Fiction about family life, as psychotherapy
Updated on 27th January 2019: We are promoting this novel – by Kurt Llama Byron – about a dysfunctional family, because we believe that fictional stories are a great teaching medium. We are primarily interested in helping individuals and couples through the medium of coaching, counselling and psychotherapy; but we also consider other channels, like fictional writing, music therapy, journal writing, physical relaxation therapy, dietary changes, physical exercise, and so on.
Murder is murder; and one murder may be a profound echo of another! This is the pain that some people must endure: the reliving of an old, forgotten trauma, which threatens to overwhelm them.
Inspector Siting Bull Glasheen is an enigma to those Dublin cops who’ve worked with him. He was born in 1916 in Arizona, on an Indian reserved territory, having been conceived on the same day that the Easter Rising began in Dublin; and he celebrated his first birthday on the day Joseph Stalin entered the provisional government of Bolshevik Russia.
Young ‘SB’ Glasheen spent the first few years of his life wandering freely around the yellow-green fields of the St John’s Plains chapter of the Navajo Nation – five miles east of St Michaels – in Apache County, Arizona; and wading and hand-fishing in the Blue Creek from the age of three years; while his Irish father and his Lakota Indian mother taught in the local St Braeton Fathers’ Free School. His mother was a big fan of Chief Sitting Bull, who’d been assassinated the year she was born…
But then an unspeakable – and unspoken – double-tragedy occurred, which catapulted Little SB and his father out of Arizona, and eastwards on the long journey back to Ireland, without a mother or wife in attendance: she was no more. The world as it was known had been shattered.
Decades later. Dublin, 1964:
When the tourist season ended, early in September 1964, and all the American tourists had gone back home, Inspector Glasheen was able to find a new room in a guesthouse in central Dublin; in Parnell Square.
He had met his new landlady, Mrs Casey, for the first time just over two weeks ago, and agreed terms. He moved in the following day, unpacked his two suitcases and sat on the bed. He hoped Mrs Casey would not mind too much when he removed the crucifix from above his bed, and replaced it with the framed quotation by Chief White Feather, which he now held in his hands. The quotation was this:
“The Indian – man, woman and child – lived in respectful harmony with Mother Earth, from the beginning of time.
“Then, the stupid, greedy White Man destroyed Mother Earth: The land; the rivers, the air; and finally the sea. And now, we are all waiting for the slow arrival of death.
“The Indian, to be a real Indian, has to learn how to live a spiritual life on the open plain, when all the buffalo have gone, and the plain has been tarmacked over. The Indian has to learn to live as if he or she could follow the tracks of the wild deer on the mean streets of the White Man’s decadent cities. But most of all, he or she must never lose sight of the indomitable nature of the Great Spirit”.
Chief White Feather. Quoted in Soren Kulkingar’s (1921) text book, Religious and Spiritual Practices of the American Indian.
Who killed sixteen-year-old Christopher Curran, by bludgeoning him to death in a locked bedroom? And why did they do it?
Sergeant Delaney is convinced he’s solved the case, in less than 24 hours. But Inspector Glasheen is still pursuing the scent, like an Indian tracker, following the trail of a wounded animal through very difficult terrain.
The Relentless Flow of Fate
By Kurt Llama Byron
An Inspector SB Glasheen Mystery
Copyright (c) The Institute for E-CENT Publications, 2018
To those who were lost in the storm.
And to those who tried to offer shelter.
But most of all, to those who hunted down the perpetrators of evil deeds and made them pay.
Chapter 1: What hell is this?
“Fatherhood would be a wonderful state if only we each had had a father who had known how to father us!”
J.L. Pondergass: : The Paradox of Knowing Too Late.
“A bitter heart devours its owner”.
Herero adage. Source unknown.
1. Thursday 24th September 1964
Waking and sleeping are like parallel universes. The function of the former is to learn about life; and the function of the latter is to collect up the broken pieces of another futile day.
Those were strange thoughts for a man who had only attended technical school, in a poor rural village, up to the age of sixteen years; and who lived in a bookless home.
