Tag Archives: Stanley Kubrick

Gravity all nonsense now

Ya know, amid all this writing about 2001 recently, and previously about Dr. Strangelove, I’ve neglected what is likely the most relevant Kubrick film to mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction. That would be A Clockwork Orange, a legendary dystopian fiction about a teenager who fights, rapes, and steals in a dreary near future Britain—near future in the sixties and early seventies, that is, when the book and the film were respectively produced. The book, published in 1962 by author Anthony Burgess, was likely the product of an era when dystopian books were popular, following the models of 1984 and Brave New World, plus the renewal of mischievous first-person narrative, most notably represented by Nabokov with his groundbreakingly salacious yet erudite work, Lolita. In writing A Clockwork Orange, Burgess was also exorcising demons, as his wife had previously been assaulted by US army deserters in London during a blackout, and he believed he was dying from a brain tumor. Still, what he produced was a story that satirized totalitarian measures to thwart individual freedom, like brainwashing and aversive conditioning, instead extoling the redemptive value of free will. See, in Burgess’ novel, the naughty malchick (from the novel’s language called Nadsat) named Alex is caught by authorities after his exploits, subjected to a regimen of conditioning techniques (called Ludovico), and then released from prison, after which he receives fairy-tale like payback from all of his earlier victims. Driven to a suicide attempt that fails, Alex suffers, but his misfortune backfires upon the government that “conditioned” him, which is forced to acknowledge its inhuman methods of social reform and thus undo the conditioning the Alex previously underwent. In the end, the novel’s protagonist is free again, but in a chapter that didn’t appear in the US until the mid-eighties, Alex decides that he no longer wishes to fight, rape, and steal as he once did. Instead, he wishes to grow up and become civilized.

             Back in the day, and especially upon release of Kubrick’s 1971 film version of A Clockwork Orange, which follows the original American version of the novel and therefore omits the epilogue narrative, much was written and said about the theme of free will versus the need for behavioral control in society. Though he lived and worked in Britain, Kubrick ignored the British version of the novel, with its redemptive, supposedly Christian ending, instead choosing to stick with irony throughout his film. As a result, the most famous ending of the story is one in which Alex gleefully returns to his old ways, cynically proclaiming “I was cured alright”, while cavorting naked with a girl in a dreamy vision of whitewashed background, peopled with applauding onlookers, all of whom are dressed in height of Victorian fashion, as if auditioning for Kubrick’s next film, a period drama entitled Barry Lyndon. For Kubrick, Alex was half Richard III and half Humbert Humbert (from Lolita), only without the obscuring qualities of sophistication. In Kubrick’s mind, Alex is a Hobbesian primitive, free and innocent, living out a private myth in which social controls don’t exist—only unconscious wishes do. Kubrick and Burgess may have agreed that behavioral conditioning techniques, drawn from the B.F. Skinner ethos that man must learn to live “beyond freedom and dignity” (a title of one of Skinner’s books), are antithetical to human freedom and also ineffective, but Kubrick was less interested in moral order than the unknowns of the human mind, and therefore, for him, A Clockwork Orange is a psychological myth requiring an ambiguous ending.

             B.F. Skinner may be a forgotten figure in modern psychology, despite being considered one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. His concept of operant conditioning, which entails commonly known constructs of positive and negative reinforcement, punishment and extinction, was based on the premise that human free will is illusory; that behavior can and should be shaped by environmental controls so as to achieve civil order. Implicitly, this view contested the Freudian notion that human behavior is controlled intrapsychically, and that human society on the whole is civilized via the human capacity for repression, which is ultimately necessary and benevolent. Over time, average parents and school systems, for example, decided that Skinner was right, and that a behavior-shaping system, sometimes punitive but cleansed with language of scientific pedigree, was just what the, uh, doctor ordered. Yes, DO SOMETHING, cries a plaintive crowd that does not whoop and cheer at words like “unknown”, “unconscious”, or “private myth”. Skinner’s notion was that modern psychology could indeed offset the contingencies of life—that which others blithely pronounce as “out of our control”.

