Nov 2007

Back to basics

Here’s a bunch of links to check out while I’m finishing the Schreber essay.

Gyrus emailed me a link to this video at The Onion… Is The Government Spying On Paranoid Schizophrenics Enough? (Warning: Funny bit preceded by annoying commercial).

And while you’re in a video-watching mood, head on over to youtube and check out some of this stuff…

  • Pitch ‘n’ Putt with Beckett ‘n’ Joyce. I’ve linked to this before, but it bears repeat viewing. It vies for place with the very different, but equally wonderful Brokeback To The Future, as the best thing I’ve seen on youtube.
  • “What keeps mankind alive?” asks William Burroughs on September Songs. His answer, hidden amongst the weirdness, successfully sums up ‘the later Freud’ in a single triplet… “Mankind can keep alive thanks to his aptitude for keeping his humanity repressed / And now for once you must try to face the facts / mankind is kept alive by bestial acts”. You can always trust Uncle Bill to get right down to the nitty of the gritty.
  • From the sublime to the ridiculous, and as an antidote to Burroughs’ rather bleak message; Is Chewbacca trapped in my nightstand? It’s 45 seconds long. You only need the first 15. And if that didn’t make you at least smile, then let me do my bit to brighten up your day by pointing you towards Four Hands Guitar. I predict you’ll be grinning within 30 seconds.

Don’t watch. Read. On a screen.

Too much video? Well, there’s some plain old text-on-screen to be had if that’s the bag you’re into. First up, David Byrne explains the sub-prime mortgage crisis. (Is it just me, or is that a weird sentence?)

Next, let me point you at Heathrow: Whose Priorities? and more generally at the smokewriting blog which is a good’un and worthy of a bookmark or an rss grab. It’s not the focus of the blog, but I think Rochenko writes very well on the subject of sustainability. And there’s very few who do.

Climate Change. Oil and gas depletion. One merits capitalisation, the other not just yet

Oh yeah, and on the subject of sustainability and what have you… can I just state for the record that we have almost certainly passed the peak of global oil production. Just thought I’d get that out there. Sleep tight.

I’ve got a really chunky article on climate change and peak oil gestating at the moment, but the last couple of weeks have been all about Schreber, so it’s on the back-burner and will be for a while longer. For those of you who can’t possibly wait “for a while longer” and demand some kind of preview / forewarning, then allow me to condense my recent thinking on these issues down to a single paragraph. Hell, you don’t even need to read the article now that you have this handy “cut-out-and-keep” paragraph to carry around with you and refer to (in particular, at moments of crucial decision-making)*.

Climate change is a very real threat, and although there are collective steps that could be taken to negate some — perhaps much — of the damage, these steps will not be taken. Despite the severity of the threat of Climate Change, however, we face a more immediate threat in the shape of oil and gas depletion. Like Climate Change there are steps we could take to deal with this problem which would result in a minimum of human suffering. Just as with Climate Change, we will not take those steps. We’re a bunch of neurotics living in a psychotic culture built upon an absurd collective delusion. We’re fucked and we’re fucked up.

And now, here’s Tom with the weather…

Paint it white

Actually, just to wrap up the Climate Change theme, I assume you’ve all read Björn Lomborg’s latest piece in The Guardian, Paint it white? He proposes to combat climate change by painting everything white in order to reflect more heat away from the planet. And he backs up his argument (or appears to) through clever selective use of statistics and scientific jargon. It’s a piece of outright genius, and while I don’t have much time for his views, I salute the man for his rhetorical skill. The discussion that follows almost universally takes the piece at face value; there are one or two who see the joke among the 130-odd comments; a testament to his skill as a writer. The piece is actually a parody of the kind of science and environmental writing that appears in newspaper columns, and although the parody is being produced by someone on the other side of the ideological fence to me, it doesn’t stop me appreciating the quite important point it’s making about how almost anything can be dressed up as science in 600 words.

I mean, he’s talking about “white-washing” the cities! And people are taking him at face value.

I’d prefer a Bag of Holding, but this’ll do I suppose

Not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but the world’s first true invisibility cloak — a device able to hide an object in the visible spectrum — has been created by physicists in the US. If ever there was an opening line that made you want to read an article, eh? Sadly the actual technology is a long, long way from where your imagination just leapt to, dear reader. Still, one to watch. Or listen out for.

