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

Boris Johnson/Oedipus Rex

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.1For a discussion about the nature of Eros, please see my piece about the composer Anton Fils The repressed returns as homoeros.

ibid.

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.

ibid.
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.

ibid.

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 parllament
“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,2I quote W. B. Yeats famous lines in the caption above, and not by accident. Yeats wrote his poem ‘The Second Coming’ while his pregnant wife was recovering from the dreadful ‘flu pandemic of 1918-19Johnson 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
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?’. In response he tabulates the following five solutions as typified in the play:

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

Let us look at each of these actions in turn and relate them to the Coronavirus crisis with the help of our friends of the fourth estate.

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

"We need Boris! Race to put PM back in charge""Boris is a fighter... he'll pull through""PM's back to tighten grip on chaos""Johnson starts to take back control"

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) – http://www.ancient-mythology.com/greek/oedipus_rex.php

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:

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

OEDIPUS
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?

CHORUS
Alas! ’tis as thou sayest.

ibid.

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

"Questions without answers""Top prof demands action as lockdown extended""Vaccine hope for Britain""Hope as first human vaccine trials start"

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.3https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Vallance 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.4https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2020/05/why-barnard-castle/ 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)

"Queen: we will beat this together""Recession 'like we have never seen'""Revolt over easing of lockdown spreads as poll slump hits PM""Don't bet on a vaccine to protect us from virus threat: world health expert"

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)

"Psycho seagulls corona rampage""How dare China spy on our vaccine labs""Boomtime for rats""The mast vigilantes"

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)

"We must win obesity war for sake of the NHS""Get tough on cowards abusing NHS heroes""'Professor Lockdown' quits over trysts with married lover""Tory MPs: Cummings must fall on sword"

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.

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Out of your head: depression and ecstasy

Depression - Bournemouth © www.martinsouthwood.com

It is time to write once more about the that thing I am forced to describe as ‘depression’. I have written about aspects of depression before. The first piece examined the medieval metaphor of Saturn and the slowing and distance of depression. It suggested that to see through depression we need to honour it, not attack it. Another piece concerned suicide explicitly, exploring nature and a sense of place as aids to survival. In this third article, building on the first two pieces, I examine the absence of ecstasy and how this lack of ecstatic experience is leading to widespread depression, which in turn is leading to our destruction of this planet.

Any discussion of depression and medication has become more sensitive since the appearance of ‘pill shaming’, and the understandable response of those who feel their acceptance of medication is being criticised, or who believe that their symptoms are being marginalised. Although this piece is critical of medication, I do not mean to add to that shame, especially since I took medication myself for over twenty years (and I doubt that I would be here without it). However, the sheer scale of medication worldwide, and that of deaths from addiction, strongly suggests a desperate need for more radical action than any currently available.

Bournemouth © www.martinsouthwood.com
Bournemouth, UK. Photo by Martin Southwood.

The Industry of Despair

In the globalised hospitalisation of the soul, Existential Dread shares a ward with Melancholia, rubs shoulders with Bitter Disappointment, collects a paltry lunch tray with Trauma and sits waiting for the therapist beside Bereavement and Shame. Those with money can sometimes divert these dismal characters, but without – then they are inclined to wander the identical lifeless corridors of market culture with increasing noise and desperation.

A search for ‘depression’ online offers the following trifecta of the flat season:

  • Sadness and lack of enjoyment (emotional)
  • Tiredness and headaches (physical)
  • Indecisiveness and difficulty problem solving (cognitive)

These ‘symptoms’ come courtesy of the website rethinkingdepression.com, a vehicle of the Danish pharmaceutical company H. Lundbeck A/S. This is the company that until recently supplied US prisons with pentobarbital, one of the ingredients of the ‘cocktail’ of drugs used in lethal injections. In 2013 the EC fined Lundbeck €93.8m for hindering the market release of cheaper generic versions of Lundbeck’s SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) Citalopram by offering competing companies kickbacks. Their list is simplistic and unhelpful. Sadness, tiredness and slow thinking are all felt in the body. Birdsong, once joyful, becomes plaintive and melancholy. Lifting an arm is Sisyphean. Waves of lassitude break like oil on dark beaches of despair.

