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How I learned to stop worrying and love the virus

 

The Plague. The War. The Bomb. Different eras, different moments in history have their sententious monikers. The plain, definite references denote events that defined times, aimed at common experience and understanding. If one lived it there would be no mistaking the meaning.

I’m trying to find some meaning in our current, soon-to-be era defining crisis, as well as some comedy. Sheltered in place, locked down and distancing socially (what lovely vocab we’ve added to common lexicon), I’m snuggling up to my wife, at times whimpering with angst, but otherwise treading a tender path, taking in the warmth. We can resemble a pair of penguins when we’re quietly touching. Head-to-head, worried yet holding on, we contain each other’s trembling. I recall what I dub ‘The March’, a reference to a favorite nature yarn, March of the Penguins. Death march of the penguins, I once called it, or penguin gulag. That’s my black, if sympathetic humor taking over, making fun out of that which depresses. I quipped to my wife, “Do you think they ever ask, ‘are you bored? Wanna go somewhere?’ when they’re touching heads, just hangin’ out on the glacier flats?” My wife giggled, shook her head softly and then let her laugh slide into a sigh. A common, endearing habit. She had a supposition of her own, having seen some pictures online of deer wandering onto roads in (packs? Whatever the word for groups of deer is) the recent absence of cars. The point: the humans are in retreat, having been taken down by something that doesn’t even live in the ways we understand living. Nature is taking over. Taking revenge?

If you’ve followed this blog for a while you might think I’d turn to Hitchcock at this point and start pontificating about The Birds, with its nature’s mysterious revenge theme, coupled with an Oedipal crisis for its protagonist. But the film that’s most been on my mind in recent months, and even more so during the outbreak of what I’ll now call “The Virus”, is Dr. Strangelove, or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. See, I was due to talk about the 1964 comedy classic at a conference in Charleston, South Carolina in May; that is, until “The Virus” intervened, forcing a cancellation of the event. Naturally, I’m disappointed. For a hot-tempered minute, I was bitter, thinking that I’d been waiting for years for a chance to give a presentation like this, and had spent at least six months diligently preparing. Well, in case you wonder, I have managed to get over myself, and in case you further wonder, I’ll not give up on that goal, though it’s not clear if or when I’ll get to present my subject live. Meanwhile, my wife decided that I needn’t wait to see what will happen in the future, instead suggesting that I provide a version of my presentation as a voice-over to my power-point slide show, and then place the whole thing on You Tube.

And so I have. In between client sessions that now take place exclusively by either phone or video connection, and also between efforts to otherwise adjust to the upheaval that “The Virus” has brought everyone, I have found time to salvage my “Dr. Strangelove” project and adapt it in the manner that my wife has suggested. It wasn’t easy. Among other things, I’m not adept with things, including computers, so synchronizing the slides alongside my voice commentary, not to mention incorporating clips from the film that couldn’t simply be inserted via online media, proved to be a painstaking, patience-thwarting task. I became doubly aware of the ironies. Already, Dr. Strangelove exudes a critique of modern technology, man’s obsession with technical minutia, industrial progress; machinery and war. The previous and unchanged subtitle of my talk, “How I learned to stop worrying and love my phone” was of course a reference to yet another aspect of mine and others’ tethered existence.

Now I need them more than ever, those damned phones. I need computers more than ever. Whose idea was this? Of all the conspiracy theories that are being advanced currently, and which I am not listening to because I have better things to do, are there any being aimed at our precious technocracy? It’s not that I think our machinery intrinsically evil. I’m painfully aware that my Luddite predisposition is a result of fumbling inadequacy, and that my protest against that which has its own rules and idiosyncrasies, and which increasingly forces consumers to figure out processes via trial and error (seriously, where did all the manuals go?), is a persecutory fear projected at the inanimate substitutes of an invisible authority. As the applications that promised a transfer of my power-point plus commentary display into a You Tube-compatible video blocked or mocked me at one turn after another, my thoughts began to drift into the kind of psychotic state that would have fitted right in with the Mad Men assembly of Dr. Strangelove. I vaguely thought I should add something about H.G Wells at some point. Then, as the visage of Stanley Kubrick crossed my mind, I had a thought that I should be talking about HAL and 2001 instead.

That prompted more ideas: one was to include one or two lines from 2001, like “Open the pod bay doors, please”, which could be discussed in terms of Wilfred Bion’s ideas about beta elements and psychotic functioning, for example. More importantly, I thought to reference that line a second time, during a passage wherein I am talking about Major Kong’s (Slim Pickens) attempt to fix the short-circuited bomb bay doors moments before the film’s climactic bomb run. Open the pod bay doors, I imagined, would have fit perfectly as a linking piece of psychic function. Alas, topical or not, I chose to not entirely re-do my Strangelove presentation. The focus upon misguided technology, existential threats to the planet, our returning fear of the Russians, plus our observation of Mad Men in positions of power had already made Dr. Strangelove a still-relevant work of art for the 21st century—hence the first clause of my title: “Dr. Strangelove in the 21st century”. But as I watched the last clip of my presentation, feeling more or less satisfied that I have endured all of technology’s glitches so as to offer a worthy product, I noticed one more thing that I might have said but didn’t, and which I will include here instead.

