This paper picks up and continues certain strands of thought that were present in my paper, The Space we Occupy and the Space where Others Reside, which is also on this website It would make good sense to real the latter first. A version of this paper was presented at a POPIG meeting in Sydney in November 2014.
You may know the story about the American tourist visiting Ireland. He wandered off the main road and got lost in the small country lanes and boreens. There were no road signs. He saw an Irishman leaning on a gate. He approached him and said, ‘Can you tell me how to get from here to Dublin?’ to which the Irishman replied, ‘Now if I was going to Dublin I wouldn’t start from here.’
When I was asked to give this paper it was suggested I try to explain how literature can be of use to a practising psychologist. Like my fellow countryman who leaned on the gate I would suggest, if you are interested in this question, to join me on a journey and see if we get to a good place to have a look at the question.
So, if you want to go to the place where literature can be a daily help I will take you there, be your guide as it were. Well, I will accompany you on most of the journey. However I have some limitations because I can’t really go inside your head, can’t really be present when you read a novel, can’t be part of your particular, unique, private reaction to a poem, just as I can’t sit beside you as you talk to a patient, so the final part of the journey you have to do on your own.
If I was penning a travel brochure to entice you to sign up there would be a reference to the vastness of the world, of literature, and psychoanalysis. A brochure is meant to catch your eye and excite your interest. I choose Love of the World as my title but to be honest. I didn’t really choose the title. The title choose me, in the way a poem’s title can present itself before the poem is written.
Love of the World developed into a general title for a number of papers I planned to write, in the way a title can be an umbrella under which you write a number of poems. In March 2015 I gave a paper in Brisbane also under the heading Love of the World.
The poet has a sense of what he wants to capture in word, he’s made a few notes, the music, the rhythm of the lines have started to play in his head or on his body, although he doesn’t know where he is going or where it is taking him. If he is put on the spot and asked to explain what he is going to write about, he is tongue-tied. But, there is a confidence that however long it takes the work will get finished.
Therefore, the route I will take you on is in some ways a personal one. Someone else who was your guide would no doubt take you a different way. I say this by way of introduction, and to tell you that on the journey I will take you to people I have met.
On first leg of our journey I would like to take you to Vienna. It is 1922. Freud is sitting at his desk, pen in hand. For years he has read the writings of Arthur Schnitzler(1862–1931). Schnitzler was six years younger than Freud. Like Freud he had trained as a doctor and a neurologist but gave up both and turned to write literature and became a well known creative writer. Schnitzler was born in 1862. It is his 60th birthday. Freud spends some time trying to work out what will say. He wrote:
‘I think I have avoided you from a kind of awe of meeting my ‘double’. Not that I am in general easily inclined to identify myself with anyone else or that I had any wish to overlook the difference in our gifts that divides me from you, but whenever I get deeply interested in your beautiful creations I always seem to find behind their poetic sheen the same pre-suppositions, interests and conclusions as those familiar to me as my own … Your deep grasp of the truths of the unconscious … the way you take to pieces the social conventions of our society, and the extent to which your thoughts are preoccupied with the polarity of love and death; all that moves me with an uncanny feeling of familiarity. So …you know through intuition really from a delicate self-observation – everything that I have discovered in other people by laborious work. Indeed I believe that fundamentally you are an explorer of the depths, as honestly impartial and unperturbed as ever anyone was.’
Freud said that psychoanalysis was born ‘as a result of the scientific transposition of the literary schools I like the best’ and that the essential themes of his theory were based on the intuitions of the poets.
If we leave Vienna and fast forward to more recent times, we can go to a small farm in Co Leitrim, Ireland and to some scribbling by the Irish novelist and short story writer John McGahern. McGahern wrote:
I write because I need to write. I write to see. Through words I see…As with most serious things, it begins with play, playing with sounds of words, their shape, their weight, their colour, their broken syllables; the fascination that the smallest change in any sentence altered all the words around it, and that they too had changed in turn. As in reading, when we become conscious that we are no longer reading romances or fables or adventures but versions of our own life, so it suddenly came to me that while I seemed to be playing with words in reality I was playing with my own life. And words, for me, have always been presences as well as meanings. Through words I could experience my own life with more reality than ordinary living.’
Let me introduce Elizabeth. She is a young Irish woman who had left 1950’s Ireland to nurse in London. She had grown up in a rural community where the church dominated external and internal life, where to develop a mind of your own seemed impossible. In London she meets a doctor called Halliday. He introduces her to books, to music, the art, to conversation, to sex, and with him she discovers herself and the world. Elizabeth is a creation in McGahern’s novel The Barracks published in 1963.
