Boris Johnson, COVID-19 and Oedipus Rex – part 1

In which I show how the blindness of Oedipus Rex, far from belonging only to ancient Greek myth, continues to be played out in political theatre and personal dynamics, particularly in the person of Boris Johnson. I also show how the response of the state to sickness has not moved on from the Thebes of two and a half thousand years ago, and that the advent of the Coronavirus disease pandemic (COVID-19) has been managed with a lack of imagination rooted in literalism.

Boris Johnson/Oedipus Rex
Boris Johnson and Oedipus the King – shared blindness

In 1987 James Hillman delivered his lecture ‘Oedipus Revisited’ to the Eranos Conference “Crossroads” at Ascona, Switzerland. Beginning his talk, Hillman identified Freud’s analysis of Oedipus as the defining myth of modern psychology. For as much as Freud understood how myth permeates ordinary family life, he was unable to see how he literalised his own analytical method – his fantasy. Hillman’s address is perhaps the most important critique of psychological method yet made, and it should be required reading in every college of psychotherapy – but it is not, which is a tragic illustration of how the power of myth becomes literalised once it is bonded with money.

Individual patients struggling with self-knowledge are so convinced by the fictions of childhood because they are Oedipus, who finds who he is by finding out about his infancy, its wounds and abandonment. The entire massive apparatus of counselling, social work, developmental psychology – therapy in every form – continues rehearsing the myth, practising the play it practices.

Oedipus Revisited. Mythic Figures. James Hillman Uniform Edition. Spring publications, 2007

We tend to associate the name Oedipus with Freud’s famous complex of that name, but the original story of Sophocle’s play Oedipus Tyrannus (more commonly known as Oedipus Rex ) is the tragedy of a man who takes things literally. In the green boxes I present the story of Oedipus in mini-chapters:

Laius, a prince of the city of Thebes, is forced to leave the city and is taken in by King Pelops. The king has a beautiful son, Chrysippus, who Laius tutors, then abducts and rapes. Returning to Thebes, Laius takes the throne and marries Jocasta. Cursed for this betrayal, and unable to give Jocasta a child, he makes several visits to the oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi and hears that he must sire no male children. Depending on the version, the consequence of having a son would be either the destruction of Thebes or that the son would kill Laius and marry Jocasta.

So far two significant things, two tragedies, have come about. The first is that Laius’s lust for Chrysippus became literal, ruining any relationship Laius might have had with the boy, and breaking the bond of trust he had with the boy’s father, Pelops. James Hillman says this:

Fathers neglect their sons, do not fulfil the erotic bond, because of the incest taboo. Fathers like Laius hear the taboo only literally and so may love only other men’s sons… If Laius is cursed for pederasty, his abducting Chrysippus from Pelops, this pederasty results from his literalism. He hears the prohibition against incest as a prohibition against eros.1 The repressed returns as homoeros.


The second tragedy is that Laius literalises the words of the oracle. Heraclitus wrote: “The lord whose oracle is that at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but indicates.” Rather than taking the risk that he would not be actually killed by his son, but perhaps humbled or bettered in some way, Laius immediately assumes a literal death.

Apollo is the god of judgment from afar. He is the giver of laws, but he is also called Far-darter, as his arrows bring remote vengeance. Nowadays, assassination by drone belongs to his archetype. He is associated with Helios the sun, bringing light to the darkness. He can deliver people from the plague, or he can inflict it. He is associated with medicine, either by himself or through his son Asclepius. He inspires: we say, “it came to me like a bolt out of the blue.” But we need to be careful with the sudden answer, the miraculous insight – the suddenness of it can be a trap for the intellectually arrogant.

Let’s move on to the next event:

Drunk, and unable to control himself, Laius has sex with Jocasta. Nine months later she gives birth to a son. Still literalising the words of the oracle, Laius has the baby boy’s feet pinned and orders Jocasta to kill the child. Unable to comply, Jocasta sends the infant away with a servant who intends to abandon him on the slopes of Mount Cithaeron, but who instead gives him the baby to a shepherd, who calls him ‘Oedipus’, which means ‘swollen foot’, and this shepherd delivers him to the childless couple King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth.

Laius, who loved a boy, tries to kill his own boy. The mountain has a history itself, it is a place bewitched, a place of death and madness, a hard place. But for the ancient Greeks a riddle (ainigma) has a second, hidden meaning. In the play, the Chorus refers to the mountain as Oedipus’ “nurse and mother”. Following Hillman, we can also see that there is:

… an archetypal necessity for a father to ‘isolate, neglect, abandon, expose, disavow, devour, enslave, sell, maim, betray the son – motives we find in Biblical and Hellenic myths as well as folklore, fairy tales, and cultural history.

Oedipus and The Sphinx. Gustave Moreau, 1864. Oil on canvas.
Oedipus and The Sphinx. Gustave Moreau, 1864. Oil on canvas.

Nowadays it is customary to lay much of the blame for our woes at the feet of our parents. We hear a lot about abusive fathers and neglectful mothers. We carry an idealised sense of who our parents were or should have been. Hillman points out that whenever we idealise a parent we stay stuck in false security, that we are bound to the imagined ‘good model’ of a parent, teacher, guru, boss, therapist, that we imitate. But when the idealised image is crushed, when we lose both the model and the power. Then, and only then, can we enter initiation.

Naked, toothless, bleeding, in pain, alone, unequal to the task and in need of elders, feeling terrifyingly young – these are the initiatory experiences. They shatter the icons of remembrance, and devotions provide no protection… we are moved from having to being, and in Jung’s [term], “being in soul”, esse in anima.


It is notable that Boris Johnson seems to have an idealised view of his cantankerous and reactionary old dad, but has allegedly abandoned or neglected any number of his own offspring. In the affair of Dominic Cummings, something mythical is playing out as well. Cummings excuse for breaking the conditions of the Coronavirus lockdown (breaking the bond of trust) is a sick son. At the time of writing, he still has the support of Johnson (and who knows which of them is the ‘father’ in that relationship) but one or both of them might yet be abandoned on Cithaeron for wild animals. Already you can hear the hungry howls…

By pointing out the archetypal nature of abandonment and abuse, I want to make it clear that I do not condone it. But we must see that myth and fairy tales are replete with murderous and evil parents, guardians, kings or queens. The stories explain that Initiation can take us to a place where we behave differently – the alternative is to be blind to it, staying a perpetual victim, longing for an illusory corrective experience. We demand it from partners and divorce them when they don’t come up to the projected expectation. We want it from a therapist, then leave when it’s not given. We stay in a state of perpetual disappointment rather than benefiting from a valuable counter-education. If only the education we get at school could teach us about this hidden gift instead of the irrelevant pseudo-science of economics.

