Observing this spectacle of fancy dress and ritual, in which any significance has long been lost, I thought that perhaps I might consider more authentic meanings of the word ‘majesty’, in this case, a remarkable tree near the village of Nonington in Kent that I had visited the previous weekend.
Majesty is listed on the monumental trees website as possibly the oldest maiden oak in the country (maiden oaks are trees that have not been pollarded, that is had timber removed for aesthetic or commercial purposes). So for hundreds of years, this extraordinary organism has grown on this spot with no interference to speak of from humankind. Local wisdom has it that Majesty is a thousand years old (though expert analysis has halved that age, as expert analysis is wont to do). There is evidence that the tree, also known as the King Fredville Oak, was already ancient in 1554.
Whatever the truth, Majesty is the oldest tree in an area of other remarkable ancient trees. It grows (I struggle to define gender because Majesty is beyond such a concept, though ‘it’ remains unhappily impersonal) in a hidden grove on private land, but adjacent to Fredville Park, which also boasts a partly derelict avenue of old horse chestnut and beech.
The wooded country
The curious name Fredville is equally ancient and derives either from Old French freide ville (meaning cold manor or village) or a fusion with the Old English frith or frythe. The informative Nonington website claims that in Kentish/Jute dialect frith would have been pronounced “freed”, as the TH ending would have been turned into a D sound, which means wood or wooded country. Scattered across the Fredville landscape (now grazing for sheep and cattle), are these wonderful blasted relics, amongst which are three other aged oaks, ‘Beauty’ (also called Ancient Bear), ‘Stately’ and ‘Staghorn’. These are elders: they have survived droughts, floods, insect infestations and, of course, human agency.
The lost estate
I searched for Majesty with a friend. We walked through the fields admiring the ancient trees but were unable to find Majesty itself. Asking in the local pub we discovered that Majesty was on private land but that the owner would be happy to show us the tree. Retracing our footsteps we walked down a drive marked private. It opened up into stables, with a ruined clock tower. Before long we were joined by a barking Jack Russell terrier.
As a child on holiday, I remembered having to fetch milk from the nearby farm. The farmer’s Jack Russell would harry me all the way up the lane. It would bark, growl and nip painfully at my ankles, and it was only the greater fear of returning without the milk that kept me to my task. Because of this, I was apprehensive, and it stopped me from asking questions of the elderly man who next appeared. Research suggests that this gentleman was John Plumtree, the descendant of a line of local landowners called Plumtree, or Plumptre. They were also all called John and they owned the villa that was demolished after a fire in 1945, leaving the stables, the clock tower and other buildings as the present home.
Archie Miles’ book The British Oak has this record from a party visiting in 1793:
Called on John Plumtree, Esq. of Fredville, who very politely shews us his famous oak, called Majesty – measured this tree; 4 feet from the ground the circumference is 31 feet; it is supposed to contain 36 to 42 tons of timber. Two branches separated from this tree about four years ago, in a calm day, which contained three tons of timber.
222 years after this visit from the correspondents of the Annals of Agriculture and Other Useful Arts we were also met by John Plumtree Esq. who showed us the tree with equal politeness, despite having to do so, he told us, many times every day. He continued to lead us down a path; the Jack Russell had stopped barking and was first leaping at my leg excitedly and then trotting beside us calmly, reassured of our intent. We passed a Giant Sequoia wreathed in ivy, but Mr Plumtree stopped before we entered the glade, told us that the tree was just ahead, and turned back the way he came.
Walking into the sunlight revealed Majesty in all its broken glory.
All the primary limbs have now fallen, revealing themselves (and the tree itself) to be completely hollow, but the secondary limbs were still vigorous and covered in the fresh young growth of May. Little can prepare one for the feeling that accompanies such a visit. Although we took photos, examined the branches, trunk and bark, and generally behaved as people do when visiting a tree, my felt sense was of great calm. At one point I posed for a photo sitting on part of the lower trunk but I sat down with a sense of discomfort that only now I recognise as connected to a slight violation of the sacred.
There was grandeur here, but not grandiosity. Growth and decay carried together, rather than split off as they are in our culture. ‘Majesty’ is a psychological quality, unsurprisingly, of balanced Earth: a way of being that many aspire to but few can ever hope to attain with any consistency: yet we all possess it, if only we were ready to find it. Trees such as this are exemplary: they show us the way into our own majesty.
After spending time with this venerable tree I thought some more about the symbolic qualities of the encounter, about the nature of the introduction and the qualities of the oak. First, there was the search for the tree, walking up and down and almost giving up. Then the correction and the move into private property, the sense of transgression.
The old man and the dog
The first meeting is with an animal, a dog. The dog/human bond is one of our very earliest connections, and in mythologies across the world the dog is a guide between the worlds of life and death. It can be the ‘black dog’ of depression, it can hunt and devour us, or be our loving lifelong friend and companion. This particular dog pulled me back to an uncomfortable past, it first threatened, then welcomed, then ignored me completely. Dogs are sometimes used in psychotherapy (Marie-Louise von Franz had an analytic dog) to dig in, whine, greet, and sniff out the unspoken shit. In my meeting with the Jack Russell, I was forced to dig up old bones from the past. The dog, as James Hillman put it, carries its ancestors.
Accompanying the dog was the old man, the senex, slow in movement and speech. He is an archetypal figure, a guardian both literally and figuratively of the oak glade. While in one sense he turned and left before we saw the oak because he was perhaps tired and in pain, in another, he allowed us the privilege of our own introduction with Majesty.
Oaks and myth
Then we come to the oak itself. Oaks once covered most of Europe: Julius Caesar came across Germanic tribes that had never got to the end of their hardwood forests. In England, oaks were cut down at an alarming rate to build its wooden navy. Any tree of great size was living profit. The oak embodies mysticism: its seeds, the acorns, were once our staple food before agriculture.
John Williamson tells us that the druids (from the Celtic daur meaning oak) burned oak logs at midsummer to mark the death of the Oak King of spring and the birth of the autumnal Holly King. The Norse gods made the first woman, Embla, from oak wood. The ‘philosophical tree’ of the alchemists was often a hollow oak, echoing the other common use of a hollow oak as a coffin. This was a tree sacred to the thunder god Thor/Donar. In the fairy tale recorded by the Grimms, a dark mercurial spirit of transformation is found hidden in the roots of an oak. Here is part of the story:
The Spirit in the Glass Bottle
…the son went into the woods, ate his bread, was very cheerful, and looked into the green branches to see if he could find a bird’s nest. He walked to and fro until at last he came to an enormous oak that was certainly many hundred years old, and that five men would not have been able to span. He stood there looking at it, and thought, “Many a bird must have built its nest in that tree.” Then suddenly he thought that he heard a voice. Listening, he became aware of someone calling out with a muffled voice, “Let me out. Let me out.” He looked around but could not see anything. Then he thought that the voice was coming out of the ground, so he shouted, “Where are you?” The voice answered, “I am stuck down here among the oak roots. Let me out. Let me out.” The student began to scrape about beneath the tree, searching among the roots, until at last he found a glass bottle in a little opening. Lifting it up, he held it against the light, and then saw something shaped like a frog jumping up and down inside. “Let me out. Let me out,” it cried again, and the student, thinking no evil, pulled the cork from the bottle. Immediately a spirit ascended from it and began to grow. It grew so fast that within a few moments a horrible fellow, half as big as the tree, was standing there before the student. “Do you know,” he cried in a terrifying voice, “what your reward is for having let me out?” “No,” replied the student fearlessly. “How should I know that?” “Then I will tell you,” shouted the spirit. “I must break your neck for it.” “You should have said so sooner,” answered the student, “for then I would have left you shut up inside. However, my head is going to stay where it is until more people have been consulted.” “More people here, more people there,” shouted the spirit. “You shall have the reward you have earned. Do you think that I was shut up there for such a long time as a favour? No, it was a punishment. I am the mighty Mercurius. I must break the neck of whomsoever releases me.” “Calm down,” answered the student. “Not so fast. First I must know that you really were shut up in that little bottle, and that you are the right spirit. If you can indeed get inside again, then I will believe it, and you may do with me whatsoever you want.” The spirit said arrogantly, “that is an easy trick,” pulling himself in and making himself as thin and short as he had been before. He then crept back into the opening and through the neck of the bottle. He was scarcely inside when the student pushed the cork back into the bottle, and threw it back where it had been among the oak roots. And thus the spirit was deceived.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Spirit in the Glass Bottle. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm099.html
Apparently Carl Jung made much of this story of the treasure-containing oak. John Williamson writes:
Mirroring the oak’s solidity, the self is the perduring centre that can withstand fiery outbursts of affect and psychic flooding. “Oak” transports and humbles – so perfectly is imperial nature embodied in its form.
John Williamson, ‘The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn’, 1986
Of particular fascination is the texture and grain of the wood once the bark has vanished. These sweeping plains, mammary outcrops and dry seas resemble photos taken from space of the desolate regions of the earth, or satellite images of planets.
There is inevitably a correlation between things if we search for it. In the image below I am tempted to assign human characteristics to Majesty – a bulbous nose, staring eye, grumpy expression and arms raised in warning or greeting. Such anthropomorphism has long connected us to trees, from early depictions such as the image of Isis as a sycamore suckling Pharaoh Thutmose III to the Ents and Huorns of J. R. R. Tolkien.
As rich as the symbolism gets, it interferes with the felt appreciation of the tree itself. Throughout its great age this wonderful entity has supported millions of other creatures (link is a PDF). 284 insects, 423 if mites are included, and 324 lichens are supported by the oak. There will be fungi and birds, of course, nesting in its branches and mammals living inside the trunk.
Majesty’s hollow innards, open gaping wounds and dead limbs speak of death and decrepitude, but the translucent green of the leaves in the sun offers something of resilience and purpose, a refusal to give up while life remains, while the deep roots yet live. The bark, fissured and damaged, surely mirrors our own wrinkling skins, dried and scarified by the elements. And this resolute living, this deep importance to the existence of other species, inspires both humility and tenderness. It is Majesty indeed.
