psychoanalysis

Clap your hands, Blue Jay

Eskimo medicine man, Alaska, exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy (The Library of Congress)

Eskimo medicine man, Alaska, exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy

 

Native American myths and legends often deal with death, and I often wonder how today’s children would like them. When I was little, my mother thought that H. C. Andersen’s or Grimm brothers’ fairy tales were too cruel, so she’d change the endings as she read them to me. She feared I was too sensitive. I don’t think so; I would have just probably pestered her with questions she wasn’t sure how to deal with. I remember finding a collection of Inuit stories in my parents’ large library and being absolutely terrified and yet drawn to their stark universe, in which life and death coexisted, not peacefully, but not at polar opposites either. Last night I read the story (not Inuit; this one’s from the Pacific Northwest) of Blue Jay and his sister Ioi, who married a ghost. Blue Jay went to visit her in the land of the dead, where he had a grand time switching skeletons’ bones, ripping them off, and being generally wicked. The story ends thus:

Eventually, the ghost people complained about Blue Jay’s tricks, and Ioi’s husband told her to send him home. At first he didn’t want to go, but he finally left. On his way, he came to a prairie that was ablaze, and Blue Jay burned to death. Then he went back to the land of the ghosts. His sister met him at the river and went over to him in her husband’s canoe. . . . When they came to the village, the people were playing games and singing. Blue Jay shouted at them, trying to get them to fall into piles of bones, but the people just laughed at him. He kept pestering them to no avail until finally his sister told him that he was dead, too. And then he became quiet. (72)

I like how there is justice and there is logic to the story, but also this soft transition from the living to the dead, the consciousness of illusion, and the life that goes on, regardless of death.


Interestingly enough, the day after writing skeptically about “the power of storytelling” and feeling terribly bold about it, I read a 2010 BOMB Magazine interview with Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst and essayist I’d just discovered. Here is a passage that made me prick up my ears :

SP: One of the things that most resonates for me in “On Balance” is your writing on the dissonant, disjunctive, essentially random nature of existence. My last question concerns this state of incoherence. A word that is bandied around a lot at the moment is storytelling. It’s applied to branding, marketing, everything. In its wide, popular usage, the word is becoming increasingly incoherent. I literally don’t know what it means anymore. Could you talk a little bit about that?

AP: You can see the issue in a current debate in psychoanalysis. One version of psychoanalysis will say that the definition of mental health would be the capacity to tell a coherent narrative. From another psychoanalytic point of view, that would be precisely the problem. I think both things are true. People who have suffered ruptured, violated lives need and want some narrative coherence, but narrative coherence quickly can be a problem when it becomes a refuge from thinking. I agree that the idealization of narrative coherence is a bizarre cultural development. The problem is finding forms of incoherence that are listenable to. . . .  Somebody’s got to find a way of making a form of incoherence extremely revealing and alluring. It’s a really interesting cultural task—not that we should become better storytellers, because that’s the most boring thing on earth, but let’s become better antistorytellers. There is more to life than the stories we can tell about it. . . .

People need to be educated into believing that evocation is more important than information. If we could bear listening to people, without trying to understand what they’re saying, we would get more from them. Effectively, psychoanalysis listens for the incoherencies that are saying more, or something other, than the coherences. It’s got something to do with the musicality of people’s voices and intonations; it’s a form of listening that’s less hypnotized and distracted by their coherences.

There is something about this idea that makes my heart beat faster. Maybe it’s because I have tricked myself into believing my own story, and playing the character I imagined I was with laughable zeal and conviction. It’s true that words have a life of their own. The ease with which they come to me is deceitful, because it also signals that I am always up for one hell of a ride. Fiction writers often describe how, in the middle of the book, characters seem to take a life of their own and, at some point, almost hijack the story and dictate it back to the writer. I think this might be true in life as well. I wish I could meet Blue Jay and see if, when he claps his hands, I’d really turn into a pile of bones? Or not yet? 