Time passes, and the adult Oedipus hears a rumour that he may not be the son of Polybus and Merope as he had believed. He goes to the oracle, determined to discover the truth, but all he hears is that he is destined to marry his mother and kill his father. Appalled at the possibility of this happening, Oedipus leaves Corinth. He travels to Thebes, but on the journey he comes to a crossroads where he contests right of way with another charioteer and kills both the charioteer and his passenger, an old man who, unknown to Oedipus, is actually his father Laius.

This is the next terrible tragedy. Rather than reflect on the oracle’s indication, discuss it or take counsel, Oedipus is seen to be as literal as his real father. The first part of the prophecy is enacted – literally. The word ‘crossroads’ in the play does not refer to the meeting of two roads giving four directions, but rather a place where three roads meet. The Greek traveller Pausanias warned other travellers of the danger of malevolent nymphs, particularly strong at noon (and Cithaeron was a place said to be home to nymphs who would drive men mad), saying that gifts should be placed where three roads meet: gifts of milk, honey and eggs. There is softness in this gift, respect of place, and of crossings, which Oedipus, who takes the words of Apollo literally, cannot observe.

Arriving at Thebes, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx, a monster that asks travellers a riddle and devours them when they offer the wrong answer. Oedipus answers correctly and the Sphinx throws herself into the sea. Oedipus enters the city a hero and is rewarded with the kingship of the city and the hand of the newly widowed Jocasta as his bride.

Oedipus the hero takes on the Sphinx, the monster that poses passers-by an ainigma and devours them when they answer incorrectly. The idea that the riddle posed was the one that goes, “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” was apparently added to the myth later. The enigma may have been the Sphinx herself, but heroes rarely look for second or hidden meanings, preferring to deal directly with the obvious. Heroes also have a tendency to slay animals, pitting themselves against the earth, and they inevitably suffer greatly for it. The symbolist painters Gustave Moreau and Fernand Khnopff seem to have understood the myth far better than Oedipus, presenting us with danger, but also with a quality of shimmering seductiveness.

Boris Johnson, first as Mayor of London, then as Prime Minister, is our modern-day Oedipus. His public school education even enables him to parrot Ancient Greek, a party trick to amuse and impress the less privileged. Johnson has his Sphinx as well, in the shape of the EU, an animal also made up of many disparate parts. Johnson and his masters first carefully influenced the people, convincing them that the EU was a more dangerous beast than they had realised. Then, (like Oedipus, he was either unprepared or unable to ask the Sphinx what it was) Johnson merely repeated the mantra “Get Brexit Done” many times, and this simple spell convinced the people that the EU was every bit as monstrous as they had been led to believe.

Boris Johson and Jeremy Corbyn - state opening of parliament
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn – State Opening of Parliament.

Entering parliament,2Johnson the ‘hero’ doubtless looked forward to five years of personal wealth creation while going through the motions of leadership, shouting down the opposition at the despatch box with all the punchy bluster of the playground bully, and giggling with his posh cronies. Unfortunately for him, both the city and the rest of the world became physically sick, a powerful indicator of other diseases, hidden but very real: the sickness in our depleted soil, our vanishing water and our toxic air.

The Sphinx, or, The Caresses. Fernand Khnopff, 1896. Oil on canvas.
The Sphinx, or, The Caresses. Fernand Khnopff, 1896. Oil on canvas.

A pestilence strikes Thebes, and the people go to Oedipus, begging him to help. He refers to the people as ‘children’, telling them that he has sent his brother-in-law Creon to the oracle of the lord Apollo at Delphi. Creon returns, telling Oedipus that to be rid of the plague, Oedipus must bring those who murdered Laius to justice.

Oedipus, ignorant of the truth, summons the blind seer Teiresias, who knows the answer but refuses to speak. Oedipus becomes enraged, accusing Teiresias of complicity in the killing. Teiresias becomes incensed, finally telling Oedipus that he is the murderer. Oedipus, suspecting a palace plot orchestrated by Creon, abuses Teiresias, mocking the seer’s blindness, to which Teiresias retorts that it is not he who is blind but Oedipus.

Oedipus, full of fury, summons Creon, accuses him of being the murderer and demands his execution.

Hillman pauses at this point, and asks these questions: ‘How does a city act when it is sick? What moves do its rulers make? What notions of remedy arise from the sick city?’ Let us look at each of the actions that Hillman identified in the play and relate them to the Coronavirus crisis with the help of our friends of the fourth estate

Action in the playInterpretation
The sick city calls upon the leader to find a remedyA single solution to a complex problem
The leader calls upon Apollo to reveal the cause and the cureThe government turns to diagnosis and correction
The sick city summons the shaman, seer, or prophetReliance on prophecy
The city purgesLanguage of pollution and expulsion
The city makes edictsScapegoating, forbiddable persons, commands

The sick city calls upon the leader to find a remedy (a single solution to a complex problem)

A priest of Zeus brings public concern over the plague ravaging Thebes to Oedipus the King. Our own beloved media takes a similar approach to the citizenry of Thebes. It does not matter if the media tone is wheedling, beseeching, critical or disdainful, it amounts to the same thing. An approach is made to a leader, and that leader will live or die by the actions he or she then takes. In the examples shown, the right-wing newspapers try to elevate Boris Johnson to a mythical level, presumably in furtherance of their owners’ political aims. The people are ‘children’, only capable of breaking rules never making them. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is complimented on her leadership much as a patronising grandparent might observe that so-and-so is such a good little mother.

In contrast to Oedipus’ Apollonic monotheism, the Chorus invokes not just Apollo, but Zeus, Artemis, Athene and Dionysus.

Bacchus [Dionysus] to whom thy Maenads Evoe shout;
Come with thy bright torch, rout,
Blithe god whom we adore,
The god whom gods abhor.

Oedipus Tyrannus. Sophocles (tr. F. Storr 1912) –

Sophocles clearly wants to warn the audience of the danger of not just a stuck position, but an Apollonic one at that. Oedipus’ figurative blindness comes about because of his fixity, his inability to see beyond analysis and dogma. When it is too late and the tragedy has played out and Oedipus has blinded himself, he also finally understands what has happened:

O doer of dread deeds, how couldst thou mar
Thy vision thus? What demon goaded thee?

Apollo, friend, Apollo, he it was
That brought these ills to pass;
But the right hand that dealt the blow
Was mine, none other. How,
How, could I longer see when sight
Brought no delight?

Alas! ’tis as thou sayest.


