa, August first, we Gaels had always traditionally gone hill walking in honour of Lugh, god of the harvest, the inventor of all arts, of commerce and the guide for every road and journey. Our very own patron, Patrick had followed this way also, baptising and Christianizing this old Gaelic, Celtic way of the stones. Aonghus thought briefly of Amhairghin Glégheal, father of all the poets and one of the sons of Mil who led our forefathers, the Gaels in their invasion of Ireland. He was the first of the invaders to touch the soil of our motherland. Amhairghin had addressed the very land and the sea and all its native creatures in a beautiful and intense rhapsody of words and spoke with a voice which had experienced a mystical union with the very elements themselves:

I am a wind on the sea,
I am a wave on the ocean,
I am the roar of the sea,
I am a hawk on a cliff...
I am a creative, weaving god
Who counsels the head
Who else clears the stones of the mountain?

Our own God of the Christian Scriptures would agree with those very sentiments. Hadn't He said something similar to Job? Indeed He had. Where were we when He laid the foundations of the earth? Or who shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb? Have the gates of death been revealed to us, or have we seen the gates of deep darkness? Have we comprehended the expanse of the earth?

Enough of this musing! It was time to press on as he wanted to have made his descent before the early autumn light would fade. Aonghus looked out over the sea for a few moments and then turned and bent his back towards the holy mountain.

Above I have posted a picture of the Mountains around Delphi on the borders of Galway/Mayo. I took this picture March 2007.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Few Wisdoms To Ponder



Some Wisdoms from the Sages

Some posts back I promised a few entries on striking wisdoms I had picked up from various sites I subscribe to. In this wee post I’ll concentrate on Wisdom from the East.

The Buddhist tradition from the East can and does enrich the more Greco-Roman and Christian traditions of the West. It seems to me to be a very calm and calming tradition, one where the meditator or adherent is asked to observe, watch, become aware, pay attention, to become aware of his or her own consciousness of everything that makes up this world of the senses and indeed everything that makes up his or her conscious and even unconscious mind.

I’ll start with a Chinese proverb. Like all proverbs it belongs to the people from generations immemorial:

 Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.
-Chinese Proverb

 Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.
-Thich Nhat Hanh

 Whether you believe in God or not does not matter so much, whether you believe in Buddha or not does not matter so much. You must lead a good life.
-His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Your task, John, should you choose to accept it, is to ponder the above three quotations and take them into your heart. Then carry them with you out into the world and practice them in action when you meet your friends, your acquaintances and even your enemies.

At the top of this post I have pasted a picture I took in a beautiful little garden outside the town hall in Nicastro Lamezia Terme early July 2007.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Tracy Chapman



Tracy Chapman

In keeping with the gender balance of these posts I’d like now to say a few words about the beautiful black American Singer, Tracy Chapman. My good God, where have all the years gone? I cannot believe that Tracy released her first and very famous Debut Album way back in 1988, the year I started teaching in my present place of employment. Maybe it’s because I’ve aged with her that for some reason she seems to be in her late twenties or early thirties in my mind. However, Tracy was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1964 when I was 6 years of age. Good God she’s 43. Tempus fugit! Eheu fugaces labuntur anni (Virgil, Georgics) and all that.

Tracy studied at Tufts University, MA, USA where she graduated with a degree in Anthropology and African Studies in 1986. One would have expected no less from such a primally and primitively beautiful voice. I would describe her genre of singing, and I am virtually musically deaf, as folk tinged with the great intensity of American Negro Soul music. Her Debut Album, to which I’ve alluded already, contained the justifiably very famous two songs from her pen: “Fast Car” and “Thinking ‘bout a Revolution.” The first of these is one of the greatest escapist tunes and songs that I know. The listener immediately associates with the distress of the singer, feels imprisoned by her circumstances and longs for such a “fast car” and some companion to drive it and you and her indeed to some elusive freedom. This song carries the very weight of the history of American Black culture on its strong shoulders and Tracy’s words are marvellous, and that deep weeping timbre of her rich voice would bring a tear to a stone as my mother used to say.

You got a fast car
But is it big enough so we can fly away
We gotta make a decision
We leave tonight or live and die this way.

While the revolution she refers to is the dream of everybody on the underbelly of society whether they’re old or young, male or female, black or white, brown or yellow, straight or gay, healthy or ill, and of all religious persuasions and none. This revolution, Chapman imagines is whispering in those queues for welfare or for handouts, or in many places on our sad planet, for food and water, the very basics of all life. Deep down she feels the tables are beginning to turn. Alas and alack, they haven’t quite turned yet. I’m still hearing whispers not shouts!

