Saturday, December 28, 2013

Alice Munro's Dear Life - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reads one of a Nobel Prize Winner's Books

Alice Munro's Dear Life, purportedly her last book, is the first of her work that I have read.  The prose is as stark and spare as the Canadian landscapes that have shaped the stories she tells.  The first 10 chapters are short stories, her preferred genre, and the last four are memoirs - in short story format.  Entering each story is bewildering.  It is not clear who the main characters are going to be and the stories themselves are told in a casual manner, as if being related to someone who already knows all the backstory necessary to understand the story.  The back story is revealed, but seemingly almost by accident as the arc of a person's life, or a very significant portion of it, is sketched in but a few pages and by referencing relatively few key events that shape that story.

On the surface, there could be nothing less psychoanalytic than these stories.  The richness, the detail, the nuance of the lives of the patients that I see in analysis is lost.  And yet these people are not reduced - they are not boiled down versions of people, but rich complex individuals whose essence we can guess at through knowing certain key, pivotal moments and, indeed, there are key pivotal moments in the lives of our patients and their analyses.  In her stories, the peripheral characters we know only peripherally - we wonder about what drives them to do the sometimes crazy things that they do.  The central characters - or more frequently character - once we figure out who he or she is - we get to know in deep and penetrating ways.  And we know them, as we do the characters about whom Elizabeth Strout writes, not from the outside in (even though the story is told from the point of view of the plot), but from the inside out - we don't laugh at their shortcomings, but accept them, as we would our own.

So the question that comes to mind, for this analyst, is where does this ability to read others and to portray them starkly, pimples and all, but sympathetically, come from?  How does the ability to appreciate another person in all their complexity without forming dismissive judgments about them, something that we as analysts aspire to, come from in the life of a writer?  This text, with its combinations of stories and autobiographical material becomes a rich mine to address the question - I only hope I do it some justice in the space I have allotted myself, though I fear that I will reduce Ms. Munro in the process.

To start with one of her stories - a man returns from the war - many of the stories revolve around the aftermath of World War II.  He stays on the train beyond the stop where his ticket took him and jumps off the train when it slows down.  He goes to a run down farm house and starts working for and with the woman who lives there.  They bring the farm back to life.  We learn that the woman's mother had a degenerative disease that made her unavailable - psychologically but also sexually - to the woman's father.  The father took in his nude adolescent daughter's body when she stepped out of the bath.  He then killed himself walking on the railroad tracks, apparently out of guilt.  The woman tells the man this story for the first time when she is in the city with the man so that she can be diagnosed with breast cancer.  He leaves her immediately after she tells him.

Now you might think, as I did, that this is a story about the woman.  But it is not.  It is the story of the man.  It turns out that he had a beau in that city that he never returned to.  But he was never able to be intimate with her.  Similarly, he never attempted to be intimate with the woman that he met up with.  The reason for this is explained in the part of the story that takes place after he leaves the woman he lived with.  In this second part of the story, he runs into, quite by chance, someone from his former life in the town he never returned to.  It is a tragic and sad story - somehow not surprising, but I don't want to ruin it for you.  What happens next to the man?  We don't know.  After the chance encounter, he takes off for parts unknown - unable to shake the experiences of his early life.

As we read these stories, we begin to wonder about the woman who wrote them.  We wonder about who she is and how she grew up and how she can be - in addition to empathic and truthful - detached from the people about whom she writes.  How can they be so stark - so unswervingly themselves?  It does not surprise us that she, from a small town, was somewhat precocious.  Her abilities marked her as special.  But it also doesn't surprise us that these abilities were swept up in her mother's sense of her self as someone special - someone who was different from the farmers and laborers that she and her husband came from and were.  Her mother stood out, in Alice's mind, from her other family members and from her father as pretending - though I think there probably was some truth to her sense of being cut from a different cloth - to being different from the plain folks around her.  This gave her a sense of "putting on airs", and alienated her from those around her.  It also kept her from seeing Alice for who she was - Alice was her special child - not the person that Alice was, in fact, becoming.

