Blog Post No. 170
By Dr Jim Byrne
23rd July 2018
Dr Jim’s Blog: Freud, sex, literature, Descartes, and the body-brain-mind-environment-complexity!
Part Two: More on ‘What are the linkages between psychology and psychotherapy, on the one hand, and literature, on the other’?
Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, July 2018
Recently, I’ve been blogging about some of the important linkages, or overlaps, between psychology, on the one hand, and literature, on the other.
For examples: I have written about:
(1) Some of the books that helped to grow my emotional intelligence; or to help me to ‘complete’ (or process) some early, traumatic experience;
(2) My own semi-autobiographical novel/story about the life of Daniel O’Beeve – and how this is legitimate psychotherapy for the reader, as well as the writer;
(3) How to “write a new life for yourself” – in the form of a new paperback book about a system of psychotherapy, which I have developed over a number of years.
(4) How psychological insights seep into literature; and how literature in turn influences, or humanizes, psychology and psychotherapy.
Today, I want to describe some experiences with literature that I’ve had over the past couple of days.
Visiting bookshops in Bradford
Two days ago – on Saturday 21st July – Renata and I took some time out and went to Bradford for lunch, and to take a look around the shops, including two bookshops and the main DVD/movie outlet (HMV, in the new arcade).
In Waterstones’ bookshop, towards the end of our visit, I was looking for something which would help me to reflect some more upon the linkages between psychology and literature.
There was nothing of any relevance in the Psychology section.
Then I went looking for a Literature section. The best I could find were two adjacent book cases, one on Poetry, and one on Drama. (Bradford is not a particularly big city).
In the drama section, there were a few books on literature, including one by Julian Barnes: Through the Window – Seventeen essays (and one short story); London; Vintage Books; 2012.
The blurb on the back of this book suggested it was exactly what I was seeking. It began like this: “Novels tell us the most truth about life…”
I bought it, and brought it home, and dived into the Preface, which describes ‘a Sempé cartoon’, which shows three sections of a bookshop. On the left, the Philosophy section; on the right, the History section; and in the middle, a window that looks out at a man and a woman who are approaching each other from roughly the locations of those two sections, and who are inevitably (and accidentally) going to meet in front of the middle section, which is the Fiction section.
For Julian Barnes, this cartoon describes his own beliefs about the central role of fiction in our lives.
“Fiction, more than any other written form, explains and expands life”, he writes, with great assurance. “Biology, of course, also explains life; so do biography and biochemistry and biophysics and biomechanics and biopsychology. But all the biosciences yield no biofiction. Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it. Novels speak to and from the mind, the heart, the eye, the genitals, the skin; the conscious and the subconscious. What it is to be an individual, what it means to be part of a society. What it means to be alone. …” Etcetera.
However, it could be objected that, while the various sciences instruct, and suggest what must be done and not done, the literary arts merely create visceral and emotive sensations, which must link up with our socialization in general – that is to say, our previous learning – to help us to decide what to do with this new literary information; these insights; or newly forming feelings and thoughts.
Indeed, it seems to me that if all we had was literature, then we would be “weaving without weft” – or trying to make a fabric without those long strings, from one end of the loom to the other, through which the shuttle passes. We would be trying to make sense of fictions in the absence of the insights we gain from the various sciences, and the ruminations of the various philosophers.
However, the reverse is also true. Without literature and art, the sciences would provide us with long strings of facts, set up on our mental looms, but with no means of weaving a living fabric of warmth and depth and emotional meaning.
An example from fiction
What I omitted from my story above is this: Before going to Waterstones’, we had visited the Oxfam shop, which has a vast floor dedicated to second-hand books, included the abandoned books of waves of undergraduates and postgraduates from the local universities: yards of books on Psychology, philosophy, health studies, and so on. And then there’s History, and lots of novels – many of the pulp variety – and some classics.
During this visit, I did look at psychology, and health studies, and personal development; but I began by looking for a novel which might help me to elucidate some of the points I’ve been exploring in these blog posts. And I did find one.
I found Mantissa, by John Fowles. This author’s name jumped out at me because I have read five of his nine books – but I had never come across Mantissa.