But still, Lundbeck wants you to believe that it can help you, and tells you that you are strong to reach out for help from the GP who will push its pills on you. Lundbeck offers only the binary opposition of ‘depression and wellbeing’ and warns against the ‘slippery slope of relapse’ as if depression is either addiction, moral failure, or worse. This company, and others like it, seek to create causes that can be ‘treated’ reductively with drugs. The consequence, as James Hillman pointed out in The Souls’ Code, is drugged behaviour.

Even the UK charity MIND can only arrive at two possible ‘treatments’ (note again the connection to illness and disease): medication (they supply a list of possibilities) and talking therapy. It’s important to acknowledge that many people say that they have been helped by medication – the combination of therapy and medication seems particularly popular. Is this because medicine often works as a placebo, or that people are sometimes so frightened and economically challenged by their ‘depression’ that they desperately need the pills to work? There are people who owe their lives to the sedation of antipsychotics, but others so insulated with Lithium that they barely exist. There is a cogent argument for sedation in chronic cases, for when the world is screaming at you and all you want is death, then some form of peace – even the drugged variety – is welcome.

Unfortunately, the idea that ‘low Serotonin’ causes depression is false. It has not been empirically demonstrated that Serotonin has anything to do with depression, nor does anyone know how SSRIs work (allowing that they do, which I don’t) – and there is evidence that they are actually harmful. In my own experience of depression, I have no doubt whatsoever that it is a response in the body to factors outside it, but the target of medication, my poor brain, is as indivisible a part of my body as my heart, my stomach or my skin.

Kota Garut, Indonesia - a landscape of depression
Photo by Dikaseva on Unsplash

This culture of opposites regularly demotes the brain to a computational device on the one hand and elevates it to a God on the other. The brain is split out of the body and rendered doubly schizoid – it is simultaneously an advanced (and error-prone) calculator and the root of all wisdom. But wisdom, like the soul, is found outside the body in the world, of which the body is a part. Depression is a response to fear without fight, repetition without ritual, and work without worth. It is a response to the deep disconnection that happens when intuitive response meets the plastic empathy of the powerful, and when the intelligence of one’s own body is held captive in a cognitive straitjacket. Extrovert competitiveness has become socially normative – yet conformity within that frame is crucial.

My heart quails to meet the kind of person our psychopathic culture breeds: the android behavioural therapist, sans compassion, sans soul; the beery jerk whose booming voice dominates a room; the entitled oaf whose paltry patronage is sometimes the only way to survive in work. My eyes scrunch up against the flicker of strip lighting, the cracked littered earth of the park, the itchy grey dust of verminous pigeons, and the hideous architecture of inward investment. A non-stop roar of traffic assaults my ears, while I am assailed by the chipper blandishments of telephone marketeers and the dismal whine of air conditioning. My stomach heaves at the stink of lunches eaten at the desk, the rancid fats of battery food and the fug of exhaust. My skin prickles with the sting of coloured gloop that passes for washing liquid, and I jump at the sharp shock and blue crack of acrylic carpet and escalator.

Experience has become customer experience – reduced to cost per click. An impression is never a liminal sensory response but merely a numerical function of advertising reach. I am not alone in feeling these things.

Work and shame

Leeds, UK - urban depression
Photo by Alissa Eady on Unsplash

The government and its useful fools say that if you are well enough to look after your depression then you are well enough to work. In surgeries around the country, GPs tell patients that they are better served by being on Jobseekers Allowance, colluding with the government myth that work cures all. Qualified Health Professionals (government-speak for minimally trained clinicians) deem the company of one’s passive aggressive co-workers better than the ‘isolation’ of being ill at home. The possibility of beginning a different life with new work and different friends is a concept alien to the state. It is deaf to the notion that depression is necessary to a life, that it allows the individual the time to draw together the threads, to consider the future, to make gentle inroads into expression. Along with the ‘epidemics’ of opioid and alcohol abuse, the levels of depression and anxiety in the world are good arguments for Universal Basic Income.

