Repeating, Remembering, & Working Through

The title of this post is a slightly altered version of an essay title by Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through,” in which he briefly describes the development and the task of analysis. With regard to development, he writes about replacing the method of hypnosis with more appropriate methods, including free association and dream interpretation. With regard to the task, Freud describes the process of working through transference.

Working through transference is essentially working through repetition. It requires remembering the past, recognizing the past in present (recognizing a repetition), and looking for a way beyond the past. Let’s put forth a few assumptions:

  • There are patterns of relating learned in early childhood, which are retained and repeated;
  • The early patterns are directed at significant others, and therefore, are associated with intense emotions;
  • The unpleasant elements in those patterns can result in repression, i.e., pushing out chunks of (possible) experience of consciousness.

The combined effect of learning (to repeat) and repression is unknowing repetition of the past. We would unknowingly attract and be attracted to people with whom we would repeat early patterns of hurtful relationship; we would unknowing behave in ways that repeat early patterns of dysfunction, miscommunication, isolation, and pain; and, we would unknowingly (over)react as we did before, not recognizing why a given event feels so tragic. What makes an event so tragic is that a past tragedy is resonating and repeating within it. Freud describes this way of “remembering” as enacting the past. The past (tragedy) comes back to life, once again, feeding off the present, and subordinating the present experience relative to itself.

A good example of this type of tragic repetition happens with Adam Trask, one of the primary characters in East of Eden (John Steinbeck). What happens between Adam and Cathy isn’t a unique event in Adam’s life. It is a trigger that brings back and confirms and older tragedy, a tragedy that began in his childhood. His (over)reaction is understandable if we recognize where he has found himself once again and how inescapable, how familiar, and how natural that place must seem and feel to him.

What I am writing about as patterns of relationship have a narrative structure. Eric Berne describes them as as games. We could also describe them as discourses (Michael Billig, Rom Harré, et al.). For instance, a narrative might begin with promise, positive feelings, passion, and enthusiasm, and end with disappointment, betrayal, blaming, and so on. The narrative as a whole might become familiar to the person and the narrative as a whole might be repeated (unknowingly, yet actively) by the person. The identity of the narrative (or game or discourse) is confirmed most clearly at the end, when the people involved find themselves in familiar (though perhaps very painful) positions, subordinate to the narrative they have enacted.

Why do we repeat the past narratives hurt us? There are several interrelated reasons: Because we have learned (i.e., have invested in) them; because they afford a way of structuring time; because they are emotionally charged and intensely meaningful; and, because we aren’t fully aware of them (Freudian repression).

What Freud wants to construct is a path for moving beyond these repetitions. But the path goes through repetition (not around it) and recognition (remembering). That makes the relationship with the analyst–as a significant other–crucial. The way out of the past (according to Freud) opens through building one relationship that escapes the old, familiar patterns, one relationship that is authentic and truly responsive to reality, one relationship which doesn’t subordinate itself to a known tragedy, and one relationship in which the past resonates but does not fully repeat.

Learning with Grief, Learning with Joan Didion

Sometimes after recording a video I end up feeling I completely failed to say the most important parts of what I had planned. How could the very parts that motivated the video in the first place slip through my fingers? And how could I let that happen? Why didn’t I re-take the video?

What I have in mind isn’t just about forgetting to say something, although that can also happen. But sometimes I say something and I still feel as if I haven’t said it. Perhaps the pauses around and between the words were insufficient. Perhaps the emphases were misplaced. The mixture ends up being more like a homogenous salad–more like raw material for an unusually attentive listener–than a well-organized and well-lit presentation.

And where is that mythical being, i.e., the (“unusually”) attentive listener? “Unusual” by virtue of existing alone as an attentive listener, not by being more attentive than the average attentive listener. Perhaps the problem is that I am still operating with a view of my (potential) audience that is somewhat negative, and consequently, that view (that imagined audience) puts me on guard.

An indifferent audience is an “invitation” to be quiet, to fade into the background, although my whole project was about actively encountering the indifferent audience. But the experience differs from what I had anticipated. Talking (and continuing to talk) to someone who is absent, or to someone who is uninterested or inattentive, is an act of defiance. In such a scenario, talking becomes a sign of unrest. One talks and embraces the disquiet of talking. At the same time, talking still implies a somewhat peaceful (non-violent, respectful, etc.) exchange among two sides.