The leader calls upon Apollo to reveal the cause and the cure (the government turns to diagnosis and correction)

Oedipus sends his brother-in-law Creon (the brother of Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta, who – unbeknown to him – is actually Oedipus’s own mother) to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi to ask what is causing the plague and how it might be removed.

The modern equivalent to visiting the oracle is a consultation with experts. In our case, the experts have been the government’s chief medical adviser Chris Whitty (and his deputies) and the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. Chris Whitty and his deputies have all been called upon to resign for one reason or another, often by competing experts. Before Vallance took the government position he spent 12 years working at GlaxoSmithKline, finishing as Head of Research and Development.3 Coincidentally, In 2012 GSK was fined $3bn for fraud in the US, and in 2016 £37.6m for bribery in the UK. By way of further coincidence, GSK’s manufacturing and research base is located in Barnard Castle, County Durham, to which the Prime Minister’s Senior Adviser Dominic Cummings drove in order to ‘test his eyesight’ before returning to London ‘to get vaccine deals through’. On the day of Cumming’s return, GSK announced an agreement to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.4 Obviously all these events are entirely unrelated.

Throughout the pandemic, the government has assured us children that it had been ‘following the science’, yet the scientists who make their views public in social media seem to be almost unanimous in their condemnation of this. The science itself has been damaged first by underfunding, then by the creeping commercialisation of laboratories. If we have faith in the science, then we place it on a pedestal from which it will quickly be toppled. The ideology behind the dithering and the lies is profit. We know that the 1922 committee of the Conservative Party (always referred to as the ‘influential 1922 committee’ by the media) has been highly impatient of the Coronavirus lockdown, maintaining that thousands of businesses will go to the wall unless they are allowed to trade normally (translation: the members of the committee and their friends will lose money). The billionaire media owners sense the need to crush any optimistic feeling that life might be different, so even while we are still in the middle of the pandemic we are being warned that our punishment for being furloughed or otherwise incapable of propping up the rotten corpse of capitalism is greater austerity.

The word ‘hope’ appears often in the newspapers. Hope is what children do at Christmas and birthdays, or what we might do if we’re planning a trip to the beach. To ‘hope’ for a vaccine is meaningless: has it been tested? How has it been tested and for how long? Should we ‘hope’ that it has been tested adequately, or ‘hope’ that it is safe for kids to go back to school? The words of the headlines make children of the readers, who will be diagnosed and corrected. Lest we forget, this has also been a pernicious trend in psychology – even in the growth of such apparently harmless techniques as ‘mindfulness’. Developmental psychology, neuroscience and ‘mindfulness’ all seek to take a symptom, give it a name and then correct it (panic – social anxiety disorder – attend ‘mindfulness in nature’ classes) so that the patient can get back to work. No matter that the cause of the symptom is still the same, you can deal with it by taking a walk in a landscape that is disintegrating before your very eyes because it is held in contempt.

This blindness, which manifests particularly as faith or belief in facts and diagnosis, leads us ever further into literalised myth. It makes the path between the virus and what happens afterwards not so much linear but circular – those with the power will try to hang on to that power at all cost.

The sick city summons the shaman, seer, or prophet (reliance on prophecy)

Teiresias the blind seer is the prophet who Oedipus summons, much as Boris Johnson has summoned not just Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, but the dark figure of Dominic Cummings, the man whose powers stem from an uncanny ability to read the public mood – at least until he broke his bond with the public. But Teiresias can see, even though he is blind. He knows that Oedipus is following a tragic path by looking for the murderer of Laius, just as Johnson is following a tragic path by placing ideology and politics over the safety of thousands of people.

Where Oedipus attacked Teiresias for not speaking, it seems likely that Johnson gagged his prophets, frightened that their messages of doom would cause further damage to the precarious economy that he finds himself in charge of. Instead, he used a standard tactic of politicians everywhere, he produced an elderly person of State, the Queen, to deliver a Message to the People. Johnson hoped that a message from the Queen would appeal to his core voters, but even that seems insufficient as his base begins to crumble.

‘Track-and-trace’ is another modern oracle, one which Johnson claims to be ‘up and running’ but which is hopelessly flawed. It is the product, like so much else in this tragedy, of spin.

The city purges (the language of pollution and expulsion)

Pollution and expulsion have been a part of our shameful national discourse for a long time, and here I do not refer to the pollution of the environment but rather the knee-jerk response of the people, betrayed by the experiment of capitalism. Feeling intuitively that plague was in the land, well before the physical manifestation of COVID-19, the majority of voters supported Boris Johnson – the ‘hero’ who promised to slay the EU, to expel foreigners, and to bring the land into the sun of Apollo. Previously, the voters of the United States had done exactly the same when they entrusted Donald Trump to ‘clear the swamp’. The tragedy of late capitalism is that people confuse heroes (a difficult enough breed at the best of times) with titans. The media, as quick as politicians to reverse position when deemed prudent, saluted ‘our NHS heroes’ and encouraged the shaming of those who refused to go along with this hypocrisy by clapping in the streets.

Special mention must go to the Daily Star which has a particular penchant for alarming stories featuring wildlife. Read the headlined article and you will find that the reason for the ‘psycho’ seagulls and booming rat populations can be squarely laid at our own doors, but the headlines pretend otherwise. The Daily Star is merely the explicit face of the general antipathy the culture has towards nature, a direct consequence of belief in transcendence and Cartesian dualism. Nature is liked only when it is ‘cute’ or under control.

The city makes edicts (scapegoating, forbiddable persons, commands)

At any time of crisis, the media, supported by many of the people, look to scapegoat. Johnson, medically obese himself until he became ill with COVID-19, is now using scientific evidence that people with obesity are more vulnerable to the virus. Obese people often have psychological difficulties (it is often a consequence of childhood sexual abuse) and are most often found at the bottom of the socio-economic heap. It is entirely invidious for Johnson, or anyone else, to attack the most vulnerable parts of society. It is Johnson himself who has the power to save the NHS, by delivering proper funding and decent rates of pay, rather than operating a sleazy bust-out that will deliver the carcass of the service to his disaster capitalist cronies.

But the media loves the scent of blood, and where rules are being broken by people in the public eye, the media will take great satisfaction in telling us, regardless of what hypocrisy that might involve. To suggest that Cummings ‘must fall on sword’ (rather than ‘resign’, ‘leave’ or ‘go’) also shows us that the mythical is at work.