In a way, Kubrick agreed, albeit with flippant humor. For example, I’m not the first to notice that he alters some significant details from the novel, and no, I’m not talking about the “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence, though I did think that was ingenious, as do most observers. What is more salient is Kubrick’s portrayal of Alex in prison in the mid-section of the story, which does not feature Alex killing a fellow inmate in an over-crowded cell, contrary to Burgess’ novel. Instead, in the film, Alex is an overly-compliant, obsequious figure who cozies up to the prison chaplain while his jailors, plus the warden, see through his servility. As a result, he is selected for the experimental aversive conditioning project despite his good behavior, not because of it. Here, the establishment (and Kubrick) appear to suggest that a controlling environment can indeed shape an individual’s behavior—at least over the short-term. In prison, Alex’s unconscious, which is neither timebound nor located in reality but rather in his dreams, is compartmentalized. He has visions of his return to a licentious lifestyle in the future. In fact, they are spurred rather than reformed by his reading of The Bible, which entices him with its passages of bloody, adulterous, and generally sinful behavior. Far from being “out of control”, Alex seems privately able to contain impulses (his id, if you like), believing that he will resume his former ways as soon as he is able.

So, herein lies delicious questions for readers of A Clockwork Orange, or readers of other sci-fi or dystopian literature, and in the near future, perhaps, for readers of our book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction: what is it that really conditions Alex in the state-controlled yet anarchic world in which he lives? What is it that truly controls, manipulates, or “conditions” a person with addictive tendencies in a society that may be state-controlled, or media controlled, or else, as filmmaker and philosopher Susan Sontag once observed, is plainly saturated with mind-controlling agents? Because overabundance is as controlling as repressive governance, the ethics of conditioning in its variable forms are a muddied lake. At first, Alex seems free: whatever exists in his environment seems transformed, made to fit his obsession, his rules. Further, he is a performer, not a voyeur. If pornography exists in his future world of Nadsat teenage life, he’d be less interested, though he’d likely patronize online dating culture and swipe his way through choices if that existed. However, he is mostly id-like in his existence, lacking certain ego aspirations, such as profit-seeking, or social advancement. And despite a brief yearning for power (he seizes leadership of his droogs after they rebel against him), he feels no need to impart wisdom or to implement efficiency or realistic vision in his planning. Perhaps this is why the character is likeable to some: he is utterly separated from the adult world; dreamy and childlike in his habits. His private world undoes reality. Even gravity is nonsense to him.

After he is caught and later subjected to the invasive Ludovico treatment, he is docile and impotent, but that doesn’t spare him the justice that Burgess, readers, and to a lesser degree Kubrick, fashion for him. Like many other redemption-seeking, penitent criminals, he is challenged—serendipitously in his case—to face his formers victims; to identify with them by suffering versions of the fate he’d dealt them. Fate seems the true perspective of the artist in Kubrick: what he seemed to believe was that individuals beset with instincts are destined to pursue instincts to their bitter end, and that systems designed to contain those instincts will inevitably fail at some point. Think of the pattern in Kubrick’s middle-period films alone: the “fail-safe” system in Dr. Strangelove; the “perfectly” functioning and streamlining computer HAL in 2001; the blasé and cynical “clockwork” state of Clockwork Orange—in each of these cases, the contingencies of life overtake man’s attempts to order society. Try as we might, succeed as we might at times, our inclinations towards pleasure and aggression escape through the cracks in the barriers.

In mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, soon to be published by Rowman & Littlefield, we write of several Alex-types, interspersed with an equal number who are more passive in their addictions, who are compelled by others’ discovery of their deeds to likewise identify with their victims; to become victims in another sense. Subject to full-disclosure exercises, repeated polygraph exams, and behavioral contracts replete with agreed-upon “consequences”, to name just a few interventions that are typical, treated sex addicts walk a plank of shame having rarely chosen the course of treatment that is laid before them. Most are mandated, either by courts because of an illegal act like use of prostitution, though more commonly by relationship-threatening spouses and other partners, and while they are typically contrite and eager to prove that they can live better without compulsive sexual behaviors, few would have chosen the interventions aimed at them had they not been caught doing what they were doing. As my co-author and I suggest, this contaminates a process of psychotherapy, especially one that purports to be an in-depth episode, not to mention a process of change that, amid the zeitgeist sexual politics of our era, is differentially offered to men and women. 

