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Posts Tagged ‘suicide’

So, as I asked at the end of the previous post, what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

I need to repeat the caveats I voiced at the start of this sequence about their book, The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency, so that I do not come across as easily taken in. It is not easy to tread the razor’s edge between the default positions of intransigent incredulity and irremediable gullibility, but here goes.

Their book has echoes for me of Hillman’s The Soul’s Code in that it combines deep insights with what read like wild flights of fancy and carefully substantiated accounts of concrete experience with vague waves at unspecified bodies of invisible evidence. Even so, so much of it is clearly derived from careful observation and direct experience, and goes a long way towards defining what look convincingly like spiritual manifestations which are currently dismissed as mere madness. It seemed important to flag the book up at this point.

I am going to focus on what I feel are their strongest points: concrete experiences that illustrate their perspective and their brave and, in my opinion, largely successful attempts to make a clear distinction between mystic and merely disturbed experiences, not that the latter are to be dismissed as meaningless. It’s just that their meaning is to be found in life events not in the transcendent.

First I’ll deal with their account of one person’s spiritual crisis. In the last post I’ll be looking at their scheme of diagnostic distinction.

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘Glory Be to God’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

A Concrete Example

What follows is a highly condensed summary of one person’s story. A key point to hold in mind is one the Grofs made earlier in the book (page 71):

Often, individuals benefit from their encounter with the divine but have problems with the environment. In some instances, people talk to those close to them about a powerful mystical state. If their family, friends, or therapists do not understand the healing potential of these dimensions, they may not treat them as valid or may automatically become concerned about the sanity of the loved one or client. If the person who has had the experience is at all hesitant about its validity or concerned about his or her state of mind, the concern of others may exaggerate these doubts, compromising, clouding, or obscuring the richness of the original feelings and sensations.

Karen’s Story

They begin by providing some background (pages 191-92):

[S]he had a difficult childhood; her mother committed suicide when she was three, and she grew up with an alcoholic father and his second wife. Leaving home in her late teens, she lived through periods of depression and struggled periodically with compulsive eating.

Assuming that her subsequent experiences were what they seem to be, and I do, then it is clear that just because there is trauma in someone’s background does mean that the unusual experiences they report are entirely reducible to some form of post-traumatic stress response any more than they can be explained satisfactorily simply in terms of brain malfunction. Whatever is going on in the brain is just a correlate but not a cause, and previous trauma may have rendered any filter susceptible to leaks from a transcendent reality. I am restraining myself from leaping too soon to that last and much desired conclusion.

Interestingly, it’s possible that there was an organic trigger to her spiritual crisis (page 192):

. . . [F]ive days before her episode, Karen had begun taking medication for an intestinal parasite, stopping as the daily experience started. . . . . It is difficult to accurately assess its role in the onset of this event. . . . Whatever the source, her crisis contained all the elements of a true spiritual emergency. It lasted three-and-a-half weeks and completely interrupted her ordinary functioning, necessitating twenty-four-hour attention.

Her friends asked the Grofs to become involved in her care so they were able to observe the whole situation as it unfolded.

That Karen was able to avoid being admitted to psychiatric hospital was down to the support of a wide circle of friends. That this meant that she did not have to take any medication is important, according to the Grofs and other sources. Anti-pychotic medication has the effect of blocking the very processes that a successful integration of the challenging experiences requires. They describe the lay nature of her support (pages 192-93):

[B]ecause of Karen’s obvious need and the reluctance of those around her to involve her in traditional psychiatric approaches, her care was largely improvised. Most of the people who became involved were not primarily dedicated to working with spiritual emergencies.

What were her experiences like during this period of what they call ‘spiritual emergency’?

Their description covers several pages (page 194-196). This is a very brief selection of some of the main aspects. To Karen her vision seemed clearer. She also ‘heard women’s voices telling her that she was entering a benign and important experience. . . .’ Observers noted that ‘heat radiated throughout Karen’s body and it was noted that ‘she saw visions of fire and fields of red, at times feeling herself consumed by flames. . . .’

What is also particularly interesting is her re-experience of previous life crises: ‘[S]he struggled through the physical and emotional pain of her own biological birth and repeatedly relived the delivery of her daughter,’ as well as confronting ‘death many times and in many forms, and her preoccupation with dying caused her sitters to become concerned about the possibility of a suicide attempt.’ She was too well protected for that to be a serious risk.