Jocasta enters and tries to calm Oedipus with the story of how Laius had heard a prophecy at the oracle telling him that he would be killed by his own son, but (as everyone knew) Laius had been murdered by bandits at the crossroads. Oedipus becomes nervous, anticipating the truth. A messenger brings the news that King Polybus has died, and Oedipus feels temporary relief but is still concerned that he might commit incest with his mother. The messenger tells Oedipus not to be concerned because Merope is not Oedipus’ birth mother. The messenger knows this because he had been the shepherd who took the baby Oedipus from Jocasta’s servant.

Oedipus, suspecting now what has happened, asks the whereabouts of Jocasta’s servant. By a further cruel turn of fate, it is revealed that this servant was the only surviving witness of the events at the crossroads. Jocasta, knowing the truth herself now, pleads with Oedipus not to pursue his investigation further. He refuses and Jocasta runs into the palace.

The servant is found and, under threat of torture and death, he reveals the truth to Oedipus. Meanwhile, Jocasta has hanged herself in the palace. Oedipus calls madly for a sword, shouting that he will cut out her womb. Entering the palace he finds Jocasta hanged, and in a fit of grief and remorse takes a pin from her gown and puts out his own eyes.

Oedipus is literal to the end, poking out his own eyes when he finally sees the truth. These are Sophocles’ messages, speaking clearly to us from the distant past: first, you are only a victim of fate if you take it literally. Second, once you adopt a fixed position or ideology you are doomed. Third, if enough people tell you the same thing it is wise to listen. Fourth, sometimes rooting around in the past is a very bad idea. All of these things apply to the world of counselling and psychotherapy, but they also apply to the world. Sophocles asks us to understand how even the best of leaders can be blind to the truth until it is too late. Unfortunately for our modern selves, we have chosen monsters for our leaders.

Oedipus begs Creon to be exiled, but Creon says that the oracles must be consulted first. Oedipus asks Creon to look after his two daughters/half-sisters, Antigone and Ismene.

The play ends. Much later in his life, Sophocles wrote ‘Oedipus at Colonus’, and that is the text that will concern us in part 2.

After COVID-19, nothing can be the same again. But capitalism is deeply entrenched. Shopping is addictive, the first IKEA stores to re-open attracted thousands prepared to stand hours in a queue to buy cheap unattractive furniture. Our culture is fuelled by compulsive behaviour. It is clear to many that the next virus only has to be fractionally more potent than COVID-19, and the infrastructure of the world, this fragile edifice of toxic financial instruments, will collapse. There will be mass hysteria, looting and violence on a scale never before seen. The state has an opportunity now to take action, but it will take decisive cross-party leadership for that to happen, and I fear that there are no politicians of substance left. One might imagine that Boris Johnson’s brush with death might have opened his eyes, but he seems as hollow as before, whereas the sightless Oedipus managed to change what needed to change, as we will see in Part 2.

Donald Trump and narcissism

The horrified global response to Donald Trump’s first week of office is justified. But it is often better to sidle up to a monster rather than staring it in the face.

The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships —
and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.

Lewis Carroll. Through the Looking Glass. 1871
Two faces of Trump
Trump, with and without his lolly

The unbearable heaviness of being

I’m at the local supermarket checkout – it’s Tesco, but it might as well be any other – as a two-year-old girl goes into meltdown because she is not allowed to have a lolly. There are various glances sent in the child’s direction, uncomfortable smiles, annoyed tuts, disapproving frowns. The mother tries to scoop up the child, to physically remove her (and her own embarrassment). The elusive lolly was placed at the height of the child, of course, making a mockery of the removal of confectionery from checkouts.

We have all witnessed a scene like this many times. But on this occasion, I saw more than just another screaming toddler. The first thing was the child’s wretched and inconsolable disappointment. Second, the embarrassed but indulgent mother. Third, the impact of the immediate environment that had created this drama in the first place.

It’s a difficult thing to be a small child, something adults easily lose sight of. As much as we attach sentimental feelings to our childhoods, we forget that the adult world is one of Brobdingnagian proportions to an infant. In his poem Animula, even T. S. Eliot looked on his early years with this wistful affection. To the child, who “confounds the actual and fanciful” the lolly (brightly wrapped, promising a sweet reward) is a just and proper recompense for the frustration and confusion of being small in this ridiculous denatured world of adults. A reward for how difficult it is to walk without falling; for having to run to keep up; for bangs against the hard unyielding legs of tables and chairs; for the pain of teeth growing; for – notwithstanding the leaps of joy – the absolute existential pain of being vulnerable.

Falling in love again

Psychology would have us place the ensuing battle of wills between child and adult as a necessary part of the journey out of self-regard into the community. The adult helps the child to overcome narcissism. Yet our Western culture, successfully exported to every other part of the globe, is narcissistic to the core. We are either explicitly narcissistic (Nationalist, Republican, UKIP) or implicitly (Socialist, Democrat, Labour). A strange hypocrisy exists – concepts of fairness and compassion are outwardly validated, but secretly denied. Don’t be so selfish, says the parent who is secretly proud of his offspring’s venal compulsions.  It is difficult to speak of narcissism without becoming as critical as the slew of scathing articles one finds online.

The myth of Narcissus is worth reading. Narcissus was born of the river god Cephisus and the naiad Liriope. His inheritance was too fluid and his boundaries leaky. Small wonder his heart petrifies and he refuses all attachment. Yet his metamorphosis comes about through the medium of water. Ovid’s intention seems clear.

Fool, why try to catch a fleeting image, in vain? What you search for is nowhere: turning away, what you love is lost! What you perceive is the shadow of reflected form: nothing of you is in it. It comes and stays with you, and leaves with you, if you can leave!

Metamorphoses. Ovid, Bk III:402-436 Narcissus sees himself and falls in love

Narcissus revisioned

Yet perhaps Thomas Moore’s deconstruction of the myth in his book Care of the Soul points us in the right direction. Instead of criticising Narcissus for his hard and icy self-regard, we are encouraged to see beneath the defence of aloofness, to the wounded soul who finally learns to love himself, and in that instant is transformed. Moore writes:

America’s narcissism is strong. It is paraded before the world. If we were to put the nation on the couch, we might discover that narcissism is its most obvious symptom. And yet that narcissism holds the promise that this all-important myth can find its way into life. In other words, America’s narcissism is its unrefined puer spirit of genuine new vision. The trick is to find a way to that water of transformation where hard self-absorption turns into loving dialogue with the world.

Moore, Thomas. Care of the Soul. Piatkus, 1992
Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse, 1903
Narcissus fell in love with his own beauty. Could Donald Trump do the same?

And what can we learn from Echo? We feel sorry for her, but we forget that her problem is that she can’t speak for herself but is instead cursed to always repeat the words of others. It is this very syzygy that is the most compelling aspect of the myth, the wounded self-regard and the loss of an authentic voice. The wound pushes others away, the repetition desperately seeks relationship. Both fail.

