I am a bit worried about what I am writing at the moment. People see me spend long stretches working, and ask me in a roundabout way actually I am working on, and I don’t really want to say. There are two reasons for my uncool evasiveness. Firstly I only have a few central ideas and a new raw stylistic idea for what I am working on, and the newness of these ideas are a little scary. So my evasiveness is borne of insecurity.
Secondly the actual plot of what I am working on is something of a moving target these days. this also is new. Generally, I am the type of guy who sits down, makes a plan, then executes it. I mean its not that I usually know every plot move, but I generally know. So I am doubly insecure, in as much as I am not sure where I am going or how long it will take.
This leads me to the third question I get asked:
‘When are you going to be finished?’
‘How long is a piece of string?’ I say, meaning I don’t know and I worry when actually I will be done.
My novel started out as a nice respectable middle aged crisis type book with a few literary and thriller elements attached. Now, three major drafts later and three years later, it has become a monster. Now its got more to do with horror and thriller elements than the tame reflective rather self absorbed piece I started out working on. And as I go through drafts and as it subtly changes me, I become more and more uncomfortable with how raw and visceral the book is becoming.
It also makes me think about the art and craft of writing. Where am I going with all this work, all this drafting and redrafting and rewriting? Is there a point when one runs out of ideas, a limit to the amount of books your produce before you begin to be a cliché? Someone who produces a slim tome every eighteen months to keep up with contract requirements? What’s the point of writing?
I don’t have and don’t really want an answer to that question. But I do think once you learn about writing, the craft, how to plot, how to pace, the elements of story, using different types of styles for differing elements of a text, you find that having the craft is not enough. One wants to go deeper, certainly I do. One throws away language games and well worn plot clichés to get at the core of things.
I think that writing is an act that leads one to shed elements of a false self and it leads you to ones core, that’s if you want to go there. J D Salinger famously stopped publishing because he wanted his writing to be as free of the demands of others as possible. The thread or piece of string one leaves down as one journeys through the labyrinth of words is just long enough to get to the centre. That’s how long the string is.
I hate sharing personal information. I feel deeply uncomfortable doing so. But it is important. So here goes. I happen to be a writer. This is not by choice. I tried everything not to be a writer. In my early youth I tried a career in religion, which gives one access to lots and lots of books, which is very cool. It also gives one a room of one’s own, also cool (ask Virginia Woolf), an opportunity to meditate (which I like a lot), a very comfortable middle class existence (I’m from the middle classes), as well as a comprehensive training and educational background (I took full advantage of all available libraries). I was not good at attending college, but I did okay with exams. I was expected to be an academic. But I wanted to write, which is not the same thing. I found it difficult to fit into any one academic discipline. I would also like to lightly mention in passing that my brand of religiosity included my joining a monastery, running retreats and giving sermons and being generally incredibly busy with people, which was very difficult for me. I was an odd monk, I must confess. I didn’t like the costume (originally what is now a monks robe was originally the normal clothing of peasants – the hood being a sack for your stuff). I thought it rather elitist and divisive. Also on a general level both back then and now, one would never think it, but I wasn’t comfortable around people. I also found I could be too blunt for people. I offended folks by my excessive straightforwardness, which was taken the wrong way quite a lot. The other thing was I could not stop writing. Poems, articles, stories, essays – I couldn’t stop. Then after a few years I stopped believing in God, which was a devastating and deeply depressing experience. Christianity, at a certain point made no sense. It had its origins in older religions, which in turn had its origins in older myths. It was all clearly made up. I found my true calling was to atheism and publishing poor quality youthful short stories and poems. I quit being a monk. I tried academia but disliked both it and academics. I married, and then, to support my new marriage, I tried being a respectable civil servant with a good job and a house and a pension and serious prospects in the field of computer programming. Though I had hardly seen a computer before becoming a civil servant, I found I had a talent for programming them. I loved taking them apart and reassembling them. I had fun with technology. I used trawl thru computer junk, build a PC, and give them as gifts to friends and people who needed them or didn’t have a personal computer of their own. I also took full advantage of the company library and I learned a few programming languages and made a bit of money. The thing was I still longed to write. Actually at the time I was writing, particularly Sci-Fi, but it wasn’t enough. It was hunger inside me to do more and be more, and though I was naturally good with languages, though I could put ideas, even coded ideas, together easily and quickly, I simply could not take the soul crushing drudgery of working in a corporate setting. The dishonesty, the politics, the lack of challenge, and most of all having to deal with people on a day to day basis, which is by no means my strong suit, I began to drink heavily, and it was a miracle I wasn’t fired for being repeatedly drunk on the job. I remember coding multi-million pound systems while being drunk. I remember compiling reports for accountants, or even writing reports, again while being ‘compromised’, a euphemism one hears in US cop dramas for being under the influence. I was becoming addicted. I found a few brandies relaxed me sufficiently to focus on the task at hand without being unduly anxious while in the company of others, which I disliked. I was earing a lot of money, more than my boss at the time. A therapist I had at the time challenged me. She said if I continued drinking and coding, alcohol would destroy my mind. Those were her words. I realized my misery, my depression and hopelessness I was dulling with drink. I was also becoming very unhappy in my marriage. So I quit. I sold my house and made some money, bought another house, became a landlord, and, with no prospects I started writing novels. My wife at the time started publishing my own work and those of other writers. For the most part my books did modestly well. I had found who I was. I was a member of the tribe of writers. I think this is a crucial thing. Every person needs to find who they truly are, especially as an artist. And we are all artists, everyone. Its not a New Age blanket terms like, for instance, us all being ‘beautiful and unique snowflakes’ or ‘find the genius inside you’. No. We are all creative beings, potentially. Again my trouble being around people reared its head. I was swamped with people. Readings, writings, publications, trips to other countries doing launches and so on, began to take their toll on me. My marriage began to really crater. My wife at the time had her own troubles, deep troubles, and I found no matter what I did I could neither help her or myself. I suffered a major depressive episode and after three years and several disastrous misdiagnoses and horrible medications on the part of therapists and psychologists, I left my wife. Then she took her life just under a year after I left. The horror. As I said in her obituary, this is the single greatest loss of talent and potential the Irish publishing scene has suffered in a generation. It came as a devastating shock to me and to those who loved her, a sorrow of immeasurable proportions. I did not understand her condition. In the aftermath it has been explained to me. Now I understand. I have moved on. But I have not forgotten. Now I continue to write, because I am a writer. This is my story. Tell someone yours today, or even write it down. I find it horribly difficult, but its liberating.
