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Choose Your Own Myth, with John Gray

Sorry I missed last week’s newsletter. I’ve had some hardcore flu which robbed me of all will-power, ambition and desire, and left me flitting like a dead bat through the fevered corridors of my mind. Have you ever seen a dead bat flit? Not pretty.

I managed to get out of bed to run a London Philosophy Club event last week, where the philosopher John Gray gave an interesting talk about his new book, The Silence of Animals. He seemed a very nice guy, who gave up his evening for free, and the audience (the biggest we’ve ever had at an LPC meeting) seemed on the whole to like his humility and humour, bar one lady who said ‘if I’d written your book it would have been very different’, and then left! Ah, the great British public.

His new book has been billed as a sequel to his 2002 bestseller, Straw Dogs, which was a blast of pessimism after a decade of blithe optimism. The problem with liberal humanism, Gray declared, was that it assumed humans were at the centre of the cosmos, when in fact we are contingent. Nature could carry on perfectly well without us, and probably will, if James Lovelock was to be believed.

Liberal humanism prides itself on being more rational than religion, says Gray, but it’s actually just as much of a superstitious dogma, grounded as it is in a religious faith in human rationality and in man’s ethical improvement through science. ‘Humanists are also ruled by myths’, he writes in The Silence of Animals, ‘though the ones by which they are possessed have none of the beauty or the wisdom of those that they scorn.’

Humanists, he says, have a religious faith in progress, in the idea that every day, things are getting better. Nonsense, says Gray! Humans’ capacity for barbarism remains just as strong as ever. Ethical progress is not the same as scientific progress. It’s not cumulative. While we are unlikely to suddenly forget how to build a car, we can and often have suddenly thrown off the shackles of civility and happily started murdering each other in our millions. He repeats these points in The Silence of Animals.

Well and good, though I don’t think modern secular humanism is necessarily so optimistic about human rationality, if you think about Sceptics like Daniel Kahnemann, Michael Shermer or Jon Ronson, who have a profound sense of humans’ capacity for self-delusion.

Choose Your Own Myth!

In The Silence of Animals, Gray ventures cautiously beyond the pessimistic scepticism of his last books to look for something positive to believe in. He suggests that one of the fallacies of secular humanism is that we can rid ourselves of myths. He writes: ‘life without myth is like life without art or sex – insipid and inhuman’ (this is a bit harsh on the large percentage of humanity like me who don’t have regular sex – we’re not just losers, we’re inhuman!) ‘If there is a choice’, he suggests, ‘it is between myths’.

We have to learn to choose between myths, between ‘acceptable fictions’. And how do we do that? In his LPC talk, Gray suggested that some myths are better than others, because they ‘fit better with the enduring facts about human nature’. And some myths are worse than others, because they depend on scapegoating outsiders and on a Them / Us mentality. I agree. I argued in my book that even Skepticism can have a Them / Us mentality – Skeptics are the shining knights of reason, battling the babbling hordes of irrationalism. Good myths, I suggest, teach us to confront our own darkness, rather than projecting it onto others.

Gray then embarks on an extended defence of psychoanalysis, which I found surprising. If there is one instance of religious faith dressing itself up as science, I’d suggest it is psychoanalysis – the prophet-like founder, whose writings are reverently quoted as if gospel-truth, the hated apostates, the grand metaphysical claims without any evidential support (besides the words of the prophet, He Who Must Be Believed).

Gray likes psychoanalysis because it offers so little consolation and hope. Life is tough and miserable, Freud tells us, so get used to it and stop looking for a cure. It’s like a form of Stoicism, Gray suggests, except it’s more pessimistic than Stoicism – there’s no Logos, no over-arching cosmic reason, in Freud. Gray also likes psychoanalysis because it seems to him a sort of ‘acceptable fiction’ – obviously Freud’s theories of Eros and Thanatos are ‘just metaphors’ or myths, but they’re useful myths.

Really? First of all, Freud didn’t think the Thanatos or Death Instinct was a myth, he claimed it was scientific fact, within all of us, just like the Oedipus Complex and his other grand metaphysical inventions. Don’t let him off that easily for being a dodgy scientist, because it was his claim to scientific authority that gave him such power over other people’s lives and minds.