I’m obliged to wait at the roadside for the 4WDs, trailing behind them their stinking invisible clouds of diesel fumes and privilege. I tell you I’m okay, fix your guilt, ease your dis-ease. To do otherwise would be unkind. Besides, I’m frightened for your fear, knowing that my urge to suicide is its catalyst.
At this moment the successes of a difficult life feel roughly overturned as my flaws, my wounds and my mistakes are used against me to destroy me. Generosity, love and the great things of a life lived are nothing but shameful recollections. The painstaking accretions of acceptability are scoured, racked, blasted; the slowly mortared building of character collapsed in to rubble.
I struggle against the seductive urge to end the pain, and crippling emotional dissonance rides up to smash me with iron hooves. The dire horseman with his bony smile offers blessed oblivion. He is the amber liqueur, the murky opiate, the velvet curtain to darkness. One hard crack and all is softness.
According to the advice site for men with suicidal ideation, mandown, more than 12 men take their lives each and every day in the UK and Republic of Ireland alone. This isn’t a statistic, it’s an epidemic, one unchecked for over twenty years. And now I find myself here again, as one week bleeds soundlessly into the next, teetering on the kerb, watching the blank blonde faces with the tight lips and sunglasses roar past. Their names are:
This piece is my personal guide to staying alive, my Observer’s Book of Suicide, my Collins Gem of Survival. These are the things that keep me going step by step, offered without apology. I cannot offer this piece as self-help, it is personal to me, and I know many will disagree. But I know what things keep me alive, and here I share them in the hope that if just one person reads these words, and can find in them some reason to walk back from the edge, then my struggle will not have been in vain.
I do not look to explain, defend or even contextualise suicidal feelings, but instead to stay with them for a while, and always to honour them. Yes, there is self-pity here, because there is a great difference between pity for the wounded self and weaponised victimhood. For it is clear that whatever we may like to believe about our cultural development, there are people alive who hold any expression of vulnerability in the deepest contempt – most likely because it shines a light on their own suppressed need. This becomes apparent from the most cursory glance at what passes as news, but sometimes an event, such as this one, in which a suicidal man was taunted by onlookers until he jumped to his death, takes one’s breath away. Months after this vile story appeared in the press I am still astonished to read the police statement in which an officer said “We do not condone such behaviour”, as if that needs explanation. The awful truth dawns: perhaps it needed to be said as if there was some doubt.
There is rarely any respite or care for one in deep limbo, just the day to day doing of staying alive is hard enough. If any of us is to stand up to the passive aggression, pettifogging bureaucratic obstruction and slyly competitive attacks of the inadequate, then we need spirit. Gusto is needed for the skirmish, the extrovert energy that pushes outwards. But depression brings a terrible weariness of the soul, particularly for the introvert. For those on the edge, there is no mechanism, no cognitive apparatus, that can lift one bodily out of the swamp. This is why Hillman was right about hope.1
Hesiod’s tale of Pandora tells us that hope is one of the evils that was in the vessel, and is the only one that remains within. It lies concealed where it is not seen, whereas all the other evils, fancies, passions are the projections we meet outside in the world. These can be recaptured by integrating the projections. But hope is within, bound up with the dynamism of life itself. Where hope is, is life. We can never confront it directly any more than we can seize life, for hope is the urge to live into tomorrow, the heedless leaning ahead into the future. Go, go, go.
James Hillman, Suicide and the Soul, 1965, 1997
The path around the Tomb
So this is the work: abandon hopes and dreams, since those have been squandered anyway. Be alive only to the pains of the moment. Write about them, talk about them, paint them. Rant and froth, vent your spleen, burst your heart. Grieve the loss of hopes and dreams. Let days and nights flood the world with tears until all that is left is the burning heat of anger, as dry and white as the skulls of kine bleached under the desert sun.
Know the age of your anger, whether thirteen or thirty. Celebrate it, shout it to the skies. If your anger is thirteen, there will be a sense of unjustness, the dreadful unfairness of things. If it’s thirty there will be the plunge from the mountain, the sickening fall to the valley floor, the humiliation of defeat. Later, there is weary despair. You may feel all these at once. Trust only your senses. If you are hungry find food. If you are cold find shelter. Don’t hope for charity, don’t feed guilt. Walk, if you can, like Kipling’s cat through the Wet Wild Wood. If you have nothing else, let anger heat you and feed you.
When you trip, that’s the earth calling to you out of your fantasies, flattening you and grounding you. Sudden grounding needs quiet for sitting, a drink of water and peppery greens so fresh they squeak as you chew. Do no harm to others, their failure is not yours. Love them for what they could be, not what they are. Appreciate their anxiety for you, their need for you to survive. Try to listen to their hidden anger with you, but do not be swayed by it, the answers lie elsewhere.
Hillman quotes Eliot:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets – East Coker, 1940
He might also have added the next two lines:
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
T. S. Eliot, ibid.
Hope is seductive, it whispers sweet nothings in our ears, coils itself around our bodies, probes for soft spots, fills us with sweet yearning. The present, when we crash back into it, becomes all the more unbearable. By making a conscious effort to abandon all the painful hope, the misdirected love and the contorted thinking, then, at last, we can be present to death and what it wants of us. To be present to death is to accept it but not to embrace it. If you survive, and I hope you do, then there will be a time for hope again.
Care of the Soul
Just about every other psychotherapist’s website will bore you with the information that ‘psychotherapy’ is composed of the words Psyche and Therapy (which mean, roughly, ‘care of the soul’) and that the word ‘therapy’ comes from the Greek word therapeia (θεραπεία) meaning ‘service, attendance, healing’.
The word therapon (θεράπων) means ‘servant, a person who renders service’, but there is an older meaning too, that of an attendant at the altar, one who perhaps kept the torches lit, swept up the ashes of burnt offerings and kept counsel with the gods and the dead. This other meaning places therapy in the context of ritual and takes it out of the orbits of the medical (therapy as talking cure) and the economic (therapy as management).
Nowadays the rituals we observe in the West are little more than those of birth, death and marriage, and even those have lost their importance. The depressed and suicidal need their own rituals, to be able to disappear for a while, free of obligations and responsibilities to family, friends and state. To be able to visit the Underworld but to be free to return. I only know of one organisation in Britain, Maytree, that offers this invaluable service – an oasis in which to be with yourself, and only to talk if you want to.
It is immeasurably useful for us to be able to spend time in the swamp, to be still in the viscous liquid and noxious vapour of our despair. In our culture this is denied, and if we venture in we are held to be self-centred and self-regarding. This is wrong, and a function of the fear and need of others. We need to acknowledge that there is danger in the swamp, that for some of us the pull of the Underworld becomes irresistible. The other Greek name for the Underworld (other than Hades) is Pluto, a name also synonymous with riches (e.g. plutocrat). Gold and diamonds come from underground, seeds lie dormant in the earth, treasure is buried. There is a pull that relates to something other than death as the mere absence of life.
James Hollis writes:
The good news deriving from our confrontation with death is that our choices really do matter and that our dignity and depth derive precisely from what Heidegger called “the Being-toward-Death.” Heidegger’s definition of our ontological condition is not morbid but rather a recognition of the teleological purposes of nature, the birth-death dialectic.
James Hollis, The Middle Passage, 1993
In clearer language, let us be up to our noses in the foul swamp, fully tasting the bitterness and the disgust, just so long as we have enough space between the putrid liquid and our nostrils to breathe. This honours the confrontation with death rather than repressing it, and it allows a choice because life and death need to be choices. Any other way is to surrender to the monolithic thinking of state and culture that has driven many of us here to begin with.
How therapy might help
Good therapy is difficult to define. What works for you might be anathema to me. Many (if not most) therapists are rescuers. If the rescuing tendency is conscious the therapist will avoid it, but it runs deep in the psyche and compromises the therapist’s capacity to sit with suicidal feelings. Worst of all can be the normalisation that some therapy seeks to create. Therapists are taught this, to make distress acceptable, to explain that what you’re feeling is ok. This is designed to help you feel better about your distress, to understand that your response fits into the spectra of typical emotional response, and it places those feelings in the context of society at large. But this ‘flattening’ can become insidious, threatening to corral and correct the extraordinary, to legitimise and normalise not just our pain, but its causes. At its worst, therapeutic normalisation leads to the grey goo of mediocrity, it dishonours feeling, it nannies and coddles death itself.
The widespread adoption of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy means that anything felt instinctively is often viewed as primitive, of less ‘value’ than rational thought, and this reinforces the split between Logos and Eros. Our society has become almost entirely Apollonian, possessed of structure and reason, whereas the Dionysian, being properly the felt sense of belonging fully to nature and the wild, has become the heedless affirmation of life, ‘go, go’ go’, constant running. These two have become split, opposites, but long ago they were half brothers, two sides of the same coin. In popular culture we can think of the Spock/Kirk pairing in Star Trek. These two respect each other: they are separate (Captain Kirk/Mr Spock) but in crisis they are intimate, they are Spock/Jim.
A therapist should be able to hold a space, so even if your therapist cannot meet your despair on equal terms, if she or he has a decent room, a place of peace, use the hour to listen closely to your body. When I can do this for myself I can feel the ache in my shoulders I wasn’t even aware of, the ache that comes from bunching up my shoulders to withstand a blow, and from carrying a heavy load. I can reflect on the unequal metronome of my heart and the shame of my churning gut; I notice how the muscles of my thighs are tense from the need to spring into fight or flight.
Find your own tell-tale signs, the messages with which your body informs you of its distress. Perhaps a foot that waggles autonomously, a death-watch of suppressed fury; maybe the deep sucking sigh of grief or the persistent patch of eczema that you scratch at when you are under the spotlight. Observe but suspend judgement, no matter how shameful the feeling. Your symptoms are unconscious protests made visible in the body. Find the image, for the image speaks to the soul. Your wagging foot might be a factory machine, always in motion, required to produce endlessly; your sigh a sea-bell, echoing in the confused fog of loss. Your scratching, the frantic scrabble of a rat, desperate to escape a flooded oubliette. Let your imagination emerge from its place of hiding.