Facebook, as Ms. Tina Turner would say, is simply the best. If one were to come up with a more ingenious idea for a social media platform, I could not improve upon Facebook. It has become the communication platform for over two billion users of all ages (as of 2017). I would guesstimate it’s superceded only by email, the smartphone and the television in popularity and use. Facebook is so clever in its design, it actually employs all the features of email, the phone and the television, having within its increasingly matrix like structure, all kinds and sorts of channels and groups and live video feeds, as well as online chat, facetime and the capacity to call any one user or group from anywhere to anywhere, just so long as you have a Facebook account and an internet link. Its scope is unlimited as it transcends national boundaries, political parties, religion, or age. After live video, pictures, speech, music and the billions of words typed into the Facebook, it is only a matter of time before we all log into Facebook with a retinal scan, post comments via voice recognition software, and chat with Mom or our boyfriend via live holographic interface. Like the web itself, the phenomenon of what happens on Facebook is simply astonishing. Births, deaths, marriages, and events of international and national importance are shared and discussed with forensic detail all times of the day or night. Its also a huge online gaming platform. For instance, every second there are twenty thousand people using it, and, as a result of this level of usage, its functionality is constantly being worked upon.
This is the era of privacy, or the lack of it. For instance I am typing this on WordPress. Above the screen where I type these words, the wordpress program has worked out my location to within a metre or two. When I press ‘Update’, that location is confirmed public for all to see. This is cyberspace, where everything is connected and everything leaves a data trail. The first rule of forensics is that every action leaves a trace. Its interesting. We are surrounded by cheap but sophisticated technology. If your cell phone locates you twenty four seven, and Amazon knows what books you buy or search for, and Google knows your searches and your location, as well as your email address book, then Facebook knows your friends, what you are interested in, and what you and your friends look like, your every action leaves a searchable forensic data trail, forever. A data trail exists now for everything we do. Saying we have nothing to fear if we do no wrong is the first and last cry of an authoritarian state. Privacy is not a privelige. Facebook (and the other aforementioned companies) were founded in the USA. In the USA there are very weak privacy laws. Privacy isn’t codified either in the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights. When you post pictures, then FB owns your image. In fact it has been pointed out the reason why Facebook is free to join is simply because the psychographics and data amassed by one’s posting activity on FB actually makes you and I their product.
What is Facebook?
Facebook is a place to connect virtually. Facebook is the biggest metadata marketplace on the planet. FB is a blogspace, a place where religion is practised, a human rights platform, a place where missing persons are searched for (and found), a marketing tool, an advertising goldmine, a political forum, a dating and sexting site, and somewhere you can meet new people and talk about how much you like puppies or porn or classic science fiction. There are so many new people on facebook – people with lives and biographies and loves and hates and favourite music and bands and websites and marriages and divorces and children and billions of pictures of cats and babies, all there for you to explore. Its absorbing, and creates an increasingly complete dossier available to FB sales and marketing for every FB user. As an inveterate snoop, I have whiled away whole evenings just browsing through all of the human Facebook drama. I can only imagine how useful and lucrative it must be for FB itself. So what does one do on Facebook? You make ‘friends’ on Facebook. Right now you can have up to five thousand ‘friends’. Interestingly one of the many signs of modern loneliness (an experience which is quickly becoming a social epidemic in our ever connected wired up urban and suburban world), is when you have far more friends on FB than you have in real life. Virtual friends will never supercede human contact. Nevertheless, when the platform gets even bigger, along with bandwith and personal and corporate computers growing ever more powerful, I am sure the friend-number will increase. Its scope is, really, unlimited. Right now its worth $403 billion, which is a simply astounding number, considering this is 2017 and it was only founded twelve years ago, its becoming an internet in and of itself, rather like Google, except its not Google. Google is focused on information. Its founders are interested in designing Artificial Intelligence. Facebook is about people, and thats why it is talked about so much. Google, so much a part of the very substance of much internet work is simply a piece of the architecture upon which the web is built. Facebook provides the places we meet people. Facebook is kind of like a city, whereas Google is rather like the State wherein the city has been built.
Whats On Your Mind?
Facebook wants to know whats on your mind. The above question, along with a text box and a facility for posting pictures and videos appears at the top of one’s personal feed. So, straight away we have a means to speak our minds and possibly be heard by, well, everyone. One can also see whats on other peoples minds, from just how much they don’t like Donald Trump, to holiday photos, to photos of meals and fleatrap hotels, to medical updates, to whines about hangovers and boyfriends, to adorable baby seals and crazy stunts, and of course bazillions of puppy and cat videos. It’s incredible. Its an information overload of unprecedented proportions. All of life trots across ones FB webpage. That, and the chance to go wandering around others’ lives becomes an all consuming and vastly time-consuming interest. This is especially the case if you start commenting or posting status updates of one’s own, and the dynamic of posting and reposting status updates becomes a kind of game of reciprocal virtual ping-pong that has no beginning or no end. It goes on an on like a Wagner Opera. Every time we post something, well it’s forever. Every post and comment and ‘like’ is there – forever. Even the things we delete are ‘remembered’, and everything we say -it says something as much about ourselves as it does about the topic of our post. Did I mention data analysis? Everything we type is analysed. Every contact is analysed.
And stored And calibrated. Profiles are built. Our styles of commenting are analysed. Our photos, our arguments – all stored. Those we friend or unfriend or block is part of our profile. I recently unfriended a rather unpleasant FB friend and was reminded by FB on my ‘feed’ that they ‘noticed’ I unfriended someone. But don’t worry, I was told. FB won’t tell this third party I unfriended them. they’ll keep mum. How reassuring, I thought. How kind, even.
Don’t forget too, that all the main security services of the world are here too. All the big names, and a few unnameables. They keep a vigilant watch over every single user – for freedom demands that kind of eternal vigilance. Oh, and data is shared by international agreement. Everything is logged and stored. I don’t think its an exaggeration to say that privacy is now something we tell ourselves we have. But we don’t. If the Internet is forever, then Facebook is the Hotel California. You can log out any time you like, but you can never leave. Your page is there for you long after you deactivate your page. All you got to do is log right back in and your stuff is there for you. Thats great, right?