False idols, Fake news

What am I suggesting here? That adults should give in to the demands of toddlers? Not exactly. But in the hard refusal of the intuitive need of the infant, we mirror something of Narcissus. In parroting the old wisdom of denial we become Echo. Now, in the person of Donald Trump, we witness a narcissistic apotheosis.

Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfilment of a great, noble call.

Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that’s our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!

Trump dances to ‘My Way’; Trump replaces the red curtains in the Oval Office with gold ones; Trump admires his narcissistic alter ego, Vladimir Putin. Trump sits at his desk signing, with a flourish of the pen, executive orders to roll back abortion rights, to revive the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines, and to signal the demise of the Affordable Care Act. His gauleiters look on appreciatively.1

Vile creatures

Homophobic, pro-life Vice-president Pence,  whose response to Hurricane Katrina was to draw up a list of “Pro-Free-Market Ideas for Responding to Hurricane Katrina and High Gas Prices” is, if anything, even more monstrous than Trump. Concomitant with this alliance of troubled men is that everything has become uncertain. Charles Foster wrote:

An early conviction of mastery or comprehension turns people into monsters.

Foster, Charles. Being a Beast. 2016

As much as I agree with this, I’m aware that we now live in a world in which every news item is immediately denied, individuals are traduced, figures are falsified and opinions shamed. It is lethal to agree with anything kind, or to be sympathetic to a position, in an online space, because we will be accused of ‘virtue signalling’. In the UK, companies who estimate electoral results frequently underestimate the Conservative vote because of ‘Shy Tories’. These are people who cannot bring themselves to publicly own their beliefs. They must wait until they are hidden in the privacy of the voting booth. What does this say about Toryism, except that it cannot be countenanced, that to believe in it is shameful? So what can we believe in?

Bigger Data

Big Data visualization
Did Big Data manipulation help Trump?

This article suggests that Trump owes his presidency to the manipulation of Big Data. I cannot vouch for it. It may be clever PR for Cambridge Analytica, it might be genuine reportage. The point, of course, is that it is both. It plays into a fear of oversight and surveillance on the one hand, and a desire for control on the other. In the world of marketing, the eyes of middle managers gleam at the prospect of further ‘leverage’.

Perhaps no one person knows the truth, almost certainly because it is multi-variate: the truth is Big Data, climate change, fear of immigration, ignorance, anger, racism, tribalism, Russian state intervention and many others. I previously mentioned the role of Vladislav Surkov in the spread of disinformation.2 Now the truth has become yet more diaphanous,  we have “post-truth” and “alt-truth” – and this unknowing is likely to get much worse. Democracy, as Plato suggested, leads to Tyranny.

It seems a shame,’ the Walrus said,
To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!’
The Carpenter said nothing but
The butter’s spread too thick!’

Lewis Carroll. ibid. 1871

The failure of psychotherapy

Nothing, they say, is new. To complain about the state of the world is to invite a slew of corrective and contradictory opinions. To have hope, to have a vision – these are things held in contempt as naive and sentimental. We all carry a vulnerable and demanding child around with us, whether we admit it or not. Psychotherapy, in love with ideas of personal responsibility and individuation (ideas, along with drive theory, that belong to the Industrial Revolution) has, on the one hand, cosseted the narcissistic ‘inner child’, and on the other hand, pathologised him. If the child stays protected she is effectively depoliticised, protected from the world. This inurement is unnatural, because humans are social and political by nature, as Aristotle observed.

It follows that control, the method by which the inner child is protected, is also unnatural. It is this that James Hillman inveighed against when he accused meditation of being obscene. He was not attacking meditation per se, but the use of meditation as self-control when the planet is in such a sad state. He would be similarly scathing with the dreadful rise of mindfulness, the instant gravy of psychotherapeutic modalities.

Bonfire of the Vanities

Devotees of critical thinking would argue that no one is entitled to an opinion without expert credentials. Trump, and many of the followers of Trump, gleefully insist that people are fed up with experts. Expertise is elitism, they argue, and elites are bad. But these ideologies cannot listen to criticism, and deafness or sensitivity to criticism is the mark of a stuck position. The elite membership of an ideology pursue their policies ruthlessly, as the most casual observation of history will confirm. This is the danger of Trump, and it is also the danger of those who most vehemently oppose him. However,  just as the child in the supermarket should not have been allowed to have the lolly, so Trump cannot be allowed to ruin what is left of the world. The tragedy of the child and the lolly is that the lolly has such power.

Sugar and power are both compelling. Eric Hoffer said: “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” With addiction, one might begin to see that what is really wanted is either not known or believed impossible. Perhaps, as Alex Evans argues here, it is time for us to forego the fruitless fact-checking of meaningless noise and to begin a narrative informed by myth. Nor does myth have to preclude science. A new type of science has emerged from the ashes of the Enlightenment, a science that no longer believes the insidious fallacy of human domination:

Mit Würd’ und Hoheit angetan,
mit Schönheit, Stärk’ und Mut begabt,
gen Himmel aufgerichtet, steht der Mensch,
ein Mann und König der Natur.

In native worth and honour clad,
with beauty, courage, strength adorn’d,
to heav’n erect and tall, he stands a man,
the Lord and King of nature all.

Baron Gottfried van Swieten/Anonymous English text/John Milton. Libretto to Haydn’s Creation. 1798

The living world

The mycologist Paul Stamets believes that the ‘roots’ of fungi, the mycelia, have an archetypal pattern seen throughout the universe. This pattern is foound in spiral galaxies, hurricanes, dark matter, our brains and even the internet. He has proven that mycelia can break down toxic wastes and pollutants, reduce silt and pathogens from agricultural watersheds, control insect populations, and generally enhance the health of our forests and gardens. These are anthropocentric values – but Stamets also says:  

I believe that mycelium is the neurological network of nature. Interlacing mosaics of mycelium infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes. These membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind.

The mycelium stays in constant molecular communication with its environment, devising diverse enzymatic and chemical responses to complex challenges.

Stamets, Paul. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Ten Speed Press 2005

This stunning concept allows us to return to the mythological belief that the earth we walk on is sentient. It enables us to have humility, to understand that our knowledge of the forces and patterns of nature is only in its infancy.