My favourite Chapman song is from her Second Album called Crossroads which was released way back in 1989. It’s called “All that you have is your soul.” A brilliant song! I am listening to this very song which I have put it on repeat for inspiration as I attempt to make these words behave. It’s a wonderfully powerful song because it talks about what we may term integrity, authenticity, congruence or the being true to self of the individual. None of us wants to sell his or her soul to the various devils that are to be found in the modern world:- materialism (“the shiny apple”), power and its abuse (say an abusive spouse), one or other of the addictions that plague our human society or violence in its many forms. Hence, we get that marvellous verse in this wonderful song. Forgive me the overuse of superlatives here as I’m a little carried away. Why not indeed – let your soul carry you away, Tim! Here are those words I promised a sentence or two above this one:

Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple
Don’t you eat of a bitter fruit
Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth
‘Cause all that you have is your soul.

These are her two early albums both of which I have and both of which I have listened over and over to in the past so many years. Tracy has made another six albums right up to the latest Where You Live” (2005) which alas I haven’t purchased. I’ve heard a few tracks from it on the radio over the last few years, but I still prefer her earlier stuff. Unfortunately, this little tribute to such a marvellously rich and supremely moving voice must remain truncated through my lack of knowledge. To talk about the first two albums of any artist without referring to or having listened to her latest five albums is considerably incomplete indeed. However, the site www.abouttracychapman.net contains a sampler of 36 seconds long of each song on her last album. These songs sound more ponderous, a little less passionate, have a slower tempo and are more Gospelly than her earliest numbers. They refer to and use and Biblical terms like “forgiveness”, “Jesus knows what I have done,” “Easter,” and sentences like “Be and be not afraid to reach for heaven.” However, that old passion is still there under the surface.

Katie Melua





The Mellow Melua

Re-reading the last several posts on this blog, I am convinced they are a little heavy by way of content – hopefully not by way of style, which is, I hope, considerably lighter. Also I have noticed that they are weighted to describing male characters. Therefore, to restore the gender balance and indeed to lighten the subject matter I should like to turn my attention to one of my favourite singers of late, i.e., Katie Melua. The surname is pronounced Mel’ua, not Mel’lua.

Melua is a talented and beautiful singer, and by all accounts a wonderful human being. Well, I suppose we’re all the latter in theory, certainly not the former. In these days, where Ireland is a cultural melting pot, it is interesting to recount that Katie was born in Georgia in 1984 (then a part of the USSR) and that she lived for 4 years in Belfast, after which her family moved to Surrey, England. Recently I heard our very own redoubtable and venerable critic and writer, Ulick O’Connor, say that the burgeoning of our literature in English at the time of the Celtic Revival at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century is directly linked to the melding of the best in the native Irish and the almost native Anglo-Irish literatures in the personages of our four great Nobel Laureates Yeats, Joyce, Beckett and G.B. Shaw. Greatness comes from cross-fertilisation.

One can only marvel at the wonderful cross-fertilisation of cultures in Katie Melua – Katie speaks three languages – Georgian, Russian and English. The world is truly a global village with both the modern ease of movement and the instant access we have to other cultures through satellite and internet. Having attended The Brit School for the Performing Arts, Melua began to write her own songs and met her future manager, the producer Mike Batt. On the 10th august 2005 Katie became a British citizen with her parents and brother.

Her Album, Call Off The Search contained two songs she wrote: “Befast (Penguins and Cats)” and “Faraway Voice.” The first of these two contain this verse

I've got a ticket to the fast city,
where the bells don't really ring,
getting off the plane the cold air
rushes like bullets through my brain.

I presume that Penguins and Cats refer respectively to Protestants and Catholics. I love the above lines, but especially the observation “the paintings on the walls of release are colourful but they are no Matisse.”

“Faraway Voice” is about the death of the singer Eva Cassidy, one of Katie’s favourites, who died of melanoma in her native Bowie, Maryland, USA at the young age of 33. Appropriately enough, as I’m typing these words I am playing Katie Melua on iTunes. Her voice is nothing short of bewitching. It is easy to see why she was enthralled by the marvelous and wonderful Eva Cassidy. A verse of this second song goes thus:

And I will walk with you on a summer's day,
And I will talk to you,
Though you're faraway,
And we'll sing through the years,
Are you over those hills,
Do you still hum the old melodies,
Do you wish people listened,
Over here with me [x3]
Whoo [x2]

Personally, one of my favourite Melua songs is “Closest Thing to Crazy” written by her manager Mike Batt. I think I connect somewhere with the sentiments of that lyric. I also admit that I also like “Nine Million Bicycles” though I’m aware that critics like John Murphy of MusicOMH.com said that it lacked passion, soul and excitement. I strongly disagree because the listener must work a little to get on Katie’s evenly balanced wavelength and realize that it’s a calmness and meditative stillness that Katie sings with, not with a lack of passion, soul or excitement. When one connects with the meditative stillness one is moved! So there, now, John Murphy, put that in your pipe and smoke it!