The hierarchy dreads the idea of people being creative or working fewer hours. The prevailing ideology supports ‘hard work’ until retirement and then (following a period of active consumption that keeps hotels, cruise ships and garden centres in business) a quick illness-free death. It is an ideology that most people have swallowed hook, line and sinker.

The Titan called ‘the Market’ must have access to a pliable grateful workforce that will ‘produce’ the toxic rubbish that the Market needs to survive. But, through the innovation of the gig economy, the Market has created the conditions of its own death. The old-fashioned manipulative and puritanical view of work at least offered security and structure. But now the Market holds work in contempt while simultaneously trying to make it mandatory. One only has to witness the anger constellated in reactionary groups at any mention of UBI to understand how immanent it has become. Sadly, the prevailing ideology is as dangerous and as difficult to remove as a tick in the skin, and the likely reality of UBI would not mean freedom from poverty, but rather Universal Credit by another name. As this article explains, the ‘social position of the boss would be undermined’ by any truly radical thinking. Yet the use of industrial robots is growing at around 16% every year.

For now, the population is mostly quiescent, in thrall to consumption and debt. But linked to capitalism is shame. The puritan ideology of work makes it shameful to be unemployed, and the policy of destroying the poor through the withdrawal and reduction of ‘benefits’ is one aspect of this narrative of shame controlled by the media. But capitalism has a secret introvert shame of itself that it cannot bear, hence it projects its own shame onto anyone at the margins of its influence.

It serves capitalism very well to have an underclass. The threat of poverty is used as a threat to the young, and workers of any age. It also – conveniently –  holds, and dies with, the shame of the rich. Every year some new scandal breaks, in which politicians and media luminaries are discovered indulging in drugs, sex, hypocrisy, violence and bigotry. Strangely, people continue to express shock and outrage. Scapegoats are sent into the wilderness for a while, then there is business as usual.

When the magic field of projection weakens and it becomes possible to glimpse the reality of the natural world, then elements start to stir in protest. This is the point at which laws become more draconian and police forces start to become more aggressive. Simultaneously, embattled powers raise fears of job loss and immigration. Humans long for the intimacy of company but simultaneously fear its threatening otherness. It is easy to manipulate and widen such a chronic split.

Voices of the dead

When I was a young man I suffered from the most terrifying and debilitating symptoms – symptoms that were later rolled up and flattened into the inconsequential sounding ‘panic attack’. After a preliminary period (during which I was either ignored, blamed or prescribed SSRIs and anti-psychotics) I survived for the next twenty years on a daily diet of Diazepam (Valium), its big brother Lorazepam, the beta blocker Propranolol, and occasional further dalliances with Citalopram, Paroxetine and Fluoxetine. Throughout this period, I also heavily self-medicated with alcohol and nicotine. And I was intensely relieved to have my pills because they enabled me to half function in a highly stressful and inimical work environment.

Who is to say how I got that way? There are things I can identify easily: the dysfunction of my family; lack of love; emotional and physical abuse. I also suspect genetic sensitivity, a predisposition to anxiety, and trans-generational trauma. Perhaps even the ten years of my childhood spent living next to an electricity sub-station. I also identify with that wound that has been inflicted by the dramatic reduction in biodiversity. The important thing is that not one person, not doctor, friend or relation, ever took my hands, looked through my drugged behaviour and said: “You have met the great god Pan, he has sent you this fear as a message, and I can help you understand its meaning.” Nor was I aware, in my excessive drinking and habitual use of opiate substitutes, that I was in the archetypal realm of Dionysus.

It would have taken more, of course. I would not have listened because I was too frightened and angry. Which one of us honestly wants to hear that everything we believe about the world is suspect at best, fundamentally wrong at worst? Which politician, on record with a hundred strident speeches and a thousand platitudinous sound bites can turn on a sixpence and say, “I was wrong, I’m sorry I lied”. Could the Conservative Party say “We’re sorry about austerity, the thousands who killed themselves needlessly because they had no support, no money. We can’t change that but we can start again, with care, with love, with respect”?