So I opened it, and what should leap off the page at me, but a quotation by René Descartes. This had an electrifying effect upon me, because I have been arguing – in earlier blog posts in this series – that philosophies, like Descartes’ misleading ‘cogito’ (“I think therefore I am”), got into psychology; and that, whatever arises within, or gets into, psychology, inevitably finds its way into literature. And here was a living proof of my assertions. The particular quote from Descartes, promulgated by John Fowles, on page 5 of Mantissa, included the following conclusion:
“…this I, that is to say the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body, is even easier to know than the body, and furthermore would not stop being what it is, even if the body did not exist”.
We know from previous considerations of this ‘cogito’-philosophy of Descartes by generations of philosophers, that it is impossible to sustain his beliefs about the body-mind split.
But the more important consideration is this: Why is John Fowles beginning his novel with this quotation?
Is it his intention to argue that we are souls, separate and apart from our bodies?
Or is he going to try to undermine Descartes’ belief?
Part I (of IV) begins with the suggestion of ‘a consciousness’ surrounded by “a luminous and infinite haze”. And out of this connectivity comes an individual consciousness – a male person, in a bed, looking up at two women; one of whom claims to be his wife, and the other a doctor (of neurology); and the suggestion emerges of ‘loss of personal memory’. The ‘wife’ departs, and a nurse arrives to join the doctor, and it unfolds that the treatment for this poor man (Mr Green’s) mental problem is a physical therapy. (The theory, explicitly stated by the doctor, is that there is a link between the genitals and the personal sense of remembered self!)
At this point, we can say that Fowles seems to be setting out to refute Descartes view of a separation between mind and body, by treating memory loss via the genitals. (Crazy theory, I know! But it proves to owe a lot to Freud’s theory of psychosexual stages of human development!)
Fowles’ intention to undermine Descartes seems likely, especially given that the doctor in this story is a neurologist: a specialist in understanding brain-mind functioning. Or the physical brain as the substrate of mind.
Mr Green proves to be resistant to the sexual activities to which he is subjected by the doctor and the nurse, until, at the start of Part II, it emerges that no such reality exists. There are no physical bodies present! It is all going on in the mind of Mr Green – (who is obviously, ultimately, Mr Fowles!) – who is essentially writing (in his mind) some scenes of pornography.
This is an echo of one of Descartes’ meditations, in which he wonders if he might be just a brain suspended in a vat by an evil demon, and that his brain imagines that it is attached to a body in an external environment. (I know! Descartes was a nut!)
(But think about today’s counsellors and psychiatrists. Most counsellors think of the client as a floating mind! And most psychiatrists think of the mind-brain as a chemical unit separate and apart from the stresses and strains of its social environment, its philosophy of life, and its personal history of experience!)
Towards the end of Part IV, it becomes obvious that all of the action being described within this narrative, is not actual action, but narrative within narrative; with a magical edge, provide by the presence of the Greek goddess, Erato: (originally introduced as the doctor of neurology!); and the pornographic ravings of a juvenile author (Fowles!)
There is a nod backwards towards Freud in this book; not alone by reducing all human activity to a sexual nightmare; but also these nuggets:
“Now listen closely, Mr Green”. (This is said by the doctor of neurology; who we later learn is the goddess Erato!) “I will try to explain one last time. Memory is strongly attached to ego”. (NB: Ego is the English-psychoanalyst rendering of Freud’s concept of ‘the I’.) “Your ego has lost in a conflict with your super-ego”, – (Super-ego is the English-psychoanalyst rendering of Freud’s concept of ‘the Over-I’ [the first instantiation of which is every baby’s mother]). – “which has decided to repress it – to censor it”. (The concept of repression comes from Freud!) “All nurse and I wish to do is to enlist the aid of the third component of your psyche, the id”. (‘The id’ is the English-psychoanalyst rendering of Freud’s concept of ‘the It’; the ‘thing’ that we are at birth! The ‘whole thing’, body-brain-and-embryonic-mind). “Your id” writes Fowles, through the ethereal person of the doctor/goddess, “is that flaccid member pressed against my posterior. It is potentially your best friend. And mine as your doctor. Do you understand what I am saying?” (Page 31 of Mantissa).
So, I think some of my points are being ‘firmed up’ here (if you will pardon my inability to refrain from making a pun at the expense of Fowles and Freud!) In particular, I think it is safe to say that ideas pass freely between philosophy, psychology and literature. Each feeds off the other. There are no impermeable boundaries between those domains of thought!
