Sense from nonsense

1930s front cover of the German edition

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In 1930 Sigmund Freud published Civilization and Its Discontents. It’s a complex book that addresses some of the key paradoxes of civilisation, which can be summarised simply (and inadequately) as the conflict between personal instinct and the demands of society. For me the key section of the book is the third, where Freud directly addresses these incompatible elements. We have contrived a society – a civilisation – whereby we look to moderate the worst excesses and control the baser elements within it. ‘Civilisation’ is in effect a normalising imposition on how we live our lives – subject to laws, to authority, to cultural mores, to morals, even, ultimately to cultural trends. One can see the necessity of civilisation as such, but in ‘averaging’ out society it represses much of our natural instinct – and expression – and in so doing negates much of the individual. Not surprisingly this causes instances of frustration, meaninglessness, and discontent. (Apologies to Sigmund for this very potted summary of a serious piece of work).

In 1933 Jung published a book of essays, Modern Man in Search of a Soul. He explores different themes in different essays, but underlying most is the concept that over time man has become overly-rational (civilised?) at the expense of the soul (instinct?). There is a quote that goes to the heart of the conflict:

“The great decisions of human life have as a rule far more to do with the instincts and other mysterious unconscious factors than with conscious will and well-meaning reasonableness. The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases. Each of us carries his own life-form – an indeterminable form which cannot be superseded by any other.”

Though Jung put it in different terms, and each had very different theories, both Freud and Jung are addressing pretty much the same state of being. For Freud it was couched in terms of discontent; for Jung it was the soul. In both instances what was ailing, or lost, was wrapped up in the march of civilisation and the suppression of instinct, the movement away from the primitive, and the lack of a collective life. In essence (and apologies to both guys), we are each alone in a civilisation that provides us with some comforts, security, order, but for which we have sacrificed or suppressed the instinctive, and moved away from our inner-selves. In my terms, we have lost the meaning of our own lives.

Both these books were written during a volatile time in history. Hitler was coming or already there. The depression was in full swing, anti-semitism on the rise, and in Germany at least (and lets not forget both Jung and Freud were German speakers) a world of decadent and aimless excess was being transplanted with the rigid ideology of National Socialism. These were books for the time. People were discontent, lost, and searching for something – hope and meaning. Ultimately many – in Germany – would find its fraudulent cousin in the words of Hitler, but that’s a conversation for another time.

I’m drawing attention to these works by Freud and Jung today because I think there are parallels between their times and today. We’ve moved on a lot of course, and at first glance perhaps there seems little in common. These theories are timeless though, and consistent with much I believe and have written of here in these pages. If we search for meaning for what has happened in England over the last 7 days then I think both Freud and Jung have something to say.

There are a thousand different theories about why the conflagration in London occurred. Most are probably valid I think, but are practically rooted – it’s because this happened, or that happened, or this failed to. They are causes, but they do not go to the state of being that transforms a person from a respectable part of the civilisation to one who takes pleasure in destruction, theft and anarchy. Many have said that what we have seen in London and the other cities is simple opportunistic thievery, with no ideological genesis. That’s how it ended, no doubt. But how did it start, and why? And why did allegedly ‘normal’ people with seemingly no axe to grind choose to get so happily involved?

I’ve been on this for a while. The events in London don’t greatly surprise me. I think there is a malaise through society which has been building to a climax. As a people I think we have become disconnected from each other and from our society. Ironically I think the social media which has us online and sharing 24/7 is a large factor in that. We now share at one remove. We type a few works and click enter. We surf a little more and contribute something elsewhere sitting at home or on our iPhone. We may be more open these days, but it is in an artificial environment. It’s an environment that is self-referencing, and self-affirming. We take our cues from each other without searching outside; ‘individuality’ is rarer now now than before. We join the throng sharing on Facebook, or watching MasterChef; we follow the same trends, have the same conversations. At the same time our children play Xbox or Wii sitting in their lounge room competing against kids sitting in their lounge room around the corner. As parents we have become friends rather than role models, coddling our children and spoiling them to the point our kids know no different, and expect nothing less. We are breeding a generation who exist on a different plane from us, a generation largely removed from the rough and tumble of life as we knew it; a generation with less curiosity I think, more self absorbed, and with less social flexibility; a generation with a sense of entitlement that is both unhealthy and illusory; a generation another step removed from the grit of our forefathers.

That’s fine I guess if it works, though it doesn’t work for me: I don’t want to forget the value and heft of things. I want to believe there is more to life than my sensations being satisfied. And I never want to lose sight of the spiritual and intellectual journey I think my life is all about – but that’s just me. And I’m of another generation (and doesn’t it show).