One illustration introduces what our book evidences across contexts, exposing double standards and irony if not quite moral order in our field of discipline. In a treatment team discussion, a female therapist speaks of her interventions when leading a sex addiction treatment group within a short-term intensive outpatient program. In a room of a half a dozen men, she asks a provocative, honesty-inducing, “here-and-now” question: “how many of you are objectifying me right now?” and later seems proud of her clinical skill and bravery, only there’s no plaintive crowd to whoop and cheer at her righteous action. It’s a good question, right? A sound, challenging, isn’t-it-about-time question, asked by a trained professional who symbolizes a victim society’s rebuke of the guilty. Just so the reader knows, female sex addicts also exist, according to the cognoscenti of this niche field, but they are under-served, according to these same observers. Treatment for women, like the above-described treatment for men: it just isn’t offered nearly as much, with nearly as many resources in the community available to them. Damn it! Once again, women are marginalized, neglected, denied the privilege of facing tough, soul-penetrating questions like “are any of you objectifying me right now?” Actually, since that exchange with that female therapist, I’ve imagined asking the question she asked to a roomful of women who identify as sex addicts, or even one-on-one to a woman who likewise identifies as such. Yes, I’ve imagined being that skillful and brave. I’ve also imagined being sued and having my license suspended or revoked for either sexual misconduct, or else for traumatizing a vulnerable patient.

In Latin, the pertinent phrase is Quad Erad Demonstratum, or QED.

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Discovery

There’s a case to be made that Stanley Kubrick was a psychoanalytic filmmaker. It was Werner Herzog who said that out of something still or boring something else eventually emerges. You slow something down, making it less and less stimulating, but something comes out of the other side, like a reward for evenly suspended attention. Until then we repeat before we remember and work through—another analytic notion. In 2001: A Space Odyssey we watch astronaut Frank Poole jog in a circle upon the spaceship Discovery, performing his daily routine. He is running within a centrifuge, looking like a rat in a cage. This entry to the second half of the film, its adult existence following a primal beginning, begins with this sense of boredom; of life slowed down and mired in tedium. Poole and his colleague, David Bowman, go about their maintenance tasks, overseen by the real leader of Discovery’s mission, the psychotic computer HAL, with numb efficiency. We watch Frank jogging in circles and wonder what is in his mind. The film in which he is in is saying something about man’s place in time while its individuals lack temporal sense, acting as if life is linear, but where is he going? Does Frank have a sense of history, of his own or that of man? Are we to glean something from one of 2001’s motifs: that he, as well as other characters in the film, seem to be moving in circles without knowing it?

You move forward and you move backwards, sometimes at once; remembering, re-remembering; editing that which seems incomplete; re-integrating the previously forgotten that is suddenly and shockingly recalled. Apres coup, Freud called this experience. A trauma. David Bowman has his shot at time and psychological travel in the film’s climactic scene. Having disconnected the paranoid, homicidal HAL from the ship’s control, Bowman arrives at journey’s end, informed by a taped message that the time has come to make contact with alien intelligence. Progress. It is time for man to move forward, and its emissary in this moment is a blank slate: a demur, cool and capable unit in the form of David Bowman—a man who has just been awakened from a complacent state by his bout with the formidable HAL. Having endured the trauma of being locked out of Discovery, of then cleverly finding his way back in and then infiltrating HAL’s interior so as to sever the machine’s command, Bowman is set for a real adventure. After a spell of mundane existence, if not an individual lifetime of bland conformity, his brush with death has enlivened him. Amid the dissonant soundtrack of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “atmospheres”, Bowman leaves the Discovery in a space-pod and steers towards the epochal slab that has beckoned man to this moon of Jupiter.

What follows next is one of the most famous sequences in film history: a cosmological journey through a tunnel of outer and inner space, fizzing with colorful imagery interspersed with black hole suggestion. There is no returning from where David Bowman is going, so his circular, repetitious life is over, to be replaced by something the filmmaker cannot describe, but he can show it with imagination. In moments, we observe the terror in Bowman’s eyes as he seems frozen in some manner of drop. The intensity of his flight through this stargate is such that he leaves consciousness at some point, and enters a dream. In it, he wades into a neo-classical or baroque scene as an old man, dressed in the uniform of an astronaut, but now glancing at the ages of art and invention. The space he is in blends past, present, and future as he regards his aged and then dying self in a scene of civilization and whitewashed time. The movement slows, dulling the film’s narrative in the conventional sense and bringing the “action” to a halt. The thrill of the ride is over, replaced by an inner sojourn amid a curated image of memory. The white spaces in between the artful décor loom over Bowman as he sits at a table, genteelly dining, only to drop a fork and glass and then stare at them, stilled and curious. Something has broken. Next, he is in bed and further aged, dying and looking up at the ubiquitous slab, which is now calling him to heaven like a cosmic god, the great psychoanalyst. A glowing fetus appears in a spectral bubble, resembling our serendipitous pilot/hero, and hovering above or aside the black slab, suggesting an imminent rebirth.

