Loving Hermann Hesse

My birthday earlier in the week brought back memories of another birthday, one spent in far less auspicious circumstances. In fact, it could qualify as one of the worst birthdays I’ve ever had. It was my 20th and I spent it on a coach driving down through France for a skiing holiday. For reasons unknown we had some sort of compere up front with a microphone. Bleary and uncomfortable from hours of sleepless travel, I heard my name being called and knew no good would come of it. My attempts to pass incognito did not work, and I was hauled to my feet so that a coachload of indifferent strangers (for the most part) could sing Happy Birthday to me. I daresay there are people who would love the communal cheer of this sort of thing. I was not one of them.

We arrived at our resort, which was like all resorts the world over: not as nice as the photos in the brochure, with that slightly used and tired look of places that see vast quantities of human traffic. I can’t say that I had high hopes for my ability on skis, but I was young and naïve and the man who was to become Mr Litlove had persuaded me that I should try new things. I did not last very long on the slopes. The nursery slopes this late in the season were all ice and slush. The experience of careering down even a gentle incline whilst completely out of control of myself was not my idea of fun, and the tiny tots zipping past with insouciance were somewhat galling. I had been told that the après ski was wonderful, and some people seemed to find it so. We were with a whole lot of other students from UK universities and the resort echoed to the sounds of their drunkenness every night. It was best to visit the loos early in the evening and then hang on until the cleaners had passed through first thing in the morning. ‘You couldn’t have a better holiday than this,’ one of my friends enthused. ‘Exercise out in the fresh air every day. What could be better?’

Well, in all honesty, lying on my bottom bunk bed with a book seemed a vast improvement on the alternative. I was not in the best of moods. I had a sore backside, an overdraft for the first time due to the exhorbitant cost of skiing, and an inferiority complex. I simply could not find pleasure in the things that other people told me were pleasurable. I was not an outdoors, sporty type who liked to fling herself about mountain sides, and most of all I was annoyed with myself because I knew this. And I had allowed myself to be talked into doing something that had not even appealled as an idea because of some ludicrous belief that I could surprise myself. Even at twenty, I knew that lack of self-awareness was not my problem;  it was living with my true nature that was going to be the challenge.

The enormous comfort of that trip was my copy of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which I was reading for the third time. You have to understand that reading a book in German for the third time was a sign of true love. The German language is an extraordinary beast. In its wisdom, it has decreed that after the first verb, which may come in an appropriate place nice and early in the sentence, every other verb has to queue up at the sentence’s end in a tight little logjam. So you have to hang on mentally to every other part of the sentence until you come to those verbs and then reassign them to their appropriate places. Extra fun may be had by complex tenses, especially those including modal verbs and subjunctive voices, ie ‘what should have happened’ or ‘if he had been able’. This must account in some way for the efficiency and acumen of the German people. But for my poor bedazzled brain, it meant that reading slowed down to a crawl. I could read 60 pages an hour in English, 40 in French, and a mere 20 in German. But when it came to Hermann Hesse’s beautiful, flowing German, I scarcely noticed. I just didn’t want it to stop.

Hesse, like Rilke, is one of those writers who seems to write about the things I am properly interested in. He writes about how to live, when you do not feel like you fit with the ‘normal’ run of humanity, when you are miserable in ways others say you should not be, or when you simply want to live a good life and do not know how that can be achieved. His characters are always searching for a cure for living, and the answers they come up with – art, love, transcendent wisdom, acceptance with humour – feel like they might just work. I didn’t realise when I was reading the book at 20 how interested in psychoanalysis Hesse was, although it was already starting to enthrall me as a body of theory. Nor did I know anything about his life, and his extreme sensitivity – ‘like an egg without a shell’ one of his teachers described him, and that’s certainly a simile I could use for myself, at times. Only years later did I read a biography and feel a strong identification with him as a person.