While it works the life I’m describing is fine, but it’s fine – in my opinion – in the same way taking a pill makes things fine. It is life dulled, and I don’t believe that it’s sustainable. Ultimately people need more, and will begin to demand it. Society isn’t stagnant, it moves, and we’ll move on from this too as the wheel turns and people begin to question.We’ve already seen the beginning of that in extreme form, but there will be other voices, more moderate and reasoned, which will begin to ask the necessary questions,

Where’s the pay-off? What’s really in this for me? Though few could articulate it I think there is a deep-seated sense in most that there’s meant to be more to life than this. Is this all there is? It accords, I think, with the conflict that both Freud and Jung wrote of. We have built such a civilisation that everything is accounted for, that everything is available for the right price, a civilisation that in our striving to make it safe, secure and orderly has instead made it banal. We have lost ourselves in the process, become disconnected with the raw instincts that brought us here, have muted the inner person that needs to be expressed. Superficially there is much to clap ourselves on the back about. Look how far we’ve come. Look at the advances we’ve made. Aren’t we good to each other? It is empty though, because life is more than a sexy iPad or something good to watch on the teev, or even earnest UN resolutions. We are seduced by the rhetoric and blinded by the sparkle, but have lost something in the process – and know it.

Who is me? What do I have to say? What is me? These are the questions not being asked anymore, or hardly. Instead they tumble out when they do in other ways, as we have seen in London. Many will disagree, but I think what we have seen in London is an existential outpouring. Sure, many are thugs and thieves taking advantage of the opportunity, but many more I think are those who have unconsciously opted out of the equation that promised so much, but delivered so little. This life doesn’t work. I want one that does, and if I can’t then I’ll torch this car and rob this shop and fuck you all.


The meaning of dreams

I often wonder at the meaning of dreams. Perhaps I’m superstitious, but I can’t believe they mean nothing. I am frequently amazed at the level of detail in my dreams, and the occasional insight that is not available to me in my waking hours. It feels sometimes as if I am being led by my unconscious to view something already inside me, already known, but hidden from me, clouded. I wonder if we see too literally in our everyday life. If we are conditioned to consciously take in only part of the spectrum. Perhaps our dreams are like those old 3D movies, where the screen leaps out at you and a broader vision is apparent only after putting the 3D glasses on. We close our eyes and dream, and see what we could not see before.

Or so I sometimes believe.

I was given cause to ponder this again on my recent break. Vacations are always fertile periods for this kind of insight. The mind relaxes, you are transplanted into a different environment, and all that stuff you have absorbed but been too busy to notice slowly makes its way to the surface. It seems true to me even considering our waking hours. How many times on a vacation do you stop and consider things that come to you as if from nowhere? You have time for once, and distance, a different environment that leads to a different, perhaps more relaxed, perspective, and a different angle on things.

I think it is true too of our dreams. You fall into different patterns. You sleep deeper, longer. Your mind is free of the stuff that clutters it up week to week. And into that emerges things that were always there but even in sleep you were unable to see. Why then shouldn’t they mean something? They are a part of you these dreams, a dimly understood, dimly perceived part of you. But you all the same, and yours.

I dreamt while I was away. One night I dreamt perhaps twenty times a variation on a simple theme. In all the dreams Jennie had returned to Australia from London. As I discovered in the course of the dreams, which could be viewed as a serial, her return was only temporary, but that soon she would be returning for good. She said little of the reasons why, and nothing at all of what had happened in her native London. I did not ask.

I took her back quietly, bashfully almost, much as she treated me. Our reunion was quiet. She was gentle, shy, feeling her way tenderly back in the country, and with me. There was no reference at all to what had transpired between us previously. It was not something to discuss, though clearly it was not forgotten. Unspoken between us was this bond like a piece of elastic that had stretched when she had gone away but now brought us close again. We liked each other, knew each other, and though it was not something to be denied nor was it taken for granted. We came together tentatively, as no more than friends at this point. I understood that. It was enough for me to have her close again, and to believe that something more would come from this. And so I went delicately to her, careful not to make too sudden a movement, mindful of her sensitive state.

It was very believable simply because it rung true – that’s how it would run, I think – and because the scale throughout was small and personal. The only thing a little odd was that her hair was a darker shade from the honey blonde I remembered. Even so, that seemed real enough.

Throughout all the dreams I felt a kind of yearning that was almost conscious. By that I mean it was as if my waking self watched these developments with a rapt anticipation. I lived in the dreams, but in the dream my other self observed knowingly.

I woke in the morning with this feeling fresh in me. I could remember little but fragments of the actual dreams, but the contented knowledge I had in the dream permeated me as I lay awake in bed. For as long as I could I lay still letting it fill me, not wanting to disturb it. I remembered what she had meant to me, and why I had loved her. The Jennie in my dreams had seemed so true, and so close, that I felt as if I could reach out and touch her. She seemed so authentic, so her. And I wondered if this meant anything.

