Robert Oppenheimer’s Game of Thrones

Or

War and Other Zero Sum Games

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George’s Vision
There is little doubt that George R. R. Martin is a superb writer of fiction. His characters are deeply human and deeply flawed. They are engaging, sympathetic, well rounded, with complex pasts and contradictory aspirations, as well as being very well-written. To say his novels are epic in character and plot does not do them justice. The stories Martin tell are not simply epic. They are timeless and they explore deep truths about human nature, especially our propensities towards violence, domination and cruelty. There are of course many parts of The Game of Thrones that are beautiful and memorable. There are however far more that are disturbing. The pages are replete with casual violence of all kinds: rape, torture, incest, infanticide, and fratricide, not to mention battles of such levels of horror to render one disturbed for years afterwards, perhaps a lifetime, that is, if one were unfortunate enough to actually experience them first hand. Reading about them or watching them on the big screen is upsetting enough. More than anything it is a tribute to the level of writing both onscreen and on the page that this vision, which is in so many ways so terribly dark, actually reaches our screens and eyes undiluted of realism and thus impacts us so deeply. Beauty and horror and magic and philosophy co-exist with thuggery and torture and chicanery and power obsession. In Martin’s world the meek do not inherit the earth, and by ‘earth’ I do not mean the planet – rather the imaginary ground that the Game of Thrones takes place on. The meek and the weak are killed off unceremoniously. Sometimes the not-so-weak get killed off too. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of morality or good planning or anything within human control whether one lives or dies. It’s a matter of wit and luck and good timing and spontaneity whether or not one lives. But one thing is absolutely certain, whether it be brawn or brain or a blend of both, if you cannot protect that which is yours, if you do not have a weapon, then you will probably get killed off by a band of wandering hunter killers, a passing platoon of sociopathic soldiers, or a very hungry homeless person who needs food and supplies just to get by. Life goes on according to the uncertainty principle, so one girds ones lions and develops lethal skillsets, either that or one does everything possible to stay out of trouble, which only very occasionally works. I think everyone wants to know who will win The Game of Thrones, for that is what it is: a power play where the stakes are so high that hundreds of thousands are killed at a go, where lives are ruined at a King or Queens whim, where spirits are crushed by indifferent sneering hordes of people – and all for the sake of absolute control of an area of land which is but a tiny fraction of the size of the planet this Game of Thrones is carried out on.

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The thing is it doesn’t matter who wins The Game of Thrones. It seems inevitable that unless the winner of the throne of swords, the Iron Throne, kills literally every enemy and potential enemy, it is inevitable that someone will rise up and lead a revolution. There is something deeply pessimistic and Sisyphean in the striving for the Iron Throne. It reminds me very much of Wagner’s ring of power, a prize that gives its wearer absolute power, yet renders love impossible. Or like Tolkien’s ring, which also gives absolute power yet consumes the soul of the wearer. Power, according to George Martin, is an addiction, an addiction that destroys everything in its wake.

The Oppenheimer Effect

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When I saw Game of Thrones, I immediately thought of Robert Oppenheimer. In the early 1940’s Oppenheimer had a horrible realization, rather like the vision unpacked by Game of Thrones, which is based on the Wars of the Roses and Ivanhoe by Walter Scott. Oppenheimer and other rather visionary thinkers realized something truly awful. It was this: If they didn’t do the unthinkable, the unimaginable would happen. Let me unpack this: He and some colleagues realized that the technology existed in embryonic form to create what was to become nuclear weapons. A paper on nuclear fission fission was published in 1939 in Nature Magazine. It was all there. You now could conceivably make a super bomb. This was a difficult situation. The West was facing an implacable foe: Adolph Hitler. Furthermore what if Adolph Hitler got access to that kind of technology? Einstein had already written to Roosevelt saying this. Hitler going nuclear would mean the war was lost, no matter how conventional warfare was progressing. Worse, in the hands of someone as clearly insane as Hitler, it might mean some kind of Apocalypse. Fascism plus nuclear weapons undoubtedly could mean the end of civilization as we knew it. Something had to be done. So they, the USA built the bomb.