Talking (and continuing to talk) to someone, thus, becomes a sign of both peace and unrest. Every time I begin typing or recording a video, I embrace that peaceful (hopeful?) disquiet. Should I aim to resolve this contradiction or should I maintain it?

I talked about the feeling of not having said something, because that was what I felt after uploading the Joan Didion video yesterday. Toward the end of the video, I read this Walter Benjamin line:

In all mourning there is the deepest inclination to speechlessness, which is infinitely more than the inability or disinclination to communicate.

Is there a relationship between my (imagined) indifferent audience, the implied “invitation” to be quiet, and the sense of failure to have said something? For Didion, wasn’t the loss of John and Quintana, among other things, the loss of an interested–unusually attentive–audience? The loss of two primary witnesses in/of her life? That loss, and the mourning of that loss, grounds the kind of speechlessness Benjamin refers to. Why go on expressing oneself in the absence of an interested audience? It might be a similar absence (of an audience who would bear witness) that invites me or you or others to be quiet.

In the video, I talked about the 4-year-old boy who lost his father in a plane crash and could not grasp that fact. As a result, he was cheerful and behaved as if nothing important had happened. I said: Each of us have within us the perspective of that 4-year-old child, who cannot grasp the fact of loss, who denies the loss rather than coming to terms with it. You come back home from the hospital, after the passing of a loved one, and see their jacket hanging by the entrance door of the house. Oh… there it is… John’s jacket. John is… . The 4-year-old boy is running in circles, with a small toy airplane in his hand.

An important lesson in Didion’s writing is about the difference between knowing superficially with the conscious mind* and knowing with one’s entire being (with one’s heart, for the lack of a better term). The former is easy and quick. But it takes so much more for the heart know something, believe something, come to terms with something. The conscious mind knows that he is gone, but the heart looks at the jacket hanging by the door: “There he is!” The conscious mind says something, but the heart feels speechless and mute.

We learn about the human heart when we read Didion’s books, Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking, as she shows how grief makes the heart visible. She makes her own heart visible shows how we could similarly go about making our own hearts visible, both to ourselves and to each other.

Absence of Purpose

Andrew Taggart just wrote this post about the (non)purpose of religion, which is closely connected to a discussion about the (non)purpose of art, education, philosophy, and ultimately the (non)purpose of being human.

When we question the purpose of something, we often don’t realize how much prejudice is conveyed in our question. Questioning the purpose of X, the utility of X, is a question about whether and how X fits within our existing purposes. “What is the purpose of…?”, is a question about whether X can offer us a short-cut (to a pre-determined destination), a “life hack”, a cheat code (in the “game of life”), a competitive edge in a world of scarcities.

“The religious quest is not ever for the smug at heart”, writes Andrew. The smugness of a heart, I think, comes from leaving certain default assumptions (about the game of life) unquestioned. The question about the purpose of religion should give way to a deeper line of questioning, having to do with the (non)purpose of being human.

Let’s consider the possibility that the purpose of religion, if there is one, has to do with enabling paths toward freedom. This would mean, among other things, a freedom from smugness of the heart. The freedom I have in mind is antithetical to any functional analysis. Consider the following questions and responses:

“How do I get to the train station?”
“You don’t have to go to the train station.”

“Where is the city center?”
“There is no city center.”

“How do I run faster, get more work done, and write better?”
“You don’t have to run faster, work more, and write better.”

Can we say that the response in each case is, in some sense, liberating? Can we also say that the responses are disorienting? Perhaps I can still go to the train station, even without having to go there. Perhaps there is a city center, but people call it something else… (?) Reading Andrew’s post, I see how the next line in each dialogue has to come from within the questioner, “from within the person” who, in each case, asked the first question.

What happens to me if/once my most important questions are taken away? What remains of me without my desire to serve established purposes that subsist outside of me and independently of me (e.g., doing more and better work)?

I remember Alva Noë’s thought, which I wrote about a year ago, on the possibility of pornographic art: “… if there is a pornographic art, whatever else is true of it, it will not be good for masturbating.” Pornographic art, in other words, would refuse to be in service of pre-determined purposes associated with pornography.