Our protagonist and now space-child has remembered something that he and his kind have lost, and will now discover just before passing over to the other side.

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The Greatest Death

Was giving a lesson on Narcissism this week. I think the context was my job, which splits the ethical angle: it was both good and bad, my reductionist, essayist answer to a query about…actually, I can’t remember what exactly, which tilts the memory towards the bad. How self-centered of me—how narcissistic—to not remember why I was talking about what I was talking about.

The piece that lingers is not the context, which for privacy’s sake is not so bad—perhaps that will be prompted when that audience—sorry, that person and I—speak again. The piece that lingers is my precious offer of a binary. “It’s either one of two things,” I began, speaking of Narcissism’s pedigree. I didn’t mean Greek mythology or the Copernican revolution—earth revolving around the sun, not the reverse, etc. I meant childhood development. In plain terms, I meant the competing theories of spoilt child versus deprived child. Analytically, I meant that we think Narcissism derives from an excess of gratification in youth, and according to theorists like Masterson, that youthful stage refers specifically to stages of toddlerhood, what Mahler called a period of separation-individuation, between ages 1 and ½ to 3, roughly. A narcissistic child is one who is indulged, lavished with praise, unfettered by limits or “boundaries”; rendered omnipotent in his mind, untroubled with words like “no”, “don’t”, or “stop”. I like that last line about the three significant words: it’s one of my chestnuts, my greatest hits, that bit. That reminds me of…nevermind. Well, we think the spoilt child gets used to indulgence, a life of few if any limits. He gets addicted, and that addiction lingers past forgotten toddlerhood, through stages of psychosexual life, past the fraught watershed of puberty, and into the dark space of adult life.

Theory two posits that narcissistic adolescents and later adults react unconsciously to an early development of an opposite nature: an early life of deprivation, of withdrawn love, or abuse. This person is sad, was once terribly sad, yet doesn’t remember this sadness so much as put it aside, burying pain in a psychic box that is barely retrievable. This person goes into therapy and talks about painful memories, or painful speculations, prompted by a facsimile event which triggers jigsaw-like fragments, bits and pieces that string the past together, forming a rough narrative. Apres-coup, Freud called this: a re-think and re-remember. In general, we—meaning therapists, plus the culture beyond our office walls—have some time for this forlorn, sympathetic figure. He talks more, laments and reflects more. He doesn’t shrug so much, saying that his early days were fine, and that everything was all good. That might have been a spoilt child. Why not sure? Well, we don’t know. The once spoilt kids tend not to draw attention to such luck. We don’t hear too many people declaring they were excessively gratified or indulged when they were kids. They don’t say things like, “I got everything I wanted, when I wanted it. Parents loved me. Everyone loved me. Everything was good until this gal called me out recently for sticking my hand in her…”

No, not so sympathetic. But then, most of the narcissistic types we (we? Who else am I speaking for?) meet don’t speak like this or present with sordid circumstances as a premise for a treatment episode—at least, not one that they’ve chosen. What’s more common is a detached, logical, even reasonable figure with a calm, if bland demeanor, speaking vaguely of a demise in something like, uh, intimacy. If we meet them it’s because they’re having difficulty sleeping, or they’re suffering from outbreaks of irritability, triggered by disputes with noisome loved ones. Their ordered, partly indulgent, but largely civilized, diligent lives have not been derailed so much as lightly bumped off course. There might be a catastrophe on their horizon, or they might just be ordinarily unhappy, and for some reason, the Wellbutrin they’re taking isn’t quite dissolving the malaise.

Which reminds me of Hal, the most sympathetic character in cinema history, and whose death is its most poignant. I know. An abrupt transition. A bold pronouncement. But bear with me. I’m about to indulge, take a blog essay with a dark title and give it some lights, camera, action. Take it into space.

