Two very different responses to psychological – or spiritual – crises show to what extent our mind conditions our experience. Review by Ollie Brock
The American writer Barbara Ehrenreich suffered what she calls a ‘spectacular breakdown’ in her teens. She is resistant to specific labels for what happened: she tries for size theories of psychiatric disorders and accounts of religious experience, perhaps rightly never feeling entirely satisfied by any of them. Now an activist and science writer in her sixties with some nineteen books to her name, Ehrenreich has only recently unearthed the journals from her adolescence that record the time of these frightening ‘dissociative’ episodes – the psychiatric label – that she felt unable to talk about at the time. In fact she felt unable to talk about them for most of her life until now. ‘Because one thing you learn early in this line of work is that you can’t go round telling people, “I’m on a mission to discover the purpose of life.”’ She doesn’t mention which of the two lines of work she has pursued – scientific research and journalism – she means, but we can assume her warning applies to both. And she may be right that, while there would seem to be nothing wrong with a philosophical enquiry in itself, stated so boldly in the milieus of those professions it might still be greeted as naive. She immersed herself in communities that did not support a deep longing in her. Why?
The short answer, related in this new memoir, Living with a Wild God (272pp, £9.67), is that analytical thought became a refuge. Intellectually, her family life was staunchly rationalistic and atheist; emotionally it was chaotic. Her father was an alcoholic and she was verbally abused by both parents. The pair would return late from a bout of drunk-driving, once with cuts and bruises having crashed the car and got off lightly. Taking to heart an injunction of her father’s, Ehrenreich made a shelter in her mind: ‘“Think in complete sentences.” No giving way to inner screams or sobs…’ This protected her, temporarily, ‘when the waters were rising’ at home. This habit of smothering the emotions makes for moving reading at times. And it probably didn’t serve Ehrenreich well when, in her early adolescence, her mind developed an alarming habit of dropping most of its usual activity without warning: ‘Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels, and words.’ These experiences became more frequent and alarming, culminating in a climactic episode on a road trip with friends, which precipitated the breakdown. She has wrestled ever since – using a mind rigorously trained in the sciences – with whether or not these episodes could have featured aspects of something ‘mystical’.
In mainstream discourse, at least, the word ‘mystical’ now almost seems to contain its own dismissal. And ‘mystical’ may not be the word, but to a Buddhist, if the right conditions are present, Ehrenreich’s description of these episodes has the seeds of something positive. Meaning, inference, association and so forth are not inherent in the things we perceive. Supposedly, the more we see this, the closer we come to reality. But later we will lapse back into our subjectivity, and our lives and experience up to that point will condition the conclusions we then draw from the experience. This could be thought of as a panoramic version of what scientists calls ‘research bias’: you find what you are expecting to find, in life as well as in isolated experiments. And Ehrenreich, after years of mental experiments in questioning immediate preceptible reality, can only cleave back to the old theological polarity: ‘Do I believe that there exist beings capable of making mental contact with us to produce what humans call mystical experiences? No, I believe nothing. Belief is intellectual surrender; “faith” a state of willed self-delusion.’ One sad corollary of this constricted view of the imagination is a similar take on the arts – one that relegates them to mere escapism. The job of poets, according to
Ehrenreich, is ‘to keep applying coat upon coat of human passion and grandiosity to the world around us, trying to cover up whatever it is that lies underneath.’
Being a consummate poet himself, the Romanian writer Max Blecher responded quite differently to crises that bear striking similarities to Ehrenreich’s. After ten years confined to his bed, Blecher died of spinal tuberculosis in 1938. He was just twenty-eight – a year younger than I am now – but had produced essays, poems, translations and several novels by the time of his death. During his adolescence, before becoming ill, he would often fall into a ‘sweet but terrible swoon.’
These swoons are the jumping-off point for Adventures in Immediate Irreality (128pp, £10.14). The book is a fictionalised memoir originally published in 1936, now released in a new lyrical, witty translation by Michael Henry Heim. Blecher’s episodes involved similar losses of subjective meaning and interpretation: ‘I would peer around me wide-eyed, but things had lost their usual meaning […] It was as if someone had removed the fine, transparent paper they had been wrapped in till then…’
The principal difference between the two is that Blecher receives these experiences with the imagination of a poet (he almost seems to cherish the episodes, calling them ‘my secret and intimate afflications’). This means that, unlike Ehrenreich, he is alive to symbol. Both writers are on the lookout for resonances in the world, but while Ehrenreich was most likely to spot ‘anagrams, number sequences, clusters and coincidences’, Blecher sees a direct mirroring between life and art. On his wanderings around the small town of his youth, he would often go to the cinema. One day it caught fire:
The film tore and immediately went up in flames, which for several seconds raged on the screen like a filmed warning that the place was on fire as well as a logical continuation of the medium’s mission to give the news, which mission it was now carrying out to perfection by reporting the latest and most exciting event in town: its own combustion.
Both members of this unlikely pair fall down in the end. Ehrenreich into pat explication and proto-theory, even positing at one point an ‘Other’ that may be more like a parasite. She zips the wild, wide-eyed teenager firmly back into the adult’s thick overcoat. Blecher meanwhile lapses into lazily unconnected anecdote and what seems an eventual loss of interest in the urgent sense of unreality that lit his initial inspiration. But both, at least, whatever their responses, go some way to showing that our world of certainties is divided from a more mysterious reality only by what Blecher calls ‘the flimsiest of membranes’. ■