Sunday, 27 June 2010

Do You Mind Dreadfully?

Katherine Mansfield’s short story, The Man Without a Temperament, follows a man trapped in a tropical present, administering to his invalid wife’s every demand. This enervating existence is punctuated by sentimental memories of the colder, more comfortable existence they gave up to support his wife’s health.

Where do these memories, or more generally,where do ideas, come from?

For so many intellectuals, especially of the 20th century, ideas were of canonical status – it is they alone that explain our actions and our thoughts. Think of the influence of Freud, first on psychology, and then on the whole culture. Yes, he popularised the unconscious; only to then explain it away, as an aspect of the rational mind. Just one example: the theological discussion over the ubiquity of the Oedipus Complex (I was once present at a seminar where a suggestion that there is no such complex in Madagascar was either ridiculed or just simply dismissed). But then we should expect this of an intellectual; his calling, after all, will cause him to overestimate the role of ideas in society. 

Or take Behaviourism, dominant in US psychology in the 1950s. It believed you could explain human behaviour simply by the influence of forces applied from the external world – we were a kind of machine, where nature pushed the buttons. Again, although they were supposedly dealing with physical processes, what they actually did was to turn nature into an abstraction, which then became the mechanistic force that controlled our everyday actions.

As a science of behaviour adopts the strategy of physics and biology, the autonomous agent to which behaviour has traditionally been attributed is replaced by the environment – the environment in which the species evolved and in which the behaviour of the individual is shaped and maintained…

…the task of a scientific analysis is to explain how the behaviour of a person as a physical system is related to the conditions under which the human species evolved and the conditions under which the individual lives. (B.F Skinner, quoted in Chomsky)

All of which is based on untested assumptions. As Chomsky writes:

Surely the task of a scientific analysis is to discover the facts and explain them. Suppose that in fact the human brain operates by physical principles (perhaps now unknown) that provide for free choice, appropriate to situations but only marginally affected by environmental contingencies. The task of scientific analysis is not – as Skinner believes – to demonstrate that the conditions to which he restricts his attention fully determine human behaviour, but rather to discover whether in fact they do (or whether they are at all significant), a very different matter.

The rise of the recovered memory movement gave overwhelming power to ideas – the belief that memories are so strong they have to be repressed, causing enormous psychic harm, though leaving little conscious trace; until recovered with the help of a therapist (Richard Webster provides an incisive overview). That is, memories could lead an autonomous life, free of emotions and feelings, of the body’s influence.

But do ideas have this power? Alone in his room Robert’s unhappiness roams around looking for images and memories to give it concrete form: they swell like the ocean waves bringing up London snow and sentimental pictures of a kitten by the windowsill… Is it likely that the snow and a cat’s soft paw conjures up this state?

Locke, Hume and their followers all argued that ideas are weaker copies of perceptions: it is their power that gives force to our ideas. Thus a traumatic event will almost certainly leave a deep impression on our consciousness – to forget or repress it will be hard indeed, for it is not the images or the memories that one needs to forget, but the emotions and feelings that engendered them. But strong feelings; how easy is it to erase them? Their effects are like cuts and burns, they have to grow out of the body, and this takes time; the harder they are the longer it will be. And just as we see the wounds healing, so we feel our slow recoveries…

Emotions. The will. Our bodies. It appears that these may be the most important elements of the mind – they give motive force to our thinking, and are the source for new perceptions and new ideas. They are the multi-coloured box from which Jack jumps into consciousness. Of course, how this is done is a mystery; but it has been described well:

To make the matter clear, let us compare our consciousness to a sheet of water of some depth. Then the distinctly conscious ideas are merely the surface; on the other hand the mass of the water is the indistinct, the feelings, the after-sensation of perceptions and intuitions and what is experienced in general… Now this mass of the whole consciousness is more or less, in proportion to intellectual liveliness, in constant motion, and the clear pictures of the imagination, or the distinct, conscious ideas expressed in words, and the resolves of the will are what comes to the surface in consequence of this motion. The whole process of our thinking and resolving seldom lies on the surface, that is to say, seldom consists of a concatenation of clearly conceived judgements; although we aspire to this, in order to be able go give an account of it to ourselves and others. But usually the rumination of material from outside, by which it is recast into ideas, takes place in the obscure depths of the mind. This rumination goes on almost as unconsciously as the conversion of nourishment into the humours and substance of the body. Hence it is that we are often unable to give any account of the origin of our deepest thoughts; they are the offspring of our mysterious inner being. Judgements, sudden flashes of thought, resolves, rise from those depths unexpectedly and to our own astonishment… Consciousness is the mere surface of our minds, and of this, as of the globe, we do not know the interior but only the crust. (Arthur Schopenhauer, quoted in Bryan Magee)

In the short story it is not the attractiveness of the memories that causes Robert grief, that creates the tension with his humble exterior – crumbling for all to see – but the strong emotions created by his present day servitude. His emotions are hardly under control, he has to repress them; but he gets angry, becomes sad, and in lassitude up pops Millie and the cat,

…the solid houses opposite framed in white, of their window boxes full of great sprays of white coral.

Of course, the question is why that particular memory. We can guess – the environment is the polar extreme, there is human warmth, it is home and is comfortable… His mood is reaching out, looking for its opposites; looking for comfort and pleasure? Perhaps we can conceive of these memories as aspirin and bandages. But why these particular memories, these associations – there would be other winter days, with other human contact. That is the crux! You could argue it comes from a writer’s need for form; in this case contrast. But where did her window boxes full of great sprays of white coral come from? We don’t know. Will we ever? And notice how we project our ideas onto Robert: we are creating reasons for something which he cannot conceptualise; yet we believe they have substance and validity.

This is the task and difficulty: how do you get past the ideas, particularly our own ideas, to understand these mental phenomena; and once achieved reproduce them into a representational language, which has explanatory power. Is it possible? Some great thinkers, Hume among them, were sceptical.

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