He stepped out from among the trees on to the shamrock blanket that grew profusely in the fields to the south and west, abutting the sprawling sea of grey, corporation houses that was Wattling Town, on the outskirts of Dublin City. The shamrock was just as alive and active in the cold, pre-dawn breeze, despite being almost invisible. But it was still the same shamrock that had inspired generations of Irishmen to strive for freedom in a world of permanent serfdom, and perpetual slavery to false ideas and false gods.
He felt the poor shamrock crushing under the weight of his big, black riding boots; the ones he used to wear many years ago, when he was a proud, young farmer, many miles from here. He could sense the black blood flowing out of the crushed shamrock leaves, as he stepped forward. And then he noticed a change in texture, and realized that his right foot was now completely bare, and buried up to the ankle in a warm, sticky cow pat.
Michael Curran awoke to the sound of the mechanical alarm clock ringing violently, like the bell of a local fire engine. His head was pounding. Picking up the clock, and switching the alarm bell off, he noticed the time – 5.30 am. The damn thing had gone off half an hour early. But he was glad to be awake, since waking pulled him out of the nightmare in which he had been submerged, up to a moment ago.
He swung his fifty-five-year-old legs out of bed, and looked up at the crucifix on the wall opposite the side of his lonely bed, above the holy water font, by the light switch. He scratched his greying head of wavy, formerly-black hair, and yawned. Over to his left he could see his son Christopher’s blankets rising and falling rhythmically, as he snored through his drunken stupor. The little drunken bastard, he thought. Under the chair, to the side of Christopher’s bed, Michael could see the quarter bottle of whiskey which Christopher would slug down as soon as he awoke. Sixteen years old, and already an alcoholic for more than two years. And getting his booze money by driving a coal truck, despite being below the normal, sensible age for driving.
Michael, who never drank alcohol, stood up on the cold lino, and began to scratch his chest and back, under the long-sleeved vest he always wore in bed. He was sick of his life. Sleeping alone in this cold, double bed, in the box room, for the past eight years, had been a great strain on his mental state. He was depressed and angry – bitter – and he constantly felt an ache in his heart. He was sure he would have a heart attack one of these days. ‘My heart is scalded with the lot of them’, was his constant mantra.
He put on his work clothes, and laced up his ankle boots. He knelt by the side of his bed and began to say his morning prayers. He couldn’t understand why God was tormenting him so much. His wife having sex with other men; his youngest ‘daughter’ not really his; extreme poverty; and this horrible wretch of a son – a degenerate alcoholic at sixteen years of age. And Dermot, his oldest son, who was just eighteen years old, and the only son who really respected him, had left for England three months earlier, in the middle of June. He prayed fervently for redemption; for release from his suffering. He had always tried to be a good man; but he’d lost his farm; then his first job and his tied cottage; then his wife; and now his life revolved around working as a poorly-paid gardener for a family of rich toffs on the outskirts of Dublin City.
He stood up and walked to the door, unlocked it with the key that was in the lock; went out onto the landing, locking the door behind him, and putting the key in his pocket.
He went down the stairs with a heavy heart, as silently as he could, to avoid waking the house. In the kitchen, he buttered two slices of homemade brown bread, put some jam on, and made a pot of tea. In the front room, he sat at the table and read the unread parts of yesterday’s Evening Herald.
Later he took some Fynnon Salts, in a cup of water, as an essential laxative, and took the newspaper into the toilet, and sat on the seat to wait. Being constipated gave him headaches. Just one of the many sources. As he sat there, he tore off the back, sports pages, and then tore them into squares, which he dropped in a clump on the floor to the right of the toilet bowl. Without the evening newspaper, they would be in a bad way for toilet paper. But nobody noticed, or thanked him, for this service he provided.
He emerged from the toilet semi-triumphant, and went into the bathroom to wash and shave.
At 6.45 am, he put on his overcoat and cap, put his bicycle clips on his trouser ends, and wheeled his big, black Raleigh bicycle up the hall, out the front door; closing the door quietly behind him. He missed the morning ritual of calling Dermot, before leaving for work himself. Dermot was long gone!
Although there was still a whole week to go to the end of September, it was cold and damp that morning, and the light was gloomier than it had been just last week.
