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Nabokov

He’s been on my mind recently. It’s a bit cheeky, I’m sure, to cite him as an influence, especially as a non-fiction work entitled Getting Real About Sex Addiction would seem to have slim relevance to the author of Lolita. Was Humbert Humbert a sex addict? Is that where I’m going with this? Or a sex offender? That’s a more likely assessment, actually; that is, if we’re going there.

A brief, crude biography: Nabokov had a life before writing Lolita, as a writer and revolutionary. He was part of the provisional government that formed after the October uprising of 1917, but quickly became disillusioned with Leninist politics, the later brutality of Stalin. Marginalized and penniless until long after he’d emigrated to America, and later fell out with fellow Soviet-bloc commentators like Edmund Wilson. Before that, he’d produced notable works like The Gift (1938), a novel in part about proto-revolutionist Nicolai Chernyshevsky, and was undoubtedly one of the most talented Russian writers of his generation, which—as many have observed of Soviet politics—will have helped cause his exile, not spared him from it. Though he fled to the US in the 40s, the publication of his shocking novel of an aged literature professor who seduces (or is seduced, depending on your viewpoint) a 12 year old girl was first published in Paris in 1955, and not in the US until 1967. That should say something about the chaste sensibilities of American publishing, juxtaposed as they were by a prurient readership that would make it one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century.

But despite its subject matter, Lolita is not primarily known as an erotic or salacious novel, but rather as a masterpiece of unreliable narration by a literary ironist known for clever wordplay, and wry understatement. The English novelist Martin Amis essayed that Nabokov wrote with a perspicacious eye for cruelty, and above all, that Lolita is a coded study of tyranny, likely an allegory about Leninist/Stalinist Russia. To be sure, if the reader is looking instead for lewd passages, the novel will surely disappoint. Instead, what Lolita offers is a first-person account of seduction and obsession, as told from the viewpoint of the tyrant. Less of a brute than an effete fantasist, Humbert Humbert is an amoral observer, narrating with a detached air, reporting truthfully of events in a general sense, but sparing the reader details, suggesting a distasteful reticence and pretense of civility. In the beginning, we learn the pedigree of the narrator’s hebophilic interest: a long-lost innocent love for a girl named Annabelle, who dies of typhoid at the age of thirteen. HH is candid about the link between Annabelle and Delores Haze (the girl he dubs Lolita), but adds little to sustain consciousness of this psychic link.

Instead, what proceeds is a despairing objectification of the pubescent Delores, who is variably termed the nymphet, the faunet, or just Lolita. Anything but who she actually is. Far from idealized, except in physical terms, HH actually exudes a disdain for the coquette’s gum-smacking, sassy adolescence, and at times acts as if embarrassed before the reader that he’d ever deign to partner such a callow figure as her. His reaction formations intensify as he attempts to play the role of father, following the death of Lolita’s mother. In conversation with a school headmistress, he is protectively heavyhanded, refusing to allow Lolita to participate in a school play, fearful of boys who may be less lascivious than him, actually. Still, what is most offensive about this narrative is not the self-pity of HH but rather the distance the reader feels from Lolita. At no time are we allowed to feel the original Delores. Even as the character finally escapes the clutches of her captor, our attentions and strained sympathy is cornered into the solipsistic mind of HH. As far as we know, we are with him as he writes from within the sanitoriums he mentions only in passing. As much as we may long to know the titular figure, he forces us to think with him, and only him.

And yet, as contemptible as his most famous protagonist is, Nabokov writes in a fashion that is enviably insightful and searching. Having endured the savagery and censoring presence of the communist nightmare, he shows all writers—fiction and even non-fiction scribes—how to write between the lines and tease with his secret knowledge; to avoid tendentious prose, high-hand didacticism, and yet cut into the reader’s heart with cryptic thoughts.  There is no explicit direction in this novel: no “shoulds”; no appeals or morals—no “takeaway” as my patients sometimes ask for. As a reader, one is gripped by human inhumanity, eager to delve into the mind of HH and perhaps hopeful that he and his symbolic antecedents will get their just desserts. Meanwhile, our impression of Nabokov is that he also identifies with the othered and demeaned Lolita, for it seems to us that he will have known all too well a life in the dark, subservient to the macabre wishes of despots. One is left to marvel at how he managed to write so many pages, so many witty, insightful thoughts, and yet reveal so little of himself. That’s the talent of hiding. That’s the talent of a sublime fiction.

