Tag Archives: Freud

Repeat

 

One of the subtler Freudian themes in Tommy is that of repetition compulsion. We repeat, Freud wrote in 1914 in “Remembering, repeating, and working through”. Specifically, we repeat instead of remembering, or realizing. We act out that which is repressed, feeling ashamed only when consciousness is brought to bear upon our actions. Prior to modern notions of addiction, which includes behaviors that are repetitive despite negative consequences, we’ve held in mind this underlying template for why human beings behave paradoxically, pledging to never forget…then forgetting anyway.

Tommy Walker witnessed a murder at the age of seven, roughly. Prior to this, his life experience is unknown but is subject to speculation: his father had been away at war, was reported missing. Tommy’s mother, apparently lonesome, had taken another lover, was poised to replace Tommy’s father until the father returns, discovering…oops! It’s unknown what Tommy thought of his world, how he experienced his world, prior to witnessing a crime, but upon that event he is told to not say anything—indeed, he is told that he didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything; that he will pretend that nothing of importance had even happened.

This is the opening drama of Tommy: well known, or known enough by Classic Rock fans, or by most over the age of forty who made passing glances at pop culture, I think. I aim to make its meaning further known in my 2016 Tommy paper, as well as in my forthcoming non-fiction. In response to the crime and, by implication, his parents’ censoring message (BTW: it’s the father who’s returned and killed the lover), Tommy dissociates in the extreme. The libretto and myself now, even, play along with the secrecy by not quite naming the event, so a style of response pervades characters and listeners, and it all makes sense, somehow. Somehow it makes sense that Tommy’s over-the-top reaction—his psychosomatic deaf, dumb, and blind reaction—is the perfect over-reaction. It splits reality between a shameful, dangerous disclosure of truth versus a deadening, self-denying silence. It is a schizoid withdrawal, a monk’s solution: at once a pathology and an eloquent, logical act. Tommy’s symptoms are extreme yet prescriptive, and who hasn’t thought at one time or another, that the best thing to say or do in response to injustice, is nothing.

We imagine as Tommy proceeds with his life that he retains memory, as in biographical memory, of the events that compel his silent protest. We assume, even, that his condition is a protest and not merely a detachment, for that would sever hope, lead to an unhappy ending, which breaks the rules of popular art, never mind rock and roll. Through twists and turns, Tommy’s life improves because he has talents which defy his withdrawal, which draws admirers, even followers, which in turn further messes with the isolationist plan. Tommy re-engages, but does so in a didactic, overbearing manner, forgetting himself, forgetting why he isolated in the first place. Out of habit, he forgets how to relate. The followers revolt and unwittingly emulate Tommy’s past adversaries: they find they want to abuse him, reject him. They stop listening.

Circularity. Tommy’s end is not so much happy as sober. He, The Who, myself, many others: people try to learn from their past, try to help others, and not repeat the mistakes of the past. Maybe that seems easy when observing an outcome, that behavior or act that we could never imagine ourselves doing. The thing is that we don’t know the many repetitions that culminate in those acted out, unforgivable atrocities. We judge, or other ourselves, as social justice warriors term it. Our psyche holds onto our mistakes but obscures memory, helping us avoid pain. So we don’t notice the repetitions, and we don’t how we get somewhere until we’re there.

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Tommy the scapegoat

 

As I traverse this process of soliciting editors to read my Tommy manuscript, I am forced (it’s only a minor hardship) to conjure the would-be reader of my decade-and-counting project. He or she is a hybrid figure, I imagine: half-interested in rock and roll or sixties counterculture; the other half a student of modern psychology, perhaps a clinician. When I presented a version of my 2016 Tommy paper, most notably at the “Creativity and Madness” conference in Santa Fe last year, and again at the Mechanic’s Institute in January of this year, I took fleeting moments before, during, and after my talk to notice the crowd, see what kind of people had shown up to listen. In Santa Fe, they were doctors and psychiatrists, mostly, there to see a variety of presenters, but were nonetheless sympathetic to my subject. They were indeed appreciative. At the Mechanic’s Institute, it was a bit more of a rock and roll crowd, dotted with the tangentially curious: people who asked questions about Tommy and religion, Tommy and feminism; Narcissism in the arts. Listen to agents and publishers who reject manuscripts and you’d hear a lot about the need to categorize tightly. This seeking of a reader with cross-pollenating interests will not do. It’s far too whole object relations for people who don’t know what whole object relations are. For the clinician or psychology student, who also lives in a split-object world, the script of the rock opera does not sufficiently apply to clinical material.