* I am not responsible for any damage caused to your screen during attempts to “cut-out-and-keep” portions of this website.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2007

Immersed in Schreber

Apologies for the lack of posting, but there’s coursework afoot. The M.Phil is conferred (or not) entirely on the basis of the final thesis, but we’re also required to write a couple of short essays (2-3,000 words) and one of them is due this week.

Originally I decided simply to tackle the default topic, “The Existential Critique of Freud” and wrote a couple of thousand words of deeply uninspiring dross on the subject. I had two major problems with the topic; firstly, I’ve not read nearly enough Freud yet to be capable of making my own critique of his work, so how can I really judge someone else’s with confidence? Secondly, it felt too much like commentating on an activity rather than engaging in it… explaining the views of others rather than expressing my own.

So, irritated by the thought of submitting a lifeless piece of writing, I began casting around for an alternative essay topic. The idea of tackling one of Freud’s short but controversial papers appealed to me, and as luck would have it we started reading just such a paper in our Metapsychology Seminars; Psycho-analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides) (more commonly known as ‘The Schreber Case History’). It’s a remarkable paper that — within the course of 80 pages — succeeds in showing Freud at his brilliant best and his infuriating worst.

But it was a can of worms. My essay title, “Sigmund Freud and the Case History of Schreber” (I’m considering giving Conan-Doyle-esque titles to all my academic work) could easily stretch to a book. Probably not a real page-turner, I grant you, but a book nonetheless. Trying to limit the scope of my research became next to impossible simply because of how interesting and, frankly, bizarre the case is. For instance, we learn from Freud’s paper that the subject of his analysis (Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber) had an extremely authoritarian father. But a bit of research unearths the fact that Schreber’s father so opposed masturbation that he “sought to invent a mechanical device which would prevent it in adolescents”.

None of us get to have a perfect childhood. But imagine growing up in that house!

Anyway Schreber’s sister suffered from hysteria, his elder brother committed suicide, but he himself appeared to have escaped whatever weirdness went on in his childhood. He was a successful lawyer, happily married, apparently well-liked by those who met him, and by his early forties succeeded in being appointed to the bench and was serving as a judge. He had active interests in the world around him, read extensively, attended cultural events. Dr. D.P. Schreber was outwardly (and by his own account, so far as he was aware, inwardly) the epitome of a well-rounded, civilised man.

In his early 40s however he had a nervous breakdown* and was diagnosed with Severe Hypochondria. Sounds to me like he was suffering from stress and nervous exhaustion and there’s nothing particularly unusual about that. He recovered after a few months and returned to work, picking up where he left off, and eventually getting appointed Senate President of Dresden (the highest legal position in his district). His marriage remained happy and he and his wife appear to have been devoted to one another. So far, so good. Then comes the interesting bit.

Upon receiving his promotion to Senate President, Dr. Schreber went completely bonkers**.

He spent the next nine years in institutions where he turned his mind to the problem of his own insanity. This is what takes the case beyond the mundane; Dr. Schreber was a highly intelligent, well-read and erudite man whose sharp mind had in no way been dulled by his madness. He wrote a detailed and explicit account of his delusions, hallucinations and the intricate “personal mythology” he wove in order to explain them as a coherent system rather than the chaotic insanity they appeared to be. He then edited this together with a selection of the medical and diagnostic notes that had been made by his doctors and published his Memoirs of a Nerve Patient.

And it’s mad. Utterly, breath-takingly mad.

So yeah, I’ve been trying to whittle this thesis-sized project down to something resembling an essay. And I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t have chosen a slightly less controversial and considerably less weird paper of Freud’s to produce my first piece of coursework on. But I’ll let you be the judge of that when I’m finally finished (I’ll put up a link to it when it’s done). And with that, I shall sign off and return to my essay.

* Modern jargon alert! Nervous breakdown, nervous exhaustion, paranoid psychosis, and others… these are not words ever applied to Schreber by Freud simply because the case predates them.

** There’s some dispute as to whether Freud ever used that specific term (translations between languages are notoriously tricksy when it comes to colloquialisms), but to put it bluntly, that’s what happened. He was diagnosed with Dementia Paranoides, or Paranoia. Today we’d describe him as suffering from a paranoid psychosis.