I don’t panic as much now, even when things are awful – though fear, anxiety, and depression have formed a poisonous skein running through my life to this day. But the world itself is suffering a panic attack. Trump, a grotesque orange baby-titan, thumps across the planet threatening, roaring and destroying, the puppet of an out-of-control military-industrial elite. The underlying similarity of the main political parties in the West goes barely challenged. Education has been reduced to intellectual parroting, and so-called knowledge itself is heavily biased to a white middle-class male perspective. Climate change, included and then removed from curricula, is a hostage to power rather than the single most critical issue in the history of our species (not to mention the history of countless others).

In the US, at war with drugs, and with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, there is an epidemic of opioid abuse. There is now so much money spent on lobbying that the manufacturers and pushers have even been able to render the DEA powerless. In the UK, austerity is driving a record number of children into ‘care’. It is difficult to reflect on the state of the world without concluding that something is driving people quite insane. It is the revenge of Dionysus: mad god, vegetable god, twice-born god, immigrant god, god of sexual ambiguity. Dionysus: the irrational, the inebriate, the ecstatic, the blessing, the curse. He represents everything that our culture fears and holds in contempt.

Dismembered by Titans

Dionysus the Liberator was born of the lust of his father Zeus for the mortal woman Semele. Enraged and jealous, Hera lured Dionysus with toys. When he was sufficiently distracted, furious Titans came from the Underworld and tore the child into seven pieces that they first boiled, then roast on seven spits and ate. But they neglected the heart, which Zeus retrieved and sewed into his thigh, so that Dionysus could be born again.

The story of Dionysus, one of the most potent of ancient myths, offers the optimistic hope of rebirth after catastrophic death. And how poignantly relevant to our times! We are like infants ourselves distracted by toys. Jealous Hera gave Dionysus dice, a ball, a spinning top, golden apples, a bullroarer and wool. When the Titans came for him, their furious faces disguised with chalk, Dionysus was looking at himself in a mirror, enchanted with his soul image. It seems that our sensate and intuitive selves become easily obsessed with toys, ever more self-regarding, and incapable of seeing through the disguise of the Titans.

Dionysus and Satyrs
Dionysus and two Satyrs. Brygos Painter [GFDL, CC BY-SA 3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikimedia Commons

The orgiastic worship of the reborn Dionysus gave birth to drama, particularly Tragedy. But it seems Carl Jung was right when he wrote that the gods have returned to us in our diseases. When the Romans corrupted the psychology of Dionysus (making him jolly old Bacchus, a leering boozer surrounded by tumescent satyrs and simpering nymphs), they turned archetype into stereotype. The consequence is that the Greek concept of pathos – meaning emotion – has gone missing from pathology. Instead, emotion has become disease. In an extraordinarily retrograde move, the World Health Organisation describes depression as ‘the leading cause of disability worldwide, and […] a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.’ At a time when even mainstream psychology is moving away from diagnosis, it is an unfortunate conclusion at best.

What images come to mind in relation to the word ‘drugs’? One might go first to the substances that create an ecstatic and entranced state of being – the illegal drugs – bringers of torture, mutilation and countless violent deaths. Then the legal variety: the dampeners, the flatteners, Mother’s little helper, the drugs that make pharmaceutical companies rich. Third, the panoply of semi-legal uppers and downers: alcohol, nicotine, ‘legal highs’, khat and marijuana. Perhaps the hidden drugs: shopping, sport, sex, religion, social media likes.

If you’re not on one drug, it’s likely you’re on another. Perhaps all of them. Few would credit the number of people who regularly use drugs. That nice friendly guy in the office? Smokes dope most evenings. That live wire boss of yours, who is always on the go? Cocaine addict. We actively defend against any depressive feeling just to survive. The addict and the depressive unwillingly hold feeling for the culture. We can witness the evidence of this every hour in social media. Trolling and outright nastiness are symptoms of unexpressed feeling – fear, grief, vulnerability.

In the US, the ‘war on drugs’ is a convenient euphemism for both imperialist regime change, and the civil war that the US is conducting against its own black and Hispanic citizens.  At another level, it is a war against Dionysus, a fundamentalist assault on ecstatic being. Addiction is a spiritual emergency. The ‘acting out’ as Jay Griffiths says in her book Tristimania, is ‘a way of literalising a profoundly metaphoric experience’. She also elects to call the madness of which she writes manic depression rather than bipolar disorder. Precisely.

