Monday, 11 February 2013

THE PSYCHOLOGY/PSYCHIATRY OF DOING WHAT YOU LOVE by John A. A. Logan


The Russian, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, has been oft-described as one of the first “psychological novelists”; followed up, some would say, by the 1890 publication of HUNGER by the starving, post-tubercular Norwegian, Knut Hamsun.
Tough books, coming from the toughest of experiences/life stories…nothing precious about Dostoyevsky or Hamsun.
They both seemed to set down the facts/details of a decade of suffering and survival in a first book: Dostoyevsky in HOUSE OF THE DEAD, Hamsun in HUNGER.
But, this done, they would tend to let the imagination and spirit soar in the following books…the facts and details of their histories still embedded there though, felt, sensed, like psychological rock strata, unyielding.


D. H. Lawrence, the English miner’s son, took on the “psychological” penetration of that rock strata next, delving deep, fusing the exploration with elements of impassioned drama and story which brought such a potent mix of public acclaim/disapprobation.
While, in Czechoslovakia, almost on the same timeline, Franz Kafka, son of a successful, hardened businessman (himself the son of a Jewish shochet/ritual slaughterer), was investigating the same existential meat of the mind, with glorious results.

There is no doubt that, behind the curtain there, at least to an extent, lay the joint influence on the European mind, of the founding fathers of modern psychology, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.
This influence was not confined to an intelligentsia, or any one social/economic class…the starving artist or miner’s son could be infected by it, just as surely as by the tuberculosis that also seemed to fell half of the writers in the first half of the 20th century. 
These things, for good or ill, were just “in the air”…
The plan to supply universal education to all classes of British society, which George Bernard Shaw had opposed so vigorously, had gone ahead, and now the working class had been taught letters en masse, and who knew what beyond-the-pale literature some of them might end up reading…there were even libraries for them now…

As often happens though, following upon the opening of those doors in the first half of the 20th century, the second half of it saw a sinister closing of those same doors.
By the 1970s, the controversial Scottish psychiatrist, R. D. Laing, would insist that if Franz Kafka were to enter the 1960s Glasgow psychiatric system he would be instantly diagnosed, even if only on the basis of the texts he had written, as paranoid schizophrenic, and given the appropriate regimen of drugs and electric shock therapy to the brain popular in the day.
THE TRIAL and THE METAMORPHOSIS would no longer have been art/analogy for Kafka in 1960s Glasgow…through chemicals and electricity he would have experienced them for real.


Slightly earlier, in 1951, an inmate at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum in New Zealand, a post-drug and electro-convulsive therapy patient, diagnosed with schizophrenia, Janet Frame, had recently published her first book with Caxton Press, a short story collection entitled, THE LAGOON AND OTHER STORIES.
This did not stop the hospital scheduling her for a lobotomy, though, an operation to remove part of her brain surgically for “therapeutic” purposes.
But, as happenstance would have it, Janet Frame’s book won  the Hubert Church Memorial Award for fiction that month, one of New Zealand’s most prestigious literary prizes.
The hospital therefore had to cancel the lobotomy for public relations reasons, and they released her from Seacliff Lunatic Asylum only four short years later, from whence she left New Zealand for England, where a doctor at the Maudsley hospital in London told her that he believed she had been wrongly diagnosed with schizophrenia and had never had the condition.

In 1962, Ken Kesey published ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, the result of his experiences working night shifts at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital in California (interestingly, he worked night shift there with Gordon Lish, who would later become Raymond Carver’s editor)…and, of course, in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST it is Randle P. McMurphy whose antics are finally sorted out by Nurse Ratched via lobotomy, as the chemically-coshed inmates look on.
Surely, for acid-fuelled Kesey, this was a case of “There But for the Grace of God Go I…”
A sensing in fiction of what societal dangers could lie in wait for the artist’s mind…if the artist didn’t watch out…

In 1974, Robert Pirsig’s ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE was published.
Between 1961 to 1963, Pirsig had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and clinically depressed, receiving a great many electric shock treatments to his brain during those years, which he later wrote about in his book in great detail.
Finally, he decided the only way to escape the hospital was to behave as the staff wished him to behave, speak as the staff wished him to speak.
After several years of post-hospital recovery, Pirsig then wrote his book, about the psychiatric profession in part, and his own view of “insanity as the new heresy”, scientific logic having replaced centuries of religion in the collective mindset of modern man.
Pirsig believed that to challenge the mind-set of society was to risk being punished as a heretic, a modern disbeliever; assent to the societal norms or be punished by the burning/neutralising/neutering effects of the electricity…the new fire to which the heretic, out of touch with the logos and mythos of their times or peers, may be put legally in order to force their recantation.
(Interestingly, it is not quite true that ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE was rejected by 121 publishers, as Pirsig once noted in an Afterword to an edition of the book. Later, in an online interview, he gave more detail…a careful man, having learned not to waste time, he had written only the first few chapters of the book, early in the morning before his day job, in cafes, and had then sent this sample out to 122 publishers…out of these, four publishers replied, expressing interest in seeing the finished book…but only one editor kept in close contact with Pirsig throughout the four years it took to write the book, reading it and suggesting revision as the book progressed, and it was this editor who finally published the book, though he did not believe it would sell well, and certainly he never anticipated it becoming a 1974 bestseller.)