And we have to be awake to this reality for various reasons which I will look at later. The most obvious one being that fictions find their way into philosophy; and philosophical fictions find their way into psychology; and fictitious aspects of psychology inform counselling and psychotherapy! And round and round!
Back to Julian Barnes
Earlier I quoted a very strong argument by Julian Barnes, from the Preface of his book, Through the Window; in which he said: “Novels tell us the most truth about life…”.
However, if you read your texts closely, you will often be rewarded with insights like this: Barnes was inconsistent.
Really? In what way?
Well, just 45 words after the end of his strong claims about novels telling the most truth, we read this statement; the final statement of the Preface:
“The best fiction rarely provides answers; but it does formulate the questions exceptionally well”. (Emphasis added, JWB).
So, if we put his two main ideas together, we get this:
Novels tell us the most truth, but not in the form of answers; only in the form of questions!
Does that make any sense? No.
Because the novel actually presents imaginary scenarios as history. Reading those scenarios – and taking them at face value – the reader finds that certain questions automatically form within their body-brain-mind, based on their socialization; their past experiences; and their current circumstances.
The author cannot control which questions will form in the mind of the reader.
But what is the value of the questions that are thus formed by fictional writing?
The value is huge! Why? Because questions are the first and most essential part of what some people call ‘thinking’, but which I call ‘overt, conscious perfinking’ – where ‘perfinking’ means perceiving- feeling- thinking, all in one grasp of the mind.
So, novels impact us, by bringing up new thoughts, and especially questions, which, if we pursue them, may produce dramatic answers that shunt us out of a current reality into a range of new possibilities! In this sense, novels are potentially hugely therapeutic!
For this reason, I recommend novels – the very best novels – my counselling clients; and to my supervisees – counsellors who need to keep growing their hearts and minds; and improving thereby their body-brain-mind-environment-complexity!
How did the body get into the previous statement?
It might have been difficult to answer the question – ‘What does the body have to do with reading and/or writing novels?’
Except, while I was scanning the pages of John Fowles’ Mantissa, Renata came over to me and showed me a book she had found: ‘The Anatomy of Change: A way to move through life’s transitions’. This book was written by Richard Strozzi Heckler (1993), a teacher of Aikido (which is a system of Japanese unarmed combat – which I studied briefly at the Dublin Judo Club, in 1991-’62). Heckler’s philosophy of life can be summed up like this:
Renata pointed me at a section on Living in the Body; in which Heckler describes how he was once hired by a juvenile detention centre, where he was to work with difficult juveniles who were violent offenders. He worked with one, physically huge, and very angry young man who expressed the desire to kill somebody, because he was so angry. Heckler, intuitively, and pragmatically, told this youth that he could show him precisely how to kill somebody. The youth was hooked, and they began to work on the Aikido pressure points. But this youth’s physical energies prevented him easily learning what needed to be learned; and so Heckler began to work on his body, to get him to the state where he could master the Aikido pressure points that he wanted to learn. However, through the process of focusing his attention on his own body, and learning to release tensions, this youth lost his interest in killing anybody. He was beginning to live in his body; and he realized it was more interesting to find out about himself than to kill anybody.
Moving a muscle can change a thought, and/or an emotion. Physical training is profoundly stress reducing. It teaches physical self-confidence. And, the softening of ‘body armouring’ can release the person’s feelings, intuitions, and compassion, and, according to Heckler, it can heal our physical and emotional wounds. (That certainly lines up with my own experience at the Dublin Judo Club [which was actually called the Irish Judo Association at the point when I joined]). Our experiences shape our body-brain-mind; and we can begin to loosen and reframe our most troubling experiences by working from the body-side of our body-brain-mind, or from the mind-side of our body-brain-mind.
Reading a novel on the way to and from your equivalent of the Judo Club will double your progress in healing your body-brain-mind; and seeing a good, wise, broadminded counsellor, at some point each week, will also help!
PS: If you want to see the kind of range of ideas that I write about, please go to Books about Emotive-Cognitive Therapy (E-CENT).***
That’s all for today.
Dr Jim Byrne
Doctor of Counselling
ABC Coaching and Counselling Services