For mystics in the Christian tradition, the peak experience took the form of a light coming out of a void, an illumination or revelation, the result of a very one-sided attitude. Some scholars have called this attitude the antithesis of God; through ascesis, the mystic was able to wait until the visio Dei appeared. The Dionysiac adept, in contrast, seems to fall into a sudden possession by the god; it was an emotional experience that happened in the body.”

Lopez-Pedraza, Rafael. Dionysus in exile. Chiron Publications, 2000

The Christian mystic would take the ‘spiritual bypass’ by starving himself into a hallucinatory state. Nowadays the modern psychotherapist takes the place of God, colluding with the patient’s need to make an epiphanic self-discovery. For who can afford (at £75 for fifty minutes) the slow moist incubation of Dionysus, the emotional expression that is the counterpart of the cold depression of Saturn? We humans need ecstatic experiences of one kind or another. The woman who froths at the mouth about ‘drug addicts’ will fix her feelings with binge drink, shop until she drops, then collapse in bed sated with four hours of Netflix and chocolate. So long as she can go to work and pay tax, that’s just fine.

Then there are the value judgments found in addiction itself. The heroin user will often consider the alcoholic to be a lesser species, weak-willed rather than a true hardcore addict, because the heroin user is more likely to be breaking the law to get his gear than the alcoholic. Similarly, the alcoholic will look askance at the cocaine user. All this literal thinking obscures the nature of Dionysian being, and how essential it is to healthy human existence.

The philosopher Heraclitus, who wrote of the unity of opposites, revealed the mystery of Dionysus in a fragment (there is also wordplay in the original that does not translate):

If it were not Dionysus for whom they march in procession and chant the hymn to the phallus, their action would be most shameless. But Hades and Dionysus are the same, him for whom they rave and celebrate Lenaia.”

This syzygy between two such opposite archetypes becomes apparent if we consider the ‘death’ of the addict to the world, the ‘rock-bottom’ of the 12-step fellowships, the ‘death-in-life’ of chronic depression, and la petite mort, the loss of full consciousness after orgasm, or after some particularly traumatic event. One of Dionysus many surnames was Chthonios, the subterranean, and Hades became known as Ploutodótēs, the wealth-giver. There are literal interpretations of these names, but the psychological connection belongs to the rich world of the soul. Death is held in as much contempt today as ecstasy (compare our modern cults of childhood and youth, and our treatment of the elderly, to see the truth of this).

The New Reformation

Prior to the G20 meeting of governments and bankers in July 2017, hundreds of ‘zombies’ appeared in Hamburg, shuffling together until one shook off her grey clay caked clothes to reveal the colourful person beneath. The group 1000 Gestalten wanted to show how rigid thinking makes zombies of us all, that it can be cast off to reveal the colourful multiplicity beneath.

Dancing Maenad
Dancing Maenad. Detail from an Ancient Greek Paestum red-figure skyphos, made by Python, ca. 330-320 BC. British Museum, London
[GFDL, CC BY-SA 3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most insidious mind-fucks of our time is found in the correctness of speech. We are ‘clients’ or ‘customers’ of the Job Centre. When a ‘client’ is sanctioned for some trivial failure, and her ‘benefits’ withdrawn, she can rest easy knowing that she has been treated fairly according to a mealy-mouthed charter. The men and women who kill themselves after being found ‘fit for work’ are unfortunate statistics, but the government has done everything correctly. Victims are regrettable. Choice is illusory.

Systems men created the order required for ‘blameless wholesome lives’, idiotic pap that resembles the indoctrination of a Sunday School preparing a child for a life of unwitting dedication, not to the Abrahamic god, but the financial betterment of others. Systems men (those that made, as Hillman noted, the gulag and KZ Lager possible) fear diversity more than anything else.

It is interesting to note the ways in which the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century prefigured the modern systems thinking that I associate with neoliberalism. The Reformation was a response to the corruption of the Catholic Church, the selling of indulgences, and the cults of the saints. It is not much of a stretch to see the modern equivalent in the reaction against the ‘elite’ technocrats of the EU and Washington. In both cases, the weapon is modern technology. In the fifteenth century, the invention of movable type began a revolution of literacy. This article claims that, within thirteen years, reformers had circulated ten million publications.

