Category Archives: alienation

Tennessee Williams Had Boundary Problems!

Yes he did!  For example, read this thoughtful and provocative wisdom that flowed from his heart, “Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see …each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition– all such distortions within our own egos– condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions to our own egos the corresponding distortions in the egos of others, and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other. That’s how it is in all living relationships except when there is that rare case of two people who love intensely enough to burn through all those layers of opacity and see each other’s naked hearts.”

My clinical mind, not quite completely dormant yet, read this and immediately diagnosed, “Porosity of boundaries.”  For this man saw too deeply and felt too deeply and when one is that open he is susceptible to what poet Wallace Stevens described as, “The fatality of seeing things too well.” Life, including relationships must also be lived in a perfunctory manner, on the surface of things, for to dive too far into the depths of life is to risk opening Pandora’s Box.

But my viewpoint of Williams is not as critical as it might seem.  Insight about existential issues requires “boundary problems” otherwise one is confined to living life oblivious to reality, opting to keep on the surface of things. Yes, boundaries are important, even vital, and it is important to be able to maintain involvement and investment in the surface of life even when one’s heart is as open as was Williams’.  And Williams managed to do this, more or less, as he was a successful poet and playwright which usually requires an ability to function in the structure of life and of the art world.  The quoted passage demonstrates what novelist Toni Morrison described as having a heart that was “petal open.”  It was this quality which made his plays so rich and powerful as he was able to reach into the depths of his heart and put on our collective table wisdom that most of us do not have the courage to find on our own.  “The Glass Menagerie” and “Street Car Named Desire” are almost too painful to watch as Williams put human vulnerability right before us and then even rubbed our nose in it!  He put the repressed pain and vulnerability of family life, and of social life as a whole, right before our eyes.

The wisdom of the above quotation is humbling.  We prefer the comfort of being ensconced in our view of the world, including our view of other people including those who we love.  But, Williams displays here the wisdom that W. H. Auden had when he asked the question, “Suppose we love not friends or wives but certain patterns in our lives?”  This same wisdom can be applied to collective experience and pose the question, “Are those ‘bad guys’ actually that bad or are we contributing to their ‘badness’ to accomplish our unacknowledged purposes?  I remember in the 1960’s when the Viet Nam War was raging as my country passionately subscribed to the domino theory about Communist desire to take over the world when now it is quite apparent that there was more to it than we thought.  And what about destroying the Native American culture in the interest of Manifest Destiny only to now see clearly that it was merely an example of “might makes right” so that we were able to accomplish our greedy ends.

Life is complicated.  It is important that we wrestle with the issues that people such as Williams have written about.  But it is also to not make the mistake of taking ourselves too important and allowing the ugliness that is upon us to eat on us to the point of being consumed by bleak despair.  There is always hope.  There is “method to this madness.”  There is “a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invite you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

“Tale Told by an Idiot” Still Being Told

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

This famous Shakespearean wisdom from Macbeth has stuck with me from the first time I heard it in high school when, stuck in a literal mindset at the time, I found Shakespeare and literature…other than the Bible…horrifying.  This wisdom is frightening as it takes the reader right into one of humankind’s worst fears, “Is anything real, and if so, am I participating in it?”

But now after three decades cavorting about in the delightful realm of Shakespeare’s imagination, I’m not as frightened or even daunted when I come across one of his glimpses into the scary parts of our psyche.  Here he was certainly telling us that we are all mad but the body of his work conveyed the conviction that there is “method to this madness” that we call life, that, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  Shakespeare recognized what we now call “consensually validated reality” as a stage play in which we play various roles throughout all of our life, all of them amounting in some sense only to “performance art.”  And he knew that this social facade was necessary but he liked to point out to us in his plays and sonnets just how given it is to duplicity, hypocrisy, dishonesty and the rest of the ugliness of the human heart that reigns in us all, though we are hard-wired to keep it covered up beneath the surface of this “dog-and-pony show” that we call reality.  But occasionally the gods will send along a vivid illustration to let us see just how much non-sense we are mired in and then it is our task to have the courage to learn from this object-lesson that is being provided us and amend our ways.  But we must always remember the wisdom of W. H. Auden on this note, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand, and he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Elizabeth Bishop and a Poet’s Loneliness