‘Elizabeth didn't care what they said or thought, she'd been already coming into herself. She was less and less awed by the conversations and people and things that had dominated her earlier life. She was already reading, getting books out of the little library beside Aldgate Station, beginning to see her life in its passage, it'd end and never repeat itself, and she felt it unique and all the days precious. If she lived the life other people lived, looked on it the. Way they looked, she'd have no life of her own, and with the wild greed of youth...The impossible became turned by fierce desire into the possible, the whole world beginning again as it always has to do when I single human being discovers his or her uniqueness, everything becoming strange and vital and wondrous in this the only moment of real innocence, when after having slept for ever in the habits of other lives, suddenly, one morning, the first morning of the world, she had woken up to herself.’ (page 87)
Last year I wrote a poem called The Calling. I was moving around in my mind McGahern’s scribbles about shifting from one type of story to another, how it involved a move into a different place inside ourselves. The signal that we have made such a move can be an increased sensitivity to language, the thrill of the chase (as pursuer of pursued) gives way to something different. Our pace of reading alters. We get a sense of what McGahern meant when he wrote that, ‘Most good writing and all great writing, has a spiritual quality that we can recognise but never quite define’.
To put my ruminations into some shape for myself I did my own scribbles.
We can only make the move from romances, fables, adventures to versions of our own life when we appreciate the life of the mind, when we grasp that we have a mind. Love of the world is a logical consequence, a necessity, a creation born out of embracing your own mind. Love of the world is the falling away of narcissism, space is made available for the other, for existence out side the self. The world is the other. As I now see it, looking back, my poem was a stepping stone to what I am talking about.
A poem of course doesn’t set out to explain; it offers you a window. You have to do the looking.
The call went out.
He stood still for a long time
and set off in an easterly direction.
The caller had said –
‘If you are found worthy
your hands will be anointed
to you it will be given
to be the reader of the sacred texts’.
The springtime of his departure became winterish
the landscape through which he walked
flowerless treeless grassless.
The promise did not come to pass
and he returned dispirited and depleted.
Listening deep into many a long night
into the workings of his own mind
with much practice and patience
and learning over many years
he found his own voice.
Then he found silence.
And having no need to speak for himself
he became the mouthpiece
of wind and rain and storm and sea
of forest and flower and scrub and weed
of mountain and sky and river and stream
of snow and ice and bog and swamp
of desert and lake and rock and sand
of the voiceless ocean
of the mute land
of this sacred earth.
I am going to take you on the final leg of the journey, to meet a man in a small shack in the Cotswolds, England. Although long dead, this man’s words retain a freshness and vitality. I have spent a long time in his company. In fact I wrote a book about our acquaintance. His name is William Hazlitt. On this particular evening – imagine – you and I are visiting him, he has put a partridge in the pot and while it cooks he sets about writing on the subject, living to oneself. Let’s listen in:
‘I was never in a better place or humour than I am at present for writing on this subject. I have a partridge getting ready for my supper, my fire is blazing on the hearth, the air is mild for the season of the year… If the writing on this subject is no easy task, the thing itself is a harder one. It asks a troublesome effort to insure the admiration of others: it is a still greater one to be satisfied with one’s own thoughts.
‘[If we do] not survey the objects of nature as they are in themselves [we become jaundiced. The man who is preoccupied with himself] instead of opening his senses, his understanding, and his heart to the resplendent fabric of the universe, he holds a crooked mirror before his face, in which he may admire his own person and pretensions, and just glance his eye aside to see whether others are not admiring him also.’
Hazlitt once said, ‘Most men’s minds are like musical instruments out of tune. Touch a particular key and it jars and makes harsh discord with your own’. Hazlitt knew that we all need to spend time keeping our own mind in tune. One thing that helped him was walking alone in the countryside was essential. There he could vegetate, forget himself. And after his day’s walk he would arrive at an inn where no one knew who him, where he was the gentleman in the parlour was an exquisite pleasure, where he almost forgot who he was himself.
He was also sustained by time spent in the studio with the old painter James Northcote. Hazlitt was a painter before being a writer. He loved to visit the old painter’s studio; to sit among the paintings; to smell the paints but above all to have the best of good talk.
‘I have lived on his conversation with undiminished relish ever since I can remember, – and when I leave it, I come out into the street with feelings lighter and more ethereal than I have at any other time…His eye is ever open, and reflects the universe: his silver accents, beautiful, venerable as his silver hairs, but not scanted, flow as a river. I never ate or drank in his house but I get there what I can get nowhere else – a welcome, as if one was expected to drop in just at that moment, a total absence of all respect of persons and of airs of self-consequence, endless topics of discourse, refined thoughts, made more striking by ease and simplicity of manner – the husk, the shell of humanity is left at the door, and the spirit, mellowed by time, resides within!...We enter the enchanter’s cell, and converse with the divine presence.’