Recently, a friend left this link on my Facebook page:
A 3.09 recording of a talk by the philosopher, Alan Watts.
“What do you desire…what makes you itch? Let’s suppose…What would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life? Let’s go through with it…what do you want to do? You do that, and forget the money. Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than a long life spent in a really miserable way. And, after all, if you do really like what you’re doing…it doesn’t matter what it is…you can eventually become a master of it…it’s the only way to become a master of something, to be really with it…and then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is…so don’t worry too much….somebody’s interested in everything…and anything you can be interested in, you’ll find others will…”

                                                    Alan Watts


A reminder then, for us all, that art has healed minds, and authors’ lives have been saved, or healed, or prolonged, or made joyous, by the writing of the books, time and again, not to mention how many untold readers’ lives have been enriched, healed, saved, and enlightened by those very same books.
The production of the books being an important act, in and of itself, and a delightful one. 



20 comments:

Mark Chisnell said...

Ah, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - my favourite book.

There's something in it for everyone - and I ended up switching to study philosophy because of it!

Great post, John.

Stephanie Zia said...

Alan Watts' The Wisdom Of Insecurity, one of my favourites & kept me going through lean times. It belonged to my mother, read an extract at her funeral.

Reb MacRath said...

Fine post. But re the number of rejections on Pirsig's post: I've never heard of rejections being limited to full or even partial reads. Form letters are called form rejections for a reason: the book is being rejected on the strength of the query--and, generally, no further queries (on that book) are allowed. John K Toole didn't commit suicide because he'd been rejected by the handful of publishers who'd actually looked at his book...he died in a blizzard of coldhearted form rejections. They should all be counted, imo. That said, terrific writing here, John. And I do love Pirsig's Zen.

CallyPhillips said...

Interesting post, John. I have this theory that stifling of creativity is one of the main causes (or reasons behind) mental health problems. The proscriptive way that people are discouraged from being creative (especially but not exclusively writing) can really have an adverse effect on the psyche. My theory was borne out of practical work in the mental health 'field' with loads of folk who were so much happier once they unlocked their creativity that I couldn't help but create 'the theory'

As re one of the best modern books I know dealing with mental health issues can I put a shout in for Stuart Ayris Tollesbury Time Forever. It's a book everyone should read. Wild, weird and wonderful and available http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tollesbury-Time-Forever-FRUGALITY-ebook/dp/B006TJDJKE/

Lydia Bennet said...

I'm a fan of Oliver Sach's books on neurological problems, non-fiction written like poetry or the most gripping of novels. The most revolutionary thing about them is how he shows how sometimes the condition is part of the person and they gain as well as lose by it and that we are not machines to be put right to an arbitrary 'norm'. the use of lobotomy to control behaviour (not cure mental illness) was a scandal. I believe it severed the connection between the brain hemispheres and could be done through the nose with a metal tool in minutes.

Dan Holloway said...

Very interesting. I remember watching jane Campion's beautiful film about Janet Frame, An Angel At My Table.
I totally endorse your final paragraphs but the quotation from Watts is a reminder just how naively gentrified psychoanalysis became in teh 60s and 70s (and the potentially explosive consequences of that naivete). To the person who wishes they could quit their 9 to 5 to write or paint it's a rather unworldly but potentially inspiring piece of cod philosophy. To the person who enjoys torturing animals or having sex with young girls, well, you get my point - and when the goal is the actualisation of desire we lose the ability to say "yes, but I didn't mean tht" (which has always had the whiff of the ridiculous - Watts explicitly says "somebody's interestedin everything"). Now you may well say fair enough, *whatever*it is you want (as too many psyciatrists did in the 60s with disastrous consequences they naively didn't foresee), pursue it for the sake of your happiness, but if we don't want the downside of this then we do have to modify the idealism accordingly.

Reb MacRath said...

My favorite Pirsig quote, I think is:
· The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.

Susan Price said...