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2007

Insights that stood the test of time

There’s a big old cardboard box that’s lived in the darkness of a dozen wardrobes. (How’s that for an intro rich in potent psychoanalytic symbolism?) It originally housed a Commodore-64 personal computer, which means I’ve been moving this box from house to house, wardrobe to wardrobe, since Athens in 1985. It’s a long long time since it contained a C-64 though. Over the years it has become the repository for my old dream-diaries, letters I’ve received (and a few I never sent), personal journals filled with strange scribblings, cards, photos and assorted frozen memories. So, despite outward appearances, this is not an innocuous cardboard box. Far from it. This is something to be approached with extreme caution.

This time round I only lost half a Saturday. It helps if you open the cache with a specific target… in this case something that had survived the great journal purge of the mid-90s by virtue of being written in an old school jotter… a painfully earnest essay written after reading The Communist Manifesto for the first time. I was sixteen and just becoming aware of politics. Someone (MM) had thrust a copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book into my hand around then, and I’d also somehow picked up the entirely erroneous view that being a Marxist was inherently edgy and sexy. Apparently it entailed sitting in Parisian cafés with women who looked like Audrey Hepburn.

I had it confused with existentialism.

So I’d been calling myself a communist and a marxist (and sometimes a Maoist) for a few months when it occurred to me that it’d be a good idea to read something on the subject. Besides, the expected deluge of Audrey Hepburns had never materialised, so I had plenty of free time. I read The Communist Manifesto having found the Little Red Book completely mystifying. And overnight I became a libertarian capitalist and remained that way for several years. Without a doubt The Communist Manifesto is the worst advertisement for social justice ever written.

The essay I wrote in response is called “The Big Problem with The Communist Manifesto”. As a stylistic conceit, each paragraph opens with “The Big Problem with The Communist Manifesto is…” It gets tired and tiresome very quickly indeed and makes me cringe a little, though in my defence I was sixteen! I’ve seen the same approach used by professional journalists; what’s their excuse?

The Big Problem with The Communist Manifesto is it envisions a world with a smokestack on every horizon, but there’s only so much coal.

That was the line I was looking for. It’s the first thing I ever wrote on the subject of sustainability. Admittedly, it was another twelve years before I returned to the subject. Still, it’s as valid a sentiment now as it was then.

Impossible to ignore however, on the jotter page immediately prior to The Big Problem with The Communist Manifesto I had written a single phrase. The three words fill the page and are written in carefully constructed letters with intricate cross-hatching. They state, bluntly, “Bowie is God”.

And yes, that too is still as valid a sentiment now as it was then. So in honour of the purity of my 16-year old self’s insight, here’s an artist-specific version of that old “First Line” quiz. Identify the following Bowie songs from their first line…

  1. I’ve come on a few years from my Hollywood highs
  2. (Hello love) (Goodbye love) / Didn’t know what time it was, the lights were low… oh… oh
  3. I’m stomping along on this big Philip Johnson
  4. Tragic youth was looking young and sexy
  5. When all the world was very young, and mountain magic heavy hung
  6. As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent, you asked for the latest party
  7. Oh. Ooooooooooh yeah. Ahhhhhhh!
  8. Let me put my arms around your head…
  9. Aaaaahoh. Aaaaaaaaahohhhh. Do do do do do. Do do do do dooooooooo…
  10. Nothing remains. We could run when the rain slows.
  11. Stinky weather / fat shaky hand / Dopey morning doc / Grumpy gnomes
  12. And so the story goes they wore the clothes, they said the things to make it seem improbable
  13. Day after day, they send my friends away
  14. Cold fire, you’ve got everything but cold fire
  15. Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooo oh! Weaving down a by-road, singing the song

11 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2007

Making a mockery of the sex-offender register

Is it possible that a crucial piece of information has been omitted from this BBC news report? Because taken at face value, the report appears to be stating that a man has been handed a 3 year suspended prison sentence and placed on the sex-offenders register for… well, for masturbating in his own room. I can only assume that he did something else as well. Because if the facts are as reported, then Sheriff Colin Miller (who passed judgement in the case) needs to retire immediately as he’s clearly not in possession of the required sense of proportion demanded by his job. I also suggest that a team of detectives is hired to dig into Sheriff Miller’s past and unearth evidence that the good Sheriff has “had a swift one off the wrist” in his own home at some point in his life (because, and here I speak with utter certainty, he has done) and then get him slapped onto the sex-offenders register along with the poor sod he’s decided to persecute.