I mentioned extrovert energy. This is the thrusting, penetrative, exploratory ‘cock energy’ that I wrote about in a previous piece, it is the energy of the improbably endowed Priapus, a son of Aphrodite and Dionysus, his enormous dick the consequence of vengeful Hera’s curse. This energy is neither male nor female but is more often associated with men. What happens when this energy is reduced, when one feels flaccid, impotent? I think that shame appears, the fear that others will see our impotence, judge it, mock it. In men, the shame might be felt in the scorn of women or the contempt of other men. Look at me, I can’t get it up in the world, I can’t make it, I can’t take the decisive actions or make the bold choices that signal life, I can’t even fake the behaviour that is now worshipped in our culture.
In the picture, we see Priapus weighing his improbable member against a bag of money, the worth perhaps of the fruit below. The painting is in the Casa dei Vettii in Pompeii, where it is positioned immediately inside the front door. Priapus was apotropaic, he had the power to avert bad luck or the evil eye, and the painting, aside from elements of the comic2 and the threatening, suggests that while Priapus’ virility does not outweigh material wealth3 neither is it the lesser of the two. Priapus’ erection is pointing to the basket of fruit: it is as if his explicit energy is showing us its root in fertility. There are grapes there, that belong to Priapus’ father Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans) and a pomegranate, the three seeds of which bound Persephone to Hades in the barren months. The message seems to be that natural wealth, illustrated by the fruit, is the foundation without which business and its proceeds cannot exist – that the true value of life lies in the abundance of nature.
To go swimming spontaneously, without consulting the oracle of tide tables, is to risk disappointment. If the tide is too far in, there may not be a place to camp on the beach. Too far out and there might be a long walk to the sea. But both states offer something else. At high tide, I can sit with the waves, admire the sweep of the vast sea. At low tide all the pools and rocks are exposed, plants and animals are now rendered vulnerable to observation and predation. So with our souls in crisis.
Am I overwhelmed by high tide, the energy of other people? Am I deflated by low tide, do I feel as if I’ve failed? Or can I acknowledge that there are riches to be found in both states? At high tide, I have a panoramic view and I feel expansive, the captain of my ship. At low tide, I hunker down to poke around in the weed and under the slippery rocks of the psyche. And as much as I might first be repelled by rank encrustations and the pale worms that ooze through the substrate, I might also allow myself to imagine those beings when they are once more immersed in the sea, to recognise that an organism is the same regardless of it being in or out of the water.
Priapus is also a god of the garden, of flowers and bees (think of a bee penetrating a flower), and of vegetables (I imagine gourds, squashes and beans). I think of the phallic force of plants pushing up through the earth, the coiled and secret intention of bulbs and seeds, brought to life by heat, light and water. So I too might one day push up from the subterranean depths (the father: Dionysus) into the light (the mother: Aphrodite). These are not places in opposition (like Hell and Heaven) but necessary parts of the whole. The earth engulfs the tomb, it freezes the seed, it is hard, but it also holds and protects. The light brings visibility and risk, but also warmth and love. Few have so understood the erotic energy of growth (and its intimate connection to death) better than the nineteen-year-old Dylan Thomas:
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees Is my destroyer. And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
The force that drives the water through the rocks Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams Turns mine to wax. And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.
The hand that whirls the water in the pool Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind Hauls my shroud sail. And I am dumb to tell the hanging man How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.
The lips of time leech to the fountain head; Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood Shall calm her sores. And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.
And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.
Dylan Thomas, The Poems of Dylan Thomas, 1934
How ideology moves against the soul
Some time ago I received an email from n-science for one of their future events, a talk with Dr Eoin Galavan on ‘The Assessment and Treatment of Suicidality’. I have not met Dr Galavan, I know nothing of him. He looks like a nice warm chap and I’m sure he is. He is also the ‘CAMS representative in Ireland, licensed to research the CAMS model, a consultant with CAMS-care’. What then is CAMS? It is ‘Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality’, a method of treating ‘suicidality’ devised by Professor David E. Jobes, who is Professor of Psychology at The Catholic University of America and a self-described ‘career suicidologist’. Alarm bells start to ring. The Catholic University of America says this of itself:
As the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States, founded and sponsored by the bishops of the country with the approval of the Holy See, The Catholic University of America is committed to being a comprehensive Catholic and American institution of higher learning, faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ as handed on by the Church. Dedicated to advancing the dialogue between faith and reason, The Catholic University of America seeks to discover and impart the truth through excellence in teaching and research, all in service to the Church, the nation and the world.
Mission Statement, Catholic University of America
CAMS-care, with its e-learning and licensing, is a business. A business that is built around preventing suicide on implicit and unstated ideological grounds. At first glance, the underlying philosophy seems to be a move towards soul (all that follows can be found here (PDF):
Suicidal thinking and behaviors are often a perfectly sensible – albeit worrisome and often troubling – response to intense psychological pain and suffering. In a similar sense, I would contend that all suicidal persons have struggles that are rooted in legitimate needs and concerns. For example, most suicidal people feel they simply cannot bear the pain they are in and they understandably seek an escape from their suffering. Others desperately want their loved ones to know how much they suffer or feel compelled to unburden those who love them. Still other patients, in acute psychiatric distress, may feel compelled to perform acts of self harm as a capitulation to punitive voices they hear within a psychotic state.
The CAMS Approach to Suicide Risk: Philosophy and Clinical Procedures, David A. Jobes, 2009
But this is hardly an inclusive understanding of suicidal thought, and barely an adequate summary. It ignores (for example) suicide as revenge, suicide as aggression, or suicide as blackmail. Let’s move on to the clinical example given by Professor Jobes:
Patient: I suffer so much and no one seems to care; my husband just ignores me – he gets mad at me and tells me to get over it, snap out of it!
Clinician: You feel like no one appreciates your struggles, particularly the person want you most want to care?[sic]
Patient: It’s not just him, it’s everybody – my parents, my kids, and my so called friends… you know I honestly think sometimes they would all be better off without me…
Clinician: It sounds like you feel that you have become a burden to them? Does this view of things ever lead you to thoughts of suicide?
Patient: Well yes, I have actually thought about suicide quite a bit lately.
Clinician: I see… and when you think about suicide does it upset you or comfort you? Does it frighten you? Or instead, does it give you a feeling of control and power over your suffering?
Patient: It is more the latter because it does make me feel like there is at least one thing I can do about this whole wretched situation that I am in… I just can’t bear the pain… it’s all too much for me…
Clinician: I see… well let’s be frank… of course suicide is an option that many people use to cope with these exact feelings. And yet if it was the best thing to do, it seems unlikely that you would be here with me in a mental health care setting, right? From my bias, while I acknowledge the option of suicide for some people, I would like to see if we could find a way to end your pain, and get your needs met, without you needing to take your life. In my mind, you have everything to gain and really nothing to lose by earnestly trying to engage in a life-saving treatment. There is a treatment I would like to try with you called “CAMS” – it is designed to help you learn to cope differently and better and it could help you get your needs met without having to rely on suicide. To this end, I wonder if I could persuade you – if you would consider – engaging for 3 months in this suicide-focused treatment… I really think it could be quite helpful to you.
Patient: Well that is asking a lot… I really don’t know if I am up for doing something like that…
Clinician: Yes, I understand; but then again you have everything to gain and really nothing to lose. While it is not my preferred means of coping, you always have the prospect of suicide to fall back on later when you are not engaged in a life saving clinical treatment. But for now, I would like to see if we could find a way to make this life more worth living through this approach. Given the life and death consequences, I do not think it is too much to ask of you to give this CAMS approach a go for three months… what do you say?
Patient: I guess we can try, maybe it can help? But you are right, the reason I am here is that I am just not yet ready to exercise my suicide option… How exactly do we do this CAMS?
The CAMS Approach to Suicide Risk: Philosophy and Clinical Procedures, David A. Jobes, 2009
I squirmed around reading this, deeply discomfited by the way the feelings of the imaginary patient are acknowledged yet she is still led by the nose. Mental health care in the US, and in many other countries, is fraught with fear of litigation. Jobes himself, in this YouTube video, talks of the fear of the mental health ‘provider’ faced with a suicidal patient: first anxiety over competency, and second the fear of litigation. The question of the patient’s anxiety and despair is not even mentioned.
Out of this fear, Professor Jobes direct method of engaging with suicidal feelings seems to make sense, but his ‘paradigm shift’, his model of empathy, is something that the ‘provider’ should be engaged in from the outset. Jobes complains of the movie representation of ‘providers’ as crazier than the patient. Of course we are, or should be, and keeping our wounds open for the benefit of others. How can therapists relate authentically to anyone unless just mad enough to make the leap themselves into the Mundus imaginalis of self-harm, suicide and madness?
Therapy as a control mechanism
Jobes speaks of needing to get ‘family members and loved ones’ involved with his ‘intake’ of the ‘middle-aged, white male, who’s got insomnia and an alcohol problem and is a gun owner, and has a history of major depressive disorder and anxiety and agitation, and has a poor history of treatment compliance‘ (my italics) because (and here come his hands, up in the air making quote marks, like Jesus Christ spelling his name on a Byzantine icon) he might incur ‘some measure of liability’. So motivation on the part of the suicidal patient is deemed to be important. Professor Jobes doesn’t want to work with you otherwise. He loves his intervention though, he finds it ’empowering and honest’ to tell people that he won’t work with them if they’re too difficult for his pragmatic approach. He says, explicitly, “I think I’ve got certain gifts, but suicidal patients in my early career terrified me, they still do, it’s very anxiety-provoking.”. To manage his anxiety he is “gaining mastery… I need to practise from a sense of confidence and competence.” I can’t imagine a worse place to come from. Jobes ends his video with some self-serving blather about the ‘taskforce’ being at the ‘cutting edge’, and, messianically, he says his method is “indexed to political realities, to health care reform and to mindfulness… cost-effective treatments, evidence-based treatments, I think it’s a new horizon, a new world…”
This is the tool:
The full Suicide Status Form (SSF, seven pages) provides a means for:
Initial assessment and documentation of suicidal risk
Initial development and documentation of a suicide-specific treatment plan
Tracking and documentation of on-going suicidal risk assessment and up-dates of the treatment plan
Ultimate accounting and documentation of clinical outcomes.