As an evolutionary strategy, mycelial architecture is amazing: one cell wall thick, in direct contact with a myriad hostile organisms, and yet so pervasive that a single cubic inch of topsoil contains enough fungal cells to stretch more than 8 miles if placed end to end. I calculate that every footstep I take impacts more than 300 miles of mycelium. These fungal fabrics run through the top few inches of virtually all landmasses that support life, sharing the soil with legions of other organisms. If you were a tiny organism in a forest’s soil, you would be enmeshed in a carnival of activity, with mycelium constantly moving through subterranean landscapes like cellular waves, through dancing bacteria and swimming protozoa, with nematodes racing like whales through a microcosmic sea of life.

Stamets, Paul. ibid.

Through a glass, darkly

The path out of narcissism and into relationship lies in regaining a mutual relationship with the world, and that can be done only by looking into the pool and falling in love with oneself first. Tragically, I cannot imagine that Trump and Pence are able to even like themselves, their hatred of others is evidence enough of that.

Walrus and the Carpenter, John Tenniel

“I like the Walrus best,” said Alice, “because you see he was a little sorry for the poor oysters.”
“He ate more than the Carpenter, though,” said Tweedledee. “You see he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn’t count how many he took: contrariwise.”
“That was mean!” Alice said indignantly. “Then I like the Carpenter best—if he didn’t eat so many as the Walrus.”
“But he ate as many as he could get,” said Tweedledum.
This was a puzzler. After a pause, Alice began, “Well! They were both very unpleasant characters—”

Lewis Carroll. ibid. 1871

Zombies, Neoliberalism and Nature

The dreadful sound of shuffling feet, and the hideous rattling groans, announce the arrival of the cultural phenomenon of zombie films and games, rich hunting grounds for psychological discovery. In this piece, with my crossbow to hand, I attempt to explore some of the possible figurative responses to the epidemic of zombies in Western culture.

To deprive a gregarious creature of companionship is to maim it, to outrage its nature. The prisoner and the cenobite are aware that the herd exists beyond their exile; they are an aspect of it. But when the herd no longer exists, there is, for the herd creature, no longer entity, a part of no whole; a freak without a place. If he cannot hold on to his reason, then he is lost indeed; most utterly, most fearfully lost, so that he becomes no more than the twitch in the limb of a corpse.

John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids
Black Friday zombiew
Black Friday

At the simplest level, the zombie infestation of popular media deals with two main implicit themes, dissociation and consumerism.

The Neolithic bargain

Humans are a gregarious species that came together because it was easier and safer to hunt and live as a group. By so doing, we began to lose our freedom and wildness. The body psychotherapist Nick Totton called this the neolithic bargain. In dissociative behaviour, we witness the loss of this group connection. We lose the small signs of acceptance that bind us together, our language, our desire, our compassion. The consumerist theme is political, it is a reflection on the plague of mindless consumers that is a response to late capitalism (witness the UK rioting of 2011). Watching media coverage of looting, legal or otherwise, we are reminded of zombie attacks. “Look at them, they’re not human,” we say, watching the flat-screen TV that we have looted more respectably.

By iterating the principle features of zombie-related films and games, as represented in this instance by the first three seasons of AMC’s enormously popular television series The Walking Dead, other aspects appear. But first a warning: if you have any intention of watching the series you might want to stop now: there are spoilers ahead!

Key features of The Walking Dead

  • There is a very sudden and highly contagious infection after which ‘normal’ life quickly breaks down.
  • The characters regularly evidence symptoms of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are correctly shown as non-linear. There are also symptoms of trauma and dissociation.
  • The zombies are ubiquitous and relentless in their need to devour the flesh of the living.
  • The explicit narrative is the need for water, food and safety. These are the physiological building blocks of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
    • Sometimes the living dead compromise these needs. Sometimes it is the living who are to blame.
    • There is an implicit need for salvation, the hope for which is also regularly dashed.
    • There is considerable tension between the competing requirements of safety on the one hand, and retaining the human capacity to love and belong on the other.
    • Choices in opposition abound. Take this or that? Include these people or exclude them? Trust her or not? Save her life or abandon him?
  • Moments of extremely graphic violence featuring dismemberment, decapitation and disembowelment punctuate each episode.

Let’s look at these features in the light of contemporary events.

The destruction of ‘Normal’ life: ideology and managed care

It is clear that life, as experienced by current adult generations, has changed dramatically in the last seventy years. This change is mostly a consequence of the development of computing power. In the last thirty years, there has also been a shift towards what is described as neoliberalism. This means deregulation of markets, an increase in privatisation and a reduction in government oversight. These changes have effectively polarised global cultures.


C. G. Jung developed Heraclitus’ concept of enantiodromia (literally, counter running) to explain the tendency in us to manifest the undesirable ‘shadow’ aspects of our parents. So out of a desire for peace and equality comes a surge of aggression, inequality and slavery. The American therapist Cliff Bostock described the physical loss of voice that attended his attempt to lecture from an entrenched position, signalling an urgent need to recognise the compensatory opposite.

Anima mundi
Anima mundi – the soul of the world

Bostock referenced James Hillman, as do I in these pages, because Hillman recognised that the path we are on excludes the anima mundi, the soul of the world. Hillman argued that psychotherapy has protected sensitive adults from taking action in the world, that their fears and fantasies have become ‘managed’ rather than given expression through action and protest. Moreover, dissent is now effectively psychopathologised and ‘education’ teaches compliance (more on this at a later date).

Crisis? What crisis?

In the absence of care for the outer world, it has become toxic with crisis. There is financial crisis, economic crisis, crisis in education, housing crisis, fuel crisis and environmental crisis. Myopically, we have climate ‘change’. Small wonder then that the rapacious, tyrannical power of the few has created a world that feels broken and desperate, and that existence has become precarious. In the West, this is the world of the Food Bank, the last resort before begging. It is close to the anarchy of doing a ‘run’ to the abandoned convenience store for supplies. Much as survivors risk the bite of the zombie, the impoverished urban dweller will dash to the supermarket, ever wary of the bailiff.

It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that “it can’t happen here” — that one’s own time and place is beyond cataclysm.

John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids

‘Disorder’ as Symptom

And what of our minds? The psychiatrists’ bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) describes lived experience as disorder. The volume has generated much criticism: first, ‘disorders’ are not diseases as this article makes clear; second (as this piece explains) the ‘treatment of’ so-called disorders makes money. The sale of antipsychotic drugs alone is worth billions. Telling isn’t it?

The opposite of ‘Disorder’ is ‘Order’ but, as Bostock points out, trying to create balance opens the door to chaos. On the churning sea, desperate to survive, we run to one end of the lifeboat to prevent it capsizing. In doing so we start an opposite disaster. We run to the middle, but balance is too difficult to achieve, we never seem to get it right. Perhaps only by dancing between the peaks and trouighs can we keep from capsizing.