In the last post I will be linking a therapeutic technique the Grofs advocate, Holotropic Breathwork, with some of my own experiences. This makes their description of how this technique can uncover repressed memories of traumatic experiences all the more credible to me. More of that later. That Karen should have been triggered into such regressions is not therefore surprising to me.

By way of supporting her through this, ‘telling her that it was possible to experience death symbolically without actually dying physically, her sitters asked her to keep her eyes closed and encouraged her to fully experience the sequences of dying inwardly and to express the difficult emotions involved.’ It is significant for their model that encouragement and support in facing what we might otherwise be tempted to flee from helps. ‘She complied, and in a short time she moved past the intense confrontation with death to other experiences. . . .’

Given my interest in the relationship between apparently disturbed mental states and creativity, it was noteworthy that ‘[f]or several days, Karen tapped directly into a powerful stream of creativity, expressing many of her experiences in the form of songs. It was amazing to witness: after an inner theme would surface into awareness, she would either make up a song about it or recall one from memory, lustily singing herself through that phase of her process.’

They describe her during this period as ‘extremely psychic, highly sensitive, and acutely attuned to the world around her.’ For example she was ‘able to “see through” everyone around her, often anticipating their comments and actions.’

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘The Glory of the Lord’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

 

Things began to take a more positive turn (page 196):

After about two weeks, some of the difficult, painful states started to subside and Karen receive increasingly benevolent, light-filled experiences and felt more and more connected with a divine source.

Perhaps I need to clarify that I am not attempting to adduce this as evidence of the reality of the spiritual world. People like David Fontana and Leslie Kean have collated such evidence far better than I ever could, and sorted out the wheat from the chaff with honesty and discernment.

What I am hoping to do is use this as a demonstration that sometimes at least what could be written off as meaningless and irrational brain noise might not only be significantly related to early experiences in life, as the trauma work suggests, but also to a spiritual dimension whose reality our culture usually denies with the result that the experiences are pathologised. The outcome in this case strongly suggests that pathologising them needlessly prolongs them and blocks life-enhancing changes that would otherwise have resulted.

They go onto describe the end of the episode and its aftermath (ibid.):

. . . . As Karen began to come through her experience, she became less and less absorbed by her in the world and more interested in her daughter and the other people around her. She began to eat and sleep more regularly and was increasingly able to care for some of her daily needs. . . .

Rather as was the case with Fontana and his poltergeist investigation, as the vividness of the experiences receded, doubts beganset in (ibid.:)

As she became increasingly in touch with ordinary reality, Karen’s mind started to analyse her experiences, and she began to feel for the first time that she had been involved in a negative process. The only logical way of explaining these events to herself was that something had gone wrong, that perhaps she had truly lost her mind. Self-doubt is a common stage in spiritual emergencies, appearing when people begin to surface from the dramatic manifestations . . .

She was not blind to the positives in the end (page 197):

Two years later, when we discussed her experience with her, Karen said that she has mixed feelings about the episode. She is able to appreciate many aspects of what happened to her. She says that she has learnt a great deal of value about herself and her capacities, feeling that through her crisis she gained wisdom that she can tap any time. Karen has visited realms within herself that she previously had no idea were there, has felt enormous creativity flow through her, and has survived the previously frightening experiences of birth, death, and madness. Her depressions have disappeared, as well as her tendency toward compulsive overeating.

But her doubts persisted, and may have been to some extent fuelled by her family and friends’ reactions and the lack of informed support (page 198):

On the other hand, Karen also has some criticisms. Even though she could not have resisted the powerful states during her episode, she feels that she was unprepared for the hard, painful work involved. In spite of the fact that she received a great deal of assistance during the three weeks, she feels that she was not yet ready to venture forth into the daily world when she was required to do so by the exhaustion of the resources of those around her. Since that time, she has lacked contact with people with whom to further process her experiences. She considers herself somewhat “different” for having had the episode (an opinion also indirectly expressed by her family and some of her friends) and has tended to downgrade it by concentrating on its negative effects.

The support had to be reduced after the three-week peak period because the support network was burning out. The Grofs felt (ibid.:)

Many of these problems could have been avoided if Karen had had consistent and knowledgeable support immediately following her crisis, perhaps in a halfway house, and follow-up help – in the form of ongoing therapy, support groups, and spiritual practice – for a more extended period of time.