I Can Stop Using Facebook Anytime I want, I just ‘Like’ it
Facebook is both addictive and its evolving, like a hive or a virtual lifeform. Its tools are becoming more and more refined and those aspects of it which serve no purpose are removed or corrected. They got an army of programmers and analysts all over that platform. Two aspects of FB though I bet will never disappear. One is the capacity to comment on posts, and the big second is the ‘Like’ Button. I think few of us really acknowledge the creeping aspect of ones attachment to using the Facebook platform. You get your account and you start off small. One post here. One ‘Like’ there. One picture of your lovely girlfriend on holiday, and then the ‘Likes’ start coming. You got a new job, or in my case, get published in a prestigious journal and you humblebrag about it and then people start ‘Liking’. The most powerful virtual tool right now is the Facebook ‘Like’ button. One ‘ Like’ and you get a little endorphin kick. A dose of Oxytocin (aka the ‘hug drug’). Facebook is liking. One can keep contact with old friends without the huge time consuming committment. One can go finding out stuff – satisfy our infomania. One can quantify our friendship quotient and fill the deepest need we have in this increasingly atomised culture – the need to belong, to be part of a group, to have that deep sense of support and contact. Facebook be loving us. Don’t go, it says. Thus to leave Facebook in the light of the social, interpersonal, political and cultural advantages it offers as a free platform, is a huge emotional wrench. It is no exaggeration to say that Facebook is addictive. It should come with a warning. Like sugar, the most addictive substance on the planet, Facebook is sweet and reassuring and omnipresent. And it’s truly a demon one has to exorcise from one’s system once one decides to leave.
Detoxing From facebook
Lastly, aside from the vast, vast, waste of time that is Facebook, Facebook makes one jealous. Perhaps ‘envy’ is the right word. Perhaps both. Facebook is saddening. We ‘see’ that version of others’ lives on Facebook and we want what they have. People can’t help humblebragging. Let me unpack that. For instance: recently a ‘friend’ mentioned he was logging off FB because he had to take time out to edit his recently completed novel, which sends a message of success to all the other FB writers out there, and makes me anguished personally as I take forever to finish anything, what with my sitting on my bum thinking all the damn time. Another talks about how busy she has been of late and in sweet terms – and then agave sweetly apologizes to her Facebook friends beacuse she was away on a fabulous holiday with her new lover. Another posts pictures of their new baby, another talks about her new job or that particular prestigious poetry journal she got into, another is busily trekking across France, another is writing a blogpost. And on and on. Nobody wants to talk about daily disasters. Moreover, people seem to be living the lives of movie stars and celebrities. No one seems to be failing or screwing up, like we all fail and screw up – far more than we succeed. And this is the problem. It creates a culture of competition, of a sense of inadequacy and consequent over compensation that has been commented on and analysed by many, many psychologists and podcasters and online journals (GO GOOGLE). Of course, ones self-worth should have nothing to do with the lives of others, that is, in an ideal world. Perhaps if we focused our energies on real life, none of this would happen. Perhaps if we stopped Facebook, went cold turkey and supported each other in coming off this addictive virtual experience, we might take the energy we are using online and made more creative uses of our lives. Maybe. Peace. O.
Aside from being a huge fan of the Alien franchise, over the last months I have started stargazing. Despite the endless rain we have in Kerry in South of Ireland, the night sky down here is mainly free of light pollution, that is when those clouds finally clear. Given a fairly clear night, an hour or two without rain, a warm coat, some gloves and a bit of hot whiskey, fun can be had (sadly Im on a diet – so no whiskey). Also, and most happily, my landlord has a pretty cool telescope. We spend hours looking at the moon and Saturn and occasionally a tiny Mars appears. There are countless stars out there and just staring into a telescope gives one and incredible rush of transcendence. There before one’s eyes are actual proof of other galaxies and other planets and other constellations. Call it a Galileo (remember what happened to him?) moment but we humans sometimes forget how small we are and how vast it all is out there. I find I love to look out through a telescope as opposed to looking into a computer screen. I find it wonderful to sit out on a clear night and allow my eyes to become accustomed to the dark after countless hours of artificial light. After a while the clouds disappear and I look up.
So many stars. Satellites come out at night. It’s fantastic. It’s literally a trip. Try it. Bring the kids. Bring your friends. Go up a hill at night and look at the sky. If you have a telescope all the better. But even with the naked eye looking at huge boiling stars lighting up the night sky millions or billions of light years away, is the most fun you can ever have without spending a cent. For me it’s a consciousness expanding exercise. One theory postulates that we occupy only one of multiple universes, how many we just don’t know. In this particular universe some say there are a hundred billion galaxies. Others say its two hundred billion. Others again say there are five hundred billion galaxies. (I got these figures from a google search, so many results emerging I don’t see how I can provide links to same). When you take the difference between one and five billion, it becomes clear just how much about the universe we just dont know. Also, I think that even if we don’t agree on the number of galaxies in the known universe we can say this. There are almost an uncountable number of them and as such there must therefore be an uncountable number of stars in the each of those galaxies. Right now its an unknown, but a immense number.
If there are a vast number of stars, then there has to be even more planets. Planets form usually from the leftover parts of stars (how planets form), so for every star, there are usually a number of planets rotating around them. Then notion then that we are alone in this incredibly vast, impossibly complex universe, that humanity and the dolphins and the great apes and so on are the only sentient creatures, well anywhere, is so vastly improbable as to be at this stage funny. Its an extension of the junk science isolationism and anthropocentrism we see pervading our culture at present, to think this universe is especially for us and we are alone in it. Though without an ET we got no proof, its also equally true its a mighty vast universe with just one planet that supports life. To me the geeks and conspiracy theorists will be proven right in time, the tinfoil hat wearing brigade talking about other worlds and alien visitations, however hilarious and at times, and, well a bit deranged, have a valid point. Its most theories that fit way outside the accepted agreed pool of belief systems are treated as a bit crazy, but the more one looks out on a vast canopy of stars the more one sees, well more stars. How is it possible we are alone in all of this? Furthermore if we are alone (unlikely), why are we killing each other for real estate or belief systems? We have unlimited places out there to make a home and live in peace. If anything the wisest course of action is to recognize how limited resources are here, treat this beautiful planet with love, and set about recognizing the dangers of overpopulation, and finding new homes elsewhere rather than killing other people simply because they dont have the same god or their ideology doesn’t match yours. The truth is maybe out there?