Out on the road, he mounted his bicycle and pedalled to the corner of the road, turned left, and then pedalled furiously up the road, to raise his temperature; and then settled down to a steady pace, which would get him to his workplace in about thirty minutes.
He was in the blackest mood he had ever experienced.
He could not imagine carrying on with this farce of a life.
Perhaps this day the Lord would liberate him. Oh God. Why hast thou forsaken me?
“The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.”
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
“I wish I had never married, ‘cos the humour is off me now!”
2. Around 6.45am on the same morning…
Moira Curran heard the front door close, even though it was done quietly. She knew she should get up at once, to get the younger children ready for school, but instead she reached out and switched off her alarm, which was due to go off in about fifteen minutes.
She was very tired. It was the tiredness of depression and grief, as well as the effect of endless domestic drudgery; and late evening knitting, to earn some money from neighbours who had no time to knit for themselves. She closed her eyes for a quick, forty winks.
Moira heard the door close, even though it was done quietly. She knew there was something wrong. Surely she’d been here already this morning? Surely she’d heard the door close once already. And the second time was slightly louder than normal.
She sat up in her big, pink cotton nightdress, and leaned her head and shoulders against the metal bars of the head of her little, single bed. Reaching out, she picked up her clock, and checked the time. It was 7.20. She’d slept for thirty-five minutes after the Old Man had gone out. (She and the children all called him ‘the Old Man’, even though he was only fifty-five years of age. It was part of the modern way of speaking. Before they called his the Old Man, they had all called him Daddy!).
She felt confused. Why would the door close twice? In the past, it would have been Dermot going out to work. But he was no longer here.
There were four beds in this, the front bedroom: two of which were occupied. The one that was arranged sideways at the end of her bed had belonged to Christopher up to about two years ago, when she had to have him locked into the Old Man’s bedroom at the back of the house, to stop him interfering with Aileen, who was just eight years old.
The one in the corner, by the wardrobe, used to be Dermot’s bed, up to three months ago. She looked across at the tidy bed cover, and the tears welled up in her eyes, as they had done every day since he’d left for England. And now, about twelve weeks later, she’d only had one letter from him, and that was of little comfort, since she detected no warmth in his dutiful words; and no sense that he missed her or his home.
He was a cold fish, was Dermot; even though he was her big boy; her brightest son; the brains of the family; the one who would become a doctor.
She cupped her hands over her eyes and sobbed gently, until she heard Aileen, stirring in the adjacent, single bed. She immediately suppressed her tears and sobs, so as not to wake her daughter; swung herself out of bed; and began to get dressed. She didn’t have to replace her big, pink flannelette knickers anymore in the mornings, since she could not be bothered taking them off at bedtime, in her changed circumstances. She changed them weekly now, whether they needed it or not. Why bother, since nobody else ever sees her knickers anymore. It’s been a long time since she’s had sex with anybody.
She remembers how exciting knickers used to be, as a symbol of her womanhood – her femininity – ever since she was thirteen years old. She would never forget the thrill she got when she cycled down the hill from her mother’s cottage, aged fourteen years; past the entrance to Healy’s farm, where two boys from the village were sitting on the wall with two of the Healy sisters. She was cycling as fast as she could down the hill, the wind blowing her long brown hair out behind her, like streamers. She was wearing a hand-me-down cotton, floral-print dress that had belonged to an older sister.
“Get off and piss on it and it’ll go faster”, shouted one of the boys.
They could not have expected what happened next. Moira pulled on her back brake, first; and then her front, and the bike skidded to a rapid stop, to a screeching of brake rubber on chrome-plated steel, within two or three yards of the point at which the instruction had been shouted. She got off, laid the bike down on the dusty, tarmacked road, pulled up her loose dress, and dropped her knickers. Bending low, she began to piss on the back gear wheel. When she looked up, the boys were clearly in a state of high arousal. She loved that feeling of power. She got up, stuck her tongue out at the taller one, who had called out the challenge; remounted her bike, and rode off down the hill.