Checkboxes are ticked, boxes filled, dates given, and signatures appended (the three words that each stage have in common are ‘and documentation of’). At the end of the three months that the intervention takes, the final step is reached:
Three consecutive sessions of no suicidal thoughts, feelings, and behaviors marks the resolution on suicide risk; the SSF Suicide Tracking Outcome Forms are completed and the patient is taken off Suicide Status as CAMS comes to a close.
The CAMS Approach to Suicide Risk: Philosophy and Clinical Procedures, David A. Jobes, 2009
Professor Jobes and his licensed clinicians have saved lives, their forms prove it. They have worked exclusively with motivated patients, they have delivered their interventions competently and confidently, and they have expertly managed their liability. There is more material featuring this nauseating man, but after a few minutes of his address to a conference I felt too sickened to continue.
Why do I care? Because this is over here, promoted without any exploration of the ideology behind it: the underlying belief that suicide is a sin. It is another move away from soul, utterly devoid of any attempt to meet, on their own terms, the figures of anxiety, futility, meaning and love. It is the grey, risk-free, joyless and narcissistic management of profound despair, delivered only to the compliant.
Work, Shame and the Charm of Making
It matters little if you are working or not, the febrile energy of other people will simultaneously repel and shame you in your cold orbit. Your task is to recognise it, that’s all. The polis4 fears and defends itself against the outsider. It seeks to absorb you because the depth of your feeling shines a baleful light on the unreality of most modern work. Much as I reject a group I feel the separation from it, the almost visible stigma, as a great gaping maw of humiliation. I need to connect, but not at any cost.
Work requires connection and soul just as much as any other activity, perhaps more so because of the central part it plays in our lives. But most work today is tyrannical, it makes us fearful slaves.
I recall the weekends and evenings in which I would hide from my family at the top of the house, building and painting models. As I grew more skilled I would modify and adapt, raising lines of tiny rivets with polystyrene sheet and an old biro, creating whip aerials from scrap plastic slightly melted with a candle. I would paint a delicate scar on to the cheek of a miniature tank commander; highlight the lantern jaw of a cuirassier; pick out the piping on a hussar’s jacket. As I looked into the tiny eyes of my soldiers I saw myself reflected back. The most minute movement of the brush tip would change a face forever: a louche Gauleiter would mysteriously achieve some strange nobility and, Janus-like, the profile of a Napoleonic dragoon might first suggest sadness, but have a sadistic leer impressed on the turned cheek.
Needless to say, my father held this exacting work in contempt. The only praise I recall from him was when I once built a wooden fishing boat from scratch. I understand why: he had no father himself, no man to praise his creativity, but I don’t forgive his cowardice. That is what it is when we feel so angry and bitter with our own childhood life that we are unable to praise the modest achievements of our children.
The Charm of Making5 saved me from some of the toxicity of my family.
The Genius of Place
Surely the best thing to do would be to build one’s own home, perhaps a cob house, to source and prepare each material, to feel the deep satisfaction of each completed action, the patience needed with the weather. But to do this requires land, resource and time. One thinks of Winston Churchill building brick walls as a bulwark against his depression and the kind of cottage he fondly imagined that working-class people inhabited. C. G. Jung built his ‘tower’ at Bollingen. Of course, Jung had the luxury of his wife Emma Rauschenbach Jung’s inheritance, but he added to his tower over the years, and lived in it without electricity for months at a time, fetching water and chopping wood. The cube Jung fashioned in 1950, and set on the shore of Lake Zurich, has this inscription on one of the faces:
Time is a child — playing like a child — playing a board game — the kingdom of the child. This is Telesphoros, who roams through the dark regions of this cosmos and glows like a star out of the depths. He points the way to the gates of the sun and to the land of dreams
The image inside the inscription is of Telesphoros, in Greek mythology a son of Asclepius the healer, his name means ‘the completing’ or ‘the accomplisher’. Curiously, this minor god could be Celtic in origin, a Genius Cucullatus (hooded spirit of place).
The figure of Telesphoros was that of a cowled dwarf or a boy and was revered as such, but inside the outer boy was a hidden creative god in the shape of a phallus. The Roman’s regarded the phallus as a symbol of:
[…] a man’s secret ‘genius’, the source of his physical and mental creative power, the dispenser of all his inspired or brilliant ideas and of his buoyant joy in life.
Marie-Louise von Franz, C. G. Jung, his myth in our time, 1975
Jung’s purpose in carving the image on the cube was to honour his childhood dream of a ritual phallus, the dream that had signalled his path towards psychology, the land of dreams.
Telesphoros, whether of Celtic or Greco-Roman origin, signified the mystery of sexual union and inner transformation, and the cult of both figures was widespread. This makes me think that men should begin to see their cocks in a different way. Jung explained that sometimes the soul sometimes asks us to die figuratively, to alter our consciousness in response to new self-knowledge, but we literalise this death with tragic consequences.
Whether it is an issue of honour, loneliness, defiance or despair, the sense of an unredeemable past or a future that offers no possibility, suicide often represents a flooding in the psyche of obliterating force. Passive as well as active, suicide may harbour within its violence the desire for transformation, or may signify an evasion of it.”
ARAS, The Book of Symbols
[…] more could be said about the literalism of suicide – for the danger lies not in the death fantasy but in its literalism. So suicidal literalism might be reversed to mean: literalism is suicidal.
James Hillman, Suicide and the soul, 1965, 1997
In this culture, a man’s cock is literalised as his potency in the world, the bigger the better, so as to be hard and thrusting. Terabytes of pornography reinforce this message. What if we learned something from this ancient tradition of either the ‘hooded spirit of place’, or the ‘accomplisher’, a boy who contains the spirit of transformation, who embodies ‘his buoyant joy in life’?
Suicide and the Garden of the World
Perhaps the real subtext of Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the rise of Logos and the pathological fear of the feminine. In the final scenes, we see Donald Sutherland’s character at work, cutting press clippings just as he does in the opening scene. We feel uncertain, has he been absorbed or not? Only the hideous scream with which he betrays the last human (a woman of course) reveals the truth we fear to admit. So seek out the human, the living, the feminine wherever you can find it, remembering that the feminine is not always to be found in women. It is a principle, an energy, that holds and nurtures, and it needs your masculine energy, your holy desert fire, for the dance of life. The reverse may apply, your feminine may be too enveloping, too demanding.
Witness another’s distress but don’t feel that you need to do anything more, at least not yet. In itself, the act of witnessing is a profoundly important and political act. It belongs to the communal, to Alfred Adler’s vision of gemeinschaftsgefühl (community feeling), a felt connection with both the human and the other-than-human, a connection described as sub specie aeternitatis to indicate that it is envisioned from an eternal perspective, not the grim monolithic deceit that can masquerade as reality.
Yet through depression we enter depths and in depths find soul. Depression is essential to the tragic sense of life. It moistens the dry soul, and dries the wet. It brings refuge, limitation, focus, gravity, weight, and humble powerlessness. It reminds of death. The true revolution begins in the individual who can be true to his or her depression. Neither jerking oneself out of it, caught in cycles of hope and despair, nor suffering it through till it turns, nor theologizing it – but discovering the consciousness and depth it wants. So begins the revolution on behalf of soul.
James Hillman, Re-visioning Psychology, 1976
Why all these pictures from nature? I took these on Barnes Common and Leg o’Mutton pond in London as I stood on the edge of things last year. I spent time with these plants and flowers, as I did with the birds and early insects around them. They anchored me and kept me here, and sometimes I would pass someone else to nod to, an acknowledgement of some shared aim – a woman with her face held back in the sun, smiling; two boys with a camera, busy with a school project; a man hunkered down by the water’s edge, apparently in an intimate discussion with a pair of swans.
Dionysus walked here with me (arm in arm with Apollo), sometimes in rapture, sometimes in tearing black despair. Apollo offered thought, smoothed the jagged edges, got me home alive. With Dionysus, I had these moments of bliss: the scent of wild cherry, that I always fancy smells of oxygen; three mistle thrushes churring in a tree; the call of a solitary chiffchaff, the first of the summer. And all the while, as I thought and felt, I noticed the consciousness about me, not the deathly collective consciousness of the culture that condemns the suicidal for being ‘selfish’, for ‘wanting to take the easy way out’ (as it barrels down the road consuming every resource in its path), but the consciousness of the living.
In those moments (as a greenfinch darted across the path or as a heron flapped lazily up to its nest) I talked partly with Apollo, agreeing to relinquish my role as knight paladin and healer, the role that I thought would save me. With Dionysus, I acknowledged my pain, torment, and anger – but also the extraordinary beauty around me. As for my own voice, I remembered the warmth of skin, the light that glitters on the sea, the sigh of wind in the blackthorn, and the taste of being loved. Some self-pity, some yearning, but mostly gratitude, not hope.
If you go for a walk, remember that a place is not obliged to give you anything, you have to ask, and even then you may be disappointed. Just question how you came to that place and what you were expecting.
In another universe, and perhaps in our own future, there will be community areas with ritual spaces: fire pits, steam galleries and quiet wild gardens to sit in and to walk around as we talk, rage and cry together. Valued hetaerae of every gender and orientation will administer sexual healing and we will take coffee at the imaginarium. Until that day, in this grey individualist world of competition, contempt and literalism we must cultivate our love, for love transforms.
While I wrote this piece dreamed one night of Anna, the young woman I worked with who took her life on New Year`s Eve. I woke begging her aloud to come back, my pillow wet with tears. It is for this reason too that I hesitate at the kerb because I would not wish that anguish on another.