I have a close personal friend in Oregon that I’ve known for decades and kept in touch with him as he pursued a career in teaching English literature at a small college on the coast.  He sent me a link to a New Yorker book review of a new biography about poet Elizabeth Bishop which explored her tumultuous family, romantic, and literary life.  This life story might be summed up with a note she sent once to poet and lover, Robert Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”

Bishop’s loneliness was a common theme in her poetry.  My friend, who also writes poetry admits he shares the same label that I do, a “word fetishist,” though both of us at this point in our life very much in recovery.  He shared with me his impression from reading the review, noting his own profound loneliness over the course of his life time even though he is quite gregarious, socially adroit, and well-regarded.

He described his own love of literature, poetry, and writing as, like Bishop’s, some effort to assuage this loneliness which could best be described as existential.  Being familiar with psychological “shop-talk” which is my forte, we recently explored how words are one powerful way of bridging the gap between humans, extending a hand across the abyss which separates us and hoping to find a receiving hand.  He has been fortunate to often finding that receiving hand as his literary skill is of note.

Something was lost in this man’s childhood which the contrivance of culture has helped, but has not sufficed.  Words have helped him address this lack, just as it did apparently with Bishop and I think with many other writers.  I think Tennessee Williams knew about this loss and had reference to it in a closing line, describing Laura’s brother Tom, who was leaving the dysfunctional-family black-hole and setting out on the life of a vagabond, just as his father had done decades earlier. The narrator in the movie, as we watched Tom exit the drab flat and descend the stairwell, he intoned, “Trying to find in motion what has been lost in space.”  “Space” in this context refers to a spiritual space which most people cover adequately with the aforementioned cultural contrivances.  Tom could only seek this in the frenetic motion of a vagabond life while my friend, and Tennessee Williams, found it with words.

(You might enjoy reading this very interesting, well-written, and insightful book review:  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/06/elizabeth-bishops-art-of-losing)

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/literarylew.wordpress.com

Maria Popova on “Outsiderdom”

Decades ago I read a book entitled, “The Outsiders” by Colin Wilson, an unlettered but very erudite gentleman who spent his life “thinking outside of the box.”  At the conclusion of this post I provide a link to an essay from Brain Pickings about William Blake and Ludwig von Beethoven who spent their life in what Maria Popova described as “Outsiderdom.”  These two men made significant contributions to human history but their life story was complicated, to say the least, and existential loneliness abounded for the whole of their life. Beethoven was isolated by blindness but also by social awkwardness, so he battled the anguish of alienation as he developed his musical genius. But Blake was more of a rebel, balking at convention and then finally “turning his back to the citadel of convention.”

Standing apart from the herd is excruciatingly painful.  Some people, such as Blake and Mozart, lived with it from their youth and adjusted adequately though with great pain.  Some do not experience it in their life at all, others during times of crisis or tragedy, and others after some neurological “shock.”  This loss is extremely traumatic as one is suddenly bereft of all the trappings of his identity and suddenly starkly “alone,” like King Lear on the heath, where he stood naked and, “pelted by this pitiless storm.”

But loss, and the sting of existential solitude can be redemptive.  Jacques Lacan has noted that “nothing of any value comes into being without the experience of loss.”  Emily Dickinson suggested that is hope found in this void, writing, “Renunciation is a piercing virtue, the letting go of a presence for an expectation.”  Dickinson knew that most men and women are comforted with a cloak or “presence” of culturally provided accoutrements.  She was stating that in this profound loss she had found hope

Culture is predicated upon avoiding all existential anguish.  Loneliness is one of the most painful experiences and we have been given the comfort of contrivance to avoid it.  I call this contrivance our God-given “fig leaf” as it hides our nakedness.  And these “contrivances” are useful but not when one spends his whole life immersed in them, pulling them tightly around him to keep from being exposed.  This thought always comes to my mind in this Christmas season as I watch American culture gorge itself on “stuff”, naively assuming that this “stuff” will suffice.  If you think it works, just look at Donald Trump.

Carl Jung has been a guiding force in the past three years of my life as I’ve participated in a reading group of his work and often come across his wisdom about the importance of loneliness in the quest for individuation, aka “authenticity.”  Here are a few samples of his wisdom on the subject.

