16 August 2016

Not Dark Yet

I finish my 69th year today and enter into my seventh decade. And I am on the nearest thing to a road trip as I’m ever likely to take, I think. I am in Madison with my younger daughter who this Fall will be starting her graduate study in Social Work at the University of Wisconsin. Tomorrow I head to Chicago to visit with an older daughter (who is clearly not that much older) who is a Social Worker at present after having graduated from the University of Chicago School of Social Administration. I would say that each has done well, and I suspect will continue to do so. And maybe I too have done well enough.
     I compose now on my MacBook Air surrounded on the table by my iPhone and iPad. I won’t be here in another 69 years, but who could have imagined this world 69 years ago? Perhaps all I can acknowledge is that the future can’t be foreseen: it exists as an anticipation but what it brings can never be known until the present, and the future can be understood only too late as a past. But as I sit here now listening to Emmylou and Gram Parson knowing what and whom I know, I feel happy.            
     I’m not done thinking and I’ve got a few fun ideas. There is an apocryphal tale told of John Dewey. A story is told: John Dewey taught at Teacher’s College in Manhattan for years and there exists an apocryphal story told of his classroom. Professor Dewey would stand by the window looking out onto Broadway, a very busy thoroughfare, and he would talk to a full classroom as I intend to do today. Students would listen attentively, maybe some even took notes. After all, they were listening to one of the foremost philosophers and educators in the United States. But it was said that as Dewey talked he continued to look out of the window onto the human traffic on the busy street below. He might even talk for the full hour! Then, at the end of the hour having never once moved from his window looking outward, he would turn to the class, emit a sigh of satisfaction and announce, “Well, that is all very clear to me now; I think I understand this matter all a bit better. Thank you all very much.” And then he would dismiss the class. Today here I am entering into my 70th year. I am sitting quietly at a bar sipping a Macallan 12 (one-ice cube, please)—and out front there is no Broadway teeming with traffic. I am certainly not John Dewey! But I have a few things left to say, and I guess I’m going to have to say them. There are yet a few things still to understand.

02 August 2016

Returning to George Eliot Through D.W. Winnicott, and Vice-Versa

For any number of reasons I am intrigued by the narrator of Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. The Narrator’s perspective is retrospective: indeed, as he recalls the scene at Dorlcote Mill our narrator is actually sitting considerably aged in a comfortable chair in his/her own home about to tell the story that concerns the mill on the floss. “Ah, my arms are really benumbed. I have been pressing my elbows on the arms of my chair and dreaming that I was standing on the bridge in front of Dorlcote Mill as it looked one February afternoon many years ago.” I am conscious that the story told is filtered through the consciousness of our narrator who is thoroughly aware of that filter. “Sagacity persuaded that men usually act and speak from distinct motives, with a consciously proposed end in view, is certain to waste its energies on imaginary game.” Our lives are lived in the engagement of simple events in the complex motives that have been set from the environments of our childhoods.
     Winnciott tells us that at the outset we require the perfect facilitating environment where our every wish is met. Eventually, the good enough parent can (hopefully) provide a “graduated failure of adaptation” as the child attains an ability to manage such failure by his/her mental activity and understanding. The perfectly good enough environment becomes necessarily less than perfect. Over time the infant’s actions become for the infant real and the child’s capacity to “use a symbol” when the objective reality delays results. That is, when the good enough parent successfully meets the omnipotence of the child and then slowly withdraws immediate support, the child in the absence of the parent develops the strength to find a substitute for that parent. Symbolization occurs when the child can say to the good enough parent that you have been good enough and dependable enough that I can create parts of you in my mind to comfort me for a period of time—You are a symbol—and if a symbol of you can work, then other symbols will work equally until the cognitive process takes on a life of its own. We create! As our subjective objects meet the objects in the world we exercise our creativity.
     As the individual develops, she thus becomes able to care for herself: to use the environment mentally to facilitate growth and make use of the relative failure of the good enough parent to maintain for herself the perfect environment where every felt need has its fulfillment. In this process the child’s ego builds defenses against the inevitable and even necessary failures of the good enough parent, and these defenses become our public selves and might be exercised in our creativity. This development does not cease in childhood but continues to the state of adult maturity, whatever that maturity might be. Our continuity of being need not ever cease in development nor need our engagement in creativity. Our childhood facilitating environments I learn (from so many sources, not least my therapy) are central to our existence. And so, later in the novel our narrator will inform us that his (or her) walk through the woods takes on meaning only because of his experience as a child—suggesting, of course, that our narrator somehow has been one of the characters in the novel. The narrator says that “what we see in delight might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years, which still live in us and transform our perception.” The suggestion is that our childhood experiences set the patterns for our uses and understandings of the world. In the century before Winnicott, George Eliot was Winnicottian. Ah, but I despair of those childhood experiences that were devoid of “the young yellow-brown foliage of the oaks” that exist “between me and the blue sky, the white star-flowers and the blue-eyed speedwell and the ground ivy at my feet . . .”
     I meet too many of those other environments every day in the classroom.