Alice's father was very different.  He was very comfortable in his own skin, and therefore was liked by those around him.  He connected with people on a genuine human level and Alice admired this.  He also connected with Alice.  When she had fears that kept her awake night after night - fears of strangling her sister - her father, mostly through patient listening, heard her fears.  His response, which Alice sees as being every bit as good as  psychiatric treatment would have been, was to acknowledge, matter of factly, that those were reasonable fears - the kind of fears that people have.  And they became the kind of fears that Alice would write about, with the kind of acknowledgement that her father had given her own fears.

When Alice's mother died, Alice lived on the other side of the continent.  She did not have much money, and she did not travel home for the funeral.  She feels deeply guilty about this, but also, I think, somewhat self righteous.  She did not want to acknowledge the passing of someone who never really understood who it was that she was.  So it is a kind of guilt for which there is no absolution - she just might do it again, even though today she would certainly have the means to get there.  She loved her mother, yes, but she also hated her - hated her for never really getting her.  And knowing both of these feelings - the feelings of empathy for who her mother was - where she came from - how she struggled to become what she could, the painful ways in which she tried to be better than others but was, in fact, an embarrassment, and her ultimate failure to be connected to her daughter - an unforgivable sin; this is a complicated and very human stew.

Alice Munro is a talented writer.  She is also a good story teller.  But more than that, I think she is a person who has looked deeply into her own life and has pulled no punches in telling it like it is - she has had to become her own mother (and has been helped in this by her father); to reflect on her life, on her desires and her failings and to come to accept them.  And this has led her to be able to dispassionately observe the experiences of others.  To realize that life happens to us, not as her mother would imagine because we are special and at the center of the universe, but quite the opposite, because we are cast into a particular place at a particular time and the meeting of that place with the stuff of ourselves is what makes us; good, bad and indifferent.

Alice quotes the poetry of a woman who lived in the house that she grew up in - a house that was on the margin between the town and the country - and a house that had a wonderful view of the world as if perched on the edge of something spectacular.  This poetry is very much like the long lost poetry she herself wrote when she lived in that house as an adolescent.  She never met the woman who wrote the poetry she quotes.  The woman had lived in the house in the 1890s and 1900s while Alice lived there in the 1930s and 40s.  But there is a sense that they both experienced similar things and expressed similar things about their experiences.  She, like her father, humbly accepts that she is in a particular place at a particular time, observing it, and assumes that others, given similar circumstances, would do the same.  This allows her, ironically, to achieve more notoriety that her mother would have dreamed possible to claim.

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Big Lebowski - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Revisits a Cult Classic

  Movie night is becoming a political phenomenon in the home of the Reluctant Psychoanalyst.  The children, all teenagers, are watching increasingly complex, adult-themed material, though much of it is quite immaturely conceived and executed.  The (sometimes) Reluctant Parents are excited by the increasing ability of the teens to watch "mature" movies so that we can share some of our favorite films with them, while we are simultaneously appalled at the unbridled carnality they seem, at times, to prefer.  So it seemed like the time to try the Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers film, on them.  Once cool and somewhat hip, at least to our generation; what would it evoke in them?

Before I get to that - a little background.  The Big Lebowski is one of those movies that, when we were dating, the future Reluctant Wife could not believe that I had not seen.  I have endured this before.  Patients could not believe I had not seen Gone with the Wind; students could not believe I had not seen the Godfather series.  And each time I have watched a "must see", I have appreciated being able, finally, to share in something that helped me feel more a part of the greater culture.  In this case, a subculture.  But I have to admit that, as much as I liked The Big Lebowski, I didn't really get it.  Besides being at moments surreal, it was also confusing.  The various strands of the movie did not fit neatly together for me, and instead it felt funny but dissatisfying - almost empty or hollow.

So, when we decided to screen it with the kids, I decided to offer some "helpful" narrative.  In particular, I pointed out the opening narrator as a character that would show up later in the film, as well as trying to point out important people who appeared and trying to help the kids (and myself) keep the various strands straight by tracking the relationships among the various characters.  Of course, this is dicey territory.  A little commentary goes a long way and I tried to keep the comments to a minimum; but actually a conversation broke out during, but more importantly after the film.