In the twentieth century, the invention of the internet brought the possibility of unlimited learning and information to the individual. But the reality was different in both cases. Just as the leaders of the Reformation used the press to print propaganda, so neoliberals have manipulated social media. The Protestant Reformation believed in the predestination of divine grace. God, they argued, had already decided who would be saved, and who not. Therefore, it did not matter if one performed good works in life or not, since the only requirement was faith in Jesus Christ. Even if one slipped away from this faith there would be a divine chastening to bring the appointed back into the fold. Since no one knew if they were predestined or not, hard work and frugality became the visible signs of the elect, in contrast to the Catholic focus on confession and sacrament.

It is easy to see how the Reformation was inspirational to European peasantry, offering an end to superstition, and good riddance to wealthy powerful priests – or so they believed. It would be simplistic to replace, for instance, ‘Reformer’ with ‘Brexiteer’, but there are similarities. In both cases, there is a genuine move towards democracy, away from powerful and unaccountable forces. Both favour market forces. Both believe in frugality (though now we know it as austerity). But, certain that the die had already been cast, Reformers had permission to behave as awfully as they liked. The Church of Neoliberalism does not need to play theological games, but it does require unwavering belief in its unitary God, the Market.

To oppose the Market is to declare oneself a heretic, a saboteur, and to become apostate. In ditching Catholicism, the Reformers lost not only the plurality of the saints, but also the medieval delight in carnival and revelry. Most of the world has accepted some form of the Protestant ethic. In Spain, there have been moves to ban the siesta. The reason given is that it is problematic for Spain to work different hours to the rest of Europe. The real reason is lies in the creeping tide of spiritual austerity. Note that Christmas and Thanksgiving have extended seasons. In the UK, the risible festival of Guy Fawkes now lasts for weeks. Rather than happening for one night, the bangs and hisses of fireworks last for weeks either side of the day itself, terrorising pets and wildlife. I see in this behaviour the unconscious need for ecstasy.

Nature and ecstasy

I am critical of pundits paid for describing failure alone, rather than offering any answers. It is the journalistic equivalent of the terrible failure of psychotherapy to offer rescue when it is needed. While there is wisdom in the via negativa, this is a time to imaginatively construct alternatives. At some level, the state knows that poverty and depression destroy this capacity. Just as the soulless culture of power reduces our human agency, and turns us into ‘clients’, with all the dependency that the word implies, it also creates depression. It becomes difficult to think for oneself and easy to believe the propaganda. Because I see the ways in which my agency has been reduced, I can at least see through this flattening effect. Many cannot, or are unwilling to take the red pill, preferring to believe the easy myths and ‘statistics’.

So what is to be done? When psychotherapists refuse to ‘rescue’ a patient, the excuse offered is that he will be better off finding his own power. That might work well when someone is open to exploration. At other times it is indefensible. In the name of the tired clichés of ‘boundaries’, therapists take great power and then abdicate responsibility for that power. Faced with a patient on the edge, some will say that the proper course of action is referral. Woe betide the counsellor who tries to engage with a ‘serious mental health problem’. The reason for this reluctance is not, in my view, based on any particular principles, but rather fear of expulsion from the professional bodies – organisations whose response to the spectre of state regulation is to become even more regulatory.

Many authors write that the answer lies in a renewal of our connection with nature – I’ve said the same myself. But caution is needed with nature. Jay Griffiths says this:

The sheer goodness of nature for the sick psyche is incomparable; there in green one is not judged, one is accepted, with consolation and company. Nature gives you the exalted, tender ordinary – as of right”

Griffiths, Jay. Tristimania. Penguin Books, 2017

I cannot entirely agree. Nature does not automatically give (which is the consumerist expectation) but must be asked. Because nature loves to hide, one has to be well enough to be open to what might be revealed. Even then, nature can expel us from a sense of place, as the conservationist Matthew Oates expresses perfectly in his book In Pursuit of Butterflies. Indeed, forgetting place is one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s.