I have thought of her, but not dreamt of her for months. Now I dream of her again in a scenario that seems both feasible and real. I wonder why it is, or if there is any ‘why’ to it. I am superstitious like that, but it is probably nothing. In any case I felt the gentle glow of the dreams suffuse me throughout the morning; and I recognised the feeling I had for her and knew though it had been dormant it was not yet dead.

The next night I dreamt of Paige.

I wondered in the morning what to make of this. Would I be cycling through the women I have known, in my dreams? What did it mean that I could dream so simply but intimately of one women and then dream of another? For silly reasons no doubt I was little disturbed by it. It felt capricious, though I knew that is one thing I am not. I wondered if in fact the dreams were linked – that there was some insight to be had by viewing them as partner pieces, two halves of a whole. But what?

The dreams of Paige were much vaguer. Whereas Jennie was almost the sole character with me in all the dreams I had of her, Paige was one of several characters, and often on the edge of the action. None of the dreams featured her per se, but she was the only consistent feature of them. It was clear that the dreams were about her as the earlier dreams had been of Jennie, but fragmented, like a shattered mirror reflecting odd images.

Jennie had left me glowing; Paige left me wondering – so true to life! I could see how the dreams reflected our reality, or least threw out a different version of it. We are on the edges of each other’s lives, though clearly I feature very strongly in her thoughts, and she has yet to leave mine. The dreams then seemed to symbolise the odd relationship we share, neither together nor apart.

My feelings for her are dimmed these days. I understand there is still something there, but turned down low. It can be turned on high again should the occasion merit it, but equally there could come the time when it could easily be switched off altogether. That may have happened by now if not for her continued attention.

I sometimes wonder what I would do if Paige came back to me wanting to patch things up. I would forgive her, I know that, I would embrace her, wish her well, and let her know everything was okay. But could I be her friend again?

I don’t know if it’s possible to be the friends we were before: probably not. That probably means something less then, or something more. The problem I have is with her boyfriend. I know friendship should be unconditional, but I know I want nothing to do with her as long as she is with him. He is the lead weight she has tethered herself to for fear of hoping or expecting too much. I don’t want to be witness to that, don’t want to know it, don’t want to have to deal with it.

So that probably means nothing. And yet I sit here, feeling little about it really, but knowing full well that she has had a far greater impact on me than some women I’ve loved passionately. The right time maybe, the right circumstances, whatever the reason, hers was a seminal relationship in my life.

This has been coming to me slowly over the last few months. Not long before we parted ways I found myself opening up a part of myself that normally I kept hidden from view. I shared it with her, tentatively at first, but then happily as she responded to it. It felt good. It was something I needed to do. And all these months later as knowledge dawned upon me I realised that was the person I want to be. For a moment it was there, and then the earth opened up at my feet.

I had it and I lost it, and at the time It mattered a lot. These days I am inclined to believe it was good for me. Losing it made me realise how much I valued it. It hurt knowing it just as it was taken from me, but hurt passes. In the months later I often floundered with the different and unwelcome things happening in my life. It opened me up though, and I got through it. I hesitate to say things happen for a reason, but the legacy I have now – I think –  is of being more open, more forgiving, more sensitive to other peoples feelings. I feel myself much lighter in being, and as if I have subtly changed direction.

Would any of this have happened without Paige? Well, had we not had our blow-up when we did I’m sure things would have come to a head at some point. Things might have been different, we may have ended up going to rather than away from each other. Who’s to say? I doubt regardless that I would have experienced this clarity without that experience.

And so I feel benevolent towards her. Of course I forgive her, and in truth the awful things she did don’t amount to that much. I wish I could tell her that. I want her to feel good too. For a week or so before Christmas I pondered the situation with her. What should you do: the sensible thing, or the right thing? Well, the right thing of course, and the right thing in this instance was to tell her it was okay. And yet I haven’t, because I can’t believe yet that it will do any good.

So we get back to my dreams. I feel her eyes keenly set upon me. I can see them as I have seen them before, intense, hooded, worlds colliding in the mind behind the eyes. If I could, in dreams as in life, I would reach out my hand, come I would smile, it’s okay.

Jennie is the ideal, the thing that could have been but for a couple of things being different. My dream was of that ideal, and of that person I knew and loved. She is far away though and no matter how much I dream or she does we will only ever meet in our dreams now.

And I realise as I write this that I have to make things good with Paige. I need to reach out that hand sometime, somehow, when it it won’t be misinterpreted, when she is ready to come back into the fold.