Ending & gathering in
In line with the sentiments expressed above, Love Of The World is a general heading under which I explore a number of avenues of thought. What follows therefore is not a set of conclusions but twelve discussion point around which argument can proceed.
1. There is the issue of love. You can of course study literature and learn much from it. I am interested in whether you love literature. The relation of being in love with something changes it. I think by being in love you open yourself to learn from something greater than yourself.
2. Then we have the division McGahern made. We saw how Elizabeth was in love, not just with Halliday, but in love with what she discovered through and with him. Her mind was a different place before and after. She engaged with the world.
3. The writers of stories that help you explore versions of your own life are not just great writers they are great psychologists. They probe deep into their characters. You are invited as reader to probe deep inside yourself.
Beyond understanding, there is wisdom which the great fiction writers can embody in the story. As we heard about Elizabeth: ‘The impossible became turned by fierce desire into the possible, the whole world beginning again as it always has to do when I single human being discovers his or her uniqueness, everything becoming strange and vital and wondrous in this the only moment of real innocence, when after having slept for ever in the habits of other lives, suddenly, one morning, the first morning of the world, she had woken up to herself.’
And a little later in the novel we read, ‘[Halliday] changed her whole life, it was as if he’d put windows there, so that she could see out on her own world.’
The non-fiction writer like Hazlitt says,
‘It asks a troublesome effort to insure the admiration of others: it is a still greater one to be satisfied with one’s own thoughts.’
4. Do you put a question to yourself concerning your attitude to the world? Do you love the world? Does that question concern you? If you say you do what do you mean?
5. Can we say that literature can educate us about the inner world and the world of relationships?
6. Sustaining yourself in difficult work. A novel can allow an inner place of retreat where in the privacy of our own mind and away from the gradational force of the patient’s inner world, an equilibrium can be re-established/restored/found. Space to think. Space to imagine; to explore possibilities.
7. Great novelists take great care with words, with language. I think in our conversations with our patients we should also take care with our words. Not just what we say is important; the way we say it is important. Talking is an art and a craft. The phrase ‘finding your own voice’ has become a cliché, but speaking in a way that is you is important.
If we set ourselves up to sit in their consulting room where we regard the central source of the help they can offer is ourselves and our capacity to listen to, and engage with, and think about, another human being whose life is in tatters, isn’t it essential to,
Listen deep into many a long night
into the workings of our own mind
with much practice and patience
and learning over many years
to find our own voice.
Then if we engage with another person, called a patient or client our relation to them is analogous to Halliday’s relation to Elizabeth. He didn’t explain her mind to her. He opened a window through which she could see her own mind.
8. Poetry has a particular, I would say unique thing to offer. The freedom to play with language is unparallel. Poetry does different things for different people. To read a poem when you have had a sense of being overwhelming by someone or something with a patient can be like the Southerly racing through the house after an oppressively hot day.
9. One of the many
features of poetry I treasure is this – we can know a poem before we can
explain it. Its sound, its sense is inside us. Being familiar and accepting of
that as a valid way of knowing is a great freedom. We may know what a patient
is trying to convey to us before we are capable to putting words to what we
know. We can use words like counter-transference. But don’t let them get in the
10. Although he never wrote poetry Hazlitt once said, ‘my ideas from their sinewy textures have been to me in the nature of realities.’ Poetry making and poetry reading is to me a visceral engagement. We heard McGahern talking about playing with sounds of words, their shape, their weight, their colour, their broken syllables. And while a deceptively long period of hard work may go into the making of a poem, the end result should be played with. We all need play to sustain us.
11. Literature sustains us, educates us, reminds us that we have a mind, that our mind is not a static thing, that it grows by opening itself to the other, to the world, as Hazlitt said, ‘to the resplendent fabric of the universe.’
12. I will finish by going back to beginning; to the sentence, ‘if I was going to Dublin I wouldn’t start from here.’ I grew up surrounded by people who would say that. We can be amused and think it quaint, or something else. But consider this: in 1950’s Ireland in rural areas cars were rare. The American tourist in his car would have been an unusual sight to the man who rarely left his neighbourhood. If such a man was going to Dublin, which he might do once a year for the All-Ireland football or hurling final he would most likely walk or cycle some miles to get on the main road where he would pick up a lift. If we probe his expression I wouldn’t start from here’, we find his map of his world. Nobody goes straight from where he is to a far-away place called Dublin. He uses his words to make sense of his world.
We all have maps of our world which, often without knowing, we refer to, to get us through life. It is useful to know what maps we use.