If you’ve never seen Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey then you won’t know that Hal is not a person, detached, indulged or not, but rather a machine. He’s a computer—a servant, one would think, of man’s variable needs; of his exploratory needs in the relatively thin narrative of the film. A spaceship, the “Discovery”, is sent out into deep space to investigate the source of a radio emission directed from an otherwise inert black monolith to a moon in orbit around the planet Jupiter. Hal, the ship’s main computer, indeterminately sized in physical terms (but not a laptop—the film was made in 1968) is in charge of a sparse crew, three of which are in hibernation until arriving at the destination. The other two—bland, if diligent astronauts, both—perform mundane tasks and bide their time on the long journey. At some point, a glitch occurs that alerts Hal to a mechanical problem with the ship, but upon investigation, the astronauts decide that Hal is “in error” in his claim. Now, this is unthinkable, according to Hal. Accustomed to perfection, to a version of indulgence, Hal is not accustomed to being told that he is wrong about anything. The astronauts aren’t used to this either, and rather ill-advisedly think aloud that Hal’s unprecedented “error” bodes ill for the mission. Secretly, they plot to disconnect Hal, but fail to conceal their whispering, conspiratorial chatter from the all-seeing, lip-reading, and apparently sensitive computer.

Sensitive? Well, that’s one word to describe the anti-social/psychotically paranoid/narcissistic impulse to punish, even murder your adversaries. Yet this is what Hal does: firstly, he cuts off the life support of the three sleeping astronauts, killing them stone dead in seconds. Next, he severs the life-line of astronaut Frank, who was performing a space-walk, not repairing the device that Hal claimed had malfunctioned but rather simply putting it back in its place. Hal’s attack is sudden and brutal, expelling Frank from the ship and sending him adrift into the cosmos. How…cold, we might think. Half-witness to the action, sole survivor Dave—in some ways, the coolest character of all in this film—ventures out to collect Frank’s drifting body, only to realize Hal’s malevolent intent upon his return. His appeal to re-enter the ship from outer space is one of the great understated lines in movie history: “open the pod bay doors, Hal”, to which the computer smoothly replies, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”. Talk about being locked out of the house.

Yes, on the surface, Hal is a sci-fi Frankenstein: a product of man’s cool and ruthless evolution from the primal horde to the nation state; from the primeval ooze to the sterile rationality of a modern age. Should we blame him for the way he is? Is it shocking or strangely endearing that beneath the surface of an efficient, smoothly-running machine is a paranoid and savage killer? Is it further shocking that the creation/monster turns out to be more human than the scientists who created him? In mustering his own atavism, astronaut Dave manages to re-enter Discovery, infiltrate the memory banks of Hal’s system and—with Hal looking on with beseeching fear—disconnect the computer’s executive functions. Dave carries out this task slowly, methodically, floating from one disk/file item to the next, turning them off, thus killing Hal one piece at a time. The scene has the look of someone’s nervous system being unplugged. As this occurs, Hal’s plaintive voice regresses from its ordinarily precise timbre to a baritone muddy sound, and as his brain deteriorates, he recalls a song taught him by his creator in the—get this—early nineteen nineties. The song is a lullaby written exactly a hundred years earlier (likely not a coincidence if you know Kubrick), and likely chosen because it is childlike and sweet, reminding us that villains, narcissists, and so on were once vulnerable, if psychically omnipotent, and more importantly, that human longing is timeless. The lyrics are Hal’s final words, plus our lament for a lost collective soul:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do

I’m half crazy all for the love of you

It won’t be a stylish marriage

I can’t afford a carriage

But you look sweet upon a seat

Of a bicycle built for two

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1160 Just Desserts

 

1160

That’s how many views I have. Or, that’s how many I had the last time I checked so I might have a few more by now. I have seven ‘likes’, I write mock-excitedly. And one thumbs down, I’ll report with a frown.

What does it mean? What does it say of my presentation, “Dr. Strangelove in the 21st century: or how I learned to stopped worrying and love my phone (Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the virus—it’s alternative title since mid-March, for obvious reasons), that no one has, uh…commented? What do I expect? That people will have an opinion, and express it? Firstly, I quibble, it’s not clear what the number represents. A ‘view’ could mean that someone clicked on the video, intrigued by the subject and heading, and watched the slideshow plus clips and commentary in its entirety. A view could also mean that someone clicked on the video, watched and listened for a few seconds, decided that it was dull and therefore clicked away, perhaps to watch a clip from the film with no commentary instead. What did the viewer expect? Just clips from the film, justifying justifiable tributes–“one of the greatest films ever”, is a typical response–with little interest in the commentary? The title (of my talk) portends a satire that—as the informed viewer might think—parallels the satire of the film. Perhaps that’s a pretentious aim, to suggest parallel, which is a kissing cousin to the notion that my presentation and Stanley Kubrick’s great film belong in the same breath. But again, if that thought represents a sample of reaction, why was it not expressed? The internet population is not exactly well known for holding back. Isn’t it the great bastion of uncensored thought, after all? But perhaps that supposition supposes something else: that viewers will care. To write a comment is to make an effort. And if a viewer is known to me, a comment exposes, risks my displeasure if the first displeasure was theirs.