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Then they detonated it over civilian cities. Oppenheimer was horrified to the core when this happened. Why was it necessary to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians like that? He told Truman he felt he had blood on his hands. Truman was furious. Oppenheimer was a liberal intellectual with a long history of left wing sympathies. The cold war was heating up. The Soviet Union was operating spy networks among the scientific community in a bid to get as much information as possible on the new technology. The FBI was watching and amassing a vast dossier on Oppenheimer’s complex left wing ties which would eventually lead to his security clearance being revoked and his being cast into the outer darkness politically. Oppenheimer was up to this point a formidable operator with enormous influence, politically, ideologically as well as scientifically, and he had many implacable enemies, especially in the right wing scientific community. Though he was later rehabilitated, things were never the same for him and a culture of conformity was established in the scientific community that to a greater or lesser extent remains to this day.

einstein-albert-and-oppenheimer-sized.jpgFor Oppie (as he was known) nobody could win a nuclear war. Moreover he was unafraid to say so. The one moment more than any other that gave a clear picture of Oppies view of the unwinnable nature of nuclear war was a talk he gave to the New Eisenhower Administration Elite Council on Foreign Relations on Feb 17 1953 called Atomic Weapons and Foreign Policy. He spoke as he always did with the eloquence of a poet, the vision of a mystic, and the mind of the brilliant scientist that he was. He simply had no peer when it came to debate. Oppie was a brilliant, but he was a man who made enemies because of his hubris, his depressive temperament, and his tendency to miss the point politically at crucial moments. But he gave his talk and he was as ever mesmerising. There was, he said, a sense of inevitability now about the development of nuclear technology. Soon there will be well developed nuclear intercept capability, and from that point there is conceivably no limit to how far the development of nuclear weapons could go. It was, he said, like two scorpions in a bottle. Both had absolutely lethal stings. It was a zero sum game. War by definition meant escalation. He was of course, absolutely correct, and it was inevitable that nuclear arms agreements and disarmament was the reason why we did not have a nuclear war during what we call the Cold War and afterwards. Oppie’s vision foresaw that. Oppie’s speech was also the final nail in his political coffin. After that his enemies had everything they needed to destroy him. And they did. To read more about Oppie, I suggest the mind blowing book by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin called American Prometheus.

The End of The Game
But there is something more to Oppenheimer’s and Martin’s realizations. This is a weird moment where history and fiction come together to uncannily give the same powerful message of peace. Oppenheimer and Martin both had a vision of conflict that not only embraces the horrors of the nuclear option, but of all conflict. War has no limits, only peace can bring limits. War means escalation. All weapons lead to greater weapons. All escalation eventually leads to genocide. The nuclear option is one weapon of mass destruction. There were others, and there will be even greater ones. Even in the Game of Thrones we had dragon fire and fleets of ships and huge temples being detonated by liquid fire. If we have an enemy we are determined to destroy we will do everything in our power to destroy them. If we engage in the Game of thrones our enemies will be defeated, that is until they rise up against us some time in the future. There is thus no real winner to The Game of Thrones. It sounds trite, but this is a game that both Robert Oppenheimer and George R R Martin is telling us there is no and can be no winner to the Game of thrones. The Game of Thrones is a game of death, on every level.

The writer indulges in writing activity

or

What happens when you are wrongly diagnosed as bipolar or whatever: and what it means, if anything…

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Nietzsche – whose work hugely contributed to philosophical polemics, poetry, cultural criticism, aphorism, and fiction while displaying a fondness for metaphor and irony and drawing variously on philosophy, art, history, religion, and science (wiki) : but is generally considered nuts.

Bad Therapy

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.

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‘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.

Dr. David Rosenhan
18 Jan 1973, Stanford, California, USA — Dr. David Rosenhan, a professor of law and psychology at Stanford University, was among eight researchers who feigned insanity to get into mental hospitals. Rosenhan, who directed the project, said that the hospital staff never recognized any of the researchers as sane despite their normal behavior once they were admitted, but that the patients in the 12 hospitals caught on. The ‘pseudopatients” were labelled as schizophrenics “in remission” when they got out, which, according to Rosenhan, indicates that the mentally ill label “has a life and influence of its own” and can never be shaken. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

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.