Natural, reckless, correct skill; Yesterday’s clarity is today’s stupidity The universe has dark and light, entrust oneself to change One time, shade the eyes and gaze afar at the road of heaven.
I felt compelled to give this piece about fear an introduction, to explain it, but it is not an apologia. I wrote some time ago about honouring depression, about allowing depression to live rather than further depressing the psyche by talking to it with the voice of reason (there’s more here) and the irony in writing this introduction and thereby placing the piece that follows in quotation marks, does not escape me.
My purpose in writing this blog has always been twofold: firstly, to work towards (as far as I am able) a different type of therapy – an approach to depression, distress and anxiety that is engaged with the world rather than distant from it. The second purpose is to model this approach, develop it, ride the waves of instinct, and to work through my own material. If I succeed in keeping myself in the world, then that will support my method. If not – well, that’s information too. Carl Jung, in the letter I quoted in the first piece linked above, reminds the reader that his method works for him and him alone, that he cannot speak for what others would do. But if what I write here is of value to only one other person, then that is good enough.
So no apologies: my desire is to bring back the instinctual as an equal partner to the intellectual. I love both, but they have been split in our culture, the instinctual held in contempt. Positive psychology is in charge: the broken, sick and vulnerable parts of ourselves are sanctioned, criminalised, marginalised and feared. I do not apologise for defending them, for pleading their case, for insisting on their legitimacy or for demanding that other voices are heard. Allowing the instinctual is not done through the tyranny of well-being, or from the deep listening and mindful focus that many cannot achieve. Rather it is by acknowledging that our sickness originates in our culture.
Love creates change
Above all else, change is catalysed through love. I write often of the erotic: it contains sexual love but it is much greater, it is our connection to the world, it is in everything. Sometimes we are blessed enough to hear ‘I love you’, said with both humility and honesty, and an extraordinary thrill plays through the body. Those are the words that bring a spring in the step and a cheery greeting. This is the glow and the poise of knowing – yes, knowing – that we are accepted, whether for a day or ten years.
But the erotic is also the bird singing in the tree and the flower pushing between the paving stones. It is the force that drives the dolphin into the air, that lights the promontory (where Oberon heard ‘a sea-maid utter such dulcet and harmonious breath’). It is the quartz glittering in the rock, it is the courage of people who risk everything for a felt sense of injustice, it is the elderly and infirm who protest against cuts, it is life itself.
There are so many images one might use to illustrate the erotic, but my search brought me this fragment of a mural from Pompeii. It is literal, but I liked its energy and humanity. Sometimes the erotic is hard to find or nearly absent (for example, in some drear neoliberal monolith) and often fear blocks the path, hinders the flow. I hope that what follows works with that.
The first truly sunny warm day of the year and the sea calls me. I think of Shoreham, the blinding silver mirror of the sea, and of the dark crinkly purple shoots of sea kale that will have started to poke through the shingle. But this is Saturday and I have a vile cold (again) so, my immune system compromised, I decide against it. As soon as I get to the station I realise I have made the right choice. People are everywhere, with bicycles, backpacks and walking poles, as if on a trek through Nepal rather than a destination in Surrey or Hampshire. My stomach burns and I ask myself what I resent. Surely it is unreasonable to feel pleasure in spring bird song, the emergence of fat bumblebees and the acid green of new leaves, but to be angry with people for coming out too. I reflect on undeveloped consciousness (“I had not thought death had undone so many”) and the enjoyment of warmth limited to the removal of clothes. Unreasonably, it is this that angers me.
I am that sort of person despised as a miserablist, my enjoyment of a sunny day spoiled by thoughts of climate change. This is a snapshot and only one part, but my mood is one of mourning, as much for the missing parts of myself (the powerful, the zany, the childlike) as anything else. I will be walking and I am apprehensive of cyclists dinging their bells behind me so that I have to jump out of their way. If I want to pass someone in front of me I’ll say: “Morning” or “Excuse me”. Walkers don’t have personal bells to ping at people who walk more slowly, so why, I ask myself, should the power of speech abandon cyclists? I also acknowledge that I’m not feeling very well physically, my chest hurts, my legs ache, I’m tired, so I shall not be too self-critical. Only later in the walk, after I’m committed, do I discover that it is six miles – not far normally, but a lot when I’m sick.
The dismal café
I arrive at Leatherhead, a surprisingly unpleasant place, with a nasty shopping mall. The café I stop at serves the kind of coffee and pastry I might have expected to get thirty years ago. As I walk through the high street I am aware of my judgements and thoughts dinging like the bells of an army of cyclists. Here are two young women, office workers, comparing the logistics of their narrow ambitions in voices too loud, too overlapping, for either of them to listen.
There’s the family eating outside a branch of Subway, the parents and children disturbingly obese, physically carrying the shame and disapproval of the culture. Subway reminds me of the American comedy-drama ‘Chuck’, which it sponsored, in which the main protagonists (all members of various US security services) regularly refer to, and accept without question, the existence of rendition, black sites and regime change. I watched every episode, supping deep of the amiability, the escapism, the ‘nerd becomes hero’ mythos, barely conscious of how the series normalised the unacceptable until I was free of its trance.
Grumbling and mumbling to myself, and conscious of looks, I keep going. Oh yes, ‘looks’ – I think of that offensive advertisement for a cold remedy that carries the strapline ‘colds are never a good look’. Clearly illness renders one unwell. Sometimes, certainly not always, one also looks unwell. This odious advertising suggests that looking well is so important that we cannot risk a cold because we cannot be seen to be human and vulnerable. I think of the precariat – and how the most vulnerable worker is compelled to appear cheerful and employable.
A short walk and I leave this behind to find myself walking beside the River Mole, cloudy with chalk. I hope for a kingfisher, but I’m unlucky. There’s a Brimstone butterfly, newly emerged from hibernation. I count six more on my walk, all far enough apart to be separate insects, though taking a photo proves impossible. Perhaps the source of ‘butterfly’, they dance and flutter like scraps of pretty paper in the air, sometimes resting for a moment before darting into the breeze again, lit by the sunlight, and their free movement and restless energy fills me with momentary appreciation and contentment.
Before long I’m in Norbury Park and lost. I miss a turn and wander around foolishly, confounded by similar paths and tracks. Occasional signs are for Public Bridleways or Permissive Bridleways, no destination suggested. I start to feel anxious. Aren’t we vulnerable animals? I wonder what it would be like if there were only animal tracks or if I couldn’t hear the angry whine of distant motorbikes (the background noise of the countryside in these parts). There is no GPS signal and my map isn’t good enough, but obstinacy stops me from asking the way of the one or two people I meet. I reflect on the difficulty of asking for help. More often than not the directions we receive are misleading or given unwillingly. Worst of all, there is misdirection.
Of course my obstinacy stems from my fear of being seen not to know, or to be unable to intuit, my way through the woods. I learned from my father that the price of instruction was disparagement. I try to will myself to enjoy my surroundings but find it almost impossible. The printed directions don’t help, a picnic site is not the right picnic site. One of the picnic tables invites me to ‘explore – experience – create – connect’ and I take up the challenge. The legion of kissing gates through which I am supposed to pass have disappeared. I think of kissing. I think of having company in the woods, to be lost together and how that would be nice, then I could pretend to take charge (and the lichen grows in this direction, and the sun sets over there, so we need to go here).
I also think about support, as I lean against a warm rough trunk. My life, never an easy one, has entered its bleakest trajectory, and my support is isolated and infrequent as I struggle to resist total annihilation. Being open to instinct means listening for clues, finding the art and literature that speaks to one’s personal difficulties. The day after my walk I found this from the psychoanalyst Robert Stein, writing as if for me alone:
The distrust that men feel about a woman’s love, nowadays, is generally valid. This is primarily because so many modern women feel shattered by the slightest rejection from the man they love, even when they have done something to provoke his anger. Because they are so dependent on the man’s lovingness to keep up their illusion of their own lovingness, they tend to crumble and feel worthless when the man feels negatively towards them. Of course, this gives the man an enormous power, but the woman counteracts this with an even greater power: her capacity to paralyze the man with guilt, which is her only defence against the brute force of masculine impersonality and cruelty. It is a dirty tool to use this instinctual power against a man when it is really her own feeling of inadequacy that is undermining her. But she is generally unable to face this; instead, she expresses a deep hurt and self-righteous reproachment to the man. The man is made to feel inhumanly cold and cruel, while in reality he has only been humanly angry. This evokes a deep anger in the man because it gives him no possibility of being and expressing himself with her, and it places the entire burden of maintaining the love connection on him. In addition, out of the shattered self of the woman an enormous wrath often emerges. A man rightfully fears the damage and destruction which she is capable of inflicting on others or herself when she is fragmented. How can a man trust a woman’s love when she may destroy him or herself if the honest expression of his feelings may hurt her?
Robert Stein, Incest and Human Love, 1973
That quotation needs balance:
Still another side to the modern love problem is a man’s desperate need for a loving woman and the demand she places upon the woman to fulfil the archetypal image. He gets at the woman where she feels most inadequate, yet she must resist becoming this image for him if she is to realize herself. Because of this demand, she becomes even less loving than she is. The legitimate resentment of the woman at being forced into an archetypal role is thus piled upon the man’s legitimate resentment of the woman’s lack of lovingness. Only if the man can remove his demand for the archetypal feminine from the woman and find it within himself; and only if the woman can free herself of her dependency on the man’s love as a way of finding her connection to her own love, is there any hope of breaking up this destructive pattern in the modern male-female relationship.
Robert Stein, ibid., 1973
The woods are still, with many beech trees (the last to show green) and hazel coppice. I don’t hear many birds in this wood, just once a group of squabbling jackdaws, otherwise only my struggling breath as I climb. Does this vulnerability explain our hubris, our need to build monumental structures, to pursue our ecocidal policies? Does the naked fear that starts to rise, the prickling sweaty horror, ensure that forests are over-managed and signposted at best, cut down and built over at worst? I see signs for Druids Grove and baulk at what I imagine to be an unrewarding visit to another picnic site, mostly because I am still anxious to find my way. Later I discover that this is a grove of ancient yews, some of the oldest trees in the country, and I feel ashamed (and vow to return).