In Steppenwolf, the main protagonist, Harry Haller, is so fed up with his life that he’s decided to commit suicide on his upcoming fiftieth birthday. But then he befriends a young woman, Hermine, his female alter ego, and gets to know the louche company she keeps. She teaches him to dance (not throw himself down a ski slope, note), and then invites him to the mysterious magic theatre for a masked ball. The hippie generation adored Hermann Hesse for inventing the magic theatre, which could read as a hallucinogenic trip. I saw it just as a place of fantastic imagination, a magical exploration of the parts of the mind that we normally visit only in dreams. I expect that the novel feels dated now, but reading in a foreign language (for me, at least) always took that sort of dimension off the language. I read it in a very pure way. It remains in my memory as a very pure book; one in which a man finds reasons not just to keep living, but to believe there can be goodness and magic and hope in life. It contained also a message that it would take me another twenty years to understand: that when there are parts of yourself you do not like, or feel ashamed of, the most helpful reaction is to accept them just as they are, to work with them, rather than hide them away. But at least after that unsatisfying trip, I did have enough sense never to go skiing again.

How Not To Learn The Hard Way

Erickson, looking worryingly like Robbie Williams' granddad

Erickson, looking worryingly like Robbie Williams’ granddad

In the first half the twentieth century, a psychotherapist called Milton Erickson had a gift for teaching people in strange and unusual ways. All Erickson’s patients wanted to do was something supposedly quite normal – lose weight, make love, travel without fear, or develop a new skill – but it was as if some kind of enchantment held them hopelessly in place. Bewitched by fear or insecurity, they lived lives of confinement, until Erickson and his bizarre methods succeeded again and again in releasing them from their spell. His therapies often looked contentious, but what he did have was insight into the obstacles we like to erect in the path of the learning process.

Erickson knew all about being stuck. As a teenager he had nearly died from an attack of polio that left him paralysed and mute. Using body memories and an unfeasible amount of determination, he re-learned how to access his muscles and eventually regained control of his speech and his arms. Dissatisfied still that he could not use his legs, he decided to embark, alone, on a thousand-mile canoe trip, taking with him only a few dollars. He returned home able to walk with the help of a cane, the ordeal having taught him how to push himself beyond what he believed to be his physical, mental and emotional capacities. These experiences restored his body to him, but they also gave him much insight into the complicated process of getting people to learn things to which they have an inbuilt resistance. He knew that minds are bewitched by the magician’s sleight of hand and powerfully affected by the experience of an ordeal, and he made use of these different mental triggers in his therapeutic process with great cunning and invention.

He was particularly successful at treating sportsmen who were struggling to reach new levels of achievement. One of his case histories concerns a young American high school boy who won a gold medal at the Olympics under his tutelage. When Erickson first met Donald Lawrence, he had been practicing the shot put for a year and theoretically had everything going for him. He was six foot six, 260 pounds of pure muscle and trained by an ambitious coach. But he was still significantly short of attaining a national high school record. Erickson told him the story of how Roger Bannister found the right frame of mind to break the four-minute mile by recognizing that he only needed to shave a tenth of a second off the previous record. He said to Lawrence, ‘You have already thrown the shot fifty-eight feet. And Donald, tell me honestly, do you think you know the difference between fifty-eight feet and fifty-eight feet and one-sixteenth of an inch?’

Over the next few sessions, Erickson would repeat this technique, lingering over the hard to conceptualise difference between fifty-eight and fifty-nine feet on an athletic field, or as he put it, enlarging the possibility for the young man. Two weeks later, Lawrence set a national high-school record.

Lawrence wins his Olympic bronze medal

Lawrence wins his Olympic bronze medal

Having proven himself to be a magician, Erickson had the boy in the palm of his hand. A few months later, he came to Erickson for advice about the Olympics. ‘You are just an eighteen-year-old kid,’ Erickson told him. ‘It would be all right if you bring home the bronze medal.’ Which Lawrence promptly did. Four years later, Erickson advised him that it would be fine for him now to win gold. By the time he stopped working with him, Lawrence was throwing the shot put sixty-eight feet and ten inches, all on the basis of a potent cocktail of numerical confusion, self-belief and a dogged devotion to the magic of authority.

