A couple of the posts I’ve written recently have ended up with me mentioning narcissism. Where does my mind go when I think about that? There’s Narcissus, a figure from a Greek myth. I find the thought of him, transfixed at his reflection and losing the will to live, more like an explosion than an idea. I would – my father was such a narcissist. Can I ever have an ‘idea’ of Narcissus: the silent scene from the myth, of him staring into the water? I always hear noise around him.
I think of people I work with as a psychotherapist who are disgusted by their bodies but who remain just as trapped looking at them, not seeing what I or other people see, stopping eating and slowly dying. I then think of the narcissists I’ve known who lose sight of other people in different ways (in both cases there’s fear of other people) and the angry sound of them colliding with individuals who they won’t truly acknowledge as other people … more as ideas from their own minds: knowable, malleable, useful.
I think of beautiful things, too. The vase of daffodils (narcissus) on a table at work that so surprised me when I saw them. My writing (if ever there was a narcissistic project). My clothes and other people’s clothes. All the colours and shapes in the world, dressing people. I love fashion without looking particularly fashionable.
Fashion is superficial but everything happens on the surface. Without fashion there would be no form to the living world; no attachment to the things we cover ourselves and our environment with. Fashion’s sometimes stupid and the fashion world, having dealt with some of its casualties, often particularly cruel. But there will always be things we consider beautiful, and as a phenomenon fashion will always happen.
How can you keep sane in the face of fashion?
- Don’t wear the same coloured socks and trousers.
- Fashion needs to leave room for movement. If you can’t move freely it’s wrong.
- Fashion should never look down. Fashion must look up, because we are the ideal.
- People criticise fashion and waste their time on money on so many other things.
- Don’t talk about size, talk about how you’re feeling.
It’s a foggy morning – which I think is more eerie than a foggy night. As you find the edges of the fog there’s blue sky, but unless you’re on a train, as I am, you probably won’t find the edges. You’ll feel the fog around you, damp and cold, and you’ll lose touch with what you normally see. There’s no horizon. Fog is where ghosts live: a confusion of the senses, a place where things come back unexpectedly – echoes. A familiar street sign appears in front of you when you know it should be yards away.
The novel I have written which is being published in the autumn is a ghost story. Sometimes I scared myself writing it. It grew out of some ideas about ghosts; but like all ideas these didn’t seem to mean much until I felt something from my life playing out. I’ve been haunted by my father’s indiscretions and mistakes.
I like psychoanalytic theories involving ghosts, transgenerational hauntings; I like the kind of ghost Marx writes about … a ghost that hasn’t happened yet (‘A Spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism); and I like ghosts by MR James, the terrifying kind. I’d recommend Ken McMullen’s film Ghost Dance, not least because it stars Robbie Coltrane and Jacques Derrida and I cried when I saw Ghost (the Patrick Swayze one). Ghosts, then. What can ghosts tell us, whatever they are?
- A lot of people live ghost-lives. They carry on driven by a promise caught up in the future: one day I stop working like this. I promise you, when we get there I promise I will stop. The only thing that’s real about this is that person’s absence while they work. Even when they are there, with you, a part of them will not be. It’s promised to the future, not you. Your relationship with them now is always diminished. These people don’t often know how to stop.
- Ghosts don’t only drag up the past. We can be haunted by spectres of the future: not only in our imaginations but in things we see (a black man being punched in the face by a white man at a rally for Donald Trump). A Spectre is haunting America – the spectre of Trump.
- what haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others (Nicolas Abraham)
- When you remind me of somebody they are suddenly somehow here.
- I’m listening to a dead man’s voice and it chills me (Bowie). What am I in touch with of him that scares me?
- I’m reading a dead woman’s words and they excite me (Woolf). What am I feeling of her that moves me?
There’s a whole field of study devoted to animals, and a way of thinking about the era since human activities have affected the world, the anthropocene. I doubt if I can add much to what Freud said about animals: that children don’t find it strange to think that animals might talk or do things just like them, and that the same child might grow up to insult another human by referring to them as a kinds of animal. Our narcissism includes others in our lives in ways we sometimes don’t realise, and can leave us making judgements where we dismiss people and animals in the same breath.