The magical garden
The trees and paths seem indistinguishable, the silence deafening because the only voice I can hear is the self-critical voice, which becomes more strident by the minute: why are you afraid? This is Surrey not the Gobi desert, get a grip on yourself. I stop to breathe, realising that I am close to panic. And it as that point, when I have allowed my breath, that I become aware of the most fantastic garden of moss all around me.
Fallen trunks are carpeted in spongy green carpets. Living trees and stands of tiny saplings bear mossy skirts. Small wonder that this forest is so quiet, sounds are muffled in the moss. Enchanted I stop to touch the springy softness and immediately I feel the release as my fear subsides. The reasonable thought emerges, that I’m walking in the right direction and soon I’ll find my way out, but to allow the reasonable I first had to allow the magic and immediacy of my surroundings.
Out of the valley
Finally, I leave the wood behind, and as I walk into Westhumble, there’s the buzz of a light aircraft. I want to describe it as a monoplane as if there might be some doubt. I recognise that I have entered a sequestered world of riches, the only sounds to disrupt the quiet are those that of small aeroplanes and hedge trimmers. This is the England of P.G. Wodehouse and Dennis Wheatley. It comes as no surprise when a sign announces the Royal School of Church Music. Only a red-faced organist hurrying by with a sheaf of scores is missing. I remember singing in the church choir as a boy, having to compete even then for various medallions indicative of merit. The houses are called cottages even if they are mansions, and even here among the sentimental names, the camellias past their best, and the prominent alarm systems, there is resonance. Always a name, a connection, an echo: Mulberry Cottage, Wild Berry Lodge, The White House.
One lukewarm sausage sandwich and a pint of fizz later, I pass a mock Elizabethan pile as the owner emerges from one of his three chariots. He regards me with a thin-lipped look of disdain, patrician nose slightly up as if detecting an odour of sweat. The truth is that I envy him. Not his cars, his dreadful pile of a house or his awful work, but his certainty and his comfort. Those are things he shares with the young women in the throwback café, content with climbing the ladders of accomplishment. The rewards are tangible, whether the log fire of the rentier or the new build of the office worker, rewards that seem more remote to me than ever.
I walk through an extensive vineyard, the serried vines separated with grass lanes but little other evidence of life, so I’m glad when a woolly brown dog keeps me company for a while. We ignore each other but as he falls back to snuffle and root at the interesting smells, then races forward, he feels like the company I need today. From far away his owner calls him back but he ignores her, to my secret satisfaction.
Turning a corner I hear the first siren for hours, announcing my return to the ‘normal’. I had hoped for a tea room at Dorking, but there’s nothing near the station except dual carriageway. An idiot in a shell suit accelerates his bike and does a wheelie escaping from the lights, the ambient noise I had noticed before transformed into a deafening screech that reverberates in my head.
As soon as I get back to London I start to feel awful again. Out in the air, even the air of Surrey, the sneezing and runny nose stopped almost completely. But now the madness descends again. I am transfixed, rooted to the spot in the supermarket as I see blackberries from Mexico, raspberries from South Africa, and blueberries from Chile. It is not as if this profligacy was new to me, it is that once one has been anywhere remotely authentic, the opposite becomes even more glaringly apparent.
What am I to make of the day? I took a path into the woods and got lost. The path I found out was not the one that I had planned to take. I nearly panicked, but Pan is not to be reasoned with. He is a god, and he demands respect and fealty. Pan of course was the god who died1, and this marked the ascendancy of Christianity and reason. As Jung famously opined ‘The gods have become our diseases’, so the death and reappearance of Pan as panic and anxiety remind us of our failure to tend his altar.
I have seen that there are routes other than the ones imperfectly marked on the map. And the mistakes made in map reading can be corrected as the place is revisited. I will go again, visit the grove of yews and offer something, find the suggested route, see how it feels, but I am sure that in many ways the route I took yesterday was the right one. At some level, I needed the fear, the powerlessness, so that I could ‘explore – experience – create – connect’. On my return, I found the writing I needed to find, to give context to some of my present difficulties and to help me withdraw my anima projections (more about those here).
The other day a colleague spoke of a workshop she had attended in which the facilitator (another woman) had talked about the importance of ‘cock energy’. This is such a good expression. All of us, both men and women, need to sometimes find cock energy, to thrust ourselves into life. But the abiding image of my walk was the Brimstones: I thought of the coloured paper we used to tear up for mosaics at primary school, how each torn piece was like a butterfly. As I try to break the shackles of fear, as I hunt for what remains of thrust and momentum, the lightness of the Brimstones will stay with me.
This is a piece about melancholy. These days we call so much psychological suffering depression, losing subtlety and even accuracy. Melancholy deserves to be restored as something of importance. But this culture holds sadness in contempt.
For perspective, some time back I wrote a piece about depression (you can read it here). In it, I suggested that by being in nature we can honour our depression rather than attacking it. This isn’t about ‘cure’, or a moral injunction (“go and have a good walk, that’ll do you good”), it’s about valuing oneself in different ways. Once again James Hillman is our reliable psychopomp:
Depression tends to make you focus on yourself. The very focus on oneself that we do in therapy is, per se, a depressive move. Therapy could be causing depression as much as curing it, because the classic symptoms of depression are remorse, a concentration on oneself, repetition – “What’s wrong with me? How did it get this way? I shouldn’t have done that.”
Feeling broke and poor and without energy – in other words, a withdrawal of libido from the world. The moment you’re focusing back on the world as dysfunctional, you’re drawing attention to the world. That’s not depressing.
James Hillman and Michael Ventura, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – and the World’s Getting Worse, 1993
Hillman suggests focusing on small tasks, just as a volunteer will clean the foreshore of plastic rubbish. The story of the forest fire and the hummingbird told by Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Muta Maathai is a great illustration of this.
Social media is full of highly defended advice for the depressed to get out and get active, go running or kayaking or whatever. Even going for a walk is sometimes impossible. But I believe the first step back from melancholy is to recognise that Saturn’s perspective (“What’s wrong with me? How did it get this way? I shouldn’t have done that.”) is just one of many. Here are Hillman and Ventura in dialogue from the same wonderful book I quoted from above:
Ventura: […] all this dysfunction doesn’t personally depress me because it gives me a lot of room to maneuver in, an awful lot of room to maneuver in.
Hillman: Right. It says, off the bat, “I’m not neurotic.” That’s a huge relief.
Ventura: “I’m not neurotic, this is not my fault, and it’s not my family’s fault either.”
Hillman: “the world-soul’s sickness is announcing its despair through me.”
Ventura: “But I’m not a victim, because this is the sweep of history and I’m a participant.”
Hillman: Which also means, “I’m also not the healer.”
Ventura: “Putting it all right is not my job” – which is another lightening of the weight, more room to maneuver in.
James Hillman and Michael Ventura, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – and the World’s Getting Worse, 1993
So it’s possible to put down much of the weight of the dysfunction, but without giving up. That leaves us with the personal. Sometimes you can’t do anything for yourself, nothing works. The key is acceptance, to allow the weight to almost crush. Go to bed, cover up, whatever feels safe, but hold in your heart the idea of the world-soul, that it’s there and waiting for you, and even if we have made it sick it is still powerful. What follows is a moment, an expression, of honouring melancholy. It is not a recipe or a template.
A melancholy meander through Battersea Park
Today I took a walk because the sun invited me. At other times I might refuse the invitation: I might be busy or unwell or just not feel like it. Today I accepted: it felt right. The place is Battersea Park by the Thames in London, a mid-Victorian amenity, once quite famous, now rather shabby at the edges. It used to host a supervised adventure playground that was demolished by Wandsworth council, but not before it was occupied and became, briefly, famous once more.
My purpose today though was political in the broader sense, to connect with the world-soul, and here I invite you to keep me company.
I don’t want to walk down a main road so I take the bus for a few stops and enter through the north western gate. On the lawn of the gatekeeper’s cottage there are yellow crocuses. They don’t look too bad – normally I don’t care for them much, they are so prone to damage from rain/wind/dogs, but these shine in the sun.
The vegetable garden
I’m in the vegetable garden now, Thrive run it. There’s a robin singing on a tree as I enter, an announcement and a warning. This is its tree, and its call is echoed by another robin nearby. I won’t see many species this morning because there are other people here. A few days back I stood very still by the decking area, and watched as birds darted back and forth to feed on seeds that had been left under the walnut tree. Long-tailed tits perched above my head. A nuthatch, sleek and slate grey elegant, decided that my presence was an acceptable risk. That’s pretty much all one has the right to expect of other animals.
The vegetable beds are prepared for the Spring. They are composted, mostly bare except for some onions, but dug beautifully and pregnant with purpose. I want to grab a big double handful of that good earth and press my face into it. I examine the asparagus bed, decorated with a few spindly brown fronds from last year. The first spears won’t start to poke up their heads until April, but it gives me such pleasure to see the dormant mound, a reminder of the ‘Battersea Bunches’ that were grown when market gardens were here, on land ‘reclaimed’ from the Thames. Wait, there’s something new here, a new space penetrates the bed of plants for women’s health. Is the ‘path’ a figure? A keyhole? A vagina? Now I’ll be able to see the plants more clearly. A wren appears, flicks its tail, disappears into cracks in the fence, hunting for spiders.
The ‘Old English’ garden
A short walk takes me to the Old English Garden. The pond has been emptied for cleaning and the isolated water lily pots look vulnerable and forlorn. A mound of green blanket weed has been heaped to the side. I look at the wisteria and notice the trunk for the first time. It seems to writhe and twist around a youth carrying a bundle of rushes, and I think of how we stand in the field of each other’s projections, rarely connecting with the other. I see the heads of monsters and damned souls, but when do I see the plant, its age, its struggle to the light?