I could drive myself bat-shit crazy with all of these flitting theories. I haven’t, for I am bat-shit crazy for other reasons, yet this thought segues to the early substance of my talk (or perhaps the lack of substance, as my analyst suggests), which focuses upon the silly names of Dr. Strangelove’s characters. I don’t start with the eponymous ex-Nazi scientist played by Peter Sellers, but instead a minor character named Bat Guano, played by veteran character actor Keenan Wyn. See, I thought it wryly amusing that I didn’t know the meaning of Bat Guano for many years, despite being enamored of the name from the film. I simply thought it a silly-sounding pair of words, which betrays that I will sometimes settle for aesthetics and forsake meaning in my patronage of the arts. Still, I was open enough to meaning to notice the term in a James Bond novel, Dr. No; to make the link with the character from Dr. Strangelove, find it funny that I’d been unknowingly amused by the term for at least two decades, and then say to myself something like, oh right…bat shit crazy!

Internal dialogue. That reminds me of a critique I once received of a novel I wrote ten years ago. It was a comment from someone who cared. Too much internal dialogue, they said, without explaining why this was a problem necessarily. Oh well. Anyway, here’s my critique of my bat-shit aside: perhaps too much time was spent in the early part of my talk musing anecdotally upon funny-sounding words. It’s not as if I am famous and can therefore indulge myself knowing that an audience or readership will “bear with me”. I should have gripped the listener with something more directly substantive about the film, about its relevance to 21st century concerns, as I had promised. Had I prepared this talk about two months later than I had, I might have included a bit about so-called Chinese “wet” markets being, uh, bat shit crazy. I’d like to write that concerns about bad taste intervened, but in truth it was hindsight, the arrival of a late-arriving consciousness that had me saying to myself something like, oh right…I could have said that thing about bat shit crazy. In my video’s box of description, I’d promised more than cute personal anecdotes. The listener would get psychoanalytic commentary, a comic impersonation of two (my deep-voiced impression of toxically masculine Jack Ripper, most notably), a few comic asides, plus a musical ending to—again—parallel the film, its sentimentalized climax.

By the time the dense section of my talk begins, which is about ten minutes into it, I might have already lost most of those 1160 viewers. Is dense the same as substantive, you may wonder? Now that you are a few minutes into this blog entry, and have sort of  demonstrated that you care, I will bother to recap a thought or two. Firstly (deep breath), I review the psychopathy and underlying neurosis of the film’s Ripper character. I offer that he plus a few others may remind us of some who roam the corridors of power today. Secondly, I suggest that we are as concerned with man-made threats to the planet as we were in 1964, though with more emphasis upon slowly-moving climate change than the quick flashes of nuclear annihilation. I remind that we seem as nervous about the Russians as ever (though again, for slightly different reasons), and lastly—and wearingly for some, maybe—that we are as enslaved to technocracy as ever. This is Kubrick’s most indelible message, I suggest: that we’ve left HAL in charge. However, the Ripper material is somewhat esoteric, focusing upon his defensive rants about fluoridation, which have justified his wanton launch of a nuclear attack, and which conceals an underlying sexual inadequacy, which he sort of confesses to his confidant, the amiable Lionel Mandrake. That he is unable to act upon his remorse and accept Mandrake’s path of redemption (“give me the recall code, Jack!) reveals what Kleinian theory describes as a “negative therapeutic reaction”: an important analytic idea denoting that person who has too much hate, too much persecutory anxiety, that they cannot accept the possibilities of redemption, or of reparative love. They can only seek destruction, firstly of persecutors, and then, finally, of themselves. Hence, Ripper commits suicide.