Jeff Bridges plays Jeff Lebowski, or, as he prefers,The Dude.  The Dude is an LA slacker with no apparent means of financial support and relatively few other social supports (he has two friends with whom he bowls and his landlord whose art dance escapades he watches - perhaps in lieu of rent), or psychologically supports (except for the consistent use of marijuana).  He is just a dude, but refers to himself solely as The Dude.  But he becomes the focus of the movie, which the narrator, known only as the Stranger, deems interesting, because he shares a name with Jeffrey Lebowski - the Big Lebowski, whose wife bunny owes money to a porn movie director (whom she used to - or maybe still does - work for) who, in turn, sends thugs to mess up the wrong Lebowski, the Dude, and in addition to dunking his head in a toilet, they pee on his rug.  When the Dude asks them to look around to see if he is a millionaire, they take in his hovel and acknowledge their mistake - and this could have been the end of the whole thing.

The Dude is not one to make a mountain out of a molehill, but he is upset by having thugs break into his home.  As he talks about it with his buddies at the bowling alley; his buddy Walter (played by John Goodman), is not just incensed, but urges the Dude to action.  Their third friend, Donny (Steve Buschemi) is clueless, annoying, and bullied by Walter, but an integral part of the threesome.  His presence, I think, helps us realize the virtues of The Dude.  The Dude is not annoying, nor is he as passive as he appears.  He engages in a series of escapades, fueled by Walter's unrelenting aggression and groundless desire to be potent (something that is oddly mirrored by the Big Lebowski when we get to know what lies behind his bluster).  The Stranger comments that he likes The Dude's style, and joins him at the bowling alley bar for a drink of Sasparilla.  The Stranger also ties the movie up - so far as it gets tied up - by reappearing at the bar at the end of the movie and offering a narrative summary.

And it was about the Stranger that my post movie conversation began with the older Reluctant Stepdaughter.  We discussed the movie as we drove the Enthusiastic Boyfriend home and it continued as we drove back.  We began as she attacked the Stranger as unnecessary and the ending as dissatisfying because the narrator acted as if things were tied up when they were not.  I, as much to engage in the conversation as because I believed it, took the position that the Stranger was essential.  Together we puzzled over this and concluded that one reason the Stranger is essential is that the movie could, without the Stranger, who introduces it as a Western and who is dressed in Western regalia, be misperceived as an Eastern Philosophy/Zen/Taoist movie.

The Dude - who famously, at the end of the movie, abides - is, the Stranger would have us believe, not Eastern in his essence, but Western - and not just Western philosophy, but Wild Western - rugged Reagan individualism Western.  And, as the reluctant Stepdaughter pointed out, he is the only character in the movie with integrity - with centeredness.  He takes what comes very matter of factly.  He observes it and thinks about it - he addresses it and mulls it over.  He presents it to his friends, who encourage him to act - and he acts with them.  But he is not concerned by all that goes on.  He - in the stoic tradition - is relatively unmoved by all that happens.  He seeks justice - what he believes to be fair compensation for what has befallen him - but he does not desire more than to be able to keep ambling on - living life as it occurs to him.  And this is, perhaps, the essence of our heroes from Western Films - Shane or the characters that Clint Eastwood portrays; Bruce Carradine in Kung Fu, to mix the Western with the Eastern.

So this becomes, we decided, a movie not about plot but about character.  It is the story of everyman - or an idealized everyman.  Someone who is able to take what life casts his way - not as the Big Lebowski would have us believe; achieving as the result of setting a goal and shooting for it - but instead doing something much more human and real, taking what is in front of him and making the best of it while retaining a sense of integrity.  On an entirely different level - to think of the Dude as being a character that includes not just Jeff Lebowski, but Walter and Donnie as well - to think about the human task being one of listening to, but retaining mastery over our inner desire to run full on into the teeth of whatever is out there (a la Walter), while also keeping ourselves from running away from what ever threat may present itself (a la Donny).  And the Dude does this.