Erickson’s success was based on the recognition that the conscious mind has really very little say in what we actually end up doing. All those motivational talks, all that pumping oneself up, all that pleading and scolding that goes on inside our heads is so much white noise. What’s actually in control is a small, piggy part of the self, stubborn, well-defended and unwilling to budge. Erickson’s methods depended on implementing change by tiny, tiny increments. The natural inclination is to rush towards change, trying to attempt far too much in one go and ensuring failure.  Instead, he encouraged his patients to consider how to make a two percent change to their situation. It had to be something negligible, something almost ludicrous in order to evade all those internal censors, hell-bent on assuring continuity. For once a little change has been made, change itself became a more acceptable concept, and another step in the right direction would be much easier to undertake.

But aligned with this insight was Erickson’s covert use of authority. Authority is generally what most of us appeal to in order to get the piggy part moving. Do it, or else, is the classic default setting for action. But Erickson’s authority was benign when he worked with Lawrence. Erickson was known as a shrewd judge of character, quick to exploit a patient’s foibles, and when he saw the docile, hard-working Lawrence steered into his consulting rooms by a determined coach with his eye on high school glory, he must have recognized a personality that would readily and willingly submit.

A relationship to authority resides at the heart of any learning process. The fear of the teacher’s wrath, the fear of the exam, the fear of public humiliation are undoubtedly motivating factors. But the stick isn’t enough on its own – there must be a carrot too. And the flip side of authority, its gentle alter ego, is the act of belonging. We submit to education in the first place in order to belong to our world, to a particular culture or society and its ways of thought. Belonging is a hidden, stealthy part of the things we learn, but it is all the more powerful for being understated. The young shot-putter belonged entirely to Erickson, as his faithful and loyal disciple. The sheer power of that belonging gave him the confidence to do whatever it was that Erickson said he could do.

For most of us, the point of thinking is to reach a point where we don’t have to think any more. A point where our ideas are organised, fixed and justified. And that point is usually one that is terrifically satisfying in relation to belonging – our ideas please our parents or our teachers, they seem in line with the famous figures we admire, the class we aspire to, the religion or political party that impresses us. It’s why intellectual arguments, no matter how brilliant they are, rarely persuade people to think otherwise, even in situations where objective, rational arguments might be recognized as extremely valuable. We have already thought ourselves into a position that feels secure and correct. To have to move on from it, to undermine all we have learnt to master, to face challenges, new ordeals, opposing thoughts, well, it’s no wonder that it’s a ghastly, unnerving prospect for anyone.

Erickson showed how knowledge is not just an acquisition based on logic, but one fraught with emotion and the need for security. We become emotionally attached to what we think we know, and so the greater the change in our knowledge, the more emotionally challenging it feels.

This post is a sort of indirect response to two fantastic articles:  Laura Miller’s brilliant continuation of Eleanor Catton’s article on literature and perceived elitism (after another twitter storm over the use of the word ‘crepuscular’ in the Paris Review).

Critical Theory; A Life

Early in October 1988, I rocked up to the inaugural lecture of the modern critical theory paper, a module I’d signed up for because it sounded new and exciting. Cambridge agreed. The lecture hall was packed out, with most of the English faculty crowded into the front rows and, quite shockingly, my own lecturers and supervisors hogging all the seats at the back. I had never seen the grown-ups, as it were, attending undergrad lectures before. The handful of modern linguists who were actually going to sit the paper, myself amongst them, were submerged by a sea of interested parties. Cambridge had toyed with theory for a while, famously inviting the French Daddy of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida to give a guest lecture, in which he infamously spent the hour discussing the white space between the title of a work and its first lines. But this was the first time that the university had decided to create a syllabus, teach the theory and examine it. For a place that in its Tudor infancy spent a couple of hundred years dedicated to the works of Aristotle before moving onto anything else, this represented swift progress.

It was the Modern Languages faculty that sponsored the paper because theory, as we were about to learn it, had exploded out of the Left Bank of Paris at the end of the 50s. In 1958 the literary journal Tel Quel was founded, and over the next 24 years it attracted a swarm of cultural and literary theorists. Postmodernism, post-structuralism, psychoanalytic theory, feminism, postcolonial theory, reader response theory, these were the ideas setting the intellectual world alight.