Pentheus being torn by Maenads.
Pentheus being torn by Maenads. Roman fresco from the Casa dei Vettii in Pompeii [via Wikimedia Commons]

Too much woo? We are still obsessed with the rational. Twenty years ago Candace Pert (who discovered the brain’s opiate receptor) described how consciousness operates at a cellular level, and how white blood cells are like ‘bits of the brain floating around the body’ (forget your brain, your body doesn’t lie). In 2014 John O’Keefe, and Edvard and May-Britt Moser discovered ‘place cells’ – neurons that respond to particular places. It seems likely that neuroscience is just beginning to understand our complex and subtle responses to the world, and that in doing so it may begin to uncover the response of the world to us. 

In this piece profiling the work of neuroscientist Matthew Walker, poor sleep is linked to early death and dementia. There’s a lot to like here, for example Walker holds that dreams cannot be analysed, and he suggests that poor sleep is linked with shame in the developed world. To benefit from sleep we should keep regular hours, avoid stimulants, switch off electronic devices. The problem with all this good advice is that many of us are rendered sleepless by the mad tyranny that has overtaken the world (according to the American Psychological Association, nearly two thirds of Americans admit to being stressed about the future of the nation).

At night the lorries full of plastic shit that roar down the road outside my bedroom keep me awake. Donald Trump keeps me awake. So does institutional violence and climate change. The way things are going, the sensitive people of the world will die out, leaving the rational and violent alphas to kill themselves in total war – assuming the planet hasn’t done the job already. Nature cannot be expected to solve our problems for us. Most people have lost their connection so profoundly that it may never return, and it is unreasonable to expect the urban poor to go on frequent trips into the country. Nor does the contemplation of a dandelion in the gutter give as much joy as the nature writers would have us believe.

But ecstasy must be expressed. In his late play The Bacchae, the Greek tragedian Euripides tells the story of a Trump figure, Pentheus, who bans the worship of Dionysus – in other words he tries to ban the irrational. In revenge, Dionysus sends Pentheus’ mother and aunts away in a mad bacchic frenzy. Then he persuades Pentheus to dress as a woman (hair just so, dress falling nicely, standing in the right way) so that Pentheus can spy on (what he believes will be) an orgy. But Pentheus’ mother Agave discovers him and, believing him to be an animal, tears him to pieces, limb from limb, just as Dionysus was pulled apart by the Titans as a child. Whether this practice of Sparagmos happened or not, it can be read figuratively. Titanic behaviour will be mirrored. The angriest and most masculine of kings will repress his sexuality.

The future of ecstasy

Many people believe that humankind will save itself through interplanetary colonisation. Not content with his hyperbolic dreams of a Mars colony, Elon Musk has started The Boring Company. Not, as one might imagine, a company that produces analytics of actuarial rates, but one dedicated to developing high speed drilling. Both fantasies completely miss hitting the psychological pay dirt. The colony, the outpost, is the start of doing things differently. Drilling and tunnelling is the work required to develop the outpost, but not in the literal sense. Musk, by literalising the concept of colonisation and tunnelling has, like Trump, become a Titan.

The mind-boggling cost of interplanetary travel, not to mention the Brobdingnagian quantity of resources required, make it obvious to all but the most obsessed that it is not a project likely to get off the ground. Rather than amongst the stars, our future lies on the ground and under the sea. It is in the depths of psychological death to an outworn style of being, the acceptance of difference, and the embrace of the passionate. If space opera and science fiction teaches anything, it is that nemesis follows hubris, as in the ancestral science fiction tale of Daedalus and Icarus. In this narcissistic era, it is popular to commend Icarus for his attempt to reach the sun, missing the point of the story.

Kudzu covered field near Port Gibson, Mississippi, USA
Kudzu covered field near Port Gibson, Mississippi, USA Gsmith [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The spaceships of television and film started as fantasies of clean glittering asepsis, like the USS Enterprise of Star Trek fame. Each episode seemed to be a battle to restore order, as pristine asepsis was routinely compromised by tribbles, hostile aliens, or any number of virulent infestations. When the fantasy became conscious, septic starships started to appear – such as the Nostromo in the film Alien. With sepsis also comes conscious sexual intrusion and – sometimes more terrifying than any monster – ambivalence.