The most important moment in the movie, I think, is when the Dude unravels the mystery of what happened to the million dollar ransom and the reason that we was hired to be the drop man for it.  OK, I realize I haven't given you any context for this.  I'll let the movie do that, if you choose to watch it, but you should know that this viewer, at least, even on a second viewing, didn't get it.  The Dude did.  It turns out that he can actually be pretty smart when he gets all the needed information and when he has been knocked around enough that he becomes actively engaged in not just following the next piece of bait set out for him but interested in understanding the whole picture.

In psychoanalysis, our patients are pretty smart to begin with, but they get smarter as things move along.  They begin to see patterns and they also begin to lose inhibitions.  So rather than deferring to others, they start becoming more assertive.  This is a good thing.  One common observation, especially of low fee analyses - the kind of analysis that many in training provide as they start to practice as analysts - is that as patients engage in their analyses they start to earn more money - sometimes significantly more money - and they can afford higher fees.  This is a good thing in many cases.  But sometimes it is given too much weight - in this analyst's opinion.  Not the income, per se, but the association of uninhibited or assertive, but even aggressive action with being "well analyzed" or psychologically healthy.

The goal of psychoanalysis is to freely associate (it is what the analysand is told to do - but also must learn to do in the process of treatment).  When that is achieved, and when that occurs not just in the analytic hour - meaning that the person's thought is no longer constrained by neurotic conflicts - the person can think more clearly, as The Dude does when he solves the problem.  But the Dude does not go on to solve the problem of world peace, he plays in the semifinals of the bowling tournament.  The cowboy rides off into the sunset - in search of other adventures, perhaps not enriched by all that has happened except in so far as he has the satisfaction of knowing that he has and can survive whatever he has been confronted by.  While in the analytic world, this may lead to riches - the analysand is less conflicted and thus better able to solve problems and to appropriately value his or her contribution to the solution, that is a byproduct, in my opinion, rather than the end result.  The analytic community might benefit from observing that neither The Big Lebowsky nor Walter are the true heroes of this story, the Dude, who abides, is.

Another way of saying this, then, may be that the goal of the Dude (and analysis) is neither Western nor Eastern, but an interesting amalgam - a shifting of the lens so that both are in sight but neither is the goal.  If Walter is a cartoon version of the western ideal- Donnie, who ends up as ashes, might be a cartoon version of the eastern one.  Our task is to use foundations that are human, incompatible with each other, and ultimately incompatible with, though informative to a third direction - one that is, or can be, our own.  As we move beyond being the puppet of our desires, as we move from doing what we have to what we want to do, we move into the range of being The Dude.

The Reluctant Stepdaughter and I benefited from our conversation about the film.  We agreed that we both understood the movie and liked it better for having talked about it.  It was still, at least for me, somewhat disappointing because the plot did not neatly resolve, though it was better resolved than I thought (the Reluctant Stepdaughter brilliantly tied many plot elements together) and I think we got it, in part as a result of doing it, that this was not the point.  At the very beginning of the film, the Dude is in a convenience store.  He samples a half gallon of milk before writing a 69 cent check for it.  He is willing to pay for something, but he wants to make sure he won't get gypped.  We got our money's worth from the movie as a result of having talked about it.

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Shakespeare in Love - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Ponders Our Attachment to Will Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon

The reluctant son is once again reading Romeo and Juliet.  He read it in sixth grade and really liked it.  I, woefully inadequate parent that I am, delighted by his interest, shared a related drama of mine, Shakespeare in Love.  Oops.  I remembered the explicit sex scenes too late, and what was to have been a nice father son shared adventure turned into a developmentally inappropriate moment to be muddled through.  Muddle through it we did, and now that the reluctant son is in High School, has been bombarded by sex on broadcast and other TV, and is reading Romeo and Juliet again, I thought it worth repeating the experiment.  And the results were much better this time around.