No such excitement came into her life these days. She hadn’t slept with the Old Man for eight years: ever since he realized that Aileen could not have been his child. Terry Lynch, her most recent and main lover, never came to see her anymore, because he had very bad piles, which made it difficult to walk. Declan Cummins was afraid to show his face, in case the Old Man killed him, since she had had to tell her husband that it was Declan who made her pregnant (against her will) one evening when he drove her home from work at the Nurse’s house. Kevin Jenkins had lost interest in her; and Sergeant Kelly never came near her anymore; not since his wife came out of hospital and he didn’t need her as a child minder or a stand-in lover in his new situation.
She pulled the big pink nightdress over her head, and put on her sizeable bra, which she always removed for comfort; and dressed as quickly as she could. She went down to the toilet, for a quick visit; and then into the bathroom, at the back of the ground floor, and washed her face. Then, when she checked the clock in the front room, she found it was almost 7.30. Time to go and wake Christopher.
Christopher always slept in the locked bedroom of his father, because he could not be trusted to stay away from Aileen, who was just eight years old. He also could not be trusted to resist molesting the younger boys. The Old Man locked his bedroom door after he left his room each morning, and took the key with him. Moira, who had a spare key, had to let Christopher out to go to work, around 7.30 each morning.
Moira retrieved the spare key from her hiding place, behind the hot water tank, in the front room, and went up the stairs quickly. When she reached the landing, she had the mortise-lock key in her right hand. Her routine was to jab the key into the lock with her right hand, while knocking on the door with her left. She wanted to get as far away from the door as quickly as she could, because it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that Christopher would grab her and rub himself up against her big fat thigh. In her frustrated state, this was quite disturbing; and she did not know how to discipline him.
But, on this occasion, she was thrown into a frozen state. For in the lock, she could clearly see the Old Man’s key; still jutting out of the door, instead of being in his pocket, at work. This had never happened before, in the two years that Christopher had been sleeping in the Old Man’s room. What could this mean?
Moira approached the door and listened, with her left ear to the wood, to see if the Old Man might still be in there, speaking to Christopher. That might explain why the door closed twice. Perhaps the Old Man had come back, and closed the door noisily after her was inside again.
She listened carefully, for a good while. But the room was silent. When she tried to open the door by pressing down on the handle, it wouldn’t budge. So she put her key into her apron pocket, and turned the Old Man’s key in the lock. When she tried the handle this time, the door opened freely. And as she stepped into the room, it was like she had been struck by a hurling stick between the eyes.
Her brain froze.
Her heart raced.
Her stomach turned over and dropped.
For there, on the pillow of Christopher’s bed, was the remains of his crushed face and skull, with blood splashes up the walls behind and to the side of his bedhead. His face no longer existed in a recognizable form!
She screamed once, and fainted.
The floor opened up beneath her and she fell into a living, sleeping hell of horrible possibilities and gut-wrenching pain.
“Joy and suffering never leave us. Life is a long march with a heavy burden”.
Patrick Jenkins: Understanding Life.
3. The police take over…
Sergeant Tony Delaney was worried. He’d been working with Inspector John-Joe McNally since 1960, when they’d set up the Special Crimes Unit in a caravan out the back of Baggot Street Garda Station. They’d always worked very well together, mostly by working different cases, or working in parallel rather than in tandem. In that way, Delaney never felt overly-controlled or overshadowed by his boss; and McNally never felt insecure about the possibility of being undermined by his subordinate. They’d shared an assistant, Detective Una Gilligan, for the past two years. And Gilligan fitted in very well, because she never allowed either of her bosses to know what she did for the other one; and she never gossiped about any aspect of the simplest of cases.
But now Sergeant Delaney was worried, because Inspector McNally had been admitted to Jervis Street Hospital with a serious heart condition.
Detective Gilligan had opened the letter, three days ago, which informed them that they would be under the leadership of Inspector SB Glasheen, from Wednesday of that week, until further notice. Nobody knew if Inspector McNally would survive the heart surgery that was planned for him at Jervis Street.
But Inspector Glasheen had failed to turn up as yet, and now there was a special request from the Murder Squad to take on a new case in Wattling Town which had just been phoned in this morning.