As case illustrations go, my protracted Tommy analysis is more fun than most, I’m inclined to think, but therefore more fanciful. However, it is not frivolous, nor does it dilute theory. If anything, I attempt to restore erudition to some ideas that have already been dropped into the psyche-literature sieve, resulting in reductionist meaning. Take the derivative concept of scapegoating, for example. In systems theory, a scapegoat is an individual who absorbs the blame for a family’s dysfunction. Stereotypically, he or she is the acting out teen whose delinquent behaviors draw attention to a systemic problem. Of course, this interpretation is that of a clinician, as it reverses the interpretation of actors within the system. Therefore, the intervening therapist is one who holds that a paradoxical purpose exists within an individual’s pathology: to highlight the bad object influence. Consciously, this conclusion is avoided, even fought against. The teen who acts out continues to engage in their behavior, but upon scrutiny (or cross-examination, as they might experience it), this person shrugs, begs off explanations, insight. They don’t know why they do what they do. Or, they proclaim that their negative behaviors are stupid, inexplicable. They simply have to stop doing it, they suggest in resignation.

What is the unconscious waiting for? What does it want? The antecedent theory belongs to drive and later object relations theory, and perhaps most specifically, the observations of W.R.D Fairbairn, who wrote in the 1940s of psychological development in which children internalize “bad” objects, repressing them but allowing for their return as a result of their nature. Fairbairn pointed out that Freud’s model of repression and “good” objects was represented by his structural theory of Id, Ego, and SuperEgo. These agencies of the psyche contain human nature—the nature of the repressed, if you will—both good and bad, with a SuperEgo representing a codified structure of “good” objects, societal values and such. It begs the following consideration: if the container of “bad” objects is the Id, or if it doesn’t exist, it stands to reason that one’s bad objects become lost, dissociated; hence, “I don’t know what happened”. Fairbairn suggested that children internalize parents, repressing not so much what is intrinsically “bad” but rather the bad memories, which are associated with negative feelings, like guilt. Therefore, repression pertains more to what is forbidden, and what must therefore be discharged.

In writing about Tommy Walker, the famous deaf, dumb and blind boy of The Who’s rock opera, I cite Fairbairn’s writings so as to characterize the deeply somaticized child as one who has internalized his “bad” objects: his parents, who are at once traumatized by war, chaotic in their handling of jealousy; secretive in their pervasive cover-up of a shameful killing. Fairbairn’s notion of internalization extends to a redemption of bad objects, for it is the child who absorbs the pathology—in Tommy’s case, manifesting the lifeless, deadened way of being via his psychosomatic disability. In a confused and double-bound condition, Tommy does what Fairbairn’s child does: he protests and denies simultaneously. For the astute observer, he compels notice of his own silence, which speaks volumes about that which cannot be said. His silence is archetypal: a symbol of shame, but also of eloquent expression, of spiritual touch. His symptoms obscure the relatively unnoticeable neurosis and character pathology of his mother and father. They preserve a compromise stability, perhaps a false ideal, because a need for God, even a false God, is necessary in the world governed by the devil. At the same time the mysterious illness stirs imagination, has nonplussed observers wondering, what’s happening in this private, if allusive world? Tommy’s listeners, or Tommy’s viewers, if one thinks of the various plays or the film, are not so much nonplussed by the rock opera’s message as casually attentive, tangentially curious.

 

How about you? Are you attentive? Tangentially curious?

 

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Fictions from memory

At the outset of a psychotherapy episode, a man referred to me by a trusted colleague outlines goals drawn from a course of group therapy: “I’d like to get to the root of my anger,” he says. I nod, affirming that this seems a worthy goal, though in truth I’m not sure what he means. I mean, I know what a root is, and I know roughly what is meant by the phrase he uses. But I feel uneasy, because I don’t know how to get to the roots of this man’s problem. I don’t think we’ll decide upon something; at least, not in the tidy, package way that treatment plans and opening discourses on therapeutic goals suggest. I don’t think that anyone would find roots to a problem in the sense of finding a definitive answer.