But I was watching the film with another context in mind as well.  I have just finished reading (actually re-reading) and posting about the hypothesis that the plays of Shakespeare are not written by the man from Stratford, a tradesman and sometime actor Will Shakspeare, but instead by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, a nobleman whose life and perspective eerily parallels the plays of Shakespeare, but whose identity would have had to be kept secret, hidden behind the witty nom de plume "Shake - Spear", because it would be unseemly and politically unwise to have the words of the poet tied to a peer of the realm.

I remembered that Shakespeare in Love, Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman's imagined, anachronistic, delightful movie was written from the perspective that Shakespeare was from Stratford and I watched it to better understand our attachment to that hypothesis - one that is apparently endemic among scholars.  A fellow analyst, who read the blog on de Vere, Rick Waugaman, kindly sent me a preprint of his book review about to appear in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, and in the article he cites a study noting that 82% of academics believe the Stratfordian hypothesis.  Why is there such allegiance to it when so many good thinkers; Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Sigmund Freud among them, have long questioned it?   Why are we so attached to it when emerging scholarship is tying it to new figures, particularly de Vere?

Shakespeare in Love features Joseph Fiennes as a young Shakespeare, in love with Viola de Lessups (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), a beautiful woman in love with poetry and the theater, whose rich father has bought her a noble but penniless husband, Lord Wessex (played by Colin Firth) who will make her offspring royal.  Actually, in very Shakespearean manner, Shakespeare confides his love for Viola to her as she pretends to be Richard Kent, a pretense that she has taken on to play the part of Romeo in Shakespeare's Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, which is to contain much comedy and a bit with a dog.

The power of this film, though, resides in the development of Shakespeare's play.  He lives and writes about what he is living, and the drama of his life becomes the text of the play.  He is not the Great Playwright, Shakespeare, but Will, who drinks and plays the owner of one playhouse off against the other, promising them both the same play and hustling to stay one step ahead of their wish to get words from him.  He is in awe of Christopher Marlowe, gratefully accepts advice from him, and is mortified when he fears that he has, though impersonation, caused his death.  We identify with his quick wit and with his joie de vivre.  We feel, as commoners, the constraint and unfairness that divides him from the woman that he loves - as Romeo is divided - not from Ethel, thank God (and Christopher Marlowe, who suggests the name change), but from Juliet, by the war between their families and his own part in it.

At some point, and I don't have the reference, a writer proposed that one reason the Stratfordian hypothesis has retained its strength is that it was used by the British to support the position that public schooling should be offered to all.  Shakespeare, a commoner from Stratford, after all, had written the greatest plays in history.  Who among us could not be the next Shakespeare?  And I think this is a very powerful argument.  An argument that allows us to identify with Shakespeare.  To imagine ourselves Shakespeare, to share in his glory, indeed to be Shakespeare...  For who among us is not?

Every night we dream complicated dreams with characters who are familiar but unknown.  They engage in activity that can seem chaotic but, especially if we listen to our dreams, if we analyze them, they are not just sensible, but useful, and sometimes delightful, even brilliant narratives emerge.  We are complex people filled with ingenuity, humor, deep and powerful feelings, and ideas that are unique.  Nelson Mandela, whose passing this week is a great loss, rightly pointed out that we fear (but I would add hope to achieve) our potential.  And Shakespeare did it.  He articulated the complicated thing that it is to be human.  He did this within characters - in their soliloquies, and between them - in the drama that plays out when our lives are on the line, but also in the comedy that ensues when we play with each other.  He tapped into what it is to be human and makes that come alive in us - our own sense of humanity - when we participate in his plays by watching them.

So, the greatest moment, the moment of most tension in the movie is when Romeo and Juliet has finally been written and has just been performed.  It has had its world premiere. The play has come to life as the result of a series of accidents, false starts, changes in character that are truly Shakespearean in their madcap happenstance - and the stuttering announcer has pronounced the last words in flawless English - and the birth of this great tragedy is received - with silence.  A silence that stretches to the point of breaking. And then a single clap brings forth applause and then rapturous sounds of joy.  We, with Shakespeare, with the entire troupe of actors, have wondered: Did they get it?  We knew they would, but feared they wouldn't... And, they did.  We have put it out there and they have received it.  We have communicated - one to another.  We to them.  And it is grand and glorious.

