Thursday, 9 August 2018


Consider the difference between later Wittgenstein's and later Freud's attitudes to well-wishing.

On his 60th birthday, in 1935, Mann received the following letter from Freud:
My Dear Thomas Mann, 
Accept as a friend my affectionate greetings on your sixtieth birthday. I am one of your ‘oldest’ readers and admirers and I might wish you a very long and happy life as is the custom on such occasions. But I shall not do so. Wishing is cheap and strikes me as a relapse into the days when people believed in the magical omnipotence of thoughts. I think, too, from my most personal experience, that it is well if a compassionate fate sets a timely end to the length of our life. 
Nor do I think the practice deserves imitation by which affection on these festive occasions disregards respect, and by which the subject of the celebration is compelled to hear himself loaded with praise as a man and analysed and criticized as an artist. I shall not be guilty of such presumption. I can allow myself something else however. In the name of a countless number of your contemporaries I can express to you our confidence that you will never do or say—for an author's words are deeds—anything that is cowardly or base. Even in times and circumstances that perplex the judgement you will take the right path and point it out to others.
Yours very sincerely, 
And now Wittgenstein. In his Waking to Wonder Gordon Bearn describes how, from 1940 onwards, but never before, Wittgenstein often signed off his letters with a 'Good Luck!' Bearn surmises (p. 161) that:
the change in his signature testifies to a deep change in Wittgenstein's view of things [Anschauungsweise].
Bearn goes on to discuss this change in the final chapter of his book, and I shan't recapitulate it here. Instead I ask the question: when we wish someone well, are we indulging in superstition, or are we offering something meaningful? It's certainly tempting (for me) to see matters as Freud saw them - as if in well-wishing we succumb to the illusion that saying or thinking something can make it so, as if our words had the power to change the course of events. But is this all it amounts to? (Consider too: 'you will be in my prayers'.) And if we reject the notion of the 'omnipotence of thoughts' must we see such phrases either as irrelevant or as gaining any minor power they have from the promotion of the self-determining effects of positive thinking?

What's striking to me is the banal and instrumental character of both the 'magical' and the 'positive thinking' approaches. What we need more than anything, today, is a good explanation of just why such readings of expressions of hope and well-wishing have even become possible. A good explanation, that is, of how Freud and his legion followers could have nothing but a tin ear for such an important dimension of human life. I mean, really, how could Freud really think that to wish Mann well on his sixtieth birthday would be to lapse into superstition!

So, how are we to read the expression of hope and best wishes if not instrumentally? If I say 'I really hope you do well today!' am I really just taking up an irrelevant, non-Stoic, attitude toward the future?

A friend recently told me of the teenage revelation she had on understanding the significance of the lyrics to What a Wonderful World:
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying 'how do you do?'
They're really saying: I love you
I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world

The words she particularly drew attention to were 'I see friends shaking hands saying 'how do you do?' - They're really saying: I love you'. Here what looks like a question is really to be understood as a declaration. As a declaration which warms the heart. A declaration that I care about you. The request for information is secondary to what's really conveyed: an attitude of interest in and care for the other person.

So when Wittgenstein wishes (correspondents such as) Norman Malcolm 'Good Luck!' he's not engaged in magical thinking, is not attempting to change the course of fate. Nor is he aiming at a different instrumental effect: of trying to change Malcolm's bootstrapping optimism - to change his way of seeing things so he fares better. No. He's letting them know - or more immediately: he's expressing that - he cares. That he wishes it is what's important. That how Malcolm fares matters to him - that's what's important. This is how Wittgenstein shows his love to Malcolm (just before, er, excommunicating him for 5 years...).

Psychotherapy works - let's say - to tell just part of the story, and in just one particular (Kleinian) mode - by the replacement of bad internal objects with good internal objects. That is to say, it works by replacing a sense of oneself as ultimately alone and as having to self-regulate through self-control, with a sense of oneself as lovable, acceptable, worthwhile. The therapist takes an interest in the patient. This attitude is what matters to the patient, and it matters that it's genuine. (And for it to be genuine the therapist must also sometimes at least be prepared to show his 'hate' - although that's another story...) (Think too of how almost every Christian prayer is a rehearsal of God's love for man and of man's for God.) Cummings the romantic put it wonderfully:
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                         i fear   
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
Given this psychoanalytic story about how psychotherapy works it may seem remarkable how removed Freud was from the real significance of well-wishing. Why did he say "Wishing is cheap and strikes me as a relapse into the days when people believed in the magical omnipotence of thoughts."? Well, it's striking that the next sentence is "I think, too, from my most personal experience, that it is well if a compassionate fate sets a timely end to the length of our life." Freud was 79 when he wrote to Mann. He was broken by his jaw cancer and by the death of his daughter Sophie - and, then, and more particularly, by the death a couple of years later by her son Heinz ('Heinele'). Freud didn't die for another 5 years, but during this time reported little or no enjoyment in life. By contrast Wittgenstein became more in touch with the significance of a pre-intellectual engagement with others and with life as he aged and worked through his schizoid defences. His generous last words, when he was himself dying of cancer, echo the above song: 'Tell them I had a wonderful life!' His last writings on epistemology reflect this growing appreciation of the pre-ratiocinative engagement with reality required for sense to be made, and his sense that the opposite of such engagement was not a cautious scepticism but a form of madness.