There are few extraordinarily gifted people people out there who can also be described as really good people. They exist of course, but Marcel Proust, a true artistic genius, was one of them. Kind, sensitive, thoughtful to a fault, a good and faithful friend and an extraordinarily generous man with his time and money, Marcel Proust deserves the title of being ‘extremely cool’. And his books have few peers in sheer scale of writing and breath of vision. They are extremely long, indeed an enormous committment, but the rewards far out weigh the effort in time and patience spent in reading these wonderful books. Forgive me if I sound as if an assumption is made here about prospective readers of Proust. As so much of contemporary culture is about instant rather than long term reward, I am advocating something somewhat counter cultural here. hence my caveat.
Marcel and Marcel – A life poured into a Novel
Marcel Proust poured his life into his novel Remembrance of Things Past, or, as in the original French, A La Recherché du Temps Perdu. From his life he composed so many unforgettable characters, living breathing people filled with ambivalent, sometimes clashing ambitions and sexualities, contradictory longings and sometimes devastating losses. These lives lurk within those famous long lyrical beautiful tortured sentences. There is the erudite eccentric homosexual Baron De Charlus, quoter of Balzac with a fixation for sado masochistic practices in male brothels. De Charlus pursues the gifted musician Morel, who eventually betrays him. Then there is Baron de Charlus’ nephew, Robert de saint Loup who though homosexual, courts and eventually marries Gilberte. Gilberte, with whom Marcel himself was once in love, is daughter to the coquette Odette. Odette is wife of the aesthete socialite, the fascinating and tragic Charles Swann, who risked exclusion from society for Odette, the woman he loved. Marcel, the “I” of the novel, the complex neurotic gifted sickly self-doubting central fictional narrator, has his own share of tragic love affairs. He falls passionately for the bisexual Albertine, whom Marcel jealously tries to control and possess completely. Albertine flees her captivity and dies tragically, something Marcel could never get past. There are other people too: the Guermantes family, the Verduins, Marcels parents, and the brilliant artist Elestir, among many others.
These characters are composites from Marcel Proust’s own life. In detailing their lives, Proust draws from the content of his consciousness, mixes compassion with irony, beauty with pathos, wit with savagery. This style and vision makes his novel addictive reading. It is surprising that there haven’t been more movies about the novel as Proust writes cinematographically. I know of two myself: Jeremy Irons in Swann in Love, and Time Regained with Emmanuele Beart, Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich and Vincent Perez. Both are fine movies.
Reading Marcel Proust’s Novel
Reading Proust is looking into the mind of a writer/narrator with a fetish for exactitude, an eye for emotional and physical detail that borders on obsessive compulsive. And this is why any at attempt at summarising A la Recherché du Temps Perdu is to subtract story from style, which is to miss out on one of the most unforgettable reading experiences one could have, no small loss in any lifetime. For Proust style is integral to substance, and the substance of the story is time, each moment of consciousness and identity being abolished by the next, time as death and rebirth captured and recalled and reborn in the truth of art. His work is filled with hilariously comic scenes of French society at the turn of the twentieth century. It is peppered with devastating ironies, depicting moments of extraordinary beauty and pathos and savagery. It has all the grasp of humanity, all the clarity and vision and beauty that only a mature artist can bring to a work at the height of their powers. It’s also in seven parts, and is three thousand pages long.
Marcel Proust (1871-1922) came to write A la Recherché only after an equally long journey of self-discovery. It is this journey which is the novels subject. Marcel Proust was the son of Adrien Proust, an eminent physician of provincial catholic descent, and Jeanne Weil, of a wealthy Alsatian Jewish family, born in Auteil, in France. He attended the Lycee Concordet (1882-89), which happily afforded a more relaxed regime than some of the scholarly Schools of the Quartier Latin, which served this sensitive person well. His school reports and essays and letters all speak of someone who loved reading and conversation, who avoided discord at all costs, who sought the companionship of his schoolmates and wrote for class magazines. His early childhood memories were recreated in A La Recherché in parallel with an intricate portrait of society life. One of his earliest memories forms the opening sequence of the novel, that of falling asleep at night. He speaks of dreaming, shifting consciousness, like a teleportation device taking one to other times and places. And yet he longs for the comfort of his mother’s goodnight kiss, his shield against night terrors. In parallel to his own private world, he draws in society too in the person of a family friend, Charles Swann, and later on in life hearing of Swann’s desperate pursuit filled courtship and eventual unhappy marriage to the unfaithful courtesan Odette de Creacy. Swann had met Odette years before at the Verduin salon, filled as it was with countless tiny torturous rubrics and rituals of propriety and nasty controlling gossip. Swann was based on the real life Charles Haas. He, Haas, was born approx. 1833 and was also a habitué of literary salons and artists’ studios. Haas, like Swann, was a Jewish dilettante who was well received in French high society. But Swann, unlike Haas risked his status and reputation for Odette de Creacy. Unfortunately the marriage was not a happy one. Proust did not intend to use Haas at all in the novel and actually gave Swann a very different personality than that of Haas. He said he found that Haas “was present at the conception of my Swann” (Corr vol XII p.387)
People like Haas, whom Proust met superficially or intimately, attached themselves to his memory and imagination, clinging like marker buoys to deeply submerged fragments of memory of his past life. These fictional people play out the tragicomedy of their lives as Marcel strives to find himself within this world of French high society.
What actually happens – the story of the novel
The subject of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu is Marcel’s own evolution from sickly little boy to the artist who succeeds in his ambition to write a great work. The moment which gave the narrator Marcel the inspiration to begin the work is depicted at the end of the book. Here Marcel, now approaching middle age, is late for a musical soiree and is asked to wait in the library of the fictional Princess de Guermantes. The butler brings tea and cake. Marcel has at this stage in his life achieved the highest social acceptance. As he sits waiting, dipping his madeleine cake in tea, he unexpectedly has a climatic moment of realisation. He has a moment of involuntary memory. Memories of childhood wash over him. Suddenly he realises what he must do. He has found the great work he must write. The work is himself, his own journey. Edmund White in his fine book on Proust comments that perhaps “the strangest drama in Proust’s life is the transformation of little Marcel – the dandy and partygoer, the time waster who at thirty- four had managed to do little more than write a slim volume of short stories and two translation of Ruskin – into the great Proust, who wrote one of the longest and most remarkable novels of all time.” (Proust p.82) And now because of his crippling health problems, his ambition to succeed is also a race to against time to write, a race against death.