Our ‘dis-orders’ and ‘dis-eases’ are also symptomatic of the toxicity prevailing in the culture. We project blame onto those of us who are merely displaying the symptoms of the true malaise. This leads to a further paucity of imagination and monolithic, monomaniac behaviour.

In my work as a therapist, I saw a rising incidence of difficulty with anger, anxiety and ‘depression’. Many visitors were in denial of those feelings. Peopled believe that they choose their mechanical lifestyles – or else that there are no options. This is the absence of imagination again. But it is not of the trapped individual so much as the larger society. There is a terrible cost. Anxiety and depression are medicated, anger is managed. Zombies only want living flesh, they are driven to it, they have no options, not even binary options.

Zombies as a symbol of greed and loss

It has been almost 50 years since Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed her five stages of grieving. She worked with people dying of a terminal illness rather than the bereaved. Subsequent researchers have taken a more expansive view of grieving. Others have denied the five stages entirely, preferring a model of stoic resilience, and setting these two states in opposition. In this piece, the psychiatrist Steven Schlozman writes of the trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder in The Walking Dead. He writes that the phenotype is different between characters, but his examples strike me as rather literal. And here it is argued that the series is a critique of individualism. But I see the tendency of troubled characters to go out alone as a dramatic staple of the horror genre (no, don’t go down into the cellar with just a candle and a scared look!).

The dominator culture

Nick Totton references the anthropologist Richard Sorenson:

[His] work suggests that once dominator culture arises it spreads like a plague: cooperative, liminal, wild humans are profoundly vulnerable to humans who are closed and aggressive. They literally cannot bear to be around them.

Nick Totton, Wild Therapy, 2011

Another pair of opposites perhaps, but one that is well illustrated by the competing camps of The Walking Dead. There is one notable difference: the cooperative humans are prevented from being in the wild. How similar to current society. There are so few ways to escape from the dominator culture, and it is this that we desperately need.

Loss of land

If I am right in my opinion about the prevalence of anxiety, depression and anger in Western culture, we can relate these symptoms to the oppression of the dominator class. We can also connect them to loss. So what might be lost? According to Jay Griffiths in her book Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape the loss is environmental. She writes that since the enclosures, peasants were funnelled into industry away from the land. The idea that this rescued a brutish rural population from the miseries of subsistence farming is a myth created by landowners and industrialists. Griffiths too sometimes inhabits the land of opposites. She compares the evils of the modern world to an Arcadian fantasy. But her Romantic passion lights up the heart. One wants to be in the cool streams and secret dens of her imagination.

Remains of the last wild passenger pigeon at Cincinnati Zoo
Remains of the last wild passenger pigeon at Cincinnati Zoo

The Sixth Great Extinction

Ecopsychologists suggest that we are all grieving for the other than human, the countless species and the sheer numbers lost. We face the sixth extinction, a wiping out of life on a massive scale. Impossible? Remember the fate of the Passenger Pigeon? Billions of birds were made extinct in 40 years through hunting and deforestation. More recently, the Pyrenean Ibex: extinct in 2000. The Saint Helena olive: extinct in 2003. The Bramble Cay melomys: extinct in 2016. And not just species, but unimaginable numbers of individuals wiped out through human agency. Now scientists are talking of  ‘de-extinction’, of reanimating these species from their DNA.

I think that we carry the knowledge of what we have done as a terrible shame. The zombie herds of The Walking Dead reflect our continuing predations on the natural world. They push their way through everything in their need for the flesh of the living, just as we bulldoze our way through the Earth in our need for its resources.

Et in Arcadia ego

In the first two series of the Walking Dead, the farms and lush countryside of Georgia shimmer in the heat of high Summer. Sweat drips sadly from the noses of protagonists. Winter is mentioned but avoided, and soon we are back in a verdant Spring – but here there is still danger. Behind every tree, a zombie may lurk. Down at the stream zombies are stuck in the mud. A child’s den is a place to hide in terror from the awful groaning outside.

Does a zombie wait behind the next tree?
Does a zombie wait behind the next tree?

In the third season, the irony is signposted in block capitals. Our heroes set up home in a bleak grey prison that has to be regularly cleared of the undead. Outside, zombies congregate at the prison fences, groping for a way through. The group struggles between the ‘freedom’ of the prison and the ‘safety’ of a ‘community’ run autocratically by the ‘Governor’. To what extent do these set pieces reflect our lives? Here we are in opposites again. The fearful grey fortresses of the heart stand in for Independence, while the phoney veneer of the Governor’s colony is Dependence. Neither option is attractive and the ground between them, the beautiful forest, is rendered toxic and uninhabitable.

John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids is the prototype here in so many ways, from the hospitalised hero waking to a world turned insane, to the competing camps of survivors. But instead of what Brian Aldiss described as ‘cosy catastrophe’ (the barely conscious wish for the slate to be wiped clean so that we might create Arcadia) there is next to no comfort, or the comfort is soon violently removed.

Zombies as political metaphor

Analysis of the rise of the Zombie motif
Analysis of the rise of the Zombie motif

In the years since George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), the number of films and video games that feature zombies in one form or another has increased in a way that suggests something has been touched in the collective unconscious.

Night of the Living Dead
Night of the Living Dead – this image shocked audiences in 1968

While certainly not the first film to feature the shuffling horrors, Night of the Living Dead was perhaps the first to capture the popular imagination, hinting at a social commentary of the Vietnam War and of racism in America. In the chart above I have brought together Wikipedia’s lists of zombie-themed films and video games, including the television episodes of The Walking Dead to date (2014 is incomplete).


One might have expected to see zombies make an appearance in the eighties, the time of the Thatcher/Reagan axis. But the scale of the infestation twenty years later is surely not accidental, as the consequence of their policies wreaks havoc across the world. We are fascinated with our power, appalled and awed at our ability to destroy without remorse, sickened with our own unconscious mania. Fundamentalism can never be far from our minds, whether of the East or West, whether of the vile massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar by the Taliban or the institutionalised shooting of black people by the police in America.

Zombies as religious projection

In the narrative of The Walking Dead, there is a significant issue (massive spoiler ahead), the philosophical implications of which seem to have gone largely unexplored. The infection (cause unknown, but initially believed to be communicated by being bitten by a zombie) is, in fact, present in the living, so all those who die become reanimated. This is hugely suggestive of the concept of Original Sin. Much of the zombie oeuvre can be seen as the visitation of a biblical plague on to the sinning masses (the word ‘plague’ is used often in the series). This underpins the tension between pragmatism and idealism. In another sense, the knowledge of infection keeps the living and the undead connected – all opposites need to be similar so that they can be compared.