The note had been sent round by motorcycle courier – and then read out by Gilligan. It declared that the Murder Squad was too busy to deal with this case: in which a sixteen year old boy has been murdered in his bed, at home, in the absence of any evidence of a break-in. The Murder Squad suspected that this is a domestic crime, and a complex one at that; and so it falls under the remit of ‘special crimes’; and besides they cannot spare the manpower to investigate it.
Sergeant Delaney is already up to his eyebrows with special, complex cases. Just writing up the case notes keeps him at his desk until eight or nine o’clock every night, including Saturdays!
So, in the absence of Inspector Glasheen showing his face, Delaney has, nervously, and unhappily, asked Detective Una Gilligan to get out to Wattling Town, to interview the family of the dead boy, and to report back to him as soon as possible.
“What kinds of motives should I consider?” asked the detective, who was only twenty-six years old, and just starting her third year in this role.
“Violent father?” said Delaney, squeezing his throbbing head. He was prone to headaches when the pressure of work built up too much. And he had been finding it difficult to sleep at night, for about two weeks now.
Detective Gilligan scribbled in her notebook, and then looked up at Sergeant Delaney again, with a big question mark in her eyes.
“Perhaps a father with a record of alcohol abuse?”, suggested Delaney.
“Or a mother who has been pushed beyond human endurance by some kind of unusually challenging behaviour by the dead boy”.
“Anything else?” asked the slender, blond detective, scribbling some more notes in her notebook.
“A sibling with a mental problem? Schizophrenia; straightforward or evil madness; something like that”, suggested the sergeant, in an increasingly irritated tone of voice.
“What about…?” began the detective, looking up from the notebook on her desk.
Delaney was now out of patience with her: “Look! Just go! Use your imagination; your experience; your best guess! Sniff around; and ask lots of questions!”
Una Gilligan got the message, and leaped from her desk. She blushed, and hurried towards the door and left the room. Sergeant Delaney turned his attention back to the case notes he was analysing. A former bank manager from Tokyo, now with the Japanese embassy. Killed in a phone booth. In Grafton Street. With an ice pick, which was left in his skull!
As the morning wore on, the clouds cleared and the sun shone brightly though the big office windows. Sergeant Delaney pored over his case notes of the most serious murders in the city centre, looking for patterns. In the background, he had the old radio playing, and he was invigorated by the Beach Boys singing ‘Surfin’ USA’. But still he could find no patterns to the range of crimes he had written up in recent reports.
The room warmed up, partly from the heating system and partly because of the sunshine through the big glass windows. At 11.30am, Delaney was punch-drunk from bashing his brains against his case notes, and trying to work out the next steps in a dozen cases that were current; and getting no closer to understanding any of them, never mind resolving one of them.
He stood up and walked to the window, which looked out across Baggot Street Bridge. He stretched his arms out and yawned. Then he sat on the floor, leaned back against the wall beneath the window sill, and felt the warm sunshine through the glass relaxing his head. Bobby Vinton was crooning ‘Blue Velvet’ in the background. His headache began to reduce, almost immediately, which brought a tear of relief to his eyes. Within seconds he was asleep.
A few minutes after Sgt Delaney fell asleep, the office door creaked open, and in stepped an unusually tall man in full buckskin suit and a full Indian chief’s headdress of eagle feathers. At first sight, he seemed like a genuine American Indian. But then there were inconsistencies. He had a wispy chin beard and moustache, like some Chinese might have, which was an impossibility for a pure American Indian. He was wearing shiny, patent leather shoes, with alligator skin inset in the tops. And where his buckskin jacket was open at the neck, he revealed an emerald green tie, with a gold harp tiepin.
His complexion was more that of a Turk or a Persian; and he carried two leather cases. One was a regular, black brief case, and the other was much bigger, and made from brown mock-leather. The peculiar stranger peered at Delaney, watched for a few moments to make sure he was fully asleep, and then put down his cases quietly, and turned and closed the door silently. He then picked up his cases, walked to the main desk in the room, and put them down again… Then he turned off the radio with the quietest click.
Silence descended upon the room…
Copyright (c) The Institute for E-CENT Publications, 2018-2019.
This book is due to be published early in 2019.