 

 
The highest and most decisive experience of all . . . is to be alone with . . . [one’s] own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation. ~Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, CW 12, par. 32.

As a doctor it is my task to help the patient to cope with life. I cannot presume to pass judgment on his final decisions, because I know from experience that all coercion-be it suggestion, insinuation, or any other method of persuasion-ultimately proves to be nothing but an obstacle to the highest and most decisive experience of all, which is to be alone with his own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation. ~Carl Jung; Psychology and Alchemy; CW 12: Page 32.

As a child I felt myself to be alone, and I am still, because I know things and must hint at things which others apparently know nothing of, and for the most part do not want to know. Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible. ~Carl Jung; Memories Dreams and Reflections; Page 356.

 

(Link to Brain Pickings—https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/08/aldred-kazin-william-blake-beethoven/)

 

 

 

 

The American Civil War Still is With Us

Yesterday I addressed the issue of systemic trauma that often occurs from economic disparity.  This issue is personal to me as I grew up in the American South, the state of Arkansas, and my family was impoverished for the first 10 years of my life or so.  As I aged I began to become aware of the social atmosphere of where I lived and as I entered college years and became engrossed with the social sciences I began to scrutinize the socio-cultural context which had shaped my life and realized that this context was, in turn, shaped by historical processes that long preceded my arrival on the stage of life.

Study of history taught me of the social disruption of the Civil War in the American South and the profound sense of loss and alienation that swept the former Confederate states as they began to grapple with this “tragedy” that had befallen them.  One conceptualization of this despair is known to historians as “the myth of the lost cause” and my studies quickly showed me how this despair had created the sectarian Baptist denomination that was the bedrock of my spiritual life.  The multi-generational despair gave rise to a religion of hopelessness disguised as “belief in Jesus.”  (I will attach a recording of an old hymn that vividly illustrates this issue.)

Another relevant term to this cultural atmosphere is dispossession.  Civil War Era Southerners felt they had been dispossessed of what was rightfully theirs, that “big government” had intruded and taken away their god-given way of life part of which was slavery.  Their sense of entitlement had been gravely imperiled. And this fear of “government intrusion” is still very much present as evidenced in our recent election.  Related to the experience of dispossession is the existential terror of alienation, of not belonging, and the hope that a “strong man” would appear on the scene at some point to right these wrongs and, “Make American Great Again.”  And, if that did not happen, comfort was found in the firm knowledge that God would make things right in the after life, punishing those who had brought this injustice on a “god-given” way of looking at the world.

Still another important dimension of this atmosphere is a deep-rooted suspicion and fear which often found expression in paranoid fantasies.  I subscribed, and promulgated my fair share of these fantasies and recall well how reassuring they were to me, allowing me to focus on an external enemy rather than address the deep-seated insecurity and fear that I now know terrorized my heart.  Fear is part of life and even a necessary part for survival.  But when fear is a guiding force in a culture, it shapes the lives of the children so that they have no reality other than one that is fear-based and their coping mechanisms are usually not healthy.  Mine were not.  Obama was right eight years ago when he was overheard describing some people as “clinging to their guns and religion.”  He had no problem with “guns” or “religion.”  He knew that “clinging” was the issue, that it reflected an existential loss that is only temporarily and superficially assuaged with weaponry or a moribund, sterile, “letter of the law” version of Jesus.

Here is a recording of the hymn that I mentioned above.  And, as I listened to it just now, the tangential demons of hopelessness, fear, and despair were resurrected in my 65 year old heart.  Listen to it and you’ll see what I mean.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zD1IPUlMdlU

 

 

 

My First Experience with “the Other.”

Something happened yesterday that resurrected ancient memories from my youth when Jews were one of the many that had been banished into the vast category of “them.”  I’m in a book club at the local Episcopalian Church which meets weekly and reads non-fiction books which always touch on spiritual themes.  One of the group members has often referenced the Jewish religion in our discussions and yesterday it suddenly dawned on me that she is of the Jewish faith.  I’m not for sure why that surprised me as this church, and this reading group, is very eclectic and views faith from many different perspectives.  And I have worked with and socialized with many persons of the Jewish faith and have never had any discomfort with them. I think that what happened is that on this occasion a memory from my preteen years in Bible camp was resurrected and for a moment I silently re-lived the first experience of encountering first a Jew.