It is dangerous to extrapolate too wildly but I feel that in Karen’s story there are real grounds for hope. She recovered from an apparently devastating episode of mental disturbance without drugs. She demonstrated modest but lasting mental health gains in terms of no subsequent depression or compulsive eating. There is every reason to suppose given this experience and the evidence of Dr Sami Timimi’s study, adduced by James Davies in Cracked and described in the previous post, that an outcome like this could apply far more widely across the so-called psychotic spectrum. Yes, the intervention was time intensive, but it was brief and successful. This compares with long-term interventions involving medication resulting in symptoms that continue to simmer for years or even decades, blighting the whole life of the sufferer and the lives of close family.

The Grofs then explore models of help and aftercare, which I won’t go into now as the main focus I want to take is on their ideas of how to distinguish a spiritual emergency such as Karen’s from other forms of disturbance. This is clearly an important distinction to be able to make as the approaches taken when dealing with trauma-related disturbances and spiritual crises will be somewhat different, though Karen’s case implies there might well be an overlap.

However, all the evidence that has accumulated since they wrote suggests that all such so-called psychotic episodes are better dealt with in a non-diagnostic way, which is an issue that the Grofs do not fully address, probably because at the time of their writing placing spiritual emergency on the agenda seemed a more urgent issue, given that it was and still is doubly disparaged.

Now for the difficult distinction in the next post, along with a brief description of their recommended intervention.

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Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tomorrow I begin posting a short sequence on the idea of a ‘calling,’ by which is meant the powerful urge to fulfil a purpose which gives life meaning as the same time time as it dominates it entirely.  Republishing this post seemed a good preparation.

In the light of my ruminations on van Gogh after my trip to Amsterdam and the recent revelations about the rediscovered gun and his ear, the recent Guardian longer article by  came as a brilliant pulling of threads together into a coherent and compelling pattern. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

When Vincent van Gogh got out of hospital in January 1889, with a white bandage covering the place where his left ear had been, he immediately went back to work in his house next to a cafe in the southern French town of Arles. A still life he painted that month looks like a determined attempt to hold on to the things of this world, to quell his inner turbulence by concentrating on the solid facts of his life. Around a sturdy wooden table he has laid out a symbolic array of the simple pillars of his existence. Four onions. A medical self-help book. A candle. The pipe and tobacco he found steadying. A letter from his brother Theo. A teapot. And one more thing: a large, emptied bottle of absinthe.

Has he drunk the absinthe since leaving hospital? Does its emptiness represent a promise to swear off the stuff from now on?

The first thing to be said about this painting is that it is revolutionary. It is a new kind of art. The very idea that a collection of objects, painted with fiery brushstrokes in heightened luminous colours, with ridges of thick impasto in some places and bare canvas in others, can reveal the state of someone’s soul was utterly new. Van Gogh was its originator. In the months after this mostly self-taught Dutch artist in his mid 30s arrived in Arles in February 1888 he invented a new kind of art that would come to be called expressionism.

In the process he drove himself mad.

That probably sounds like a dangerously Romantic way of putting it to curators of On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness, an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This sensational show – how strange to see the rusty gun, found in a field at Auvers-sur-Oise, that the museum is “80% sure” Van Gogh shot himself with, in 1890, at the age of just 37 – is full of fascinating documents that tell a sad story of a man struggling with his declining mental health until finally, in despair of ever getting well or living independently, he chose suicide. It presents a lucid narrative of the final phase of Van Gogh’s life. Yet it is ultimately a pedantic and misleading exhibition whose pursuit of clinical accuracy misses the mystery of Van Gogh’s life and art.

The straw man the curators want to tear down is the myth that Van Gogh’s genius lay in his “madness”, that he painted in the fever of hallucinations and took inspiration from illness.

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2950

Given my preoccupation with trauma and creativity, amongst other cheerful issues, it will come as no surprise to hear that I am almost certain to buy this book on death and poets. As far as I can tell from the Guardian review its combination of wit and wisdom will be hard for me to resist. Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

Not the lives of poets, which Dr Johnson wrote about, but their deaths – whether early or late, in bed or in battle, accidental or self-inflicted. It’s a great idea for a book but one that could easily descend into ghoulish sensationalism or slick postmortem psychologising. It helps that the authors are poets themselves, whose agenda isn’t to rubberneck or lecture but to interrogate the Romantic myth “that great poems come at a heavy – ultimately fatal – price”.