Respecting life in all of its forms and the environment that sustains it can’t make living any worse; but if we don’t think about the conflicts that arise when we do and the poorly informed compromises we continue to make all life will probably end.
- We’re all narcissists, but some forms of narcissism are more open to the other.
- Be aware of what you’re doing and make choices. Eat meat because you choose to after you know what’s involved in the killing, not before.
- A lot of animals seem to know me better than I know them.
- Sometimes I think an animal understands something about me better than I do, and I wonder what it does with that.
- I feel desolate without the sound and sight of other animals.
- Birds in the trees let me think of people calling out: I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.
We all copy in order to be original. I don’t come into the world with a capacity to conclude: ‘I think therefore I am’. Long before that becomes possible some hopefully intelligent, loving people teach me, a child, I’m an ‘I’ who can think, and who is.
So forget tedious debates over what’s hotly new and what’s not, and think about how you used to play. Melanie Klein thought children played out games that illustrated their lives; Freud recognised that as adults we act out tendencies we aren’t remembering as thoughts (why do I always make the same mistakes, etc), until we start thinking about them.
Originality is something that occurs out of an awareness of what I’m doing and a faith in something I can’t see on my own: my signature in the world. A thought that someone’s listening; an urge to leave trace of me that you’ll gather if you meet me, that indefatigably Tom-ish thing about Tom Tomaszewski, which I can never know as well as you will. Of course there’s the me you’ll never be able to know, too – and the you I can never know. That’s a lot of unknown.
If I think about writing like this there are some writers whose force I can pick up off the page as keenly as if they are breathing in my face. They feel original to me. Ones who leave me cold, don’t. Perhaps they are the ones who only imagine the sound of their own voices.
- Everything begins with repetition; so relax and look at something by somebody else. You’ll be strikingly original in no time at all (well, maybe).
- Postmodernism is always crashing the same car. I hesitate to invest in that word, it’s so uninspiring. People who believe in it (who may also believe in unicorns) have trouble with originality. Lyotard, however, was an extraordinarily original thinker. What a voice.
- Just do something.
- If you’re making something and you want it to be original try making it for someone in particular; someone you know really well.
I’m dumbfounded when I hear people dismiss telepathy. Freud was very probably a believer. I know many people who’ve spent a lot of their life around people struggling to find words for something that’s often beyond words have a sense that a thought can pass between two people without either of them being particularly conscious of it. In my training as a psychotherapist it was called projective identification, transference, counter-transference … You may know it simply as a feeling you get when you’re with someone ‘noisily quiet’, and after having that feeling something pops into your head and you can’t think where it came from. Look across at your silent friend. Maybe you get a strange sense that she or he is straining to tell you something. You may be about to receive a telepathic message (far more fun than a text, I can tell you, although there’s something uncannily telepathic about what a text message suggests that it doesn’t actually say). So what can I say about telepathy that isn’t too X-Files (although I used to like the X-Files) and doesn’t get too Melanie Klein?
- You won’t find this mentioned on the UKCP or BACP web site but it’s possibly a way of thinking about something that most psychoanalytic psychotherapists engage with every day.
- Strangely being in synch with someone relies on more than guessing. How much of your relationship is telepathic?
- It can all go terribly wrong if you don’t take a lot of time to get to know yourself. Instead of receiving you project: you see someone through the lens of your own emotional circus (like feeling really glum, going to work and thinking ‘God, what a sad bunch’).
- Telepathy isn’t mind-reading. It’s picking up on an unspoken message using my mind, without getting anywhere near the inside of another person’s head.
- Narcissists are not telepathic, they just think they know better than anyone else. Don’t let one fool you that she or he can read your mind. There are some very good mind-guessers.