At almost the same time in Cambridge (1959 in fact), the biggest ever fight between the sciences and the arts was taking place. In the red corner was C. P. Snow, who criticized the ‘snobbish’ culture of intellectuals for holding back the progress of science and technology, which he believed were about to change the world. In the blue corner was literary critic F. R. Leavis, who laced up his gloves and declared that literature was the place where everyone got to discuss what was actually happening in the world, unlike the sciences which belonged exclusively to those with advanced degrees. Everyone could read and have an opinion on the new books by Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis, but only a handful of people could understand the latest developments in quantum electrodynamics.

There was no clear winner to the debate, but over the next 25 years science and technology gained the upper hand in the cultural imagination. Scientists were increasingly seen as the saviors and pioneers of Western society, literature a leisure pursuit for a minority. Hardly surprising, then, that theory, the closest literature would come to a science of its own, should look so enticing as a way of perking up any flagging interest in the arts.

But theory was exciting, too. I loved the ideas in it, and how audacious and challenging they were. I enjoyed the process by which those ideas went from being ludicrous at first glance to naggingly plausible. Psychoanalytic and feminist theory were the areas that interested me the most. I was intrigued by the challenge the feminists faced to represent a group of people who wanted above all else to be seen as individuals. After centuries of an imposed identity as sweet, nurturing, charming, useless creatures, women longed to be different, but not instantly shoved into another set of adjectives: strong, competitive, dynamic, resilient, whatever. It’s an issue that, as far as I can see, has never yet been resolved. Women still get trapped into a ‘story’ by their cultures and forbidden from diverging from, or subverting, the party line. In my psychoanalytic studies, I was fascinated by the notion that a book, emerging from the mind of a writer, had the same characteristics as that mind: there was an evident surface meaning to it, but also an unconscious one, hidden in the shadows and ambiguities of the writing. Just that idea alone put paid to the belief that authorial intentions were the most important way to view a story. The author had as much chance of seeing his intentions come to fruition in narrative as he did making them come good in real life.

There were so many ideas thrown at me in that course, and I found it fun to play with them. I learned that theory was at its best when being applied to a book. Theory and practice struck sparks, and I grew adept at hunting down the places where they contradicted one another, or created a strange paradox. This was the point of theory for me – if it fit perfectly over literature and life, then we would be robots and our stories nothing more than a vast instruction manual. It was the very places where theory and practice buckled and fought one another that showed up what it was to be human, and how slippery and strange and surprising art could be.

My career at the university lasted as long as the modern critical theory paper did. It was retired a year or so before I stopped teaching, though it continues to this day to be part of the graduate syllabus. A couple of years after that, I noticed the tide turning and a surprising amount of hostility being directed against theory, as if it were in some way responsible for spoiling the field of literary criticism. The anger seemed to arise from the way some theory texts were written, essentially those heavily influenced by the discourse of philosophy. This was a bit unfair, given just how much theory there was available, and how much of it – including all my chosen areas of psychoanalysis, feminism and reader response theory – was perfectly accessible. Books by the likes of Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva suffered from being read in translation; I always found them much better in French. And then I think in the States, theory was taught in a vacuum, outside its historical context and away from its natural interaction with literature, which can’t have helped.

But it was hard to get away from the feeling that people were upset with theory because it made them feel stupid. Which says more about the stranglehold of insecurity than it does about theory (and more about the stranglehold of the grade over the notion of an education). I mean, I loathed algebra, which certainly made me feel stupid, but I didn’t believe it wasn’t useful to someone, somewhere. Without those decades of academics working on literary theory, we wouldn’t have the canon of women’s writing we do now, nor literature written by oppressed people of colour, both championed by intellectuals, studied in universities and finally merged with the mainstream. Political correctness wouldn’t exist, and our understanding of history would be infinitely poorer. Hundreds of novels and films and buildings and pieces of music and adverts wouldn’t have been inspired or influenced by theory.