If their previous collaboration, Edgelands, in 2011, was a pilgrimage to neglected corners of the English landscape, this one sends them further afield, to wherever it was (Boston, Vienna or Hull) that a poet’s last hours were spent. The hope is that by being there they can learn something – about the life and work, and how the manner of a poet’s death can affect, for better or worse, an understanding of his or her poems.

Henry Wallis’s portrait of the death of Chatterton – splayed body, abandoned drafts, arsenic phial – glamorised the image of the poet as sacrificial victim. Chatterton was just 17. The consumptive Keats (“that drop of blood is my death-warrant”) lasted only eight years longer. As other early casualties followed (Shelley, Byron, Rimbaud, Verlaine), the legend of the poète maudit took hold. Dylan Thomas, dying at 39 in New York after claiming to have drunk “18 straight whiskies”, gave it new vigour. According to his widow Caitlin, his “ridiculous” investment in the idea of the doomed poet was a self-betrayal – what he really liked was warm slippers, pickled onions and checking the cricket scores.

In the 1960s, the myth took an even darker turn, with the idea that personal disaster is necessary for great writing, and that – as John Berryman put it – poets who experience every worst possible ordeal short of suicide are “extremely lucky”’. For most, including Berryman himself, the luck soon ran out: he, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton all killed themselves. (Randall Jarrell, who walked out in front of a car on a dark road, almost certainly did too.) The poet and critic Al Alvarez articulated the “extremist” thesis in his study The Savage God and was later teased for it by James Fenton (“He tells you, in the sombrest notes, / If poets want to get their oats / The first step is to slit their throats”). In reality, factors unrelated to poetry were often involved: drugs, alcohol, marital breakdown and depression, and in the cases of Plath and Berryman the precedent of a self-destructive father. But the myth lost none of its allure: Edgelife or Ledgelife meant pushing oneself to the limit and beyond in the service of art. Suicidal painters added to the thrill, as did rock stars then and since.

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Given my current exploration of mental health issues it seems appropriate to publish this sequence from 2012.

Inquest 1Inquest 2

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VG R composite

[H]e wanted to pave the way for . . . . that societal power which he was convinced lay with the common people.

It is this that makes van Gogh the forerunner par excellence of Modernism, or at any rate of the Modernist avant-garde.

Walther and Metzger in Van Gogh: the complete paintings – page 698

The recent revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear (about 20 days to go for this BBC iPlayer programme), as well as the recent Guardian long-read article by  on the latest exhibition of his work in Amsterdam, made it inevitable I would decide to republish my blog sequence of last year, which attempted to capture my complex and powerful responses to his work. This is the second of five posts scheduled to come out each day this week.

The previous post, after attempting to extricate itself from the myth, paused in the midst of a consideration of the reasons that motivated his art. Here we pick up that thread first before attempting to kill the suicide myth.

‘Nature Viewed through a Temperament’

Exactly how, then, does he see the artist infusing his soul into his painting, if gross and unhelpful distortions are to be avoided?

One attempt at explanation might be in his discussion of a painter he calls Richard Wallace Rousseau[1] (page 219):

The dramatic effect in those paintings is something that, more than anything else in art, makes one understand ‘un coin de la nature vu à travers d’un temperament’ and ‘l’homme ajouté a la nature’ [‘a corner or nature viewed through a temperament’ and ‘man added to nature’]. One finds the same thing in say, portraits by Rembrandt. It is more than nature, something of a revelation.

He clearly finds it hard to pin down more precisely what he is attempting to get at here. He finds it in literature as well and has another equally unsuccessful go at exact definition there (page 272 again):

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly – . . . . I see something . . . . quite different from the masterly reproduction of the materials, something quite different from light and brown, something quite different from the colour – yet that something quite different is achieved by the precise rendering of the light effect, the material, the colour.

He uses George Eliot, one of my favourite writers, as an example:

What I am driving at, among other things, is that while Eliot is masterly in her execution, above and beyond that she also has a genius all of her own, about which I would say, perhaps one improves through reading these books, or perhaps these books have the power to make one sit up and take notice.

He has shifted of course from striving to pin down what’s in the painting or the narrative to the impact it has on the person experiencing the work of art. And perhaps that is the best that can be done. A work of art imbued with this quality will change those who encounter it fully for the better – a position not too far removed from the view of the purpose of art (‘Abdu’l-Bahá quoted in The Chosen Highway – page 167):

All art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. . . . When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God.

Not, though, a perspective upon which an art critic could build a lucrative career I expect.