A rustle, a darting shape, jittery, pecking – it’s a hedge sparrow. It is generally described in bird books as ‘promiscuous’ in its mating habits. It is as if the authors were entirely unconscious of ascribing their own values to a different species. This little brown and grey bird is so beautiful. Because of its colouring, it is rarely seen – but the vegetative cover that conceals it for most of the year has not yet grown. And the song is a delight, the rapid modulation impossible to follow.
I stand and listen, half-awake, conscious of two homeless people who have slept here. I see many of the homeless in Battersea with suitcases now, as if they are stopping for a rest after getting the train back from Gatwick. Perhaps that is sometimes true, the last fifty quid spent on an Easyjet break. Things might seem better outside the trattoria, a glass of water with the coffee, sipping Cynar, feeling as if good things might happen. Then the return, the locks changed, the hope gone. The suitcase suggests a temporary homelessness. The surroundings an embarrassment, as if we should understand that the sleeper is really at work. “Just off for the corporate bonding weekend in Bergamo.” How transient our pleasures are these days. I have been to this park and walked for an hour and in that time I have seen not one person walking for the sake of it, but dozens either with dogs or running (sometimes running with dogs).
Delighted by the hedge sparrows (also called dunnocks), I start to think of house sparrows (the dunnock is an Accentor). Twenty years ago, the sparrows seemed to disappear from London almost overnight. About ten years later I went to Guernsey and found two trees in St. Peter Port full of sparrows. It seemed as if every squabbling sparrow in London had fled to these two magical trees, and there they stayed in conference until quite recently, safe by the sea. And I am reminded of how sparrows are connected to Aphrodite, because of their supposedly lascivious nature, and how we continue to split mind and instinct, to deny the erotic in nature.
The dog walkers
I walk towards the strange relics of the Festival of Britain, surprised as always that they are still there and not blown away. At the coffee kiosk, women and dogs sit together, humans and canines about as different in their respective physiologies as possible. I get the feeling that none of the dogs looks happy, nor do their owners. Dolorous hounds sit next to twitching chihuahuas. A neurotic Pomeranian scratches a flea bite with a bony hind leg like a chicken wing. Does its silly dainty face dream of loping through the snow with the wolf pack, nostrils full of the smell of fat and warm fur?
A miniature pug has escaped and is in hiding. A large woman calls for it, but it stands there trembling slightly, its red lead trailing behind it like blood. “There you are. You little tinker,” she says indulgently as she gathers up the trail of blood. The pug snuffles: I wonder what it feels as it looks up at her with its black eyes, perhaps the half-formed desire to run and hunt mixed with fear of the giant world, and the pull of the warm carpet and this comfortable woman shaking the packet of dog biscuits, teasing, holding the power. I buy coffee and sit in the sun with it, away from the scratching bickering dogs, my face held back, feeling the warmth, wrapped in my comfortable fleece, dreaming of my own running and the fears that keep me enslaved.
The melancholy of abandoned clothes
A family arrive. Mum, dad, two girls and a boy. They’re looking for something, talking in a language I don’t recognise, one of the Baltic languages perhaps. The girls sound bored and whiny. The father doesn’t smile I notice, though the mother does, nervously. Someone has impaled a woolly hat on the railings and this appears to be one of the lost items. One of the girls takes it and holds it to her as if it is a thing immeasurably soft and comforting. They look for a few minutes unsuccessfully and the father asks at the coffee kiosk if anything has been handed in. Disappointed, they sit down to coffee and drinks, with much argument and the grating of metal chair legs.
The peace is broken, I finish my coffee and leave. But didn’t I see some clothing by the fountain lake? I walk back and sure enough, there is a child’s coat on the ground. Returning to the family I ask them if they have lost a child’s coat, dark blue I tell them, puffy. “With silver?” the father asks. I tell him I didn’t see any silver but offer to show him. “We come yesterday, have coffee, forget clothes”, he explains. “Easily done”, I reply. I suppose it is, the warmth of the sun after many weeks of winter, taking off the layers that we habitually wear, casting them aside, taking risks. Have coffee, forget clothes. Then the guilty remembrance of the protection that we’ll need, the abandoned parts of ourselves, stolen or sodden with rain. Not looked after.
No wonder the girl held the woolly hat so close: when she pulled it over her ears she felt warmer, and the screams of the sirens were muted.
I point out the abandoned coat, lying by the pond like a small twisted corpse, and wondering how it had moved so far. The father grunts thanks and walks towards it with purpose. He still hasn’t smiled. I take a different direction but, looking back, I see him holding the coat as if it might get angry and bite him. Was it the lost garment? Or did it just look to be a good enough replacement? I will never know, but writing about it now it seems important. Would the girl put on the coat with relief and the sigh of contentment that betrays the habitual, the comforting? Or would she reject it, disown it? Would the unsmiling Daddy demand that she take it, the comfort of another? All this I consider as I walk towards the bandstand.
Preparing the beds
A heap of manure stands in the path. Council workmen are carting it into smaller piles on the flower beds. I remember spreading compost, my back aching, the wheelbarrow handles becoming heavier to lift. I also recall the pleasure as the big mound shrinks and how good the beds look with their brown blankets, the pleasure of spreading the compost, the warm mushroom smell of it. “At least we don’t have to walk so far today,” says one of the workers. In a moment I would have traded places with him. By the end of each day I would be tired, my back stiff and painful, but I could walk away, a job done and the earth nurtured, back to my own nourishment and bed, a gestalt.
Past the bowling green (‘flat shoes only’ a sign says, and for a moment I imagine a group of glam rockers in platform boots, arguing over the rules) and there is the Pump House, now a gallery. I note that there is a new exhibition and as always I hope for something I can relate to. And here is a tree that often seems to be a natural depiction of pain and melancholy. This is the tree I thought of when I wrote this haiku:
Because we’re so fast We can’t see how a tree writhes. We think we’re alone.
At the ornamental lake the warmth of the late winter sun surrounds me, I’m enveloped in a faint glow and the branches are gilded. I see pochard and tufted duck. There are the resident pair of swans. Not long ago I watched one of their nine almost full-grown cygnets fly up as if it had a fancy to roost in a tree, like one of the rose-ringed parakeets that live here now. At the top of its ascent, it lost control and fell out of the sky like a sack of cement, hitting the concrete path with a horrible slap. It was bruised and clearly shocked, but nothing seemed broken. I remember how hard it was to walk away.
I pass the big hybrid Arbutus and admire the chestnut colour of its bark, and later I see two chestnut spaniels sparring. They lunge and feint at each other, and I am overjoyed to see dogs that are alive, playful and shining. To feel that joy does not mean that my melancholy is ‘cured’. It means that by staying with my felt sense I have allowed other responses, and this is one of them. I hope the importance of allowing melancholy rather than attacking it is clear.
I walk back, passing more crocuses, and these for once are perfect. Leaving the park, my senses heightened, I spot campanula dribbling down the crack in a brick wall.
And here is ornamental quince, the white variety, in delicious bud. This walk was blessed. I was able to see beyond the managed urban space to the life beneath, to carry this out with me for a while, to recognise that the world of our creation is more melancholy than I am, and to feel energised for another day.
The inner fire
Wandsworth ‘council’ had approved an application for Formula E racing in the park. This is how we are sinking, we cannot keep a space in any way sacred. No one walks, and it’s OK to race cars around a park where birds are feeding their young. We are unable to repair the split between Eros and Psyche, our cultural contempt and fear of instinct has caused rupture and disturbance in our behaviour. Let us resolve to change this. As I write these words it is not surprising that I recall Rilke’s unequivocal demand, and just as he saw change to be the purpose of Art, so I see the need to change is here around us in the soul of the world. I close this piece with words more beautiful and immediate than any of mine.
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his legendary head with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs to that dark centre where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.
I began this piece as a psychological perspective on the political situation in the Channel Island of Sark, but something happened to divert me into the lyrical and the ecstatic. Because the lyricism that came to me felt authentic I have let the piece stand as I wrote it, though it may appear disjointed.
Famously, Sark was the last feudal state in Europe until its first democratic elections were held in 2008, considerably reducing the powers of the hereditary Lord of the Manor, the ‘Seigneur’, Michael Beaumont. I do not wish to spend too much time on the background, but for those unaware of the history, it may be useful to visit journalist John Sweeney’s Panorama programme investigating the tax affairs of the Barclay brothers (who own the neighbouring island of Brecqhou and many businesses in Sark on top of their businesses in the UK and elsewhere).
An article in The Independent from January 2014 recounts the events following those first elections. Apparently angered by their lack of success in the elections, the Barclays closed their businesses on Sark, throwing around 140 people (of a total population of around 600) out of work. This decision was reversed a few weeks later. More recently the brothers announced that they would close their four hotels on Sark for 2015 for the foreseeable future. It is believed that this tactic was a response to the island parliament’s refusal to set up a customs post on Sark, thus permitting direct travel from France.
The brothers conduct their businesses on Sark through the company Sark Estate Management. This Guardian article from November 2014 relates something of the toxicity of events and, in particular, the behaviour of the CEO of Sark Estate Management, Kevin Delaney, as evidenced in the pages of his Sark Newspaper.
I write here as an occasional visitor to Sark. Sometimes I manage a couple of day trips a year. Sometimes I get to stay a few nights. I claim no in-depth knowledge of the island economy or its infrastructure. However, I know a little of island life. I have family who have been living on Alderney (a little larger than Sark, with more facilities) for 43 years, and I have been visiting the islands almost annually for 61 years. I know that island life is sometimes hard. It is often necessary to take on several jobs. Work is frequently impossible because of adverse weather conditions. Often families keep feuds alive for generations, with the original causes of the enmity often long forgotten.
