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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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Posted on

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 FridayAt the simplest level it has probably been said many times that the zombie infestation of popular media deals with two main implicit themes, dissociation and consumerism.

Humans are a gregarious species that came together because it is easier and safer to hunt and live as a group but, by so doing, began to lose their freedom and wildness. The body psychotherapist Nick Totton called this the neolithic bargain. In dissociative behaviour we see and fear the loss of this group connection: 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 centred on the need for water, food and safety, the physiological building blocks of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
    • Sometimes these needs are compromised by the living dead, at other times by the living.
    • 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 his life or abandon him?
  • The narrative is punctuated by episodes of extremely graphic violence featuring dismemberment, decapitation and disembowelment.

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, particularly as a consequence of the development in computing power. In the last thirty years there has also been a shift towards what is described as neoliberalism, meaning a deregulation of markets, an increase in privatisation and a reduction in government oversight. These changes have effectively polarised global cultures.

Polarisation

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, equality and freedom comes a surge of aggression, inequality and slavery. In this short essay the American therapist Cliff Bostock describes the loss of voice that attends his attempt to lecture from an entrenched position, signalling an urgent need to recognise the compensatory opposite.

Bostock references 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, environmental crisis (but, myopically, we have climate ‘change’). Small wonder then that the rapacious, tyrannical power of the few has created a world that feels to many 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, close to the anarchy of doing a ‘run’ to the abandoned convenience store for supplies, risking the bite of the zombie, much as 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? Experiences are described as ‘disorders’ in the very title of the psychiatrists’ bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). The volume has generated much criticism: first, ‘disorders’ are not diseases as this article makes clear; second (as this piece explains) there is a lot of money vested in ‘treating’ so-called disorders, 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, but 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 by dancing it can be achieved, first one end, then the middle, moving with the action of the waves rather than seeking to fight them, delighting in the peaks and troughs.

Our ‘disorders’ and ‘dis-eases’ are also symptomatic of the toxicity prevailing in the culture, the blame projected onto those of us who are merely displaying the symptoms of the true malaise, resulting in 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’, and I also felt that many people were in denial of those feelings, preferring to believe that either their mechanical lifestyles are what they chose, or that there were no options – so they might as well get on with it. This is absence of imagination again, but not of the individual so much as the larger society, and 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.

The zombie plague 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 those who had been bereaved, and subsequent researchers have taken a more expansive view of grieving, while 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. 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, whereas 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 frightened 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.

If I am right in my opinion about the prevalence of anxiety, depression and anger in Western culture, it seems likely that these symptoms are related to the oppression of the dominator class and that they are connected 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, and 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, comparing the evils of the modern world to an Arcadian fantasy, but her Romantic passion lights up the heart, and one wants to run into the cool streams, and build the 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 a sixth extinction, a wiping out of life on a massive scale. Impossible? Remember the Passenger Pigeon, billions of birds made extinct in 40 years through hunting and deforestation. More recently, the Pyrenean Ibex, extinct in 2000. The Saint Helena olive, extinct in 2003. 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, that our continuing predations on the natural world are also reflected in the zombie herds of The Walking Dead, that bulldoze their way through any obstacle 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, and 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 always danger. Behind every tree a zombie may lurk. Down at the stream they are stuck in the mud, and a 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, with the irony signposted in block caps, 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, as the group struggle between the ‘freedom’ of the prison (while living in a constant state of anxiety) and the ‘safety’ of the 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 motifIn 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.

This image shocked audiences in 1968
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).

Fundamentals

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 wreak 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: indeed 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), and 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

Also within the explicit narrative hides, none too well, religious anxiety. 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

Zombie flesh invariably looks diseased and rotten. Limbs can be wrenched from the undead (otherwise shown as very strong) with mystifying ease. Penetration of the zombie with bullet or melee weapon 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; similarly skewered with knives and swords, or into the throat and up 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 the zombie 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.

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 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, that we can cheerfully witness the dismemberment of our shadow selves, the rapacious hordes, but that 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, the hope for which creates a hatred of the Earth, the fleshy, the ‘corruptible’: in ancient times 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 undead, the bankers, politicians and oligarchs, when they pose a threat, when we are not 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 of them talked of her business selling ‘critical and strategic thinking skills’ and she went on to mentioned a colleague, saying, “Her cognitive processing is somewhat impaired… she is very controlling of her environment.”

Breaking out of the prison

Perhaps we are all in Rick’s crew now, bunkered down in our prison anticipating nothing better than either the next zombie attack or the wrath of the ‘Governor’, the superficially ordered community that is ruled by fear, 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, for power. That we will eventually see through our need to consume at all costs. But 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

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