It is this ironic circular movement, this beginning and end, whereby Marcel in discovering his calling as an artist has to leave society, that make A La Recherché du Temps Perdu so memorable. He has to leave his life, or what he thought to be his life, and recreate the true life. He has to rejuvenate impressions suppressed by time, to recompose life and bring him back to his self, his boyhood and the love and companionship as he originally knew them. For Proust one creates fiction to recreate the truth, to resurrect it from the tomb of time where all things die. The work of the artist is the discovery of life hidden beneath self-love and intellect and habit, the underworld of life unseen because of the mundane and the ritualised. Ironically enough, the Guermantes salon where Marcel has his library insight is initially shown as a place of intelligence and poetry and high art. It is the initially the perfect circle for the fictional Marcel to revolve within. Moreover Marcel falls in love with the Duchess de Guermantes, but gets over it when he meets her in society after a trip to meet Saint Loup in his garrison town. Gradually Marcel’s disillusionment at the hollowness and vanity of Guermantes’ society surfaces. This fictional experience parallels Prousts deepening adult disenchantment with society, something that grew as became ever more upwardly mobile in society. As a boy he had suffered his first asthma bouts, a condition that was to debilitate him for the rest of his life. His childhood holidays (1880-89) were spent at Illiers and Auteuil or at seaside Normandy resorts with his grandmother. These childhood holiday scenes later became the Combray holiday scenes of the novel. During this time, as he played along the Champs-Elysees, he meets and falls in love with a little girl named Marie de Benardaky, just as in the novel the fictional Marcel meets and falls in love with Gilberte Swann, daughter of Charles and Odette. It is through Marie and other such children whose parents were society hostesses that Proust became as he grew older a habitué of some of the most exclusive drawing rooms of French society. Despite his chronic and recurrent ill health, Proust spent a year in the army (1889 to 1890), studied and took licences in law in 1893, and literature in 1895 at the School of Political Sciences. In 1896 he published Les Plaisirs at les Jours (Pleasures and Days), a selection of poignant stories already published in such magazines as Le Banquet and La Revue Blanche. Already he had begun to write the somewhat disjointed but brilliant novel Jean Santeuil (published eventually in 1955), which coincided with his increasing ill health, his gradual withdrawal from a society he could not tolerate.
The Dreyfus Affair and Withdrawal from the World
This world weariness reached a high point with his involvement in the Alfred Dreyfus affair. Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a Jewish army officer unjustly imprisoned in Devil’s Island for spying. The affair was highly controversial, and spilt France into two highly contentious factions. It also alienated Proust from his father. Proust assisted Dreyfus’ lawyer and organized petitions on his behalf. Again his sensitivity to rejection and abandonment, which probably lent itself to his extraordinary graciousness and wit and skills at mimicry, came to the fore. Though Proust was not blackballed in society because of the Dreyfus affair, he did lose friends and was subjected to snide remarks because of being half Jewish, though he protested himself to be catholic. In reality he was agnostic. More than anything it was the bigotry and anti-Semitism of French society which led to his final withdrawal from it. This need to find oneself in the world of society, to find acceptance in it, and consequent failure and retreat and disillusionment, rises and disappears in cycles throughout A La Recherché. Indeed Proust, now that he had no salon world to comfortably retreat into (aside from the very occasional sortie), truly feared his own destiny as a writer. He feared rightly that in beginning the great work he so longed to write it might take everything he had in life. Consequently it would have been easier to dither. Then he might at least continue to live, be among the beautiful creatures of desire that populated high society, write brilliant pastiches of Balzac and Falubert, translate the art critic Ruskin’s works as he had in younger days, and have something akin to a life. But he didn’t. He took the plunge and wrote on. The first volume, Swann’s Way was rejected by the highbrow publishing house, Nouvelle Revue Française on the recommendation of Andre Gide, who thought that a snob like Proust could contribute little worthwhile to literature. Proust’s housekeeper, Celeste Albaret, thought that the manuscript had not even been unwrapped, let alone read. Gide was later to apologise, and radically changed his views after actually reading the manuscript. After the initial rejection by the NRF, the courageous publisher Grasset published Swann’s Way in 1913. Further negotiations between Grasset, Proust and the NRF led to a simultaneous volume being brought out, Within a Budding Grove, for which Proust won the Prix Goncourt in December 1919. Three more volumes came out during Prousts lifetime: Le côté de Guermantes I (October 1920), Le Côté De Guermantes II – Sodome et Gomorrhe I (May 1921), Sodome et Gomorrhe II (April 1922). The NRF in collaboration with Robert Proust, Marcels younger brother, published the final volumes – La Prisonnière (1923), Albertine Disparue (1925) and Le Temps Retrouvé (1927).
