Medium 9781855758018

Matters of Life and Death

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The author's focus in this book is upon the intrapsychic vicissitudes of what it means to be truly alive and how death accompanies us at each step of our life's journey. He attempts to show that, psychologically-speaking, death is always present in life and life in death. He discovers what is emotionally central to being alive and how death and awareness of death - conscious or unconscious - silently color our subjective experience. The fundamental thrust of these socio-clinical meditations is to enhance appreciation of aspects of life that have been inoptimally addressed in psychoanalytic literature and to expand the view of death in ways that might be personally and technically enriching.

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7 Chapters

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Chapter One: Goodness

ePub

“In youth and health, in summer, in the woods or on the mountains, there come days when the weather seems all whispering with peace, hours when the goodness and beauty of all existence enfolds us like a dry, warm climate, or chime through us as if our inner ears were subtly ringing with the world's security”

(James, 1902, p. 269)

Freud's (1915b) wry observation that “most of our sentimentalists, friends of humanity, and protectors of animals have been evolved from little sadists and animal tormentors” (p. 282) is but one illustration of his pessimistic view of human nature. With a stoic ethic and sceptical intellect as his chief allies, Freud suspected that instinctual and pleasure–based motives underlay most, if not all, human endeavour. Vast swathes of humanity, in his eyes, were “good for nothing in life” (1905a, p. 263) besides being “lazy and unintelligent” (1927c, p. 7). Indeed, he went so far as to declare that “belief in the goodness of human nature is one of those evil illusions by which mankind expect their lives to be beautified and made easier while in reality they only cause damage” (1933a, p. 104). Freud's (1933b) discourse on why nations go to war also underscored his view that human beings were basically destructive and violent.

 

Chapter Two: Happiness

ePub

“The happiness that is genuinely satisfying is accompanied by the fullest exercise of our faculties and the fullest realization of the world in which we live”

(Russell, 1930, p. 74)

We psychoanalysts are a little wary of happiness. Deeply influenced by the pessimistic world–view of the discipline's founder, Sigmund Freud, we approach moments of joy with trepidation. We remain alert to their transient nature and doubt even their veracity; the repudiated anguish or warded–off anxiety that we suspect lurks underneath them is our prime concern. This is especially true of our professional lives. For us, a patient's jovial banter is merely a defensive cloak for the darkness in his heart, his good mood a thin veil over inner sadness. Let me put it bluntly: we are clinicians of despair, and misery is the mother tongue of our profession.

However, it is also true that, in our personal lives, we seem capable of relaxing and of experiencing happiness. Making love, having a lively dinner conversation with friends, playing with our dogs, reading a good book, watching our grandchildren grow, and receiving the news that something we wrote has been accepted by a prestigious journal are all capable of stirring up the sort of pleasurable feelings in us that we associate with happiness. Come to think of it, there are moments in our clinical work also that bring us deep satisfaction and a gratifying sense of mutuality and grace. Despite all this, our literature on the phenomenology, origins, meta–psychology, and technical significance of happiness is meagre.

 

Chapter Three: Playfulness

ePub

“The sunlight playing on the waves qualifies for the attribute ‘playful' because it faithfully remains within the rules of the game. It does not really interfere with the chemical world of the waves. It insists only on an intermingling of appearances. These patterns change with effortless rapidity and with a repetitiveness which promises pleasing phenomena within a predictable range without ever creating the same configuration twice”

(Erikson, 1950, p. 212)

Allow me to begin this contribution on the notion of playfulness by talking about a revolver. Yes, you read it right: a revolver. The story goes like this. Donald Winnicott was to present a paper to the British Psychoanalytic Society. After being introduced, he walked up to the podium, opened his briefcase, took out his paper and also a revolver, which he carefully placed on the lectern. A hush fell over the audience. Winnicott began reading his paper and, after a few minutes, stopped and said something like this, “In case you are wondering what this revolver is doing here, let me tell you. It is intended for the person who, instead of discussing my ideas, would begin his remarks by declaring that what I am presenting is not psychoanalysis.” The audience laughed, a bit awkwardly to be sure. Winnicott then went on with reading his paper.