25 July 2016

Inspired by Tonight's Playlist

The Rolling Stones sing,
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, you just might find,
You get what you need.
     I have always taken that sentiment to heart (even for myself at times), espoused the admonition as if it were gospel to any number of people who bemoaned their unfulfilled longings, and tried to manage my wants and desires so that when I might try, sometimes I could get what I needed.
     We educate our children for what they need, and for some time I thought I knew of what that might consist. I offered the classics as classics. Knowledge of these was a necessity and was what was needed. I was passionate and adamant. About some of these classics I probably still am so. Just ask my long-suffering, usually patient children for whom I continue to purchase the books and music they absolutely must know and even learn. But over the years in my public classrooms I have ceased advocating a pedagogy of need because I no longer presume to know what that might ever be for others. I do think that my students, if they try sometimes, well, they get what they need, but I’m never sure what that might be for any one of them at any one time.
     And whenever I hear the Rolling Stones sing “You can’t Always Get What You Want” I inevitably recall the earlier statement by Bob Dylan in "Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again). He sings,
When Ruthie says come see her
In her honky-tonk lagoon
Where I can watch her waltz for free
’Neath her Panamanian moon
An’ I say, “Aw come on now
You must know about my debutante”
An’ she says, “Your debutante just knows what you need
But I know what you want”
     And I wonder how Dylan’s invitation differs from that of the Stones. And I think Dylan’s Ruthie offers fulfillment of Desire—what I want. What I need represents only what I know, but what I want satisfies my sense of Being. This private Self, which Winnicott says is the ultimate source of all creativity, must be retained and kept personal and secret; it is revealed only in action: in the use of objects created because they are there to be created. That private self must remain always unseen¾completely concealed¾ though I think it is always available to be witnessed in play: the experience of all imaginative living. Winnicott says “It is joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found” (1990, 186). What I need is discoverable but what I want is forever hidden. Terry Eagleton argues that “Desire makes us what we are;” and this desire,  Eagleton adds, after St. Thomas and Jacques Lacan, “acts as the organizing principle of all our actions,” and is the yearning for happiness. However, as humans we cannot achieve happiness because we live in this world that demands self-contradiction and compromise. What we want derives from our True Self, our Core Self, that must be protected and kept isolate by the necessary false selves that develop to protect that Core. None of us live in Eden and we all drape ourselves with leaves. Our False Selves¾that polite and socialized selves¾are inevitable and exist to defend our True Selves. Adam Phillips argues that “Obedience is the unforbidden pleasure that gives us something by forbidding us something else¾something of ultimate value.” Obedience facilitates getting what we need, but cannot fulfill what we want. We derive our earthly pleasures—our needs--by creating a forbidden world that has its source in our Core Self—that part that remains omnipotent, free, and out of communication with the rest of the external world. It might be realized in our creativity but must never be seen in itself for fear of its corruption.  In his essay. “On Communication,” Winnicott theorizes that that Core is forever isolate. Winnicott suggests that, “In health there is a core to the personality that corresponds to the true self of the split personality; I suggest this core never communicates with the world of perceived objects, and that the individual person knows that it must never be communicated with or be influenced by external reality.” This core self may address subjective objects¾those it has found [even created] wholly within¾but it may not be communicated with by external objects at risk of its being altered. “Although healthy persons communicate and enjoy communicating, the other fact is equally true, that each individual is an isolate, permanently non-communicating, permanently unknown, in fact unfound.” One defends, Winnicott says, against communication in order to protect the core (True) self. He says, “I am postulating that in the healthy (mature, that is, in respect of the development of object-relating) person that there is a need for something that corresponds to the state of the split person in whom one part of the split communicates silently with subjective objects” (184). That split part is the True Self and it must be carefully defended to remain True.
     Ruthie knows me because she knows herself. But she doesn’t really know what I want: she knows that I, like everyone else, wants.  