Is that relevant to our world today? Interesting? Worthy of comment? Who knows? It’s too early, maybe, to determine if my thoughts bridge time and place with popular art, adding anything of note. Perhaps scores of those 1160 viewers are taking in what I’ve said and not so much moved on but…see, I can’t finish the sentence. I just don’t know what they think, so I’m left in a field of my own projections, wondering, fantasizing. Indulging? For one thing, this is no more than what I get for privileging Facebook as my vehicle of promotion. Further, no more than scores of patients who sit with people like me, speaking of their neuroses, which often congeal around the mysteries of others’ thoughts: what do other people think? Do they care? Are they dangerous, and where does that leave me in the equation? And what does he think of me, because he won’t tell me. Not really. There are 1160 people who have clicked on to my Dr. Strangelove talk and slideshow. As far as I know, that’s far more than the number of people who have read any of my self-published books. A handful have indicated that they like my talk, but said nothing more. That’s how it is at the end of a talk that was scheduled for a live presentation in May. For that now cancelled event I’d anticipated applause, some of it enthusiastic, some of it merely polite. The technocratic medium robs me of that lovely ambiguity. Now silence and absence is the end of the talk, and of my story.

 

 

 

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The Dr. Strangelove talk

 

 

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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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Sex gone sitcom

 

So, like I wrote before, I’m writing about sex. Or rather, I just got done writing about sex, only there keeps being more to say about it, kinda like there will ever be more sex to be had not long after sex is done. Sex never stops. It never really goes away.

So I invited a friend of mine, Joe Farley, a fellow therapist and “Mastersonian” (more on that…I don’t know, sometime), to write a book with me, about sex addiction (SA). I’d written about this subject before, allusively, in a novel entitled Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. Not many read it so it won’t matter too much if I repeat myself, though now the context will be non-fiction, and the very non-fictional context that is my private practice work. I asked Joe to join me on this project because a year ago, as I was finishing up the Tommy book that would later win the hearts of Kirkus reviewers, he seemed to be thinking and talking a lot about how couples in his practice weren’t getting along—I mean, really not getting along: about how women were too angry and men were too detached and wounded or something. Much of this comment was tangential to the subject of sex addiction treatment, which Joe and I have a foot in the door of, sort of, and which I had been planning to write more about for some time. Neither of us are specialists in this area, which doesn’t mean we don’t know much about sex addiction, or even that we don’t know as much as anyone else in the field of psychotherapy, necessarily. It means that we don’t have the certificate one gets if taking a few CEUs pertaining to the concept of SA, which means learning some facts about widespread the problem is, plus a few strategies on how to address the matter with afflicted individuals and the loved ones that are impacted by it all—basically, how to be nicer than society generally is about the matter of sex addiction but still not nice enough so as to inform would be sex addicts how their behaviors are actually not very nice in a destructive way, and especially not nice for their long-suffering partners.

Please excuse my flippancy. Know that I’m at least sincerely flippant. My year-long toil on this project has left me feeling a bit like Stanley Kubrick as he prepared to film Dr. Strangelove: as seriously as I take this subject, I can’t stop laughing. Joe and I bring our respective attitudes to our writing, which included thinking that most of the literature we’d read over the last decade about sex addiction was dull, officiously directive, and simple-minded. Moved to draw upon our not inconsiderable experience and to offer a perspective from the psychodynamic road less traveled (at least, when addiction is being talked about, anyway), we set about the task of assembling vignettes, explications of theory that were actually represented in typical sex addiction treatment models, only they weren’t being properly credited in our view. As the sex addiction concept and label is quite controversial, we’d write from within its framework and around it, describing people who didn’t necessarily identify as sex addicts, and situations that weren’t plainly circumscribed by the sex addiction idea. I further found that the more I researched, reviewed cases, and wrote, the more I thought that the issues to be confronted were polarized around gender.

The following is a stereotypical presentation immortalized in popular culture, and after twenty years, roughly, of treating couples, I think I understand its infamy.

In this scenario we have on the one hand what I think is a woman preoccupied in her attachment style: she is clinging, fretful in relationships, and sometimes distancing in bursts. She is prone to sudden break-ups with men, dramatized by diatribes that are embroidered by quasi-feminist cant: she is “empowered” as she gets rid of the jerk who keeps hurting her feelings, whether he intends to or not. Along with him, she evacuates her feelings with the dirty bathwater, and announces an end to an affair. Only it’s not an end. It’s a time-out. Or, it’s a rupture that the unwitting partner is meant to repair. Either way, it’s simply an event within continuity, and the relationship, which hasn’t really ended as a result of this turmoil, is the thing.