There are many marvelous sites on Katie Melua on the web. Go there for better stuff than this rather meager personal tribute!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Personality 1




Of Psychiatrists and Psychiatry

Without a shadow of a doubt, I suppose the human mind, whatever definition we might attempt of the same, would be the most important aspect of any person. Visiting my beautiful demented 90 year old mother makes me so aware of the disintegration of her mind, the gradual falling apart of personality. This is all the price of growing old, the price of mortality. Growth and decay are two sides of the one coin as it were. One simply cannot have one without the other.

The gradual disintegration of my mother’s personality, while on one level disturbing, is on another level a natural and simple part of the way things are for life, however, indeed one is to describe or define this latter. This observation has brought into focus for me my own reading of late in psychology and psychiatry. As the young child grows he or she becomes more differentiated, more individuated and more integrated. (My mother on the other hand has become more undifferentiated, more de-individuated and more disintegrated). That’s the whole goal of growing up – to become more of an integrated person.

Freud tells us that the newborn child is totally instinctual – completely “id” in Freudian terminology. As he or she grows they will learn to integrate into this instinctual morass (“id”) a sense of right and wrong (“superego”) and a sense of the conscious self that can regulate the child’s own functioning as a separate person in itself and in its relationship with the world (the “ego”). In short, as the child learns to grow as an individual, he or she learns to differentiate themselves from others, to socialize with others, to speak and listen and to face the lessons from their own unconscious world and, in facing them, to integrate all the shadow parts of their personality. (This latter concept of “shadow” was promulgated and expounded by Carl Gustave Jung, one of Freud’s earlier disciples who broke with him because of the narrowness of the latter’s interpretation of the unconscious.)

My favourite contemporary psychiatrist is the Anthony Storr. As I check the Wiki I find that Anthony passed away as recently as 2001. I am sorry to hear this. The last article I read by him was a review of Lytton Strachey’s famous book, Eminent Victorians, which has quite deservedly never gone out of print. (The Sunday Times, 12 April, 1998) From reading his wonderfully literate, humane and compassionate books on psychiatry and psychotherapy, I can only say that I should have loved to have met him. It does not surprise me that the people who go into psychiatry or any form of psychotherapy are wonderfully sensitive human beings, because quite simply that’s what the job is all about – being compassionate to others. I have six books by Storr on my shelves and I always re-read certain chapters of them when I want to be cheered up. I shall return to some of these marvellous books in later posts.

One of Storr’s most interesting books is one of his earliest, a little gem of psychological insight, and the best introduction to personality I have ever read. It’s called The Integrity of the Personality and was first published by Heinemann in 1960. Take this sentence that opens chapter 2 for a well put, if all-too-obvious insight: “Psychotherapists of different persuasions appear to share at least one basic hypothesis: the notion that the individual human being is of value, and that it is important that each individual should be able to develop his own personality in as unrestricted and complete a way as possible.” (p.22)

Chapter 5 is mind-blowing (admittedly a rather gauche choice of words given the subject) in so far as it is so insightful on how our personality grows and emerges into a whole or into a specific unit with a central focus (my terms, not Storr’s) which we can identify as a well-defined personality. Now, as Hamlet might say, “there is the rub” – so many of us are quite retarded in the development of our own personality. Having known a few friends who have had schizophrenia over the years and who have not really taken advantage of proper psychiatric treatment, the following words hit home as being so true: “Schizophrenia seems to be a failure of the personality to cohere as a whole, and the failure of inner cohesion is reflected in the outer absence of relationships which is the most striking feature of schizophrenia.” (ibid., p.68)

Storr went on to further argue in these words which describe my own personal experience of several people I know with this terribly soul-destroying and personality-resistant disease: “It is as if one was talking to a series of complexes, not to a person; as if one was presented with the parts of the body dissected from each other with no unity to bind them into a single body. Schizophrenia will continue to be a mystery as long as we fail to understand the forces and the organization which make for the wholeness of the personality.” (ibid., p. 68)

I began this post by referring to the disintegration of my mother’s personality as see ages. I went on to discuss how the goal of every human being from childhood is the integration, development, individuation or realization of personality into a unit or whole which has unity or wholeness of focus which may be called a well-defined and hopefully well-developed personality.

The goal of all psychotherapy and psychiatry, not to mention the very goal of humanity in its very essence for any individual member of it, is the integration or integrity of personality. That means that I must be open to learning lessons about my personality from others, from family and friends, from philosophy, from whatever culture I’m brought up in, from other cultures with all their mythologies which are storehouses of values and meanings, from the findings of science per se, certainly from the findings of the human sciences like psychology and psychiatry and from being open to incorporating the secrets of the undifferentiated personal unconscious. None of us is fully sane. None of us is fully whole. We are all human and finite. Let us learn to be open to help from others. Let us be open to incorporating all those complexes, and there are so many of them in our unconscious, into one healthy and well-focused personality. In our unconscious all those complexes, all those attendant archetypes and that whole throng of little sub-personalities that hide in its shadowy confines can be made our friends with courage and appropriate therapy and help.

Not surprisingly Dr Anthony Storr had a Dalai Lama-like smile. All great human beings smile!