11 July 2016


Apophasis: a rhetorical device by which the speaker refers to something by denying that it will be mentioned. Antigone says to Creon, “If you were not my father, I would say you were perverse.Note how Antigone calls her father ‘perverse’ by claiming she will not call him perverse. In his “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift proposes that to resolve the seemingly insoluble problem of the poor in Ireland, their children should be offered and sold as food to those who could best afford such exotic culinary fare. He says, “Therefore, let no man talk to me of other expedients: of taxing our absentees . . . of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming of learning to love our country” Note how these other options for dealing with the problem of poverty are raised even though the author says they should not be mentioned.
Writer’s block is supposed to be a condition in which a person who writes regularly, whether or not for publication, suddenly finds him/herself incapable of putting ink to paper or fingers to the keys. The causes of writer’s block are numerous, I suspect, and I don’t have any intention of exploring them here.
     But I have not posted regularly to the blog in some time, and I would like to offer here an explanation for the silence. It is not that I have ceased to write: indeed, even as I here write to the blog I have thousands of words on other paper concerning a variety of issues that interest me intimately and intellectually. As my dear children know, I rarely have nothing to say, and unfailingly they are the belabored listeners.
     Rather, my silence derives from the nature of the news of which I would not speak.  And this is because the news of which I would speak is too unspeakable; and to avoid the use of apophasis I will not mention the news of which I would not speak though in this mention I have engaged in apophasis. The craven, heartless, ignorant actions of the United States Congress and the absurdity (and danger) of a Trump candidacy renders me speechless
what response can be made to such idiocies.
But response must be made. Father Paneloux’s second sermon in Camus’ The Plague is delivered after his having been present at the slow and painful death of a young child from the plague. In his talk Paneloux tries to make sense—to comprehend—the death of the child, but finally he cannot do so. The sufferings of the child are incomprehensible to him. Nevertheless, Paneloux must somehow accept this reality or abandon his faith in God. The event must be not meaningless but accepted as incomprehensible. As with Job, Paneloux must learn to accept without comprehension. When he, too, becomes sick, he refuses the doctor’s aid because he places his faith in the workings of the Divine. Paneloux will not struggle against what appears God’s will. There might be strength in this response, but I find it a result of weakness.
     I will not speak the unspeakable, but I will speak.
     In this second sermon Paneloux also addresses the fate of the eight-seven monks of Marseille who experienced an earlier manifestation of the plague. Eighty-three of the monks died of the disease and three survived, but only by escaping the town. But the last monk stayed. His decision gives evidence of his faith and his strength. I don’t know what this last monk did while he waited. Perhaps, like Paneloux he merely lingered until the plague reached him. But I am reminded of the monks of Tibhirine who refused to abandon the town for which they had cared despite the extreme personal danger with which they were threatened. They stayed. “The plague, what is it? It’s life.” But these monks in the face of ‘plague’ continued to engage in their work in the monastery, to give service to their faith and to the people whom they loved and who loved them. Finally, they were victims of plague: they were assassinated brutally. But they had stayed.
     At the end of his sermon Paneloux insists, “We must all be the one who stays.” It is a remarkable statement. Confronted by plague, we must all be the one who stays! I read the papers. I despair. When Dr. Rieux asks Jean Tarrou why he has stayed and joined in the struggle, Tarrou answers that it is because of his moral code. “Your moral code? What code,” the doctor asks, and Tarrou responds in a single word: “Comprehension.” Tarrou, I think, is committed to engagement in life that must end in death sooner (by plague) or later (ultimately) because he wants only better to understand life. Or maybe because he understands better reality: the ever presence of Plague.
     I am here. I’m staying. I just won’t speak of it.