Througout A La Recherché the narrator Marcel continually has the ambition to write a great work ever drawing him on. This desire remains despite his misgivings over his talent, and even though ironically his ambitions in society if not in love, are continually satisfied. In real time, for Proust it was the death of his parents, his father in 1903 and his mother in 1905 that ironically set him free both emotionally and financially to write. Proust lived within a cycle of dependency, especially with his mother. Just after his mothers death Proust wrote to the Comte de Montesquiou (the basis for Proust’s Baron De Charlus character) saying that with his mother’s death “My life has now forever lost its only purpose, it’s only sweetness, it’s only consolation. I have lost her whose unceasing vigilance brought me in peace and tenderness the only honey of my life” (Selected Letters 2:208). He sought that peace and tenderness in many forms, in the character of Albertine, the thinly disguised feminisation of Albert Agnoscelli, Prousts secretary and great passionate unfulfilled love. Albertine is first depicted as the leader of a group of girls running on the beach led by Albertine. Like Albertine in the novel, Agnostelli was held captive by Proust, fled from his possessive love and dies tragically. Albert Agnostelli died in a plane crash in 1914 during a time when Marcel saw that millions were about “to be massacred in a war of the worlds comparable to that of Wells” (Corr. Vol XIII, p 283). The death of Albert occurring at the outset of war, led Proust to the second great shipwreck of his life after the death of his parents. For him this death, like his mother’s death, represented the loss of love, loss of everything. It was a desperate passion, an unspeakable unfulfilled desire that Proust projected onto his secretary. With Albert dead as in the novel, he felt himself to be a spent force. His passion and desire and jealousy of Albert were thwarted, as it was always thwarted in life, this time by death. Beauty is lost as love is lost, and though Proust was at the height of his powers as a writer, he stopped writing for a time to heal from such a devastating shock. Just as it was Prousts discovery of John Ruskin’s art criticism back in 1899 that led him to abandon Jean Santeuil, so too during this terrible crisis, it was the spiritual discovery that there was no region of the soul that could not be penetrated with the clear light of art that led Proust to return to work. Proust depicted these scenes of irrevocable loss in the latter part of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu, echoed as they were by other irrevocable losses through the novel of other characters as part of the inescapable truths of life, the emptiness of love and friendship, the ambivalence of desire and sexual attraction, that snobbery and cruelty are as common as beauty and kindness. The only champion against the ravages of time lie in the memories of loved ones and places and interactions stored in involuntary memory. There, outside time, life remains inviolate, beauty and truth becomes sustainable whereas in time it disintegrates. From the first pages of the novel, where through the eyes of the fictional Marcel one relives his childhood longings for his mothers goodnight kiss which was his shield against the terror of abandonment, we experience a hypersensitivity, a sense of dread and abandonment which never left him. It returned in later life as lovers left him, or friends and relatives died, whether naturally or as part of the thirty six million casualties of the First World War. But one of the novels deepest truths is the emptiness of friendship and love, as Beckett writes “Friendship according to Proust, is the negation of that irredeemable solitude to which every human being is condemned” (Proust p. 63) Ironically though, Proust both in life and in the composite fictional Marcel remained a faithful friend, and betrayed no one.
Towards the end of the novel after Albertine’s flight and death and Marcel having spent some time in a sanatorium, he meets Baron de Charlus, now physically ruined by his sexual inclinations, betrayed by his beloved Morel and by the Verduins, his friends. Charlus begins to enumerate all the dead they both once knew: “Continuing to speak to me about the past, no doubt to prove to me that he had not lost his memory, he evoked it now… by reciting an endless list of all the people belonging to his family or his world who were no longer alive…with satisfaction at having survived them” (A La Recherché Vol. 6 p.211). This incident forms an initial link to a chain of events of memory that makes Marcel realize that the beauty and truth of the past still lives, and he begins the work of writing A La Recherché du Temps Perdu.
The novel has Prousts own homosexuality projected onto it, something that conspired along with his disillusionment and half Jewishness to producing a work written from the perspective of the outsider who ironically, is still fully accepted in society. It is precisely because of Marcel’s sense of otherness that allows him such a lucid deeply sensitised view of the society he grew up in. His fair minded exploration of all aspects of human nature, the beautiful and the bestial, broadened the range of his work, making A La Recherché du Temps Perdu into one of the greatest novels in all aspects of sexual love and of human nature. It is filled with brilliant insights into the nature and vanities of human love and sexuality, and profoundly influenced novelists and artists from Samuel Beckett to Virginia Woolf.
Proust died on Saturday November 18 1922 of complications brought on by bronchial pneumonia. He died feted as a man of letters, still helping his friends and fretting over the as yet unpublished sections of his novel. He died a fulfilled person after years of apparent failure and anonymity. He died with a reputation that was to expand to astral proportions. He had succeeded in his ambition to write a great work, the sheer originality of it, along with his celebration of the extraordinary nature of everydayness, makes A La Recherché du Temps Perdu a true classic, a truly universal novel.
Or What in Heavens Name Happened to Louis Theroux’s “My Scientology Movie”?
As a decades long fan of just about everything Louis Theroux has ever put out on the BBC, I was completely thrilled to hear he was going to embark upon a documentary about a subject that had long fascinated and intrigued me: Scientology.
L Ron and Me
I remember around the age of sixteen picking up a copy of the delightful Dianetics in a second hand bookshop in Dublin and reading it through and saying to myself Is this for me? Then I heard that L. Ron Hubbard was a bit dodgy as a person, not at all like Jesus or Buddha. Apparently he had kidnapped his wife in 1951 and that his doctrines had been condemned by the American Psychological Association. That interested me even more. After all L Ron wrote so many science fiction novels. I thought – well a little crazy can be good for creativity. But then there are limits. I mean take this as an interesting story : this is Scientology Dogma: Scientology teaches, as a core element of its belief system, that one of the fundamental incidents of human history (and indeed our Destiny) refers to an intergalactic overlord Xenu or Xemu. Around 75 million years ago, Xenu as a ruler of a galactic confederacy, killed billions of his people. He did it as an act of population control. Xenu captured, froze and paralyzed billions of citizens of his planets and brought them to the mouths of volcanoes on Earth. Next, he blew the mouths of these volcanoes using nuclear weapons, thus releasing millions of alien spirits onto the Earth. Afterwards, he recaptured these spirits and subjected them to a massive personality deprived indoctrination program (watching lengthy movies apparently) that inadvertently contributed to the development of all those other misguided religions – other than Scientology. Apparently all these spirits, for all eternity, cling to our misguided and unclear human souls. This, if you like, is Scientology’s doctrine of Original Sin – or in other words- L Ron’s Story of where it all went wrong for humanity. Humanity is doomed – unless we adhere to the tenets of Scientology . To me now that is really interesting.
Science Fiction and Belief Systems
I mean its not that absurd really. Its in our natures to tell ourselves stories to explain everything. That being the case, I have been a fan of science fiction ever since I was seven and saw Forbidden Planet, and read the wonders of the Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. People scoff at the belief systems of Scientology. When I hear such scoffing, I scoff back, mostly at myself. I mean, I believed in Transubstantiation and the Virgin Birth, the Trinity and the Miraculous Medal. One can be made to believe literally anything, given the right conditioning. And such doctrines, that I have thumbnail sketched above, are revealed to Scientologists only after a long period of very expensive and very exhaustive conditioning. In other words, unless we adhere to an open philosophy of life (in other words a notion of truth that’s testable and refutable by experience), we get into trouble.