Van Gogh seems to have had a profound suspicion of technique, seeing it as more of an obstacle to the true purpose of art if it was at all obvious (page 274):

Let us try to grasp the secrets of technique so well that people will be taken in and swear by all that is holy that we have no technique. Let our work be so [skilful] that it seems naïve and does not reek of our cleverness.

All of this was written before his encounter with Impressionism. The impact on him of that movement can only really be traced through his work. He was living with Theo in Paris at the time so there are very few letters to help us see inside his mind.

Very frustrating for me as a psychologist!

I am therefore relying largely upon the bridge passage written by the editor of the letters, Ronald de Leeuw, who summarises aspects of van Gogh’s radical new departure in style (pages 326):

Van Gogh’s highly original interpretation of Seurat’s pointillism, the use of separate dots of mixed colour, gradually paved the way for a strikingly individual and expressive method of applying colour in streaks and dashes, which would henceforth typify van Gogh’s brushstroke no less than his drawing style.

De Leeuw adds (page 327):

In Paris he seems for the first time to have broken free of the hold of Millet and the painters of rural life, flinging himself into the portrayal of urban scenes, of the cafes and boulevards, and of life in the new suburbs of Paris such as Asnière.

What constitutes one of the many ironies, when his letters are read with knowledge of his future, is that his antagonism to obvious technique was so dramatically overturned in his later paintings where his change of technique, not just of subject matter, is so radical it cannot be overlooked. Maybe, though, this is what he meant by seeming naïve.

A letter written in June 1888 seems to confirm this view, when he speaks of a painting he’s recently done (page 361):

There are many touches of yellow in the soil, neutral tones produced by mixing purple with yellow, but I couldn’t care less what the colours are in reality. I’d sooner do those naïve pictures out of old almanacs, old farmers almanacs where hail, snow, rain or fine weather are depicted in a wholly primitive manner …

The problem of course then is that being so skilfully naïve does not even look naïve any more. Still, it is this contrived and adroit naïvety that makes his paintings so striking and powerful when they succeed.

VG book stackMurder, Accident or Suicide

Sometimes though what he writes seems oddly prescient. I touched on one example almost at the start of this sequence of posts – his concern that he might die early and only have a few more years to live.

This has become a vexed question for biographers and art lovers alike.

I have four books on my desk right now. Three of them subscribe to the conventional view: he shot himself. I have the Taschen Van Gogh: the complete paintings (bought, incidentally, from a delightful second-hand bookshop in Glastonbury for the incredible price of £10), Simon Schama’s Power of Art, and the Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

Schama sees him as on the brink of success and reacting to its implied responsibilities (page 350):

It’s clear from his last letters that it was the thought of abandonment by Theo and Johannah, a terror of having to make his own way now that he was a recognised success – but still vulnerable, as indeed he would have been, to epileptic seizures and manic-depressive attacks – that made him pick up the gun rather than his brushes on 27 July. It was probably difficult to shoot himself with a shotgun [Naif and White Smith conclude from the available evidence that he was shot with a small calibre pistol – see below], and if he aimed for the heart, he didn’t hit the target.

Walther and Metzger, the authors of the Taschen volume, even go so far as to claim (page 694): ‘In the course of time, Vincent’s plan to increase the value of his paintings by killing himself was to prove a success.’ The Letters simply state in the biographical outline (page xxxi): ‘he shoots himself in the chest on 27 July and dies on 29 July in Theo’s presence.’

Alongside these books is Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. It is in the minority, holding the view that he was accidentally shot by René Secrétan, a member of a gang of youth who used to tease and bully van Gogh remorsely.

The murder or shooting by persons unknown has been a theory lurking in the background since the time of his death and I have been aware of it since I first took an interest in van Gogh. Till I read this book I tended to dismiss it as just another conspiracy theory.

However, they marshall a plausible pile of evidence to call the suicide verdict seriously into question. I don’t propose to rehearse it all here. The details are spelt out at length in their appendix: A Note on Vincent’s Fatal Wounding (pages 869–880). As well as the telling fact that no gun was ever found, they include his preoccupation in his letters with drowning as a method for suicide; his knowledge of effective poisons; his dislike of guns; his ‘hesitant, half-hearted and oddly hedged’ confessions of suicide as reported at the time; his failure to finish himself off with a second shot; and perhaps most crucially:

the oddities of Vincent’s wound as reported by the doctors who examined it: that the shot was to the body not to the head: that the bullet entered from an unusual, oblique angle – not straight on as one would expect in a suicide; and that the shot appeared to have been fired from ‘too far out’ for Vincent to have pulled the trigger.