Hell, why not put everyone who ever got themselves off in the privacy of their own home on the damn register? To save some time, just grab the electoral register and rename the thing. Let’s ensure it’s entirely useless, why don’t we?

There’s a comical slant to this story of course, and because the comical aspect is what caught the Beeb’s eye, that’s what has been emphasised. But beneath the odd imagery and the prurient sniggering there’s a very serious story here that’s being completely ignored… a man has been placed on the sex-offenders register for masturbating in private. How is that even possible!?

The bicycle is clearly the problem

According to the BBC report, the victim of this outrageous perversion of justice, a Mr. RS, returned to his own room in the homeless hostel in which he was living. So while I know nothing about RS, from the outset it sounds to me like he’s already having a bit of a crappy time of it just now. He was a bit drunk, but not completely out of it. He certainly had wits enough about him to lock the door to his room. So this was no deliberate, or even oblivious, act of exhibitionism. RS was in his own space behind a locked door. He was only discovered when a member of the hostel staff entered the room using a master key.

The next bit is what propelled the tale into the media; rather than indulging in a… to put it bluntly, “a traditional wank”, RS had found some feature on his bicycle which, when rubbed against, apparently did the job for him. Now, the problem with that is the human imagination is liable to run riot with that image. This can’t be helped, it’s intrinsically bizarre. To me though, it’s very much on the comical side of bizarre. Sheriff Miller somehow places it on the threatening and morally dangerous side.

But ultimately, the fact that it’s a bicycle is utterly irrelevant. It’s an inanimate object, and given that sex-toys are legal in Scotland and assuming there’s no legal regulations regarding their shape (I don’t know this for a fact, but it’s hardly a major assumption), then pleasuring oneself with an inanimate object is not against the law. Had RS been using a blow-up sex doll, would he have been placed on the sex-offenders register? If RS had been female and had been using a vibrator, would she find herself with a three-year suspended sentence? Indeed, does Sheriff Miller’s judgement set a precedent effectively outlawing dildos in Scotland?

And that’s not a rhetorical question. This is a man who has been placed on the sex-offenders register. It’s as far from a laughing matter as it’s possible to get, despite the whole bicycle-as-sex-toy incongruous imagery. Seriously, try and imagine having to go through life with that on your CV. It’s got to be tough to know the right time in a new relationship to announce that particular bit of news… “Oh by the way, I won’t be able to take part in any Parent-Teacher Association stuff…”

Most of us assume that the sex-offenders register is used to keep track of rapists and child-molesters. And in my view there is merit in doing that. I believe that some forms of criminal behaviour reveal pathologies that are unlikely to have been addressed by a prison sentence. So if a person is found guilty of sexually assaulting a child, then that fact should be taken into account if that person applies for a job at a school later in life, even if they’ve technically “paid their debt to society” with a prison sentence.

However the sex-offenders register becomes worse than useless if people like RS (“guilty” of using a sex toy in his own locked room) are side-by-side on the list with the child abusers and serial rapists. It ceases to be a reliable list used to identify potentially dangerous individuals, and becomes nothing more than a stick used by the judiciary to beat whomsoever they please. A new way for Sheriff Miller to heap yet more misery into our already heavily-laden world.

UPDATE (16:23): Great minds… and all that.

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2007

News round

My favourite headline of the past few days, though I was rather disappointed that the actual content of the story wasn’t what I’d hoped for, is: Prince quits as head of Citigroup (Update: like so many news sites these days, the FT appears to revise published stories rather than publish a separate update, making illustrative links rather hit & miss. In this case, the headline has changed, but remains funny).


The former head of Citigroup chooses his successor

Sadly it appears that it’s not a story about The Artist Once Again Known as Prince stepping down from his position as chairman of one of the world’s largest financial conglomerates in order to spend more time touring.

€38,000 – a token amount of money

Meanwhile here in Ireland, recently re-elected Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has accepted a €38,000 pay rise. This represents an increase to his salary greater than the average working wage and brings his total income to €310,000 per annum. He defended this by pointing out that the body that sets his salary “is an independent organisation and its recommendations will be implemented by the Government”. One wonders just how independent the review board would remain had they recommended a significant pay cut for Bertie and his cronies, and whether or not the government would be so keen to implement that recommendation.