To live on an island one might perhaps be expected to develop an insular way of being, a fortress mentality. One might be stubborn, defended and anachronistic. It is easy to lose sight of the ‘bigger picture’ and cling on to outdated values. To some extent that has been true in Sark. There was considerable justification for democratic elections, particularly in relation to the practice of primogeniture. But island life can also foster a psychologically healthy state of inter-dependence. Residents of a small community such as Sark can ill afford division (they rely on each other more than on the mainland) – much less the kind of deep division that has been generated by the events of recent years.
A psychological perspective
Rather than focus on the division itself, I want to turn my attention to the psychology of the Barclay brothers. Once the brothers had bought their island, Brecqhou, they spent millions of pounds on transforming the rugged beauty of the island (which they described as an ‘eyesore’ before the alterations). They poured thousands of tons of topsoil onto the rocks, planted on a massive scale, and created a fairy-tale retreat. There is a mock gothic castle, a harbour, a lake with fountains, a village complete with a local pub, and two heliports. The image below shows the beginning of the terraforming process. The following image shows it nearly complete.
And this more recent image, shot from a different direction, shows the design close to completion.
Let’s consider the fantasy here. I think of the term ‘fairy-tale’ frequently in relation to these events. The brothers are secretive: access to their island gardens by the public was allowed briefly while their Sark hotels were open. Guests had to be security cleared, whatever that entailed, and photography of the buildings was forbidden. The creation of the castle itself was shrouded in secrecy (as once indicated here by the sadly discontinued satirical website Guernsey Futu) prompting John Sweeney’s first investigative report. Clearly something more is going on here than ‘just’ the building of an expensive house and grounds.
Notwithstanding the conspiracy theories, the tales of an underground nuclear bunker or a casino, the brothers have bought themselves a sandpit, and in it, they have built a fantasy castle in the same way that a child might build a castle out of Lego. It is secret. It is on an island. We can see it above all as a romantic move. But like children, the brothers want more, a bigger island, more bits and bobs for the fantasy kingdom, as a child decorates every empty space with shells and trinkets. The Barclays want a funicular railway from Sark harbour up to the village, in other words, a train set. They have planted hectares of vines on both islands, both the vines and wine redolent of myth, of romance. And also, again much like children, they get uncontrollably upset when they don’t get their own way. They break their toys (the hotels, the businesses), throwing them away and only grudgingly taking them back. They make demands and expect them to be met.
The brothers gave Sark £200,000 for a new community centre. Then they demanded the money back, jointly and severally suing the trustees (unsuccessfully). They had given a present and then, finding that the conditions of giving were not met, they tried to withdraw it. The Barclays dearly want to play with the other children, but the other children don’t like them, and the brothers, rejected and hurt, are left to withdraw to their castle to plot their revenge.
Hearts and minds
In an article in the Telegraph (the Barclays’ own newspaper) the President of the Chief Pleas (Sark’s parliament), Lt. Col. Reg Guille says, “We are a very independent breed. We live and work by our own hand and long may it continue”. This is what the Barclays have not understood, that they must win hearts and minds, and do the work of understanding the culture of Sark if they want to be invited to play. Instead, their agent, Kevin Delaney, has resorted to a propaganda war against what he describes as the Sark establishment. The scale of the attack (Delaney compares the ‘establishment’ to Nazi Germany in the 1930s) has left some residents feeling bullied and traumatised.
Ironically, The Sark Newspaper’s tone (accusatory, angry, hectoring, blaming) is not a little reminiscent of the infamous Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer (‘The Attacker’), the Wikipedia entry for which reads, “[It] was known for its use of simple themes that took little thought”. Carl Jung had this to say about the abuse of power:
We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate; it oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condemn, not his friend and fellow sufferer.
C.G. Jung, CW 11, Psychology and Religion: West and East, Chapter V, “Psychotherapy or the Clergy,” § 519-520
Nothing is without shadow. Delaney’s accusations of dictatorial behaviour, of criminality and wrongdoing amongst Sark residents, may or may not have a basis in truth. But the psychologist has to wonder to what extent these allegations are a projection, an identification in others of behaviour that is unacceptable in oneself. In any community, there will be some who are either actively breaking laws or who are operating at the margins of what is legal. So Delaney’s sustained attacks on the ‘octogenarian’ Seigneur, Michael Beaumont (now deceased – his son Christopher is the current Seigneur), describing him as a tyrant, might be Delaney’s projection – and by extension that of the Barclays. The psychologist James Hillman wrote this:
We adhere to what works for us. What works becomes a privileged way of doing things, soon the only way of doing things. As we get older, and more blind, this tyranny of habitual consciousness becomes more and more visible to others.
James Hillman, Kinds of Power: a guide to its intelligent uses. 1995
In other words, the habitual way of doing things, to bully, to oppress, becomes the only way. The oppressor has become blind, an enraged child, unable to find other ways of influencing.
The mirror of Sark
But why care about this tiny island and its affairs? Because the tragedy in Sark is a mirror for events playing out in the rest of the world. In the UK, and across the globe, rich and influential oligarchs are taking control of land and businesses, stifling competition, and creating a new soviet of rentiers. The Guernsey Press, fearful of a ‘blight’ on the island’s economy, the spectre of closed hotels ‘left to gather dust’, asked for mediation. But a mediator would have an unenviable task and would need to understand the tensions on both sides. Perhaps the Guernsey Press fell into the trap of believing in the perennial modern fantasy of constant growth, a fantasy that has led to the present state of titanism in the ‘global economy’.
A walk through Sark
“With great power comes great responsibility,” said Voltaire, words that went unheeded by the French aristocracy. But eleven years after Voltaire’s death, the Bastille was stormed. While Sark is not pre-revolutionary Paris, nor is the castle on Brecqhou the Bastille, history is replete with examples of the powerful ignoring the weak until it is too late. So my request to Sir David and Sir Frederick, their son Aidan Barclay and their agent Kevin Delaney (and perhaps to some of the population of Sark as well) is this: consider how your wealth and power can be used to benefit Sark, not to harm it further. To help you in stepping out of the drama triangle of Persecutor/Victim/Rescuer in which you are so enmeshed, I take an imaginative walk through Sark from the harbour to the La Sablonnerie tea gardens, from memory. I invite you to join me:
The harbour to Dixcart bay
I walk up the slippery harbour steps from the ferry. Every time I have done this, without exception, I have seen the happy faces of people waiting to greet friends or family. I see many familiar faces, though I don’t know their names. Going through the short tunnel, rejoicing in the light and the sweet air, I pass by the ‘toast rack’ conveyances because I prefer to walk. Up the hill, a few paces take me to the path that runs parallel to the road up to the village. I take it as I always do, and the flowers are like jewels. At the top of the hill, I nod and smile at the carriage drivers. I need to walk, but I’m glad they’re standing ready, the horses bobbing their heads. Turning left at the crossroads, there’s the house with the cats and the garden with the apple tree. Another path runs past a water trough where goldfinches are bickering. Soon I’m in a bluebell wood, young green leaves filtering the sun.
I turn left down a path, a stream beside me, and I emerge into glorious light. Ahead there is a wide beach, the stream splashing on to pebbles and the sea stretched out before me. Done exploring, I walk back up the path and a young woman greets me, smiling. “How is the sea this morning?” she asks. “Glittering,” I tell her. We pass our different ways, conscious of something that happened between us of no importance, which also matters more than anything else, a meeting charged with love.
The Convanche chasm
Now I’m back in the wood, darker here, more mysterious. The trees are young, slender and strangely tall, but the sunken valley feels old, and the stream keeps me company. Then past two hotels, through some of the vineyards (and I wonder what they’re sprayed with), over a stile and on through the cliff path. Blackthorn is all around me in a froth, warblers are singing, the sea distant as I rise higher on to the back of the island. I want to stroke it, smooth its fur, and I do, running my hand through grass and leaves. Almost before I’m ready, there is that awful chasm, not quite separating the two islands. It is the waist of the wasp, and I’m on it, looking apprehensively at the frost cracks in the concrete. My stomach clenching as I look down into the depths.
But I take my time, savouring the moment, the unparalleled view, the sea so turquoise-blue it seems impossible. No sea can be this colour. There should be mermaids at least or Aphrodite herself might spring forth from the waters of Grand Grève.
Down the dusty road I tramp, each opening, left or right, offering a new possibility. There’s a field of corn marigolds, there an old mill turbaned with ivy.
I resist refreshment, I turn and weave, through a gate, down past the crumbling ruins of the old silver mines, and I think about greed and growth. Look at that ivy growing there, the stems so gnarled and thick, did you stand here too Mervyn? Did you see Titus and Steerpike here, fighting for their lives?.
I reach the sea again, it boils here and I think I’d like to set a conger line. But I just sit and hear the current roiling in the crevices. I feel the power of it as it thuds against the rocks, and let the salt spray moisten my skin. I sniff that iodine tang, the rich rot of the ocean.
I go back, the cries of gulls echoing around the cliffs, and this time I give in to hunger. Walking through this lovely garden (where even the outside toilets have fresh flowers), I sit where I always sit. I order the seafood chowder (I always do). Then I look around and think about stealing the prints of Alderney on the wall, but don’t. Outside Jersey Tigers flash orange under-wings as they dart between the blooms.
Let’s stay here for now. Another time, we might take a different path, and watch sea mist roll in over the northern headlands.
Or we might visit the rocks and bays from a boat, and wonder at what fire and molten minerals finally cooled to form these fantastic shapes.
We might visit the harbour and fish for longnose and pollack. We might watch curious mullet nose around the piles of the jetty. Then, spotting a pod of dolphins in fast pursuit of a shoal of fish, arching and leaping through the water, we are awed beyond speech, and can only point mutely in their wake.
Another time. For now, I wonder if we could sit here and draw up some tables, I’m sure they won’t mind. Let’s drink some tea, eat some cake and turn our faces to the sun. And now, may I ask you this? Can you Men of Power see beyond your influence and the sphere of your control? Will you sit with me here, simply, frugally, and consider the ecstatic beauty of what surrounds you, the absolute privilege that we share in being here? Can I persuade you to recognise that it is not just profit that you seek? To play together only one thing is needed: a shared delight in play.