Lastly, Phillips’ statement that “there is more to life than the stories we tell” and his call for incoherence of narratives reminded me of this brilliant documentary by Sarah Polley. You can watch it here. It is so worth it.

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Poisonous silence

I finished reading “Addiction to Perfection” last night – with mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is much to be learnt from Marion Woodman’s insights, on the other – her perspective can be very narrow. When claims to universality are made using a limited  range of symbols, it all falls apart – there are just too many caveats. Also, too much normativity. Part of me wants to follow and believe, another part is left cold. However, I found the section on filial complexes very revealing. Woodman would call me a “father’s daughter,” Athena, Brunhilde. It’s funny, and at times unsettling, to see oneself in these categories. Psychoanalysis makes me feel superstitious. There is so much vagueness in the unraveling of symbolic meanings, so much berth for transference. Well, I’ll let good lady Marion rest for a while. Her conclusion is, as any wise woman’s would be, to go inside and find what needs to be found there. Fair enough. Oh and do body work to express emotions without exploding. I’m on it. This is definitely one plus of being unemployed: there is time to move and write. The only thing I don’t like about writing is sitting.

Actually what I have been reading and watching most lately are books, articles, interviews, lectures, videos, etc. on the way the body works. I do yoga and just started boxing, and I try to figure out what hurts, what is locked, what to do with tensions, why I can perform one move but not another, how to challenge myself and not get injured. I discovered Kelly Starrett and Mobility Wod and I am impressed. Starrett is annoyingly macho at times (most of the time, tbh), but his mission of bringing physiotherapy home, so that everyone can “perform basic maintenance on themselves,” is just plain awesome. He is a geeky jock, if you will imagine. I also study a yoga anatomy atlas and do psoas exercises with Liz Koch, and I am learning to do self-massage (myofascial release) with yoga therapy balls. I miss dancing. In a week or two I am taking my bike out of the basement and, once the snow in the Olympic Park is thinner, go running. I can’t wait. I am sleeping well, drinking lots of water, trying to make sure that my joints and muscles are strong and in good order. The body is endlessly fascinating. It is sadly amazing how little we know about ourselves, how easily we delegate that knowledge to specialists. I want to know me, so I listen hard and treat well this awesome body of mine.

I finished the text on that art event I mentioned earlier, and I am pretty pleased with it; waiting for feedback now. It’s very dense, poetic, and sensual, a tad on the heavy side.

In a creative writing workshop I am taking I get intense, positive reactions to my stories. Last week, a fellow writer began encouraging me to get them published. I realized how much I wanted it – encouragement – and also how afraid I still am to step forth. I am afraid! In so many ways. The workshop is my little safe outlet, where I write either memoir-type stories or fiction, often based on family stuff, and even thinking of making it public feels sacrilegious. Even writing these very words here feels wrong. I shrink as I write, as if someone was standing behind me and reading this over my shoulder, disapproving. This someone looks a lot like my mother.

On the other hand, I really want to do it. Family secrets are poison and they have made me sick to the core. Even now, I feel angry as I type – angry that I should feel like I have to “protect” (i.e., not talk about) a person who crushed me with all her might, all in the name of love. This is absurd. I don’t hate, I just suffocate, and the more balance I am seeking out in my life, the less sense it makes to go along with the old family narrative. There is no one left to please, I tell myself. I don’t want to be angry forever. The prize  is being expelled from the family, losing the last imaginary stronghold of belonging. But that has already happened, I guess. 

I am dizzy with incertitude and made to think of Marion Woodman again. This time her words ring very true:

“Having sacrificed our old attitudes and traditional structures, we are not at all sure that Yahweh won’t destroy us. We stumble along, walking as proudly as we dare, trusting in the love of others who are walking their parallel paths, mustering the same kind of courage, trusting that there is meaning in the irrational.” (187)

Djuno Tomsni

Djuno Tomsni