'Daubigny's Garden' (image scanned from the Taschen 'Complete Paintings')

‘Daubigny’s Garden’ (image scanned from the Taschen ‘Complete Paintings’)

Their summary of what they conclude on the basis of this evidence, which they feel resolves these and other anomalies in the widely accepted account, is this (page 873-74):

The shot that killed Vincent van Gogh was probably fired not in a wheat field, but in or near a farmyard on the road to Chaponval like the one described by Madame Liberge [daughter of the owner of what used to be the painter Daubigny’s house, a favourite painting spot] and Madame Baize [an Auvers resident]. Moreover, the gun that delivered the fatal blow was probably not brought into that farmyard by Vincent van Gogh, who knew nothing about guns and had no need of one, but by René Secrétan, who rarely went anywhere without his .380-calibre peashooter. The two may have encountered each other by accident on the Chaponval road, or they may have been returning from their favourite watering hole together. Gaston [René’s brother] was almost certainly with them, as Vincent would have avoided René, whether alone or in the hostile company of his followers.

René had a history of teasing Vincent in a way intended to provoke him to anger. Vincent had a history of violent outbursts, especially when under the influence of alcohol. Once the gun in René’s rucksack was produced, anything could have happened – intentional or accidental – between a reckless teenager with fantasies of the Wild West, an inebriated artist who knew nothing about guns, and an antiquated pistol with a tendency to malfunction.

Wounded, Vincent must have stumbled into the street as soon as he was able and headed towards the Ravoux Inn, leaving behind whatever painting gear he’d brought. At first, he may have had no idea how seriously he was hurt. The wound did not bleed profusely. But once the initial shock wore off, the pain in his abdominal injury had to be excruciating. The Secrétan brothers would have been terrified. Whether they tried to give Vincent assistance cannot be known. But they apparently had the time and presence of mind to collect the pistol and all of Vincent’s belongings before heading off into the gathering dusk – so that when Madame Baize’s grandfather showed up soon afterwards to investigate (if he did), he found only an empty farmyard and a dungheap.

While I accept that the forensic skills required to come to a firm conclusion about a crime, especially one so long ago, are not necessarily part of every scholar’s armoury, I have to say that reading their meticulously researched body of evidence I have now changed my mind and am persuaded that they have a strong case. I do not now accept as a fact the idea of van Gogh’s suicide. Everyone will obviously have to come to his or her own conclusion on the basis of the evidence different authors with different ideas quote as compelling. For my part, another myth has just bitten the dust and my relationship to the paintings is all the richer for it.

Before moving on, I probably need to record a caveat here about taking this new perspective too simplistically. While I do not think now that van Gogh shot himself, I am very aware that throughout his life he did put himself at risk in a way that suggests there was a self-destructive element in his nature. The next post focus on my encounters with four paintings, before the final two posts attempt to deal with a more objective sense of what his art might be about, his mental state and the nature of his spirituality.

Not a lot more to say then really!

Footnote

[1] The only Rousseau I can find with a painting of the title van Gogh refers to as Á Lisière du Bois is Theodore Rousseau. It is not unusual for van Gogh in his letters to refer to people by the wrong name or give the wrong titles to books etc.

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Tree Roots by Vincent van GoghIn the light of my ruminations on van Gogh after my trip to Amsterdam and the recent revelations about the rediscovered gun and his ear (only 24 days to go for this BBC iPlayer programme), the recent Guardian longer article by  came as a brilliant pulling of threads together into a coherent and compelling pattern. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

When Vincent van Gogh got out of hospital in January 1889, with a white bandage covering the place where his left ear had been, he immediately went back to work in his house next to a cafe in the southern French town of Arles. A still life he painted that month looks like a determined attempt to hold on to the things of this world, to quell his inner turbulence by concentrating on the solid facts of his life. Around a sturdy wooden table he has laid out a symbolic array of the simple pillars of his existence. Four onions. A medical self-help book. A candle. The pipe and tobacco he found steadying. A letter from his brother Theo. A teapot. And one more thing: a large, emptied bottle of absinthe.

Has he drunk the absinthe since leaving hospital? Does its emptiness represent a promise to swear off the stuff from now on?