 

Chapter Four: Mortality

ePub

“Friends die and the mystery envelops us. Something here calls for attention. With tenacious thought it might be grasped and understood. But from the nothingness toward which our lives are tending we are easily distracted. We lay it aside. Values are winnowed by bereavement and pain, by loneliness and guilt, but death is the ultimate flail”

(Wheelis, 1975, p. 88)

We have a complex relationship with death. To call our attitude towards death “ambivalent” is to oversimplify matters. The gamut of our affects and fantasies involving death is far more wide–ranging than can be captured by the plebeian and workman–like adjective. Let us look a little closely at what we have at hand here. To begin with, we feel a certain unease about the topic of death, especially if it involves that of our own. A shudder of fear rocks our hearts as we contemplate our non–existence. We may or may not like ourselves but, by God, we are hardly at ease in saying goodbye to “dear old me”. As a result, we pretend that it is not going to happen to us. We play mental games with ourselves and run after the mirage of immortality. We tell ourselves that by staying healthy we can postpone death (perhaps, forever?), overlooking that people get killed in freak accidents all the time and are even randomly murdered because they have been mistaken to be someone else by a drug–ravaged or blithely forgetful hit–man.

 

Chapter Five: Graves

ePub

“The idea of the earth as mother and of burial as a re–entry into the womb for rebirth appears to have recommended itself to at least some of the communities of mankind at an extremely early age”

(Campbell, 1991, p. 66)

Located between the large–hearted stoicism of cremation and the wishful denial of mummification, graves represent compromise formation par excellence. Simultaneously, they serve as stark reminders of man's mortality and shrill memoranda of life's continuation after death. A commonly used euphemism for graves—”the ultimate resting place”—gives the trick away. Remove the word “ultimate” and you will become aware of the implications that one can get up refreshed from such a place and be all set to resume the day's work. Moreover, the prefix “ultimate” can easily be interpreted as other than “final”: it can signify “superiority” and “excellence”. Just note how amusement parks and ice cream parlours cheerily announce the “ultimate” roller coaster and the “ultimate” flavour, respectively.

 

Chapter Six: Orphans

ePub

“Our patients, who teach us so much of what we get to know, often make it clear that they met disillusionment very early indeed. They have no doubt of this and can reach deeper and deeper sadness connected with the thought”

(Winnicott, 1939, p. 21)

Words matter. They help us express and convey or hide and camouflage our thoughts and inner experiences. For we psychoanalysts, this is an issue of paramount importance. We depend upon “associations”—a river–like, undulating chain of words—to deduce the psychologically elusive layers of striving and fear in our patients. Words are our allies. We listen to them and use them with utmost care. As yet, we remain vulnerable to collusion with the public at large in avoiding the use of words felt as too anxiety–provoking or deemed “politically incorrect”. We refer to the external female genitalia as “vagina” instead of the medically correct “vulva”, lump all militant uprisings as “terrorism”, and recoil from calling anyone “mentally retarded” or “handicapped”. Under the guise of updating our vocabulary, we renounce powerful and direct communication. We struggle to think and speak fearlessly, but Freud's (1897) matrem nudam is the outer wall of our lexical prison. (Freud, in his Letter to Wilhelm Fleiss, 3 October 1897, cited in Masson, 1985, p. 268) lapses into Latin, matrem nudam, while describing, at age forty–one, the childhood memory of having seen his mother naked, attesting to the power of certain words and the strenuous efforts we make to avoid using them.)

 

Chapter Seven: Coda

ePub

“In biological functions, the two basic instincts operate against each other or combine with each other. Thus, the act of eating is a destruction of the object with the final aim of incorporating it and the sexual act is an act of aggression with the purpose of the most intimate union. … This concurrent and mutually opposing action of the two basic instincts gives rise to the whole variegation of the phenomena of life”

(Freud, 1940a [1938], p. 149]

We regard life and death as categorically separate. The absolute, final, and immutable nature of death has made us accustomed to this view. Only in our wishful fantasies, dreams, and literature—mournful, gothic, or science fiction—do we overcome the insurmountable barriers between life and death. Otherwise, we stand hapless and ashamed in front of the wall separating the two, our helplessness diminished, to some extent, by religion, which offers us the reassurance of life's continuation after death. The doctrines and imagery it provides link life and death by a bridge of faith. We feel better and can fall asleep more easily at night. However, upon careful scrutiny, it turns out that death is always with us. It is not as apart from life as we had mistakenly assumed. Think about it.

 

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