Telling lies

After so much absence I want to take this blog in a slightly different direction, though the generic title is still relevant.

I have been silent because I have been dealing with depression, and dealing with it partly through psychotherapy. My established ways of coping had failed me, and I have been trying to change some of those ways.

I’ve always wondered about analysis, about how enabling us to retell our own stories in a different way could seem to make so much difference. The Freudian psychiatrist Adam Phillips has written about this, about the unique nature of a conversation which should be as uninhibited as talking to yourself, but where there is another person present, drawing out this conversation with yourself.

So I was thinking about the potency of these stories, how they help us make sense of our lives, and the risks that can carry (that the stories might be too partial). Several other things have come together to help me develop this line of thought. I’ve started reading Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, which I thought would be useful for the craft of writing, but quickly realised that it was as much interested in why stories matter to us, noting how they pervade our lives. I’m looking forward to wherever this may lead.

I’ve been wondering too about the similarities between puritanism and psychotherapeutic ambition. There’s a difference, in that the latter tries to solve evident problems, while the former only tries to solve a problem of its own making. But both involve constructing defences against a dark view of human nature (I am thinking about Freud’s idea of our hopeless Oedipal sexuality), defences which require a practical narrowing of our vision.

The comparison was prompted by Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, which threads together stories of grim repression by the Catholic church during the Irish civil war, and a modern narrative of a psychiatrist whose marriage has been ruined by a sexual betrayal. In a crucial passage the psychiatrist argues for a more compassionate and tolerant acceptance of human nature: he says “We like to characterise humanity as savage, lustful, and basic, but that is to make strangers of everyone. We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer.” This is an insight which takes him beyond the bounds of professional judgement.

There’s an irony here because one of the possible gifts of therapy is to enable you to forgive yourself for ordinary failings, to help you understand their ordinariness. The parallel with puritanism however lies in the potentially reductive nature of the therapeutic story. The therapy may work by helping you to see your behaviour in a different light, to see it as driven by unmet and unarticulated needs, but in finding this underlying “meaning” we need to be careful to ensure that we don’t lose sight of the original reality. I suspect any good therapist would agree, but all the same it takes imagination to maintain this broader vision. It is tempting in contrast to seek and hang on to the simplified story, because simplicity gives us the comfort of illusory control (hence the comparison with puritanism, which sees our nature as fallen and demands strict curbs to hold that nature in check).

This brings me to another strand. The psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist recently talked at the RSA about neuroscience and the divided brain (drawing on his book The Master and his Emissary). McGilchrist expresses a refined version of the left/right brain dichotomy, observing that the left brain seems essentially task-focused, working to strip problems down to their essence, in which state they can be more easily managed. The right brain on the other hand deals with less precision, is open to new and disruptive possibilities. It is the place where imagination works more fully, and enjoys complexity. McGilchrist is careful to insist on the value of both hemispheres and stresses the importance of their working together. In his RSA talk he begins to argue that reductive left-brain thinking has come to dominate Western culture, but leaves us with that interesting thought in an undeveloped state (I imagine the book pursues it).

I will be thinking aloud here about these things, and about the reductive political, economic and ethical stories we are currently being told, or telling ourselves. At a time too when Julian Assange’s Wikileaks threaten to undermine the centuries-old assumptions of state diplomacy (a very good thing) there may be scope to consider how the internet could be forcing a useful distinction between telling stories and telling lies. This forced transparency is already changing business. It’s about time it changed politics too, but I wonder what its effects will be on our sense of ourselves and our private lives.



  1. I found this most interesting. I have a site, which is about my own depression in part, but also about ‘feelings’ generally. I’m currently looking at ‘neuroaesthetics’ and ‘neurophilosophy’ which will include longer pieces (probably also a review of McGilchrist’s book), one piece possibly touching upon the implications for the ‘literary’ of both digital culture and (against this, ironically reductive) resonances from neurocience.

    1. Hi Ishmael – well it’s a world of curious convergence, because I see you refer in your blog to James Garvey’s piece on Peter Hacker, which I also read recently after a discussion with a friend about the limits of neuroscience – I didn’t know Hacker’s work but my own thinking has been strongly influenced by Wittgenstein, and the extract you quote is very pertinent to the things I want to raise here. I hope this blog continues in an interesting direction for you and if you don’t mind I’ll link to your blog on these pages to follow what you’re doing …

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