Bible camp is part of fundamentalist Christian youth culture and often the high light of their summer.  It consists of sermons twice a day, a morning devotional, bible studies, and plenty of games and recreation.  On this particular occasion when we were being informally oriented to the schedule, I overhead someone say of a lovely young girl standing near-by, “She is a Jew.”  This was not said disparagingly but it definitely conveyed the attitude of, “She is one of ‘them.’”  In the following few days I often encountered her in various groups and recognized her immediately and felt in my heart deep angst and sorrow about her “fate” in life.  I was not angry or rude, nor was anyone else in my memory, but I was deeply concerned that this nice young girl “didn’t believe in Jesus” and subscribed to a faith that had “killed our Lord and Savior.”  I think that my distress was probably  my first experience of the phenomena of “otherness” and it was troubling. And this illustrates how my faith was bathing me in a spirit of ex-clusiveness.

As I relived this moment from my youth yesterday in the book club, I pondered over the experience and wandered what it must have been like for that young lady in a group of young people in which she was radically “other.”  And I also wondered, “What in the hell were her parents doing allowing her to be there.?”  She sat through the hell fire and brimstone sermons, suffered through the altar call, and certainly at some point someone tried to lead her to Jesus.

As I’ve shared recently I am fascinated with the “distinction-drawer” that operates in all of us and with this flash back I got to see an early manifestation in my young heart of this ego contrivance at work.  And it illustrates how I learned to use my Christian faith to bifurcate reality into “us” and “them” and take great delight in knowing that “us” had it exclusively right.  Living in the Western world I was presented with a binary world and it is very difficult to ever question basic premises like that.  But as poet Adrienne Rich eloquently noted, “Until we see the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot begin to know ourselves.”

 

Waging the War we Are

“We wage the war we are.”

I probably use this quote from W. H. Auden more than any other, in this venue and also in my day to day life.  And, yes, it is very telling for my life is, and always has been a war zone most of these sixty-three years.  Of course, I carefully contained this warfare inside my canned-Christian veneer.  Yeah, I kinda identify with Ben Carson!!!

Auden was an astute observer of the human heart as are all great poets.  He made this poetic observation in recognition of his own conflicted heart and his poetry revealed recognition of the turmoil that rages inside the heart of all human beings.  Yes, “most men live lives of quiet desperation” but Auden knew that beneath the surface of this “quiet desperation” warfare was simmering, mercifully kept under control beneath the social veneer.  Well, most of the time anyway!

Why?  Where does this conflict come from?  Simply stated, we are spiritual beings temporarily confined within a mortal body.  And, a spiritual being is infinite by definition and does not really fit inside what the philosophers call the world of “form.  To illustrate, I am now so very aware of just how I want everything! I don’t want to deal with privation and on some level it even angers me!  Why should I have to want anything? Who dares to get in my path at Wal Mart, or cut me off in traffic, or fail to laugh at my jokes, or scoff at my literary acumen?  How dare them?  On some level I have the narcissitic illusion that the world is my oyster and though I cover it up with this carefully contrived social veneer, I often catch gut-level, reptilian brain, unmitigated hunger surging in my heart.  I want it all!

Though this is a literary exaggeration, it is an honest reflection of “waging the war” that I am.   For, I do have these frustrations and fears and now realize I’ve had them all my life but have kept them carefully pent up, knowing that to do otherwise would not be prudent.  And this “prudence” is what makes us human as without social sensitivities we would all be at war with each other literally. But at some point in our life, it is imperative that we find private venues where we can air these “grievances” about life and hopefully discover that an individual, or group of individuals, can assure us that they are fighting the same battle.  I have been blessed with these venues.

The current terrorist crisis in France is an illustration of what happens when we cannot recognize our own internal warfare.  Until we can own this internal conflagration, we will always see it “out there” and seek to obliterate it.  “We wage the war we are” often by battling that vast category we call “them,” a convenient category comprised of those qualities of our own that we do not wish to own up to.  Yes, this is true for Daesh but also for “us.”