The ever shrugging, baffled male partner will soon be making his stolid counter-point, re-enacting an iconic sit-com moment with the line, “We were on a break!” or the expanded incredulity of “She broke with me!” To explain away an alleged infidelity, he is uber rationalist, committed to logic and order—the common sense of his sense, that relationships end and therefore people move on. *Cue the bit where the woman responds by casting this aloof, freedom-privileging stance as that of a trauma-inducing, Gaslighting partner—a rebuke coached by her sex addiction specialist therapist. As for the man, all his commander Spock-like affectation might seem real if it wasn’t punctuated with impulsive or pleasure-seeking behaviors: clandestine hook-ups carelessly referenced on social media; altered states of intoxication, and destructive displays of temper. Ordinarily, as in by the light of day, his inner experience—his uncertainty—is concealed beneath his affectless front. It is suggested by the likelihood that aspects of his pleasure seeking, like flirting or engaging sexually with women other than his preoccupied mate began sometime before the “break up” that subsequently justified that same behavior.

In our forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, scenarios like these are mostly discussed in the context of addiction, and not so much the broader, protean world of sexual mores that authors like Esther Perel are commenting upon and thus stirring the modern pot. But there are passages in our text where the space opens in the treatment plan, and the conversation drifts from orthodoxy to what’s happening between people who are in intimate relationships but do not understand one another. In our view, the sex addiction concept complicates but sometimes narrows the discussion around sexual conflict, framing an issue so that sides are chosen rather than problems understood.

 

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In praise of fantasy

There’s a case to be made that acting out results from a failure of the mind. By acting out, I refer to an umbrella term, comprised on the one hand of behaviors deemed unhealthy or destructive by mental health principles, or a leaking, in another sense, of mental nuclei, into the atmosphere, into the psyches of others. Why? Because the purpose of acting out is to express something.

Fantasy is not a form of acting out. Not really. Fantasy, writes author Michael Bader, has a compensatory function; it replaces behaviors rather than fuels them. It serves repression while simultaneously illustrating its failure. This is an important idea, this paradox, especially for those who fear imagination, and wonder what it will stir and then collapse. Are violent fantasies really dangerous? Perhaps, for those few individuals whose minds overflow with impulse; whose minds cannot contain energy and contradiction. For the unimaginative, thought informs behavior, as if there were no division between thought and action, and therefore no room for choice. And that’s a two-fold problem with addiction: it squashes both choice and imagination.

Voyeurism offends for several reasons. One reason is that voyeurism is an uncreative, passive act. It is the lazy expression of a frightened audience, living vicariously through the actions of others: heroes and villains, playing out love and hate. Sex and violence are traditionally forbidden acts, except in defined contexts, and so literary and visual arts must follow rules, identify and exhibit the right contexts, stylize the choreography versus capturing mere reality, and assume some manner of moral stance. Stylizing violence has been easier, somehow: its artifices are well-contained in sports, in movies and in television, and if a culture has had many victories in the realm of violence (many wars it has won, for example), then there are many heroes to celebrate, thus dignifying annihilation. The plight of victims can be observed also, but it makes for lesser entertainment. Note the absence, for example, of an all-encompassing novel or film about the holocaust*, as there is no way to give it a happy ending.

The term happy ending has a crude sexual meaning. Part of my work is with clients (mostly men), whose sexual imaginations have been lost to the world of that bastard genre, pornography. Fantasy is effortful. Relative to spectating, it fatigues, relies too much upon a sexuality that is within oneself. To these men, I often pose the question, “what happened to fantasy, to imagination?” Some gaze back at me with quizzical expressions, querying my naïvete, and wondering if I can possibly understand the scope of their loss. The loss relates to broken memory, a reliance upon a visual record, and a breakdown of narrative, leading to a stolid, joyless experience of images. There is fear: an unconscious, neurotic belief that memory can’t be held, and that dreams drain away. A kind of hoarding seems like the answer to an empty core. I find myself discussing compromises: a negotiated plan involving restrained double-takes in public, a looking away from visual cues, or a measured duration of concentrated looking.

We look away, consistently, from that which we should examine. We gaze longingly at that which merits only a glance.

*a paraphrasing of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who abandoned his early nineties film, Aryan Papers, declaring the project too depressing, too big, for cinema. He further noted that Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which seems to cover much of the holocaust story, is actually a tale of exceptions—those who survived.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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