I propose that Freud suffered a 'failure' of mourning for his last few years: he became detached from life and loving attachments in ways that exceeded his self-understanding. It is this, I suggest, which leads him to think of well-wishing as a cheap relapse into magical thinking. For he is now no longer given over to life, whereas meaningful well-wishing requires one to be a live moment in the subjectivity of another. It relies on human connection to be meaningful. Without such a connection we may still be instrumentally, if not expressively, involved in the world of others. Yet, living now in the loveless shades, what from this vantage could well-wishing look like - other than a relapse into a magical form of instrumental thinking?

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

wanting to jump off

Ely Cathedral
Yesterday I visited Ely cathedral. This awesome holy cavernous monument rising out of a Dutch landscape.

I went up the East Tower, pausing to look over the railings and parapets. Before ascending I'd heard tell of George Basevi, architect of the Fitzwilliam Museum and Belgrave Square, accidentally falling to his death, onto the cathedral floor, from the West Tower in 1845.

Looking over a parapet produces a powerful vertiginous feeling in me. As does watching a Youtube video made my someone scaling a tall building. I can't get my normal automatic sensorimotor purchase on my surroundings; the smooth coordination of vestibular and visual information is thwarted. It discombobulates.

People sometimes report having a terrifying feeling of wanting to jump off tall places when they are up there. I'm pleased that I didn't really feel that, but I did try to see if I could carefully feel or 'listen' my way into that predicament, so as to understand it better, and then I could at least get a little glimpse of it.

Here are two bad theories of that feeling, theories I will call the 'cognitivist' and the 'psychoanalytic'. The cognitivist says: 'you're misidentifying a fear as a wish'. The psychoanalytic says 'you're getting in touch with a normally hidden-away death wish'. Such theories are unhelpful in their own characteristic ways. This cognitivist is mistaken in thinking that we're normally in the business of identifying our own mental states for what they are; that object-recognition model is simply out of place in the inner, and deploying it inscribes an alienated self-relation into the heart of both the perfectly healthy and the struggling psyche. (Think: cognitive models of hostile impulses in OCD.)  And this psychoanalyst just theorises from without the patient's experience, according to her own general trend. She fails to do the requisite phenomenological investigation, and by using merely inference-to-the-best-explanation also leaves us with the kind of model that alienates the patient from his own experience, and which furthermore risks generating self-alienation, and disturbance, and hours on the couch, in its positing of dark, hidden, previously unimagined suicidal wishes within: 'Oh hell, I've this whole other sinister person inside me! Who on earth am I?'

George Basivi is buried
in Ely Cathedral
Here's my (differently psychoanalytic) alternative. We have an inbuilt drive to get a handle on disturbing feelings by assimilating them to our will. Something awful happens, and now, sometimes, we want to repeat that thing, except this time have it happen because we made it happen. Think of the so-called repetition compulsion. Think of the sexual masochist who deals with a previous self-destroying shame by now being the one to invite and control the domination by the other in the play scenario. Think of the child playing with figures in play therapy, symbolically reenacting the traumas of his life. Sometimes we want to repeat the feared experience just as it is, thereby gaining mastery over it even though it is still awful; sometimes we want to repeat it and have it turn out better this time. .... And, in relation to vertiginous feelings: we want to master them by having ourselves be their cause. This, I suggest, is the source of that felt wish to jump off. The structure of the wish is: gain mastery of the situation by bringing the feelings of imbalance and falling under the domain of the will. The fact that it is deeply irrational doesn't matter - we're not looking for some bit of means-ends reasoning by the acrophobic. (If the sufferer wasn't anxious then they would be able to deploy their reasoning; but because here they are deeply freaked out they instead are forced to rely on more primitive strategies.) Instead we're identifying a natural disposition to right a natural disturbance.


The paradoxical nature of the idea that the impulse one feels, if one does, to throw oneself off the high place, is an attempt to gain control, must be acknowledged. For we often think of such impulses as precisely what needs controlling. Someone may say: if I gave in to them, well then I should be out of control! By way of answer I shall just point out that I am not saying that the impulse in any way reflects our better judgement or our general ambitions (of e.g. staying alive!). Instead I am invoking an instinctual ambition to master a frightening stimulus by entering into it. The impulse can then be said to be to jump (but not of course to kill oneself, which was never part of the plan). Here we have two different forms that 'control' may take. My choice to talk of 'control' and 'the will' in relation to instinctual efforts at mastery of unwanted discombobulation may not be entirely happy, but we may substitute something happier if need be. Children spontaneously re-run traumatic situations so that they should come good again the second time. They would not be able to avow what they are doing. What matters is that we ascribe the impulse to re-run the situation using language that invokes a wish to master fate and repair terror. In the case of the acrophobic's impulse we (usually) meet with a second and stronger impulse - to preserve biological life. The first impulse is to the end of 'preserving life' in Schopenhauer's sense (when he talks of the end of psychosis being to preserve life) - i.e. to make something livable-with. From the perspective of our wish to not die, any continued impulse to jump off appears to manifest a failure of control. From the perspective of the wish to master discombobulation, the impulse to jump off makes its own kind of sense.