Louis’ Scientology Movie
Louis Theroux took a very interesting and unique approach to the issue of plumbing the depths of Scientology. He took, as his starting point, the arrival of David Miscavige after L Ron Hubbard’s death in 1987. Miscavige reigns as the new Pope of Scientology, or “Chairman of the Board of the Religious Technology Center (RTC), a corporation that controls the trademarks and copyrights of Dianetics and Scientology.” (Wiki Page on Miscavige), has not been a popular one. His absolutism has made for him many enemies, countless critical books and a few super Documentaries (Going Clear is a gem). One in particular is Theroux’s use of the testimonies and remembrances of former members of the Religion such as: Mark Rathbun, Andrew Perez, Rob Alter, Jeff Hawkins, Tom De Vocht, Marc Headley and Steve Mango.
Its clear that these people feel this faith is a lie and a terribly destructive force in modern life. Theroux questions them in a half humorous – half teasing way, while maintaining a professional distance from whether what is being told him is actually the truth. Moreover, one of the more delightful aspects of the movie is that Theroux actually uses actors to re-enact critical aspects of the church’s history, some speeches by Miscavige himself, and some of the more controversial scenes where Miscavige goes somewhat medieval on the Scientology’s top brass, in a place called ‘the hole’ (at the Gold base in Helmet California). We have a few actors playing Tom Cruise, David Miscavige, and others. Then things get strange. As Theroux is making the movie, it becomes increasingly clear that the church is making a movie about him. They send him countless legal letters, harass former members – particularly Mark Rathbun.
Rathbun and Theroux
And this is where I have a problem with the movie. Mark Rathbun is a former head of Inspector General of the Religious Technology Center (a kind of head of Scientology’s thought police), investigating and correcting any ideological or doctrinal deviations. This he did for over twenty years, until he resigned in 2004. He tried for a while to form an independent Scientology religion and now declares himself not a believer. Rathburn, like anyone with a complex past, when he was the ‘go to guy’, the ‘fixer’, appears to have done things which he is willing (only in part) to talk about, but also appears to be keeping a lot to himself. Theroux continually prods him and tries to get him to open up. However Rathbun is a complex and highly sophisticated man with complex feelings of guilt, anger and regret over his involvement in Scientology, and after so many years, a lot of unprocessed feelings over his own past. In other words not someone you needle or try to provoke. Unfortunately instead of trying to generate some type of congenial relationship, Theroux does the opposite and antagonizes the one person who had the power to make or break the film. As Jefferson Hawkins said in the movie “Marty knows where all the bodies are buried.”
Louis Theroux and Marty Rathbun
And the end of the movie we are greeted with a somewhat anti-climatic and simultaneously disturbing vibe. After a scene from ‘the hole’ re – enacted by actors, Rathbun is tormented by Scientology members outside the movie studio and is visibly upset. This is when Theroux goes for the jugular against Rathbun. Theroux reminds Rathbun that he too tormented ‘suppressive persons’. ‘SP’ or Suppressive Persons are what Scientologists refer to as unbelievers, skeptics and former embittered anti-Scientology members. But this is bad timing. Rathbun’s tormentors have just hit him with hurtful remarks about his adoptive child and Rathbun is devastated. He tells Theroux to go fuck himself. Things get ugly and the film never recovers to fulfill its earlier extraordinary promise. This is one of the few times I have ever seen Theroux meet his match intellectually and psychologically and the one unfortunate aspect is that he, Theroux, did not treat Rathbun as an equal or see Rathbun as the complex intelligent vastly experienced person he is. Theroux toyed with him and needled him, but never really befriended him and things went awry. A great pity and a poor ending to a movie with so much promise.
*With Thanks to Ishka for her many comments and editorial work
What happens when you are wrongly diagnosed as bipolar or whatever: and what it means, if anything…
Have you ever been the patient of a really bad psychotherapist? Lets be honest, there are more than a few of them out there. I actually seriously toyed with the idea of becoming one at one stage of my life. Except I was somewhat drawn by the writing life, and that was that.
Two things separate the good therapist from the bad one, assuming they have been properly trained and have had sufficient therapy themselves to be relatively free of transference and projection and all the other things we do that affects our relationships. Firstly the capacity to objectively listen with out prejudice and secondly the capacity to apply knowledge coupled with experience to an individual patient. Most if not all of the many bad therapists I have had over the years failed on either or both of those fronts. One stand-out moment which typifies my negative therapeutic experiences happened during a session some years ago and it led me to discontinue the therapy. The therapist turned to me in a moment of obvious frustration, and asked me was I by any chance writing a book about him?
I beg your pardon, I said?
And he repeated the question.
Why, I asked?
Well, the therapist said, rather solemnly, these sessions we were engaging in were more like two therapists discussing the practise of psychotherapy, than a patient going to and talking with a therapist.
I was pretty appalled and very angry.
I said no, I wasn’t writing a book about this. I am in trouble, big trouble. That’s why I am here. I don’t need to do that kind of research to write.
I then went on to say by the way that was a bizarre question. One of the most I have ever been asked in therapy.
I mentioned I had completed a draft novel I wasn’t really happy with. I went on to say that the novel had a therapist as the central character. I offered him a look at a draft of it to satisfy himself I wasn’t using his rather dull unimaginative personality as a blueprint (and no, I wasn’t being unkind, he was a dreadful bore)
The therapist said that wasn’t necessary.
But I pressed the issue. I said that as the issue had been raised, it was hard to see how this could not become a central issue during the therapeutic encounter.
I wasn’t there for copy. I was there because I was in trouble. My marriage was in difficulty at the time. I was very anxious and depressed about family of origin issues. I felt trapped. Hopeless. this was the third therapist I had been to with no help. As I didn’t get the help from either that quack therapist I needed, or from other equally awful therapists, I got more depressed. And things went downhill. Feeling helpless and unsupported has something of a domino effect. Things cratered to such an extent that I had a major depressive episode. After that I went to a psychiatrist and was misdiagnosed as bipolar. I completely accepted the diagnosis. I told friends and colleagues. I did radio interviews about it. This went on for a few years. Then, by sheer luck I met a good therapist who told me I was no more bipolar as I was a professional safe-cracker or an astronaut. Not that her word was enough, by the way. I met a few others who said the same thing. I took the hint and stopped seeing Psychiatrists. It was such a good move.
Along with the indignity of being misdiagnosed as bipolar, I have been put on some of the most awful mind numbing medications. The medication had withdrawal symptomatology far worse than the condition they were supposed to treat. After a couple of attempts I got off the meds. Things have massively improved. Years have passed. No ill effects.