The first thing to be said about this painting is that it is revolutionary. It is a new kind of art. The very idea that a collection of objects, painted with fiery brushstrokes in heightened luminous colours, with ridges of thick impasto in some places and bare canvas in others, can reveal the state of someone’s soul was utterly new. Van Gogh was its originator. In the months after this mostly self-taught Dutch artist in his mid 30s arrived in Arles in February 1888 he invented a new kind of art that would come to be called expressionism.

In the process he drove himself mad.

That probably sounds like a dangerously Romantic way of putting it to curators of On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness, an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This sensational show – how strange to see the rusty gun, found in a field at Auvers-sur-Oise, that the museum is “80% sure” Van Gogh shot himself with, in 1890, at the age of just 37 – is full of fascinating documents that tell a sad story of a man struggling with his declining mental health until finally, in despair of ever getting well or living independently, he chose suicide. It presents a lucid narrative of the final phase of Van Gogh’s life. Yet it is ultimately a pedantic and misleading exhibition whose pursuit of clinical accuracy misses the mystery of Van Gogh’s life and art.

The straw man the curators want to tear down is the myth that Van Gogh’s genius lay in his “madness”, that he painted in the fever of hallucinations and took inspiration from illness.

Read Full Post »

The Changeling

In 1995 I apparently gave a long talk to some meeting or other, after which the content of my talk was published by the BPS Psychotherapy Section. I have no memory whatsoever of giving any talk but I do remember writing the article. It seems worth publishing on this blog, with some updates in terms of one of the practical examples, a much shorter version of the original article as it complements with useful background the Approach to Psychosis sequence I republished some time back: I’ve also tried to reduce the psychobabble, though maybe not enough for everyone’s taste! I’ve included in addition references to later research that sheds further light on, for example, neuroplasticity and the relationship between trauma and psychotic experiences. This is the second of five instalments.

At the end of the last post I explained that those who came to me had taken their psychotic experiences very personally indeed. They did not distance themselves from them at all. These phenomena called into question the fabric of their selfhood. It is this threat that must be addressed if the person is to grow. Many people hear voices and experience apparently supernatural events without becoming engulfed by them. Those who cannot so distance themselves fail because too much of their inner being resonates to the vibrations of the voices. It is that part of their inscape that has to be explored.

Thinkung thro CulturesThinking Through Others

Louise, whose experiences I described last time, responded to the curiosity I sought to evoke with a slightly bewildered kind of interest. She became more questioning of her family and her childhood. She did not relinquish one jot of her conviction that the hallucinatory child she was experiencing, and the man who threatened her, had or would have some real existence outside her own mind. And why should she?

Shweder, in his excellent exploration, Thinking Through Cultures, argues strongly against the assumption of superiority that can underlie positivist approaches to the reality of others and advocates `transcendence without superiority, scorn, or cynicism’. Transcendence does not necessarily destroy what it replaces, anymore than Einstein can be said to have abolished Newton!

Shweder builds on his premises (page 97):

Cultural psychology assumes that intentional persons change and are changed by the concrete particulars of their own mentally constituted forms of life.

He claims a new aim has been defined for psychologists (page 100):

That aim for cultural psychology is to conceive imaginatively of . . . . intentional worlds and . . . . intentional persons interpenetrating each other’s identities or setting the conditions for each other’s existence and development, while jointly undergoing change through social interaction.

I believe all participants in any form of therapeutic conversation, good or bad, can testify that their identities interpenetrate, at least to a modest degree. This is not achieved by language alone or even mainly. Partners in this kind of dialogue come to occupy a common or shared space which is constructed as much by what is done as by what is said.

The degree to which they can set the condition’s for each other’s existence is limited by many factors, including the shortness of time, the environmental conditions prevailing and the degree to which the exercise of power is restrained. To put someone on a Section marks a momentous escalation in the use of power. Milieu treatment also is well above the snowline on the Everest of power.

By comparison with these collaborative conversation seems to pale almost into insignificance. It gains though by its capacity to prolong its influence over far greater expanses of time, albeit less intensively, and it can enlist the far more willing participation of those engaged in it. This willingness is in itself a potent catalyst for change within the context of this pattern of social interaction.

Our Less Conscious Selves

Shweder outlines four interpretations, in the anthropological context, of the phrase `thinking through others’, all of which can enrich our clinical practice. He describes thinking through others (pages 108-110) in the sense of:

(a) `using the . . . self-consciousness of another . . . person — his or her . . . articulated conception of things — as a means to heighten awareness of our less conscious selves’;

heartsurgeryWe can ignore this dimension at our peril: whether we intend it or not our ‘less conscious selves’ can be triggered big time.