Religion, art, education, … examined from an outsider’s perspective, judged with objective (pre-determined) criteria, would seem to refuse–in a spirit of indifference–to be useful and even purposeful.

The Cheerful Response

It is 7:30 in the morning. I couldn’t fall asleep and now the next day is officially here. The “next” day is now today. Despite not having slept, I feel excited and alive. It’s a new autumn day, there is coffee, and there are books.

I’ve been feeling unwell for the past couple days. Nothing serious, it’s probably just a mild flu. But why wasn’t I able to fall asleep? I felt tired before bed. Was it the irritating manuscript I had to review? Was it the phone conversation I had–too late in the evening and too upsetting–that took away my ability to fall asleep? Was it reading from Joan Didion’s Blue Nights?

Don’t read anything of high quality before reviewing an academic manuscript. Don’t read Didion right before fulfilling your duties as a peer reviewer. I must tell myself. Maybe a post-it note placed somewhere visible on the bookshelves. The contrast between high-quality text and soulless academic manuscripts makes the latter even less bearable. Your fragile optimism, violated by the careless pseudo-arguments of an unskilled “scholar,” who has written to publish, to keep a job, to gain or maintain status,… who, of course, has all the degrees, your fragile optimism will grow back (if at all) very slowly.

I tried my best to be polite in my brief review, and I think I somewhat succeeded. This year, due to COVID19, I’ve had to [peer] review about 20 manuscripts for various journals. I think I will take a break for the rest of the year. That should give me enough time, let’s hope, for the recovery of optimism.

Compared to the reviewing, the phone call affected me more. I cannot write about that. I couldn’t write about it even if I wanted to. And I don’t want to.

After the phone call was over, I went and looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, noticing the white facial hair, especially on the left side of my face. I felt old. And exhausted. There is something about white facial hair that makes it a more forceful, and a more undeniable, sign of aging compared to the white hair on one’s head.

Then I came back into the living room and shared the summary of the conversation with my wife. I passed the story through a “funny filter” and we both laughed. But the funny filter failed to convince me, because I still had the unfiltered version of it.

Somewhat related to this mood, I’ve been working on a short piece of writing, which is currently titled, “Why Are You Not More Cheerful?”, in a style similar to “Learning To Pray,” which you might have noticed. In fact, now that I think of it, I see how it is a follow-up to “Learning To Pray.” I would’ve been working on that, instead of this, if I had a normal sleep last night. And you would’ve been reading, “Why Are You Not More Cheerful?” instead of this post.

Before I close, let me share a few lines from what I have been reading by the wonderful Joan Didion. It’s about aging, fragility, one’s presence in a shared reality, and one’s self-awareness of all these.

I hear a new tone when acquaintances ask how I am, a tone I have not before noticed and find increasingly distressing, even humiliating: these acquaintances seem as they ask impatient, half concerned, half querulous, as if no longer interested in the answer.
As if all too aware that the answer will be a complaint.
I determine to speak, if asked how I am, only positively.
I frame the cheerful response.
What I believe to be the cheerful response as I frame it emerges, as I hear it, more in the nature of a whine.

— Joan Didion (Blue Nights)

It is 10 PM now and I just finished reading Blue Nights. I went back and re-read a few passages from parts of the book, especially parts that I have underlined. Then I re-read the very first two pages, and in those two pages I felt the entire book, in condensed form. Didion writes, “Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness…” Later in the book, she explicates this sentiment, “When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.” Blue nights offer us something so pleasant, so promising, that we almost inevitably forget the passage of time.

We let the blue nights transform into an illusion of something more, something permanent, something beyond nature and reality. But that very tendency might be something–a part of us–we should accept. It might be an inescapable part of our nature, as inescapable as the initial seeing and feeling of beauty (of the blue nights), to see more in it, to want to see more in it, to see permanence, and to demand more from reality.

Being Stuck

In the winter semester of 2009, I took Philosophy of Mind, an undergraduate course, with the late Prof. Bernard Hodgson (1946-2009) at Trent University. Prof. Hodgson sadly passed away very soon after delivering the final lecture for the course. He was a very pleasant and engaging speaker and after his general outline of the course, which he gave during the first lecture, I was sure I was going to stay in the class until the end. What was remarkable, and why I am now driven to remember that class, was that we never really got passed that first lecture. Every lecture that followed resembled that very first one, which is to say the course was stuck in one place, over one major issue, and we could not get passed it.