How does this kind of thing happen? How does a depressed writer get diagnosed with a pretty serious condition which he does not have? Well, it’s easy in one way to see how it might happen. I mean when I am working on something I feel fantastic. The ideas come fast and I have a lot of energy. Afterwards I am tired and lethargic. As any writer or indeed anyone creative will tell you, one goes to rather extreme emotionally and spiritually exhausting places to write books. One isn’t in it for the money. Believe me there are easier way to make money. One writes because its what one was born to do. To not do it, to settle for less, is very dangerous thing to do. So this is the creative cycle, not the manic depressive cycle. There is a substantial difference, and a good therapist sees this.
‘The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.’ (wikipedia) – or if you are a writer, you just might get lucky some day…
The Discreet Charm of being Labelled
But it doesn’t work out like that. Labels stick. Like the bad writer stuck in a rut that pays, once you write your best seller or get your government grant or run enough magazines or give courses, you are labelled. And once that happens, everyone expects more of the same. You get comfortable. You feed the crowds. Similarly once you got the label, it stays. After initial diagnosis, there is little re-visitation of ones symptoms. One is labelled and medicated and that’s that. Aftercare was a twilight zone experience for me. Our health system makes you go see a trainee psychiatrist who is under the care of a Chief Psychiatrist. One sees a different one for every appointment, for the most part. They don’t know you, usually never met you before, and usually never will again. They are polite, friendly, witty, personable, professionally distant, and usually very busy. They have a few minutes to read your file, and on this basis, they interview you. This little psychodrama happens once every month or two. The pubescent psychiatrist is usually a doctor on psych rotation, someone who gives you twenty minutes and then ends the session with a prescription. Not ideal, to say the least. I had to aggressively lobby for therapy, and for the most part I got it only by the skin of my teeth. This rather hands-off approach of out patient psychiatry is something that needs urgent attention in my view.
Then there is a deeper issue at work here. It leads me to the notion of how in our cognitive processes, belief tends more often than not to precede evidence. Evidence should always precede belief. Otherwise one is guilty of cognitive bias. I displayed symptoms of bipolarity. But I was not bipolar. I had creative cycles. I was depressed due to life circumstances. I needed help. I needed the good therapy I had been looking for, not a cheap and easy diagnosis. I needed a good therapist. Not years of medication.
Then there are examples and studies. I found a really interesting one in my reading. In the early 1970’s, much to the huge outrage of the psychiatric community a psychiatrist called David Rosenhan conducted a case study which led to some rather fascinating results. He persuaded seven friends, none of whom had any case history of any kind of mental illness, to enter various mental hospitals to see if they could persuade members of the mental health care community that they were mentally ill. This was between 1969 and 1972. What did these sane folks do to convince the doctors they were sick? Well they all claimed to hear the words “thud, and “empty” and “hollow” and they all got admitted. Every one of them. And they were all diagnosed as having some form of mental illness, mostly schizophrenia. They were given a total of 2100 pills (they had been taught to ‘cheek’ their meds before going in), only two of which were ever actually swallowed. Other than lying about their names and lying about hearing the words, they were told to be completely honest. After Rosenthan had gotten his diagnosis, staff began to read into his actions. For instance, his study required him to make notes. This was described as ‘writing behaviour’. One of the other impostor patients was and artist and drew these fantastic line drawings of the hospital they were in, they too were described as indulging in ‘drawing/painting behaviour’. Finally Rosenthan couldn’t get out of the hospital. The only way he could actually get out of the hospital was to tell the doctors that they were completely correct in their views, that he Rosenthan was insane, and that he was getting better bit by bit.
This is not dissimilar to the experience of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who suffered a very real and very debilitating breakdown and was admitted to a mental hospital, a hospital which he simply could not get out of. His method was to tell the doctors that he was feeling better incrementally. He would every day tell staff that things were getting better for him; that he was feeling just a little bit better than yesterday, till they let him go. Check out his second book Lila for a description of this process.
The point of all this is the question of belief. These professionals couldn’t distinguish between sick and well folks. My therapists couldn’t do that either. If you are seen as a patient and not as a person, your views of reality-no matter how valid – are somehow seen as secondary. This is because the belief that the doctor imposes on the patient presupposes disbelief of the patient’s valid world-view. I can even report that this is how exactly I experienced my treatment. I accepted the doctors word for what was ‘wrong’ with me. I accepted it and trusted them, despite the fact that the more I read about my condition, and the more I discussed my condition, the more doubts I had about whether or not I actually had Bipolar Disorder.
No, Really – I Engage in Writing Activity
But back to Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum told the doctors repeatedly that he was actually a professor of psychology. They asked him did he often feel he was a professor of psychology. I told my doctors I was a writer, that I had written novels and plays, poetry and articles. They didn’t believe me. They had to ask asked my wife (now deceased sadly) and my doctor, who assured them that yes I was indeed a writer. It’s what Rosenbaun refers to as the ‘stickiness of psycho diagnostic labels’ – prejudicial thinking, the imposition of an unscientific mindset on presenting symptomatology.
It would be somewhat facile to suggest that there is an easy way through what I see as a complex and rather perennial difficulty. What is sanity? In a world deeply troubled, what is a sane mind? Obviously we are all grasping at an answer to this question. Suffice to say that though there is no absolute answer to this question, we live in a world of consensus based on an ever expanding pool of knowledge and research and clinical experience to draw from. The people who diagnosed me were most definitely trying to help a person who was in a lot of pain. Sadly, though they did help, they left me in something of a mess for quite a while until I figured out what they had gotten wrong, and thanks to the brilliant help of a few really gifted therapists, I did. I wonder if there are more creative people out there who have similar experiences. Those who are of a more creative bent, who pursue the extremities of human experience, are naturally inclined to suffer trauma, and at times to become unwell. Its unfortunate that the labelling of a creative person can also lead to the labelling of their work, indeed the tenor of their entire lives. This reflects badly on our culture and on our society. Though it is true that some creative folk most definitely do suffer throughout their lives from various flavours of psychiatric disorders, many others I am sure, like myself, were subject to misdiagnosis based on a consensus misunderstanding of creativity. I live in the hope that my and many others experience will form a teachable moment and shift our cultural understanding of the needs of the creative person.