To add insult to injury, however, Bertie dismissed the furore that inevitably followed the announcement of his 14% pay hike. Apparently it would be “pure tokenism” for him to refuse the increase. Maybe it’s just me, but when the leader of the nation can describe the average national wage as “a token amount of money” then he’s clearly lost touch with reality. It’s also worth bearing in mind the fact that Bertie’s team recently dug their heels in, and watched the nurses vote for industrial action over their “unrealistic” demands for a 10% pay rise.

Still, in his defence, there are those who would argue that the Taoiseach’s pay-hike should be even bigger. After all, 38 thousand is the sort of paltry sum that Bertie simply wouldn’t remember ever having received.

It’s no sacrifice

Meanwhile we hear that despite massive increases in fuel prices, Ryanair’s profits are soaring on a 20% increase in passenger numbers. At the same time Thomson Travel Agents have started up a new low-cost flight service between the UK and Israel. All the while, pretty much every relevant agency and government that expresses an opinion tells us that the battle against climate change is “too little and too slow“. And whenever the public are polled they insist that stringent measures need to be taken and sacrifices need to be made.

My own view (which I’ve expressed on numerous occasions here) is that catastrophic climate change is an inevitability and that in tandem with resource depletion we will see the collapse of industrialised civilisation (and a consequent large loss of life) within the next couple of decades. The process has, I believe, already begun.

So while I don’t believe that being an active consumer of low-cost flights will make a practical difference at this point, I do believe that it’s an offensively tasteless activity to be involved in. Just like the ex-soldier who urinated on a dying woman in the street, his actions had no discernible effect on whether the woman lived or died, but he’s still a nasty scumbag and should be vilified as such (link via PDF).

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2007

What is psychoanalysis?

As my regular readers will be aware, I’m currently studying for a Masters degree in Psychoanalytic Studies.

But what does that mean exactly? It’s probably fair to say that the popular view of psychoanalysis; both its’ theories and practices; isn’t entirely accurate. This hardly makes it unique amongst academic disciplines of course, and given the anti-intellectualism that currently dominates our culture I doubt there’s a huge amount that can be done about that. We live in a society where academics and intellectuals are often viewed with suspicion and even denigrated for “not doing a real job”. Yet that same society fêtes Z-list celebrities and the participants of vacuous reality* television programmes, while lauding the accomplishments of entrepreneurs whose primary skill is an ability to coax a gullible public into hedonistic acts of meaningless consumerism (often using tools supplied to them by the psychoanalytic community, but that’s another blog post).

[Aside: Speaking of “Reality TV”, a recent episode of “America’s Next Top Model” dedicated itself to producing a series of images that consciously eroticise extreme violence towards women. One hardly needs a psychoanalyst to explain what that says about contemporary western culture.] (link via Smokewriting)

So, in the unlikely event that this piece will be read by someone other than my four regular (and already supremely knowledgeable) readers, allow me to provide a short explanation of psychoanalysis and the aims it pursues.


OK, the first thing that needs to be clarified is that psychoanalysis is not the same as psychotherapy. Which is not to say that psychoanalysis has no therapeutic value. Indeed long-term psychoanalysis can, in fact, be considered a form of psychotherapy. Nonetheless, the term “psychotherapy” is a far broader and more expansive one than “psychoanalysis” and encompasses a whole range of so-called “talking cures”. At the same time, psychoanalysis is not merely a therapy, but is also an attempt to generate a body of knowledge about mental processes, how they work and what function they play.

I should also make it clear from the outset that even within the field itself, psychoanalysis can have both a broad and a narrow definition. Narrowly (arguably “accurately”) psychoanalysis is the specific set of theories and techniques developed by Sigmund Freud to scientifically study the mind — in particular the unconscious mind — and to explain and treat neuroses.

Latterly however, it has been expanded to include a huge subsequent body of work by a whole range of individuals who have built upon — or altered — Freud’s theories and techniques. So the work of Carl Jung, for example, is not psychoanalysis under the strict definition as it bears significant differences to Freud. Jungians are instead known as “analytic psychologists”. Nonetheless, it is not unusual for Jung to be studied under the heading of psychoanalysis. Similarly, Adlerians describe themselves as “individual psychologists”, and there are numerous other subdivisions of the field.