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Money thinks

 

Stemming from the Latin addictio, meaning giving over or surrender, the term addiction has come to denote a provocative concept in modern mental health, stirring associations with significant behavioral disorders with a medical underpinning: the activation of a brain’s reward system, connected by neuronal pathways, leading to patterns of reinforced pleasure-seeking behavior despite the continuation of negative personal consequences connected with said behavior. In psychodynamic terms, addiction is perhaps a shorthand for another kind of unconscious yet unrepressed phenomena. No, I’m not referring to social prejudice—yet—but rather to what is broadly termed acting out: that is, acting out feelings versus being aware of and expressing them. “I’m not doing it on purpose”, says a relapsing, self-identified addict (and the listener wonders). “Not consciously,” I have sometimes responded, eliciting quizzical looks. What’s the difference, the eyes ask? These are meandering thoughts yet still brevities, offered for menu-style perusal in mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, which of course focuses on pleasure-seeking as it relates to sex, plus the fallout that typically ensues. This tends to include estrangement from committed partners (the most common pretext for treatment described in out book), which may or may not have existed prior to the onset of addictive behaviors, which lends itself to a sinewy and fascinating treatment process, minus the dirty details—the real stories, for the most part. Besides the medical/behavioral elements, moralism and ontological philosophy do hegemonic battle on this topic, with advocates for variably impacted groups offering views that privilege the groups they represent. It seems to my co-author and I that a mini-culture war pits intimate partners, genders, and even sexual minorities against one another, and it may be that neither the theorists, the psychiatrists, the partners’ advocates, the LGBTQ advocates, nor the 12-step confidantes have all the bases covered. In terms of who is getting closest to the truth, as in the dirty details and the real story of addiction, I’d vote for the satirists.

A few years before sex addiction was a commonly used term, an a priori disorder and a recognized thing, author Martin Amis did for sex addiction what David Foster Wallace would do for drug addicts a decade later in his encyclopedic magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Amis gave the reader a taste of the sex addict’s mind, of his manic turn of thought and phrase; of the inchoate mechanisms that generate decisions, process experience, emotion. In his novel Money, the acting out is unrepressed and rendered conscious (largely, anyway) for the reader’s voyeuristic (our acting out) or otherwise sublimated pleasure. Here, for example, is a passage about brothel economics and dissatisfaction:

That session with She-she had done me no good at all. Although I had tarried in the Happy Isles for well over an hour, the actual handjob was the work of a moment—forty-five seconds, I’d say. I had to rack my brains to remember a worse one. ‘You must have been really excited,’ said She-she quietly, as she started plucking tissues from the box. Yes and no. Between ourselves, it was one of those handjobs where you go straight from limpness to orgasm, skipping the hard-on stage. I think She-she must have activated some secret glandular gimmick, to wrap it up quickly.

Note the wry, detached voice. An astute ironist, Amis gave his protagonist, John Self (such a psychodynamic name!), an observant mind, and while Self is an ignorant slob with his fictional peers, he is literate with the reader, which gives us something to hope for. The addict thinks! Yes, he acts out: he is compulsive, ethically reprehensible; he is violent, exploitative, and shameless, yet his dignity persists because his humor, honesty and intelligence are intact, affording him a charismatic villain’s appeal. Because Self has no one to answer to except the invisible reader, he is guileless in his confidences, and also unembarrassed by the pitiful failures he shares for our pleasure. Without apology, he admits his affliction and defends it with proprietorial hunger:

Besides, pornography is habit-forming, you know. Oh yes it is. I am a pornography addict, for instance, with a three-mag-a-week and at-least-one-movie habit to sustain. That’s why I need all this money. I’ve got all these chicks to support…