As a boy, I dreamed of turning an old wardrobe into a Tardis. I would be able to lock myself safely in the darkness, turn on my flickering screens, and navigate to a better place. In my fantasy, I had the safe dark womb that was missing in the real world, and I had the power. It is no accident that the consulting room of the therapist is a womb-like chamber, a place that should expect and welcome intrusion, but which all too often rejects it – the unwelcome expression promptly ejected through the airlock. The psychodynamic tradition of psychotherapy also prefers an aseptic chamber, ostensibly to remove the possibility of unhelpful projection, displacement and deflection. I can barely think of a method that annoys me more, except manualised CBT.

It might be revealing to analyse the content of space operas and post-apocalyptic video games for variety of intrusion. I have a fancy that most are organic in origin, inherited from the chthonic fears of the Age of Enlightenment. Might the sexually inquisitive tendrils and tentacles of space opera reflect a terrible fear of nature’s abundance, a loathing of messy fecundity?

The principles of Permaculture invite benign chaos. A vegetable bed overflows with squash, beans, tomatoes, basil, marigolds, and rocket. Another bed heaves with kale, chard, radish, beetroot, nasturtiums, carrots and parsnips. The plants spill over one another in a glorious mess of leaves, flowers and fruit. Humans sow and harvest. Toads and ducks patrol for slugs. Birds snatch caterpillars. Bees and flies pollinate. Everything is in relation to everything else. This isn’t ‘balance’ or ‘competition’ – it’s riot, free association, cornucopia. There are losses, there are gains.

Andrew Marvell’s famous fifth stanza from ‘A Garden’ is supposedly an Edenic fantasy, the use of ‘insnared’ and ‘fall’ a dark reminder of the biblical fall. Perhaps – but this most sensuous of verses might be the anthem for the permaculture movement.

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
The nectarine, and curious peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flow’rs, I fall on grass.

‘Invasive’ plants, such as Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed and the Kudzu vine pictured here, are plants that humans have cultivated away from their origins, so they have no natural predation. Ashamed of ourselves, we brand them ‘noxious weeds’, when they are doing nothing except expressing themselves fully. I wonder if the beginning to the problem of ecstasy is an understanding of expression in all its forms. I have written before about the idea of an Imaginarium on every high street, a place with rooms to craft, dance, shout, cry, and sit.

A world defined by its qualities, and perceived as having qualities, requires the same richness of its observers. Like knows like. If the world is a messy many, then the definition of consciousness follows one proposed early in the twentieth century by the French philosopher Henri Bergson: “qualitative multiplicity.”

We would conceive of consciousness to be as multitudinous as the world, a microcosm of the macrocosm: as without, so within.
Rather than made in the image of a single transcendent God, we would imagine ourselves made like the multiple images of the world.”

Hillman, James. The Force of Character. Random House, 1999

There are some who see the rise of depression as a consequence of individualism and the market culture. I don’t entirely agree. The rise of group think is worse. If people were truly held in a community they would feel empowered to be creative, and not to be in thrall to the censure of group think.

Ecstatic vision

I have done what I can to provide an introduction, a middle and a conclusion to this piece, but it is too long and at times I probably ramble. Form and structure do not come easily to me: they are in some ways the antithesis of ecstasy. I find, in my depressed way, that I struggle daily with the expected methods of expression.  The word ‘ramble’ comes, perhaps, from the word romen, “to walk, go”. But there is an association with the Dutch word rammen, meaning to copulate, “used of the night wanderings of the amorous cat”. I cannot think of a more apt reversal of a modern meaning.

The war against ecstasy is not only a consequence of our rupture from nature. It is the product of inflated rationalism. The feast of the Great Dionysia was open to all. I would like to think that, one day soon, we will recover the lost truth, because to take back ecstasy is to throw open the windows on the first day of Spring, to hear the birds afresh, to feel the chill receding in the warmth of the new sun. It is to welcome the true world.

 

Old Harry Rocks, UK
Photo by Will van Wingerden on Unsplash

 

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