Depth and Light

Religious anxiety also hides within the explicit narrative (none too well). In the second season, the Christian farmer Hershel tells Rick, our heroic ego, that the plague is a ‘correction’, but attributes it to nature, unwilling to task his god with responsibility. He keeps his undead family members and erstwhile employees in a hay barn, triggering a particularly violent denouement in which Shane (apparently Rick’s shadow self) opens the barn door and, with assistance, destroys the emerging zombies in a hail of gunfire. The last zombie to emerge is Sophia, the girl who the group has been trying to find in the forest for almost the entire season, suggesting that corrupted innocence has been in their hearts all along, just as the infection has been in their living bodies.

Sophia is the ‘Light of God’ of Gnosticism, the final phase of Jung’s anima development, the name that means Wisdom. I wonder if this is unconscious synchronicity or deliberate choice. The zombies, particularly the undead children, represent our fear of the devil, the resurrection of the dead as damnation, hell on earth, the apocalypse, in the form of Satan’s daemons. As Hillman remarks, Christianity removed the depth of the Underworld from our psyche, and the possibility of descent and return. Is the character going down alone to the cellar (or the prison basement in this case) a faint remnant of this?

Hatred of the flesh

Zombies invariably look diseased and rotten. Limbs can be wrenched from the undead (otherwise shown as very strong) with mystifying ease. Penetration of zombies with bullets or melee weapons results in a fragmentation of flesh and bone that is invariably accompanied with a vile spurt of dark ichor. In particular, we note that the only way to end a zombie’s undead existence is by destroying the brain. Zombies are shot in the head with bullets, bolts and arrows. They are impaled through eye sockets with steel pipes; skewered with knives and swords, up into the throat and through the soft palate. Zombies on the ground have their heads stomped in violent outbursts of disgust, hatred and grief.

A zombie from The Walking Dead
A zombie from The Walking Dead

The resurrection defiled

The rotten flesh of zombies is reviled: a lucky living human who has been bitten may have the infected limb severed so as to prevent ‘turning’. Other humans regularly fight with each other, suffering physical trauma, bruising and wounding, even if they are not killed outright. The flesh of the living is almost as tormented as that of the undead. Surely this says more than just a love of the ‘gross’, more than a schoolboy’s delighted disgust at the cartoon popping of an eyeball? For me, it represents a hatred of the flesh that is fully consistent with the idea of a corrupt resurrection, the acknowledgement that (as Jung suggested) resurrection is a fantasy, a defence against death. But this is confused with the idea in Christianity of the corruption of the flesh, the blood that is left behind as we resurrect, and that souls become spirit.

Hearts and minds

Additionally, there is the destruction of the brain, the part of us confused with thinking, as if we think only with our brains, not our hearts or stomachs. Does this sublime organ have to carry the can for all our mistakes? Psychotherapy insists that we feel everything, placing our sensory perceptions into opposition with our thinking. If we think at all it is supposed to be with our Right Brain, not the sinister Leftie (another opposition and a false one at that, as neuroscience has emphatically proven). Therapists are often trained like this, in the good-natured but mistaken belief that if only their ‘clients’ stopped thinking then everything would be well with them. Some therapists work with Mind/Body/Spirit, and despite a possible fantasy of holism, this feels more like dancing.

Western puritanism

There is another very important piece of evidence. Here’s author Robert Kirkman talking to Entertainment Weekly about the absence of a sex scene: “That’s more of a comment on America as a whole and television’s standards and practices than it is on us. It is kind of absurd that in an episode where you see the inside of a bloated, water-logged corpse, you can’t see so much as a butt cheek. That’s the world we’re living in.” This show, that so revels in the realistic depiction of blood and viscera, can only imply human sexual relationships.

Perhaps America fears that sex in the apocalypse would be so primal, so aggressive, that we would see something too uncomfortable for us to bear. We can cheerfully witness the dismemberment of our shadow selves, the rapacious zombie hordes, but we might faint at the first sniff of our own musky animal sexuality. This is surely a reflection on the spiritual transformation so dear to the fundamentalist West. We want to change so badly – it makes us hate the earth. We despise the fleshy and ‘corruptible’: Not so long ago these are things that would be celebrated, not abhorred.

The End of Days

This is where we find ourselves in the twenty-first century. Our comforts are temporary and often delusional, moments of respite in the bleak struggle for survival. Must we destroy the brains of the zombies – the bankers, politicians and oligarchs – when they pose a threat? Or are we too busy fighting each other?  It’s just TV you say. Look again at the chart, and perhaps watch the series. Sitting in a café the other day I overheard two women in earnest conversation. One was telling the other about her business selling ‘critical and strategic thinking skills’. She mentioned a colleague, saying, “Her cognitive processing is somewhat impaired… she is very controlling of her environment.”

Breaking out of the zombie prison

We are all in Rick’s crew now, bunkered in our prison anticipating nothing better than either the next attack of the zombies, or the wrath of the ‘Governor’. We live in a superficially ordered community that is ruled by fear. It is a society without imagination, without choice. I would like to believe that through ritual and a new pantheism we will find better ways to hold our need for control and power. Will we eventually see through our need to consume at all costs? Perhaps it is too late.

And we danced, on the brink of an unknown future, to an echo from a vanished past.

John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids

Sark and the Barclays – a psychological perspective


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.

Fortress mentality

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.

Early Development phase of Brecqhou
Early Development phase of Brecqhou – the harbour and castle look relatively complete.

And this more recent image, shot from a different direction, shows the design close to completion.

The late development phase of Brecqhou
The late development phase of Brecqhou – we are looking from the other side of the island to the previous picture.

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.

The sandpit

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.

Sark Newsletter 17092014
Sark Newsletter accusing the Chief Pleas of fascism (27/09/2014)

Community feeling

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.

Bluebell wood
Sark – bluebell wood

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.

La Coupée
Sark – La Coupée
Grande Grève
Sark – Grande Grève

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.

Little Sark

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.

Corn marigolds
Sark – corn marigolds
Sark - Old mill
Sark – Old mill

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?.

Sark - Ivy
Sark – Ivy

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.

Port Gorey
Sark – Port Gorey

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.

Jersey Tiger
Sark – Jersey Tiger

Let’s stay here for now. Another time, we might take a different path, and watch sea mist roll in over the northern headlands.

Other paths

Sark – Eperquerie

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.

Sark- rocks
Sark- rocks
Madonna rock
Madonna rock

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.

Grey Mullet swimming in Maseline Harbour, Sark
Grey Mullet swimming in Maseline Harbour

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.

If you are interested in paintings you might like my view of Grande Grève or my view of Sark from Herm.