The purpose of this book is to awaken the heart of those who have slumbered through lives of denial and repression. To promote the possibility of self-counselling, and personal therapy, away from the offices of counsellors and therapists as such.
What are the linkages between psychology and psychotherapy, on the one hand, and literature, on the other…?
I recently posted some comments on LinkedIn on the connections between psychology and literature, and the effects of literature upon my own therapeutic journey.
Sometimes my second thoughts are better than my first; and on this occasion I think there is certainly a need to clarify some of my positions:
Firstly: When I wrote that I had learned more from literature than I had ever learned from my academic studies, I think this was only true of my life in my twenties and up to the age of 33 years.
In my teens, I had looked at the tens of thousands of books that were stacked from floor to ceiling in some of the book shops along Aston Quay, in Dublin City, and I despaired of ever being able to read even a tiny fraction of that mountain of literary and pulp fiction wordage. So I veered towards reading non-fiction for several years. Indeed, in the main bookshop I used on the quays, I began to buy second-hand books that looked at psychology subjects, and I was very interested in hypnosis, and the inferiority complex.
From about the age of 22 years, I read a lot of economics and politics.
But, around that time, I did find some significant fiction books that had a huge effect upon my emotional development. And, when I was 27 years old, I read Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’; and soon afterwards, I read ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.
Secondly: Beyond the age of 33 years, I began to take seriously the study of psychology, beginning with person-centred counselling; and then Transactional Analysis; and then Gestalt therapy. And eventually studied 13 different systems of counselling and psychotherapy – including REBT/CBT, plus Freud, Jung, Rogers, Perles, Ellis, Beck, and several others.
Years later I studied Claude Steiner’s ‘Achieving Emotional Literacy’, which I found to be very effective teaching of emotional intelligence, including the development of empathy. However, nobody who has read any novels by Charles Dickens would try to deny that Dickens teaches empathy by evoking it, while Steiner teaches empathy by delineating it.
Carl Rogers’ writings call for empathy, but I learned how to feel it from reading Dickens, Donna Tartt, Ursula Le Guin, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others; including Dostoevsky and Graham Green.
Thirdly: Here is the bit that I missed in my earlier posts. The discipline of ‘literature creation’ is always informed (in my view) by the leakage of psychological theory into the public domain.
How can I support this claim?
The influence of psychology upon literature and art
One way to do so is to look at D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Sons and Lovers, which suggested that the main character had an ‘Oedipus complex’ about his mother. I wrote about this in my own semi-autobiographical novel like this:
‘When Sigmund Freud saw the play, Oedipus Rex, in Vienna, in the late 1890’s, he found himself believing that he, personally, had lusted after his own mother. He then subsequently inferred that this must be a universal law of sexual development, which applies to all sons – which it is not.
‘Because D.H. Lawrence adopted this idea of Freud’s, in his semi-autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers, the idea has become generalized that young men commonly suffer from an Oedipus complex. But Lawrence did not get this idea from reflecting upon his actual relationship with his mother. He got it from his wife Frieda, who had got it from Otto Gross, “an early disciple of Freud’s”. And he misleadingly inserted it into the heads of his readers, thus distorting their understanding of the most fundamental relationship in human society.”
So let us wash this psychobabble out of English/Irish/World literature for all time. A young boy is perfectly capable of pure feelings of love for his mother; and a mother is perfectly capable of feeling pure love for her son – provided she is emotionally well, with a secure attachment style.
In this case, the psychologist – Freud – misleads us, because he was influenced by his misreading of *Greek Literature* into believing in the universal lusting of sons for their mothers. (The Greek myth does not claim that this is a universal tendency, but that it was a most unfortunate accident which befell Oedipus, which was facilitated because he had been misled by his servants into thinking his mother and father were dead).
On the other hand, I got a much better sense of guidance on healthy love between a mother and her son from Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch. And, again, I wrote about this in my own semi-autobiographical novel (or story), like this:
Because of my own experience of the linkages between fiction and psychology, I now write fiction (when I get the time) and promote the reading of fiction, if it is of the right type and quality.
Key concepts: Literature and psychology; biography and psychotherapy; novels and the humanizing of the human heart…
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: Posted here on 9th January 2019
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 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 heard of 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