I agree, Dan - there's an awful lot of suffering been caused by 'rebel artists' hell bent on fulfilling themselves regardless of the cost to those around them.
But I'm interested by what Cally says too. When I was an RLF a mature student came to see me with a brilliant short story about a man sitting at a desk in front of computers, relentlessly adding up figures. A bear walked into the room, tore, the office apart, and the man didn't even look up. The student said, 'That was me when I worked in Finance.' He'd been in a driven, high-pressure job, considered a success by everyone - and he hated, hated, hated it. Threw it all up and went to University to study English and Creative Writing - partly, I think, to save his sanity.

Dan Holloway said...

Yes, it's something I'm very interested in - and I know people who do wonderful things with art and other creativity therapy. Personally I have a very up and down relationship with my creativity. There's no way I could ever afford to ditch the job and do a creative writing degree or anything else creative -I'm not well enough to have the kind of job that would put money in the bank to do that. So I oscillate between writing being a wonderful escape, and just as many times when I wish more than anything else I'd never known the creative spark because I see the directions I would love to take it in and can't, and see others who do.

julia jones said...

The novel of Margery Allingham's that I admire above all others is Hide My Eyes - written AFTER electro-convulsive therapy when she was terrified that she would never write again. And that wasn't pleasure. That was livelihood (ok, yes, and spiritual survival)

Lee said...

Dan, your last comment raises the issue of envy - or does it?

I suppose there are writers for whom writing is healing, but I'm not one of them. Writing is not something I've always done, it's not something I have to do, and it's not even what I'm necessarily best at. It's more akin to my crossword puzzle of choice.

Dan Holloway said...

Yes, you're probably right - I certainly envy those who are contented with their lot at least half the time. I didn't say I was pleased about my relationship with my creativity, just that that's the way it is, and that a fair bit of the time I wish I didn't have it.
:)

Lee said...

Dan, I asked about envy not as an accusation, but as a way to discuss something from which I far too often suffer (and to which few admit). How do we keep going when we know we will never measure up - not in terms of popularity or earnings, but in coming close to work we can be proud to have written?

Enid Richemont said...

Writing is WORK, and often bloody hard and painful work. I'm sure it can be therapeutic for some, but not for me - until I've sculpted something solid, that I know is good - then I feel fulfilled.
We still know so little about the human brain. Our two close friends have a daughter - beautiful, talented (ex-Glasgow School of Art) - and schizophrenic. She rejects both counselling and medication, but somehow, recently. she's been slowly making her own way.
John - a very thought-provoking post, as you can tell from the comments.

Lee said...

Enid, of course writing is hard work, mostly hard and painful work, but so is therapy.

Stu Ayris said...

Fantastic article! My you are a well-educated man Mr Logan!

My view is that basically if we are in tune with our hearts and our souls then our mind will naturally follow. And if you write what is on your mind, in such circumstances, then it is sure to be wonderful. I just haven't worked out a way of doing it without resorting to cheap alcohol. Still. You have to do your bit for the local economy I guess...

Dan Holloway said...

that's something I've wrestled with a lot, Lee, in running collectives and publishers and taking a show on tour - I work with a host of people I love but could never match up to and half the time it's inspirational, and half the time it makes me want to stop for good. I think the net effect is better than if I weren't doing it, though - and fingers crossed bringing them to the world makes the whole thing worthwhile

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi John,
What a fascinating post. Yes, it is amazing how many writers had Tuberculosis or consumption as it would have been desecribed in the olden days. Janet Frame certainly had a lucky escape.

Regards

Margaret

woofbarkyap said...

I suppose that my definition of "creativity" would be "seeing connections that others don't/haven't" or "thinking outside the box" if you prefer the jargon. By this definition then all creativity is abnormal in the strict dictionary sense of the word (no pejorative intended) and as such anyone whose default mode is creativity should be considered as such. Again, without any pejorative intended; abnormal is simply not-normal and we've all been taught that normal is good but is it? If everyone only saw how things are and not how they could be (a creative act) we'd never have made it out of the trees and into the caves on whose walls we painted so eloquently. Governments like conformity though - it makes their lives easier, so non-conformity becomes defined as a problem. And they are happy to fund/sanction anything they can get away with that brings the pendulum back to the middle. I suppose I would define the difference between creative and crazy as 'the former actually produces something that takes the observer somewhere whereas the latter simply gratifies some need for solace in the person themselves' but, of course, therein lies the problem - what moves and informs me deeply may have no effect on you so am I naive, uneducated and/or oversensitive or are you cynical and insensitive? As human beings we are ever trying to quantify the unquantifiable. Is it art? Yes, if anyone thinks it is. Is that person an artist? Yes if anyone, including themselves, thinks they are. Is it good? Well I think we have to defer to Mr Pirsig on that one.

Hunter said...

I love that question by Alan Watts, "what makes you itch?" Writing makes me itch but trying to get published makes me want to scratch. Ha. Another great one, John Logan! Thanks for posting it, friend. Talk soon!