Never mind the anachronisms, the essence of immersion, of relationship with anonymity, has likely not changed in the forty years since Amis’ seminal publication. Meanwhile, there is no shadow consumer, as I term long suffering, non-acting out partners in Getting Real, for this character to report back to. The imagined reader is his only judge, and while he or she may be disgusted or rendered indignant by the anti-hero’s shenanigans, there is collusion in being the reader; in being, in effect, no less a voyeur than if watching one of Self’s porn clips, plus his masturbatory routine. In a novel like Money, there is complicity alongside a critical witnessing. Author and protagonist take us on a tour of debauchery, and as a novel suggests drama, there is a crisis afoot for the reckless Self. Of course, before the written word, the reader has no responsibility beyond that of a passive confidante; unlike a therapist, he or she need not pretend to relate to or distance from the wayward behavior of the confessor. There are no goals for the reader to assert; no warnings that we have to issue, and no calamity that we have to do anything but wait for. And we don’t have to answer to a shadow consumer either.

As a result, we get more than we bargain for. More information, more insight, than we bargain for if we read a book like Money, which is about an addict and narcissist’s mind as it takes a treacherous journey. Self wonders aloud, plays with his own thought like an X-rated Richard III: What is this state, seeing the difference between the good and bad and choosing bad—or consenting to bad, okaying bad? For the struggling, recovering person who is not afraid to think his own thoughts, John Self is a learned companion in a study of pleasure and pain. And it’s not just about addiction, this book, but about the medium of porn, with its degenerate, inferior, yet truthful venture beyond repression barriers. See, it goes without saying that sex has always been in our music, our plays, films and books, yet I must say this a lot, I find, to people who don’t want to think about sex—not really. Still, we’ve insisted sex be present lest the action of art become dull and plainly unincentivized. We’ve asked only one thing across most contexts, across most societies: that sex appear artfully, perhaps subliminally, with reminders that we are more than our savage, venal and aggressive drives. Porn is therefore dangerous. It defies this traditional artifice, stripping us of our pretenses, and refusing to honor our niceties, or the institutions that require us to pretend so that civilization itself may continue. Yes, it’s that bad, porn. We hate it that much.

 

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The Trauma Wire

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Emotional amnesia. That was the term that flashed in my mind as I read Donnel Stern’s “Witnessing Across Time: Accessing the Present from the Past and the Past from the Present”. Starting with a familiar idea, Stern writes that for survivors “the past of trauma cannot be understood in the present”; that it is drained of vitality, and that memories lack “plasticity”. As practitioners, we experience this in the affectless way in which trauma patients recall life events. Of course, this article refers to several sources and therefore Stern is not the author of each idea. I won’t attempt to credit them all, but rather represent them as best I can.

A second kind of effect: that of contemporary trauma upon capacity to experience the past is the focus of much of this paper. The three clinical examples, one drawn from a fiction, feature situations in which a character or a real-life individual has experienced a contemporary trauma, and that trauma robs the past of any goodness. This is seen in the example of Michael, the character from The Wire. A positive memory of his saving a child from a gang, uttered by Dukie, the boy Michael had saved, is denied. The positive is forgotten. That life is gone, and goodness is dead. With Menachem, the child who is smuggled out of Krakow, we learn of another kind of trauma: the reunion with a mother who has been beaten down by war: sick, emaciated, barely surviving. Menachem’s experience of his mother violates the memory of her vitality, as preserved in the picture he’d kept of her and even prayed to—a witness of Menachem’s creation. Upon reunion: “Something accessible becomes inaccessible”. Meaning, the former memory is tainted. Thirdly, we read of Darryl, the amputee Vietnam veteran who enters therapy, but continues to act out violently after previously suffering a psychotic break while in combat (he fires his weapon at home, terrifying his family). Darryl seems good natured and quiet in sessions. He came from a family of origin that was warm and related, but trauma has soiled nurturing, and only in therapy can a good relationship be preserved.