And we don't want to give up our ownership of that moment.  We don't want to believe that we couldn't have written, we couldn't have performed that play.  We believe that we could have.  We who come from boroughs and from hamlets and from common origins.  We don't want to hear that some well born, privileged man wrote this.  The idea that de Vere, a nobleman, crafted these plays goes against our democratic zeal, our sense of a meritocracy where our value will be recognized and rewarded regardless of rank. While we acknowledge the Stratford fellow's debt to a public school classical education, we want that to be all that we need.  In fact, to realize our ambitions, to let the world know the wonders that lie within us, we need to know many languages that will excite others - we need to know how to communicate emotionally, but also cognitively.  To weave a spell (as Stoppard and Norman, our everymen, have done in this movie), the tapestry must be as close to flawless as possible.  A failed detail may wake the dreamer from his or her sleep.  To have the privilege of expressing ourselves well - clearly and coherently - we need to have been afforded many prerequisite privileges.

The de Vere scholars make the case that the references in Shakespeare could have been accessed, in that age, only by those from the most privileged classes.  The knowledge of the law could not have been included but by a legal scholar.  The understanding of the nautical scenes comes from a sailor, and the idiosyncratic knowledge of Venice comes from the pen of a man who has sailed her streets.

Our romantic connection to Shakespeare of Stratford comes, I believe, from an anachronistic attachment to what we believe to be everyman - the everyman of a post industrial society.  But I think this identification may be misguided.  In fact, I think that it takes a great deal of privilege to produce Shakespeare's works- the privilege of education, travel, and, if it is de Vere, the privilege of being privy to the world of nobility and having multiple well schooled secretaries to read and perhaps co-write your work.  And I think we have built a society that affords similar privilege to many more people than had it in Shakespeare's day.  In fact, I think that the 'everyman' of today - the many privileged citizens of our industrialized and post-industrial nations, have privileges, Shakespeare, whoever he was - even if he was de Vere, could not have imagined.

It is ironic then that the myth of Shakespeare of Stratford has been used to support the importance of education.  Ironic because I fear that our clinging to it now may cause us to argue that everyman can do it; just provide him or her a tablet and an internet connection.  When in fact we need to communicate, many of us in many ways, with someone who is a potential Shakespeare.  To provide him or her not just information, but to teach him or her how to think, how to understand and articulate systems, and how to be in touch with his or her emotional world - we need to help him or her interpret, not just be moved by, the plays of Shakespeare.  And it is expensive to provide the kind of education that helps people to explore, engage, and then articulate what they discover.

The modern world seems allied against the expense of education - and it asks educators to justify the expense.  I'm not saying we shouldn't do that - we should.  But the value of education is much greater than the income of the educated. I am reminded of a Reader's Digest joke from many years ago.  The immigrant father, working in his small store, welcomes his son home from college where his son has learned accounting.  The son says, "Dad, you've got to come up with an accounting system to keep track of your profits and losses."  The father reaches under the counter and pulls out a cigar box.  He says "Son, what's in this cigar box is everything that I arrived with in this country.  Look around you.  Everything else is profit."

Our modern world with all of its wonders is all profit - the profit of learning and teaching each other and going out to explore more.  We need to keep doing that.  Including trying to figure out who Shakespeare really was, because knowing that, as Rick Waugaman maintains, will enrich our reading of our greatest author.  It may even help us clarify the value of providing the expensive education that we need in order to maintain our ascent as a civilization.  And we need to keep teaching our children, even if that sometimes leads us to blunder, because, sometimes, as in the case of the reluctant son and me, we get to witness the birth of a new world together.

To access a narrative description of other posts on this site, link here.     For a subject based index, link here.

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What is Porn? A Psychoanalytic Reaction.

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["...