Stress, Creativity and Dancing Kittens

I didn’t mean to take a break from the blogworld – I was overtaken by events, a busy week which culminated in Mr Litlove coming home early from London one day (unheard of) and going straight to bed (even more unusual) with the flu, and he’s there still. Every time he speaks he coughs – well, it’s not so much a cough as the heaving bark of a walrus with a fifty-fags-a-day habit – so it’s been an exceptionally quiet weekend during which I seem to have been auditioning for the role of under-housemaid in the next series of Downton Abbey, endlessly up and down stairs with trays of food. I’m trying to view this positively, as my own little step workout which will have untold benefits to my thighs.

In the times when the bell to the master’s bedroom hasn’t been ringing, I’ve been reading some interesting books. All too appropriately, I was sent one called Stress Control by Susan Balfour, and whilst I’m still in the early stages of it, it seems to me a lot better so far than the average self-help guide as Balfour tries to go deeper and think harder about what causes stress and how we can tackle it. I was interested in the way she talks about holding onto both personal truths and received wisdom in times of trouble. We have to work hard to hang onto a mental equilibrium and soothe our minds, she argues, and I think that’s true. It really is hard work to prevent the mind rushing off into disaster scenarios, or disappearing down the wurmholes of self-pity, resentment or hopelessness. Whereas of course we do have a store of strengthening realisations that have usually been hard-won from other battles with fate. It’s impossible to say what mantra or truth or acknowledgement will work the trick as it’s such a personal thing. But Balfour suggests that such ‘truths need to be polished up and put on display in our lives…we must be proud of displaying our spiritual wealth.’ And that struck home with me as I know I am often indifferent in stressful situations to the wisdom I’ve gained elsewhere. Or perhaps not indifferent exactly, but too distracted to bother with it.

Naturally there are pieces of advice that also strike me as unhelpful, such as the suggestion that one way to rise above the muddle of an argument is to throw in some observation from outside it, for instance: ‘Just look at that beautiful sky’, which sounds to me like a good way to vex the other person beyond all reason. Balfour says this is effective with tantruming children, though in my experience a tantrum occurs when you go beyond the point of ordinary distraction being enough to divert escalating trouble. But what do I know? Maybe I’ll try it next time Mr Litlove has a coughing fit.

The mind in all its magnificent trickery was also centrestage in Christopher Bollas’s book, Cracking Up. Bollas is examining the constant freeflow of ideas, images and thoughts that race through the mind mostly unobserved. Like rush hour traffic, these mental elements congregate around experiences that have a particularly intense emotional resonance, though often they may be simple things, scarcely worth the charge they give us on first appearances. So for instance, Bollas describes one of these intense moments when, passing a record shop he notices an advertisement for Philip Glass’s opera, Akhenaten. He isn’t going to go in, but somehow finds that he does after all, his mind swimming in the memories of the evening when he saw the opera and all that happened then. At the same time, the mention of Akhenaten makes him think of his son who became interested in Egyptian history when he was about five, how the two of them talked about the school project he was working on, and this takes him on a chain of thought back to his own Greek ancestors and Bollas’s conflicted feelings about that part of the world. All sorts of lines of thought are generated by this chance encounter with the memory of a piece of music and when he has finally bought the record and carried on with his day he discovers in the library that he has momentarily misplaced his glasses. Of course he has: glasses, Philip Glass, the glass of the shop window, the slippery glass of the surface of his thoughts. He finds his glasses again.

We live in this soup of dynamic, ever-shifting mental elements that become dense and meaningful when we are brought into chance contact with vivid parts of the external world, and which then disperse in all directions, often simultaneously, as they spawn various emotionally-charged trains of thought. Bollas talks about ‘psychic bangs, which create small but complex universes of thought.’ This is effectively the work of free association that goes on all the time inside our minds; its effects are felt in how we react, experience and respond to everything around us, for every encounter is caught in a sticky web of associations. It’s impossible to experience in the moment – or at least the closest we come, I think, is when we are still ‘reading’ only the book is face down on our laps and we are staring into the middle distance – but parts of it can be reconstructed in retrospect. And because this is the source of all creativity, I think the more aware we are of the existence of these deep layers of thought, the more sensitive and creative we are as individuals.

Susan Balfour talks about how essential daydreaming is to keep our minds free and limber, and for Bollas, too, the freedom of the mind to pursue its endless avalanches of unexpected signification is an important part of mental health. I think this is also why the internet exerts such a power of fascination. When we begin with quite a respectable and justifiable reading of an online review of a book that looks interesting, which leads us on to author interviews in the Paris Review, and then the lyrics of a song we’ve been meaning to look up and then before we know what’s happening, we’re watching videos of synchronised dancing kittens, it’s like we’re just following the normal patterns of the mind, so normal that at some point the process becomes unconscious. Which is how you wake up, faintly alarmed, to find those kittens bobbing their heads to MC Hammer. The internet is just a vast externalised daydreaming mind. But ultimately it’s a time wasting distraction, the video equivalent of looking at the beautiful sky outside the window, because it’s not your own associations that are freewheeling in space, but the borrowed associations of other people.

Thinking about this brought me (via my own rhizomatic byways) to the conclusion that while freedom of mind and pleasure is a beneficial thing, stress plus a freewheeling mind often ends up in catastrophising. We’re back to that difficult place where it’s hard to prevent our thoughts from delivering us into dark alleyways where we’ll likely get beaten up. The mind needs strongholds, places of solidity which we can cling to while the turbulent stream of thought tugs at our legs. And maybe, the more as a culture we permit ourselves all sorts of freedoms, the less able we are, paradoxically, to make sensible calculations about the risks we run, the fears we suffer. Perhaps stress – in the moment we are experiencing it – is the place where we have to limit our creativity and value self-discipline instead.

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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.