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.