Resentment is poisonous stuff. There’s a point to it: if we didn’t have a way of painfully remembering that we’ve been injured or affronted then we might allow the same kind of thing to happen again and again. Unpleasant memories of injuries and injustices would swill around inside us like a particularly unhealthy brew, leaving us feeling liable to explode at the next bad thing coming our way, our rage erupting uncontrollably … and … ah … doesn’t this sound familiar?
There are, believe it or not, people who don’t feel chewed up with resentment (and at least if you feel chewed up by it you aren’t getting drunk or high to forget you are). These people manage to assert themselves in tricky situations in ways that may not even affect the outcome, but which don’t leave them thinking ‘I should have’, or ‘if only’. They tend to lead far less anxious lives (I wrote about anxiety somewhere else on this site).
So how can you defuse yourself, this grenade-in-the-making?
- What part did you play? Try and find a part you played in whatever’s gone wrong and broadcast it as widely as you can to people you trust.
- Find someone to talk to you can trust. For me, to begin with, this meant paying someone (a psychotherapist), but that changed.
- Say something (see above: this doesn’t have to be to the person who’s been causing you grief. Really: there are a lot of people I wouldn’t say something to – some dangerous and some I’m connected to, but who wouldn’t react well to honesty).
- There’s always somebody I can blame and I can’t remember it ever doing me or anyone else much good. What do you do instead of blame? God knows, I sometimes think. It’s always different, but there’s usually a way, somehow (see point two, again)
- Don’t expect too much or too little. You’ll be disappointed or you’ll never ask for enough. The effect’s the same: horrible resentment. Get some thoughts from people you don’t know too well about what you can expect from life. Books helped me, I think. As a child I got as much help as I could from the library. It wasn’t a particularly big one but it liked children, and not in the way modern ones seem to (I sense a resentment).
I’m a psychotherapist who writes. I’m a lot of other things, too, but I don’t think I’d ever call myself a writer. That feels cut off. I find what happens when I start to write interesting: either I start making things up or I begin looking at how things are made up … like writing and reading, perhaps.
I was talking to someone last week who said she couldn’t write at the moment, but who loves writing. Are you reading? I asked her – yes, she was reading, voraciously. So it’s happening, I suggested, just not yet. Maybe reading’s like dreaming while the writing animal’s asleep. And then it wakes up, the reading stops. I do find it hard to read a lot when I’m really attached to something I’m writing.
But I’m digressing. I’m going to write seven micromanifestos: little explorations of the unknown, the uncertain and the difficult, one a day for a week. I’ve a feeling this comes out of reading William Shatner’s book about him and Leonard Nimoy (the original Kirk and Spock from Star Trek), re-feeling a feeling of wanting to boldly go somewhere that sat well with me when I was a child and probably had more to do with my becoming a psychotherapist than anything else.
Which makes me think: it’s Mother’s Day and I want to give a thought to my mother, a strange, wonderful kind of explorer: an extraordinary person who climbed mountains and cycled round the country without, until she was old, ever actually leaving it. I’m glad I’ve managed to understand her limits as I’ve grown older, and to see how much she gave me. We used to watch Star Trek together.
This micromanifesto is about closeness, then; about how to try and let it happen. I prefer ‘closeness’ to ‘intimacy’ for all kinds of reasons, but perhaps mostly because it reminds me how close I can feel to somebody even when she’s no longer here.
- Stick to the surface. Don’t try to go deep.
It’s like reading a book: remain faithful to every word or you’ll begin making things up that are more about the book you’d write than the one somebody else has.
- Spend time noticing only small things, peripheral things, and the things that don’t make sense.
- Don’t interrupt. Let things come to you.
- Don’t assume you know more than the other person.
Allow things to make sense, don’t force them.
- Remember who you are.
- Stay open.
It’s easy, for example, to confuse feeling sad with feeling guilty or ashamed. When I’m sad I’m often still open to other people. When I feel guilty or ashamed I can feel closed off or preoccupied, or can want to stop someone being angry with me … or hurt. I might stop doing things 1-5.
- Happiness tends to happen, so be ready for it.
Turn your phone off when you’re with someone you love. Shut the door to your work when you’re not at work. Or, if you don’t, accept the difference it makes, don’t deny it.