In general, however, I shall use a broader definition of the term on this blog unless otherwise specified. I beg the forgiveness of outraged Jungians, Adlerians and existential psychotherapists everywhere but while unacceptable in an academic thesis, a certain looseness of language is probably appropriate for a weblog that aims to explain the field to those outside it. So when I use the term psychoanalysis, I will be using it to mean…

… 1) the investigation of mental processes which are almost inaccessible in any other way, especially inner experiences such as thoughts, feelings, emotions, fantasies and dreams;

2) a method (based upon that investigation) for the treatment of neurotic disorders;

3) a systematic accumulation of a body of knowledge about the mind, obtained along these lines, which is gradually turning into a new scientific discipline.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Rumblings beneath the surface

The above definitions of psychoanalysis contain at least two words that themselves require further explanation; the first of these I’ll tackle is “neuroses”. What are neuroses?

Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity– Sigmund Freud

Popular culture has absorbed numerous words, phrases and concepts from psychoanalysis. Yet despite their prevalence within our common lexicon, if pressed, many — perhaps most — of us would admit to only a vague understanding of them. So if a person were to describe a friend as “a good bloke, but a bit neurotic”, we’d know roughly what they meant, but in all likelihood would be unable to nail down a precise meaning. Similarly, we know what we mean when we reproach someone with the phrase “stop being so anal”, yet paradoxically would probably admit to having only a vague understanding, strictly speaking, of what “anal retentiveness” actually means.

The word “neurosis” has an interesting history; starting out meaning one thing and later being redefined to mean almost the opposite. It began life in the 18th century when Scottish physician, William Cullen, used the phrase “neurotic illness” to mean “a disease of the nerves”. A little later it was refined to mean “a functional disorder of the nervous system whose organic component cannot be identified”. But it was Sigmund Freud who provided us with the modern definition. As a medical student (studying under Ernst Brücke in Vienna) Freud began research into the condition known as “hysteria” and soon came to the conclusion that it was a personality disorder rather than a nervous one. Since then, the word “neurosis” has come to mean…

… precisely those mental disorders which are not diseases of the nervous system– Charles Rycroft, Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis

There are a number of different types of neurosis — traumatic neurosis, infantile neurosis, anxiety neurosis and so on. Complicating matters, however, is the notion of “psychosis”. Sometimes psychosis is considered an entirely separate phenomenon to neurosis, and sometimes it is considered a form of neurosis (known as “narcissistic neurosis”). Given that certain psychoses — unlike neuroses — can have an organic component (i.e. are created by identifiable organic damage due to disease or physical trauma), and given that psychosis — again unlike neurosis — often involves a demonstrable loss of contact with reality which can render the sufferer mentally incompetent (legally insane) I tend towards considering them entirely separate classifications of disorders. However, this isn’t entirely straight-forward and recent research into “borderline personality disorder” (BPD) would seem to suggest a certain blurred edge between the definitions. But more about BPD in another post.

The important thing to bear in mind regarding the distinction is that, by and large, psychoanalysis can only be used to treat a neurosis and not a psychosis (though some have tried and claim a certain level of success, and while I’m not discounting their work, it is pretty controversial and exists right on the fringes of the discipline). And so we come finally to the definition of neurosis which I’ll be employing. A neurosis is a non-transitory mental disorder which causes suffering and is recognised as problematic by the sufferer, but which involves neither an organic component nor a loss of contact with reality.

The “non-transitory” part of the definition is important. As Freud discusses in one of his most important papers (“Mourning and Melancholia”), it would not be accurate to describe mourning as a neurosis, despite it sharing most of the symptoms and almost all of the behavioural characteristics** of melancholia (more commonly known today as “depression”) which is a neurosis. Indeed he points out that mourning is clearly a natural and healthy reaction to significant loss, and should not be interfered with; an interruption of the mourning process can be damaging in the long term.

It is also well worth notice that, although mourning involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and to refer it to medical treatment. We rely on it being overcome after a certain lapse of time, and we look upon any interference with it as useless or even harmful.

Sigmund Freud | Mourning and Melancholia

Sigmund Freud was arguably the first person in history to approach the subject of mental illness in the same systematic fashion that physical illness had been treated for centuries previously. Difficult though it may be for us to imagine today, this was extremely controversial at the time and it is one of his (several) great contributions to the sphere of human knowledge that he persisted in this work despite the hostility with which he was greeted (hostility compounded in no small part by the anti-semitism he faced).