When someone is at rest in one place, we don’t call it stuck. If I am motionless and want to be motionless, I don’t think of myself as stuck. Being stuck comes from wanting to move, or knowing that one is supposed to be moving, or trying to move, but remaining in one place. In that Philosophy of Mind course, we couldn’t get passed the divide between reductionistic and non-reductionistic approaches to studying the mind. Every time the professor introduced a concept, like intentionality, or qualia, or emergent properties, or subjectivity, or … we could not get very far. A gravitational force seemed to keep pulling us back to (neuro-)reductionism and its clash with those concepts.

Could we identify a general pattern according to which unpopular positions get stuck in their clash with conventions? Imagine someone joining a party and disliking the music. They voice out their dislike of the music… to no effect! They voice out their dislike again, and again, and again… after a while, they might reflect that they have been repeating the same act for longer than they had planned. “I don’t like the music!” Stuck in repeat. Stuck in an opposition. Unable to move past one preliminary disagreement. You are more than your dislike of the music, even though your role in that social gathering was primarily centered around that fact.

We didn’t get make much progress in that course. I remember Prof. Hodgson telling us about his son, who was at the time quite enamored by neuro-philosophy (Represented by Paul and Patricia Churchland). Much of his discontent might have been rooted in the irresolvable family disagreements at the dinner table. “Let’s talk about qualia…”, I imagine this thought quickly interrupted by another: “But people disagree… My son disagrees. They don’t want to hear about qualia, intentionality, or subjectivity.”

Let’s cut and fast-forward to 2016 in Leiden, where it was slowly dawning on me that I was stuck. My being stuck followed a similar pattern. Once a week we had a guest speaker either from our own unit or from other universities. And once a week I would leave one of those talks feeling frustrated, alone, and stuck. With a few exceptions, my disagreement with the speakers was so fundamental, and so early in the talk, that I couldn’t really count myself as being in the audience. I remember looking around and looking desperately for another uneasy face in the lecture room! For a skeptical look, a raised eyebrow, a question being suppressed effortfully.

How could they feel so at ease? How could they be so comfortable with all these claims? All these decisions?

Being stuck, I am tempted to say, is rooted in a mistake about what is possible. It is, moreover, rooted in an unwillingness to be more responsive to what is actually going on. I do not want to dismiss radical acts, revolutionary acts, though we ought to recognize that being radical and revolutionary isn’t achieved by being stuck.

When I was in Leiden, I intuitively arrived at this conclusion. I didn’t want to be the one who kept saying, “I don’t like the music.” I became quiet and I eventually “left the party”. I failed to do anything radical or revolutionary, but I became sufficiently unstuck to write a couple of counter-conventional articles and eventually my book (Experimental Psychology and Human Agency). Not-being-stuck needs continual work. It requires continual questioning: Am I in the right discourse? Am I paying attention to what is going on around me?

Being stuck comes from wanting to join a conversation with which you fundamentally disagree. The individual who is stuck doesn’t want to joke around (though s/he perhaps should), make fun of the conversation, or dismiss it. S/he wants to be a serious participant and wishes the conversation to go in a fundamentally different direction. Being stuck is rooted in a mistake about what is generally possible. If I don’t like the music and cannot persuade others to try what I like, it might be better to either leave or learn to appreciate the music that is playing.

I really think that not being stuck requires continuously asking: Am I in the right discourse? Am I paying attention to what is going on around me? Do I understand what is going on? And how can I best respond?

Let’s go back to Prof. Hodgson’s class and ask him to either move into neuro-philosophy (rigorously and critically), with attention to details, or leave them aside for a while and teach us about Brentano and Merleau-Ponty. Likewise, if I don’t like to read the most recent papers on the neuroscience of judgment and decision making, the most cutting-edge research on how people evaluate truth in statements, I could leave that aside from a while and go study Anselm’s dialogue On Truth.

You are more than your dislike of the “music”, even if your role in a particular social gathering suggests otherwise.