In a clip that features the eponymous Strangelove character (Peter Sellers) wrestling with his wheelchair, the sense of farce and tension mounts with the knowledge that “The bomb” of the plot has been dropped, thus triggering the dreaded doomsday device that, according to Strangelove, will render the surface of the planet uninhabitable for ninety-three years. He then explains that human beings could live in mine shafts while being unemployed and having little to do except copulate and thus repopulate the earth. Now, on the one hand, this hilarious piece of satire furthers the film’s repertoire of themes: sex and death diffused; man and machine intertwined, etc. I could have added something about that, I thought. On the other hand, I was feeling weary. I didn’t want to do another recording. And maybe I’ll get to do a live presentation someday after all, I thought, feeling hopeful for a change. Then another chilly set of thoughts came to me: what about the future? Has life changed? Will I be unemployed in the near future, have little to do. That doesn’t sound very sexy, actually. I’m not one of the Mad Men. I loved Dr. Strangelove as a film with lasting relevance, but I didn’t and don’t love the bomb. And despite whatever silver lining or life lesson emerges from our present crisis, my thinking belies my play-upon-a-title: I don’t think I’ll learn to love the virus.

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Many a true word (aka no joke)

 

 

Okay, so what’s the deal with the comedy? Why this thing about flippancy versus an appropriately sober and earnest tone, one might ask? Well, first of all, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, is filled with serious comment, academic rigor, and “getting real”, thumb-on-nose zeal. We have over a hundred references in our bibliography—perhaps close to one fifty—reflecting a studious approach and a whole lotta reading. And I think Joe read at least one book about sex addiction. But seriously, what’s there to be serious about? Who said that being serious was the thing to be when discussing controversial subject matter? When did humor get cast away to the deleted files, and who or what institution made that call, anyway? I get that most psyche lit is dry and pedantic. Sometimes it’s plaintive and proselytizing, offering nomenclature with assumptions about reader literacy—like thinking he or she knows words like nomenclature. Read analytic literature and all this is on another level: words and terms that may be obscure or unexplained are rampant and oblique turns of phrase are ubiquitous. Take phrases like Winnicott’s “going on being” or Wilfrid Bion’s “attacks on links” (actually the title of a paper). This is well-known verbiage to students of psychoanalysis. In a recent article by analytic writer Arthur Nielsen, the concept of projective identification (PI) is explained with sentences like, “inducers, by contrast, continue to be involved with the projected qualities in what Meltzer and Fisher have felicitously termed a bifurcation of experience.” Yes, in English please, I hear the reader ask.

Actually, it is English, and Nielsen’s article in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association is a pretty interesting, if complex take on why one in five marriages in the US will fail in the first five years. Hey, that’s not that bad, I think, given what I notice in couples that come to my office. The PI is off the charts, back and forth and all over the place. I’m near dizzy after an hour with a couple in a PI mess. I’m in need of a good joke, and I’m often tempted to make one. Not a stand-up joke. I don’t mean a “hey did you hear the one about the…” overture, or an ice-breaking aside for a couple who walk in with stony expressions like they’d just been sitting in ice. No, I mean the kind of plays upon words that circle back to previous things said in a session; to matters raised in some other context but which might be raised again, thrust into a new moment and therefore given an altered and—if the satire takes aim—a diminished, possibly diffused meaning. Satire. Now there’s a word. Again, that’s a concept that doesn’t belong in a serious discussion of psychology or mental health problems, and in a sensitive moment, one ought to be careful with humor lest anyone get their feelings hurt versus diffused. Humor can hurt. Truth hurts is a permutation on this theme. Humor as truth: is that your point, Graeme? No, I reply to invisible heckler X. Actually, it might have been Sigmund Freud’s idea. Seriously, I don’t think he ever decreed that analysts should abstain from using humor like they were meant to abstain from sex (with patients that is).

See, Sigmund taught that the unconscious is a free reservoir of instinct, feeling and ideas, albeit largely objectionable ideas. There is no “no” in the unconscious; it knows no limits, doesn’t get endings, of pleasure especially. That’s the ego or Superego’s job, to effect limits in the case of the former apparatus; impart morality and civilized order in the case of the latter. Humor represents that which has slipped from the truthful, as in uncensored, unconscious realm of our mind. It’s contrivance as a quip, a witticism, or an infantile gesture is a compromise, one that grants distance but at the same time allows a glimpse of what is really on a person’s mind. Many a true word, wrote Shakespeare, and there are many true words in Getting Real About Sex Addiction. Some of my favorite writers and filmmakers are comic in their style, thinking this the best way to provoke or inspire. Meaning, they determine that the best way to convey reality is through absurdism. Go figure. This brings to mind (again) Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, about which I’ll be giving a talk in Charleston, South Carolina of all places, next spring. One of my bullet points to be is to point out that Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy, cold-war classic was preceded or released contemporaneously with ponderously sincere fare like 1959’s On The Beach, or 1964’s Fail-Safe. Back in the fifties and sixties, producers thought audiences wanted to be soothed and orated to by the likes of Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda. Who woulda’ thought that nebbish Peter Sellers playing three ridiculous roles, all of them with a latent smirk, would be the one to deliver the most impactful messages of social warning: we’re all gonna die so let’s have some fun while we talk about it.

In co-writing Getting Read About Sex Addiction, I took a similar approach after having read so many books and blogs about sex addiction that left me deadened and therefore needing some fun to rouse me; or, I’d listened to TED talk or You Tube mini stars, speakers who took themselves, it seemed to me, a bit too seriously. It’s not all fun and games, our book. Much of it’s a trauma, or has been, for someone, or maybe everyone. No laughing matter, but the contradictions in the field are what’s funny. You’ll see, or read. I dragged Joe and his infectious giggle with me on this thing, and he soon got into the spirit of drive and mischief, calling me up with mock-homophobic questions like “what are you wearing?” and joining me in this simultaneously, ambiguously serious yet irreverent endeavor. I’ll continue in this vein for a while in blog-space, gauging when to laugh and when not too. If I offend, either in the book or in these pages I’ll take a return joke on the chin, thinking that will be fair play, maybe hate play. Or I might circle back to something I’ve said or written before, because ultimately, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, most people are still laughing about sex.

 

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