But I wonder whether the ultimate reason for the anger against theory lay back in that debate between Snow and Leavis. Leavis had argued that literature was for everyone in a way science was not. Literature has the power to bring us together to discuss what is happening in society, and maybe we are wired up to want that. We don’t seem to mind the inaccessibility of science, but we do mind if stories get talked about in ways that seem exclusive. If that’s the case, then it’s up to the general reader to keep the discussion going.

A Chance Encounter

Just the other day I was stopped at traffic lights when I noticed a man with a bike at the side of the road, adjusting the chin strap of a very silly hat – the woolen kind with ear flaps that Sherlock Holmes might have worn, had he ridden a bike on a cold day. As I looked at him, so he turned to look at me, and the ‘Well, whaddya know’ expression on his face was terribly familiar. He started to raise his hand in greeting, the lights changed, I attempted to both shift gear and wave back, and his tentative wave gained purpose. Then I was halfway down the road and the moment had passed. I realised it was my old therapist, who I hadn’t seen in three years. I could see him now, framed in my rear view mirror, watching my car as I drove away.

I found I was relieved and also surprised that he’d waved at me. The manner of my leaving therapy hadn’t been easy or comfortable, and I remembered very clearly his response to me when I’d asked in the course of a session whether one day we could be friends. He’d said it wasn’t possible, because the relationship was such a delicate and particular one, it might alter too many things inside my head to shift its foundation in such a drastic way. I did understand; the relationship with a therapist is so unlike anything else, simultaneously intense and indifferent. And this therapist had been so keen on being a screen for me, not allowing himself to intrude on the space between us, which was bizarre at times because he practised from his home.

There’d been the long months when he was having an extension built and the noise of drilling and hammering had been a real irritant, and then other times when his young sons did their piano practice in the next room, or occasionally exclaimed to one another ‘That is so cool!’ which always made me laugh. I thought he was a good therapist, but the psychodynamic approach was the one part I never appreciated. I wanted there to be a real person opposite me, letting me know what he thought, giving me some emotion to work with. I often wondered whether he actually liked me, which I knew was not a question ever to pose to an analyst; it provokes such a tiresome fuss about why you need to know you are liked, when it’s a perfectly ordinary human desire that can be let alone. Still, it made it all the more surprising when I wanted to leave therapy and he was dead set against it.

He was not my first therapist. The first was a woman in her 50s, a gentle, fluffy sort of person who always dressed nicely in soft, expensive-looking fabrics. She had a hesitant manner of speaking that I was put off by, until I realised it was a typical therapy voice, one that writes into every word a great deal of de-energised flexibility so as never to get in the way of the client’s feelings. I came to therapy because I had not recovered from an awful illness I’d suffered two years ago, and now, with a new job as a lecturer and a five-year-old child, I really didn’t know which way to turn. I felt I’d been run over by a truck. And then crawled to my feet to be run over by a truck coming from a different direction. And then… well, you get the idea. I was also very interested in therapy. All my research had been into questions of identity and I had read a great deal of psychoanalytic theory. This made me a difficult client, I knew, over-informed and too self-aware. But I didn’t think of therapy as an admission of failure – I thought it was something everyone should do, given the chance.

I was under the illusion, however, that its purpose was some sort of acceptable chastisement: I had lost all grasp of myself, after that series of overwhelming life changes, and I was afraid I was to blame; someone else would have relished the challenges of my life while I was mostly exhausted and alarmed by them. I felt that my inability to recover from the illness was in some way my own fault; and as such I was making the mistake (much encouraged by society) of confusing illness with moral weakness. I didn’t realise I had begun a long journey towards accepting myself as I was, rather than changing myself into what I ought to be.

I grew very fond of my first therapist, who was warmly and tenderly supportive. And it was a relief to have an hour a week that was about me, when the rest of my life was jam-packed with dedicated service to others. This was something else I felt I should manage without a qualm and any resentment on my part was a selfish inconvenience. So I did my best to take it well when my therapist told me she was moving to Australia to be with her sick sister. Surely I’d had enough therapy to set me on the right path now?

