Thursday, 9 August 2018

well-wishing

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 somewhat miserabilist 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, 
Freud
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 for that mildly fatuous remark about British national character...).

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?