One fairly simple example from my own experience should serve to illustrate this convincingly.

Mary, whom I describe in more detail below, is tormented constantly by voices. She is a young girl who is visually handicapped and has a long history of hospitalisation for surgery, starting in early childhood. According to her own account, her first admission was for surgery at the age of three or four. Her parents claimed that neither of them could stay with her, she says. She remained in hospital for several weeks, consoled only by visits of a fairly brief duration.

As a result of my conversations with her, I had to have early recourse to my supervision group. Within the first few weeks of seeing her, I was already experiencing reactivations of my own early hospitalisations (for more background see links). They were much less traumatic than hers appear to have been. One took place at the age of three for a tonsillectomy and the second at the age of four for the removal of an abscess in my ear. They were of relatively short duration. In both cases my parents could not stay there with me for reasons of contemporary hospital policy, which were unintelligible to me at the time.

While I was familiar with that history and had worked on it in my own therapy I was not aware of the hook her story had lodged in me. At least not until I brought up the situation in my supervision. The undertow of feeling that was threatening to carry me away concerned my feelings of abandonment and my passionate desire not to abandon this young girl whose story seemed genuinely tragic in comparison with my own more mundane circumstances. I was all too familiar with my own pain and imagined it horrendously magnified in her.

My awareness of my less conscious self was heightened to an almost paralyzing and definitely aversive degree. I wanted to be relieved of any responsibility for her at the same time and for the same reasons as rendered me incapable of contemplating withdrawing my commitment! In my experience, people whose selves have been overwhelmed by voices frequently rattle the cage of my own demons.

I can well understand why medication seems, to those people who have the power to prescribe, such a reasonable response to such extremes of suffering, especially if it triggers their own subliminal stuff. Incidentally, I believe that some drugs can sometimes be helpful but that they are used too often, too soon and in too large a quantity. They are also far too frequently used in a way that implies they are all we need.

Discovering the Real

The next interpretation of thinking through others described by Shweder is (b) `getting the other straight, of proving a systematic account of the internal logic of the intentional world constructed by the other’ for `strong and persistent’ feelings `must after all be based on something real, which it may perhaps be possible to discover.’ In simpler terms, there must be some intelligible reason for even the strangest experiences.

Incidentally, this perspective was crucial to my starting this blog: everybody means something is an affirmation of what I believe to be a fact: if we try hard enough everyone’s subjective reality, no matter how bizarre, can make sense to us as their attempt to make sense of their very different experience. This is not the same as agreeing with it, of course.

Talking to Ian

Talking to Ian

It needs a longer illustration here to convey the relevance of this. I could have produced a snappy vignette which seemed to prove that I do exactly what I am describing here. I prefer to give you enough background to enable you to decide for yourselves, bearing in mind that what I now think I was doing evolved as an idea in stages over time through the experiences I shall be describing.

Ian was a 50 year old man with an eight year history of being tormented by voices telling him to kill himself and fly with them to far-off places. Describing his experience of the voices he said:

I was living in a dream world. I’d got the voices nearly all the time. They were so loud that I couldn’t hold a conversation. And I couldn’t listen to the radio. They just blocked everything out. The voices were plaguing me so much that if I tried to think about something they’d side-track me. And I’d start thinking about what they were saying to me, and start thinking about doing something about it. I couldn’t think in a straight line. It was just going round and round in circles. They used to wake me up at night. They got loud when I was ill. I thought they were spirits, come from the spirit world for me. I didn’t think that I was going to hurt myself by jumping under a train. I thought it would just be a few seconds of confusion and then it would be all over. I didn’t mind if being dead was just black and nothingness. And if it was flying with the voices all round the world, I didn’t mind that neither. It was better’n what I had.

He was on medication when I first saw him:

It wasn’t having any effect at all. I was on quite a high dosage. I was on 100 mgms of Haldol a week, and 600 mgms a day of Chlorpromazine.

His view of his future was bleak:

Just the voices, and hospital, really, and medication. That’s all there was in life. I couldn’t see any point in any thing. And I couldn’t see any point in doing anything else. I thought it was just schizophrenia. And that was the end of it. I was schizophrenic and that was it. And I had nothing to look forward to except hospital and more medication. And I couldn’t stand the thought of that. So that jumping under a train was looking very attractive.

Thursday’s post will go into more detail of what then took place.

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