In the first five chapters of Paul Renn’s Silent Past and Invisible Present, the reader gets a review of neuroscientific thought relating to trauma, the formulation of memory; the history of psychoanalysis and its treatment of trauma; how it conceives of childhood memories as either the product of fantasy or else real life events. I am reminded that Sigmund Freud once attributed fantasy wish-fulfillment to patient who reported seduction by a friend of her father. While acknowledging the real-life event, the focus turns to the intrapsychic as far as treatment is concerned, and the case study appears to predict the later disputes between the likes of Klein, Fairbairn, and researcher John Bowlby.

We have declarative memory, autobiographical information that speaks to who we are, or who we think we are. Emotional memory, including thoughts and feelings operating in a relational context, shapes memory and fosters experience of reality. Trauma, the readings propose, distorts or inhibits play, wounds consciousness, and generates false equations, the psychic equivalence between internal reality and external reality. “I know for a fact that she hates me,” said a teenage client once to me. I could not have convinced him otherwise—not that I tried. This problem likely stemmed from the aggregate of events that could not be remembered in detail, or symbolized by verbal description. They were rooted in affect dysregulations, the creation of a false self as trained through misattunements. The amygdala of the limbic system will have been developed to interpret cues coming from early caregivers, process the fight/flight emotional response and provide emotional meaning, and activate memories such that they are experienced thereafter in the moment, as if time stands still. The Hippocampus, that evaluative organizer of information, is inhibited in times of trauma, suggesting a triage of tasks that strikes us as—what?—short-sighted? I suppose I could reflect on experiences of cold feet and sudden holes in my stomach to relate instances of my enteric nervous system influencing my own reactions—memories in my body.

In reading chapters four and five, which seem to recapitulate post Freudian psychoanalytic theory and the debates of its adherents, I note the familiar divides between the likes of Fairbairn and Bowlby, versus Freud and Klein. I continue to wonder if the disagreements were overstated, and that a difference in accent, as in the weight of focus, was most apparent. For example, could not an emotional attachment to a caregiver (Fairbairn, Bowlby) be thought of as a subset of drive theory, in so far as a libidinal gratification is derived from an attachment to a caregiver? After three years of intermittent exposure to this chapter of psychoanalytic history, my philistine curiosity laments, what was the fuss all about? I appreciate the author’s reminder about Winnicott’s notion of the “capacity to be alone”. It seems to me an eloquent statement of the value of silence, as experienced by two people sitting in a room together, experiencing a feeling. It’s not a shared experience per se, because the autobiographies are different, and because each person’s experience of emotion is different. But there are therapeutic values present: empathy, attunement, a witnessing. I think I have these experiences. Finally, I am introduced to the term hermeneutic: the understanding of subjective inner reality, with a distinction drawn between historical truth and narrative truth, between real events that might not have occurred, but are nonetheless “true”. This notion is a tantalizing one. It lets me off the hook from knowing, and I’ve always liked that aspect of my chosen business. The problem is: it lets me off the hook from knowing.

In my novel, Crystal From The Hills, Chris Leavitt copes with his traumas, recent and past, with distortions, and through play: it is play gone wrong for an adult male with responsibilities and a supposed bright future ahead of him. What he really wants is to go back in time, pretend nothing happened, both on an intellectual and emotional level, and start life over again. The problem, solution, and the hope, lies in the witnesses: the impromptu, reluctant therapists that are the people around him. He believes what has happened to him, whether it has or not, because it fits his narrative truth, and his courage–his happy, yet unsentimental ending–is in facing his distortions.

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February 2, 2014 · 8:39 am

Crystal Surreal: Revisited

 

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I’m not sure what an example of surreal fiction is. When I think of surrealism, I think of painters like Salvador Dali, or filmmakers like Jean Cocteau, or Luis Bunuel. I’m told Jacques Lacan is the man for those following the unconscious. Not sure that’s true. The author Polizzoti writes that Freud and the surrealists were nonplussed by one another, especially Andre Breton, who reportedly met the Viennese physician and was underwhelmed.  These writers were poets, stylists of the 20s and 30s, contemporaries of the absurdist Dada movement, and men who reported interest in the unconscious, and went about the task of creating images that simulated dreams. For what it’s worth, I’ve tried a modest and similar tact with Crystal From The Hills, having read some of Lacan and Breton, and then staring at that remarkable painting by Magritte: the one that frame a woman’s naked body within the contours of a feminine hairline. ‘Le Viol’ it’s called: the rape. Simplicity and genius.