The Ocean of the Unsayable

In my view, Freud’s greatest contribution of all, however, was his investigation of the unconscious mind. He wasn’t, of course, the first to propose that the mind had both a conscious and an unconscious component. Socrates suggested as much (via Plato) and he was himself elaborating on those who had come before. So it’s an idea that has been around since almost the beginning of history. But Freud is by far the most significant figure in the history of the field, and we have him to thank for liberating the unconscious from the realms of art and philosophy, and bringing it into the mainstream of human knowledge.

Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me– Sigmund Freud

So what is “the unconscious”? And why is it so important?

Simply put, “unconscious” refers to those mental processes of which a person is unaware. This is a straight-forward enough idea and is no longer very controversial. And while there is still some resistance to the idea of unconscious mental processes in certain quarters, I am personally satisfied that there is ample evidence that this resistance is unreasonable. Gregory Bateson in his seminal essay “Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art” has this to say on the subject:

Quantitative Limits of Consciousness

A very brief consideration of the problem shows that it is not conceivably possible for any system to be totally conscious. Suppose that on the screen of consciousness there are reports from many parts of the total mind, and consider the addition to consciousness of those reports necessary to cover what is, at a given stage of evolution, not already covered. This addition will involve a very great increase in the circuit structure of the brain but still will not achieve total coverage. The next step will be to cover the processes and events occurring in the circuit structure we have just added. And so on.

Clearly, the problem is insoluble, and every next step in the approach to total consciousness will involve a great increase in the circuitry required.

It follows that all organisms must be content with rather little consciousness, and that if consciousness has any useful functions whatever (which has never been demonstrated but is probably true), then economy in consciousness will be of the first importance. No organism can afford to be conscious of matters with which it could deal at unconscious levels.

This is the economy achieved by habit formation.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

[The next section of the essay is entitled Qualitative Limits of Consciousness and provides further demonstration of the necessity of unconscious mental processes.]

The kind of unconscious processes being described by Bateson in this essay are what we’d call “descriptively unconscious” (also known as “pre-conscious”). It’s the ability to catch a thrown ball despite being consciously unable to carry out the complex trigonometric calculations required to ascertain where the ball will be at any given moment. It’s the vast store of memories carried around by all of us and which can be called to the conscious mind at will, but which clearly do not reside there permanently. Remember your first kiss? That memory wasn’t part of your consciousness a couple of seconds ago. Now it is. Descriptively unconscious processes are those which can be made conscious with ease.

The other kind of unconscious process, and the one that psychoanalysis is most interested in, is what’s known as a “dynamically unconscious” process. These are processes (memories, phantasies***, wishes) which have become the object of repression and which cannot be easily rendered conscious. One of the primary goals of psychoanalysis is to remove the resistance that the patient has to rendering these processes conscious and thereby freeing them of the repression which is keeping them unconscious.

“I have done that”, says my memory. “I cannot have done that”, says my pride, and remains adamant. At last — memory yields.

Friederich Nietzsche | Beyond Good and Evil (section 68)

The reason psychoanalysis attempts to do this illustrates one of the foundations of Freud’s theory of the unconscious; namely that merely because something is unconscious does not mean it has no influence over us. Indeed, it is Freud’s view that those memories, wishes and phantasies that comprise the dynamic unconscious exert a massive influence over us; far greater in fact than even the influence exerted by our conscious mind. Therefore, until we have removed the resistance which keeps these processes repressed, and cast them onto the screen of consciousness, we will remain forever ignorant of the true motivations behind our own behaviour.

The essential nature of psychoanalysis therefore is twofold. First it seeks a greater (and — as far as possible — a scientific) understanding of mental processes, in particular those of the dynamic unconscious. Second it seeks to use that knowledge, and the techniques with which it was gathered, to treat those who are suffering due to a negative influence being cast on their lives by the contents of their personal dynamic unconscious.

* While I admit to having a far from in-depth knowledge of the genre, can I just point out that the little “reality” television I have seen bears absolutely no similarity to any version of reality I’ve yet encountered (and I’ve encountered a few in my time).

** The distinction I make between symptoms and behavioural characteristics is a vital one to psychoanalysis. Although many of the symptoms of a neurosis will be evident in the behaviour of the sufferer, there will be some symptoms which can only be discovered by listening to the sufferer describe them.

*** “Phantasies” are not synonymous with “fantasies” though they share many of the same characteristics. More on phantasies at a later date.

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