So trauma distorts an experience of the present, spoils an anticipation of the future, and even robs the past of its once seeming integrity. Witnessing, the article suggests, holds the key to “retranscription”. I am reminded that secret-keeping, if sanctioned, is so because many assume that secrets (not speaking of the past) will protect individuals from pain. Stern’s article more or less echoes this, but adds that the absence of witnesses sends the message that no one cares. “Nobody ever gets over anything,” Stern quotes from a contemporary novel referenced as House of Meaning. The line is despairing, suggesting an absence of hope (or meaning?) for those living in the wake of trauma. Incidentally, the reference in his article contains a mistake. I happen to own the Martin Amis novel in question, which is about a love triangle in a Russian Gulag. The actual title is House of Meetings.

 

 

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Where there is hierarchy there is violence (part two)

 

…Which means there are casualties. They are victims, if you’re feeling sympathetic and outraged. They are losers, if you’re not. Chris Leavitt, my protagonist from Crystal From The Hills, is not much of a victim, but he is much of a loser. And I write that with love. In a way, I prefer losers to victims, though they are in some respects the same. Losers lack the hubris of victims, mostly because they haven’t the fortitude to call themselves victims. So Chris Leavitt is a traumatized individual; a casualty and a loser, not a victim: he is privileged, free for the most part but wary of his onlookers–his shadows, both real and not. Ironically, he pays more attention to the less than real shadows, which render him paranoid yet oblivious to what’s right beneath his nose. He is innocent in so far as he is uncalculated, uncensored and anarchic. Whether too impulsive enough or just lacking in political savvy, he is unequipped for any tight, hierarchically-driven order.

There are hierarchies all around: some are tacit structures, governed by race, class, gender, philosophy, religion–prejudices of various kinds. This is not original, but then neither is the hand-wringing that surrounds public controversies. It’s not nice to judge people for being different, people say on camera. But they do. Of course they do. It’s the correct thing to aim for the center (“the center holds” our President tells us), but all around us (and him), splitting, the thoughtless, triage-like division of life into “good” and “bad”, right and wrong, is occurring, and meanwhile, we are all shepherded into cliques, nurturing our prejudices and providing succor within echo chambers. I was once clique-bound at Thunder Road, the workplace that employed me for fifteen years, and which I depict in another book, Working Through Rehab: An Inside Look at Adolescent Drug Treatment. Contrary to my younger observations, Thunder Road is just another typical hierarchical system governed by shadows who determine who fits and who doesn’t; whose turn it is to be in charge, and whose turn it is to go…what works and what doesn’t. Leaders use corporate tools for the most part: manuals, handouts, HR policies, lawyers and spreadsheets, to create order. Meanwhile, the world they govern is an inchoate mass driven by an oral tradition, and the unconscious.

My turn on the rollercoaster lasted longer than most, though it was never my goal to merely have my turn. It was my pretension to do more, and now I have, only from the outside looking in. The point of my book is that taking a turn is not enough. Being politic, fitting in and censoring dissent may suit a hierarchical system, but it is psychological death to the conscious individual, the growing professional. I could avoid hierarchies, mess with hierarchies, dissent and maneuver only so much until shadows converged and told me that if I was to continue avoiding the trappings of leadership and compliance, then it was my time to leave. Cohesion: it means togetherness, which is good, sort of. But coherence, which is like music, is superior. I remember being told once by someone in charge that if I was to really take a turn being in charge, then I’d have to assert just that, regardless of what is right. The decisions were mine, I was told: ultimately, what I said prevailed, not because I was right, but rather because I was in charge. Reluctant leadership. I nodded compliantly but remained slippery, thinking this a dangerous, undemocratic idea, this thing about being right because it was necessary to be so. The problem with equating rightness with being in charge is that being in charge doesn’t last.   

One of my favorite passages of literature reminds me that the exiled exist in numbers, are neither contained nor containable, even if they’re not in charge. Even if they’re not right. This is John Self from Martin Amis’ Money:

“I hate people with degrees, O-levels, eleven-pluses, Iowa tests, shorthand diplomas…and you hate me, don’t you. Yes you do. Because I’m the new kind, the kind who has money but can never use it for anything but ugliness, to which I say: you never let us in, not really. You might have thought you let us in, but you never did. You just gave us some money.”

 

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