Mine is a story that begins dreamily on the streets of Oakland, with an ambiguously aged man holding a sign that reads, “Hungry White Trash” as he panhandles by the side of a freeway. You might get the idea that it’s a joke, but it’s not entirely flippant. In fact, there’s a history to the joke: a serious underpinning. Chris Leavitt has suffered an accident. That’s the pitch, the beginning of the story and the forerunner to a back-story. There will be a few accidents depicted if you read on, as well as deliberate action, malevolent and kind. There is no hero per se, just a hapless everyman riding a string of bad luck, making several wrong decisions, struggling to act like an adult. He’s playing with life. He has a girlfriend, sort of. It’s Jill Evans, ten years before her stints playing support character in Living Without Blood, and almost twelve years before she takes the lead in The Big No. Jill gets around, and here she goes back in time, getting younger, lucky girl. I have a villain of sorts, a guy who’s not around, but who gets talked about a lot. He’s Weed, a drug dealer, video game aficionado, con artist—bad guy. His dark influence is balanced by Sweet, Chris’ other friend, who is even more childlike than Chris, yet affable and easy to have around. He sticks around. There’s an aged yet autocratic aunt—Chris’ only surviving relative, an endearingly caustic woman. Others in the story are lawyers, doctors, police, employers, street thugs, ghostly figures (dubbed “shadows”) that hang around with hallucinatory menace: not all bad people; just people with seeming power and a willingness to use it.

            CFTH is a story that concerns itself with many ideas. It’s a quick read, but one that depends on a certain momentum. Not many big words: nothing like “importunate” or “solipsism” in this one. I promise. But it relies on continuity and the experience of ideas, fragments that have been indicated previously in the text. If you read a few pages then put it down for three weeks, then I’m sorry if I bored you. If that’s not the case and you’re just dilatory in your reading habits, then I’m afraid you may miss out. A good read is like good therapy. You don’t go once a month, like it’s a check up. You’re supposed to remember bits and pieces, like it’s embedded in your experience, and just know where you left off—no bookmarks are necessary if it works. There are associations to be made along the way. Don’t look for patterns, just experience the sense of revisiting as you note terms, phrases that appear to get repeated in the novel; themes that seem to link to one another. This is a story about accidents; personal, physical, even sexual, and habitual. It’s a story about rejection: also personal, and also institutional. There is trauma involved, and the problems related to poor memory and dissociation. You might feel what my characters don’t: that’s the point. Chris doesn’t remember much in the beginning, but builds his story along the way, and tells others, and you, what’s happening in his own time, on his own terms. His friend Sweet has an even worse memory than he does, but low and behold, it is he that becomes the chronicler of events in the end; the witness. Trauma victims need witnesses. That’s written somewhere. Above all there is a problem with reality. Characters aren’t sure what’s happening. They lack real perspectives, real goals. They don’t even use their real names. Despite all this, CFTH is actually not a confusing novel; at least, not in this author’s opinion. It’s not all in Chris’ mind: things actually happen.

            Bad things happen. Evil lurks, as in any good action movie or pulp mystery novel. Darth Vader types hover, and towering infernos exist. If you read the novel some of these cheeky references will make sense. Meanwhile, like the “shadows” of Chris’ imagination or psychosis, the author and reader are witnesses to all that goes down. CFTH is a novel that may move you, or it may leave you cold, or I suppose—just to cover all bases—it may leave you feeling something (?) in between. Though, I suppose if you’re a Russian huckster or a peddler of dating sites looking to hijack a random blog site, none of this will mean anything to you. My art is an object and you are like rapists to me. Jean Luc Godard said of Weekend that it was like a film discovered on a scrap heap. Lucky scrap heap, I say. Perhaps, like the secrets of my protagonist’s past, CFRH may be found in a box one day: set aside, rejected; an obscure allegory by an obscure writer that aimed for the unconscious.  

 

 

 

**photo by Helnwein

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