Well, eighteen months later I started therapy again. I now had a demanding contract with the university as well as with college. My health was still bad and I was in the thick of pretending that it wasn’t. But unable to keep up that pretence at home, my marriage was in difficulties after the sheer strain of the past few years. I didn’t think we’d make it. My career success was balanced on a knife edge with looming personal disaster, and I seemed to have nowhere to put my burdens down. It was at this point that I began work with the therapist who would mean the most to me. He was a funny-looking man, tall and thin, all teeth and glasses with a wild corona of brown hair that danced around a bald spot like a monk’s tonsure. The first time I met him and poured out my tale of woe, he managed to make me laugh about it within the first five minutes. I have always been a sucker for anyone who makes me laugh and my sense of humour was the one thing that felt strong enough to hold me together. I loved the way he would talk so clearly and forcefully to me, his words a firm bridge on which to walk across the chasm between what I wanted and what I thought I ought to want. I felt safe with him, I suppose. And when I least expected it, I fell into transference, which I’d read all about, only the reality was very different to the theory.

Transference is a fancy name for what inevitably happens when you tell your troubles to someone who really gets you. But it’s undercut by the artificiality of the relationship, the cheque at the end of each session. He got me through a very difficult time and I was beholden to him, but I knew we were not united in any meaningful way. My mind loved him, but I suppose my heart didn’t. Or perhaps it was the other way round, these things are hard to judge. In any case, when he told me he was giving up counselling (he’d had a bad break up with his wife and felt it was affecting his ability to help others) I found I had tears falling silently down my face. I was astounded; I’d given up crying at that point in my life because it took more energy than I possessed. Then, astonishing myself again, I walked out of the session and never went back. It did feel like a love affair of sorts had ended.

So by the time I began work with my third and final therapist, several of the plates I’d been spinning so diligently on the end of their long sticks had fallen. I was off work sick, and had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue. But my marriage had not split up and we were working on it. I also had a chance now to be with my son much more, and that felt right. At best I could say I had chosen my family over my career, but I was very angry and frustrated with myself for not being able to have it all. Therapy felt like picking over the aftermath of a tremendous battle, and this therapist was a somber, serious man and our sessions had a melancholy tone. In a sense this was appropriate as I was mourning the loss of my ideal self. Though when I looked at that ideal, and the standards I’d held for her, and the sheer number of boxes I’d had to tick even to meet my minimum requirements, I could see why she hadn’t been feasible. For the first time, my life was quiet enough for me to actually focus on myself, and I made by far the most progress now. Though I knew I was holding myself back, having been the kiss of death to two therapists already. He often said to me, ‘I’m not going anywhere, you know.’ But one day he also said, ‘I do worry that I’m just not a warm enough person for you,’ and I knew there was truth in that.

Therapy is a strange thing; you bring your deepest feelings up to the surface and magnify them, so you can see what’s really going on, but once there they tend to look disproportionately large and take up too much oxygen. When I knew I wanted to leave, I had the mantra running round and round in my head: ‘there is nothing wrong with me.’ In a sense it had taken all those years for me to reach this point – where I recognised that failing to be perfect in every way was not a desperate flaw in my character, but the result of normal, human limitations. And therapy was only adding to my sense of being someone who needed to be fixed and brought in line with ‘normal’ people. I’d felt so ashamed of myself for being ill, and now it was time to draw a line under that kind of thinking. It was time to live the way I wanted to, which was admittedly an unusual way. But now I had my longed-for wide margins to the day, the peacefulness I’d craved, and I could not let that go. As my third therapist so often used to say: ‘if you let others down you feel guilty, but if you betray yourself you feel desperate.’ He wouldn’t be so keen on that thought when it was his own wishes I was contravening. But I did leave therapy; I was all talked out.

It was so funny to have seen him unexpectedly like that, and to think of all that had passed between us. It was odd to think of all the recent changes to my life, and to know he was in ignorance of them. But I didn’t feel any regret for my decision to leave. I was enormously grateful to all my therapists. They had all given me something vital – their life force, when mine was weakened. But there comes a time when only living can teach you the things you need to learn.