Secondly, Freud did think of psychoanalysis as a ‘cure’ – he actually called it ‘the talking cure’, a phrase used by Anna O, the founding patient of psychoanalysis. That, presumably, was why people would pay so much to see a psychoanalyst every day for years – because they believed it would improve their emotional situation. If psychoanalysis was just a sort of gritty Stoicism, then why pay a therapist for years? Why not just read some Freud? Gray doesn’t seem to like psychoanalysis as a therapy, more as a philosophy or mythology, but Freud and his followers certainly sold it as a therapy. It just turned out not to be a very good therapy, in the sense of actually helping people to recover from emotional suffering.

Why do I think CBT is better than psychoanalysis? Because it works for more people and helps them recover from emotional suffering quickly and cheaply. It ‘fits with the enduring facts of human nature’ – with how our emotions arise and how we can change them. And it helps people get better without relying on the weird power games of psychoanalysis. The best way to choose between the two therapies, it seems to me, is through scientific evidence, looking at whether people are better after a treatment of CBT or psychoanalysis.

I have no doubt whatsoever that psychoanalysis is better written, more literary, and more mythologically verdant than CBT. It is a Gothic mansion, while CBT is a Bauhausian bungalow. But you can spend years wandering in that Gothic mansion, marveling at its features and designs, getting no better and a lot poorer.

The dangerous power of myths

Myths have a way of wrapping themselves round us

While I agree with Gray’s wider point that myths are powerful things and a life without myth would be boring and insipid, I think we need a way of balancing myths with science, and of using science as a way of choosing between myths. It’s dangerous to turn away from the Enlightenment project, abandon scientific thinking and look instead for a pretty myth to embrace. Dangerous partly because we don’t just embrace myths – they also embrace us. Myths can wrap themselves round our faces like the aliens in Prometheus, and use us as vessels (there’s an interesting thought: Prometheus is actually an allegory for the invention of religions!)

While Gray has a very post-modern, Rorty-esque attitude to myths – he’s able to pick at them like an hors-d’oeuvre while recognising their essential emptiness – for most of us, myths rapidly wrap themselves round our brains and become something of deep emotional significance and sacred power. How do we stop myths from becoming toxic and blinding us dangerously to reality? I can’t think of a better answer than scientific evidence.

I’ve noticed a strange new apologetics for religious faith recently, along the lines of ‘hey, it’s just a story, but isn’t it beautiful?’ I heard it in the Book of Mormon, of all places – hey, it concluded, Mormonism is just a myth. But so what? Star Wars is just a myth too, right? Lord of the Rings is just a myth. We need myths! Likewise in the Life of Pi, which I found a particularly fey and insipid form of magical realism. Was there really a tiger in that boat all that time, or was it just a story, a myth? The answer, we are told, is ‘whatever we prefer to believe’. The shipwrecked boy prefers to believe that God is looking out for him all that time. This helps him survive. But then you’d also have to believe that God chooses to personally save you while also killing your family (and also six million Jews and so on). Why are you so special?

Life of Pi: pretty but insipid

We are desperate for any stories that re-assure us our lives have a higher pattern and the cosmos cares about us. This explains the success of Paulo Coehlo, another peculiarly insipid writer. It also explains why magical realism has flourished in western reading markets in the last 40 years – western readers desperately want a holiday from scientific rationalism, so they read some charming magical realist book from South America, or a book by a white Canadian pretending to be Indian, and for a while they can imagine themselves back in the world of meaning and magic.

But I think we need a better way to ‘choose between myths’ than whatever feels good or sounds pretty. We need to find a way to hold myths to some sort of account – scientific, ethical, rational. We need to find a way to live that connects both our rational, sceptic pre-frontal cortex (Socrates) and the rest of our brain with all its capacity for ecstasy, awe and emotional abandon (Dionysus). At the moment, these two parts of our psyche are somewhat dissevered. Or rather, the Dionysiac has been pushed to the margins by the scientific revolution, into pop culture, which is why pop suddenly became the most powerful thing in western culture in the 1950s.

Gray’s book ends with a strange and rather interesting reach towards ‘godless mysticism’. He tells us about JA Baker, a man who for years would go off tracking a peregrine falcon, simply watching it, and trying to see the world through its eyes. Imagine if we could look on the world like animals, Gray wonders, without needing to change or redeem it, simply seeing it. Well, as myths go I don’t think that one’s particularly going to take off, though Gray’s books certainly sold quickly enough at our event. But Gray is asking the right questions.

As climate change continues to rough up our humanist optimism, I have no doubt we are going to start looking around for myths to give us a stronger sense of meaning and hope in a more cruel and uncertain world. A big challenge of this century, then, will be finding a way to balance myth with scientific rationalism, finding a way to achieve the psychic consolation of myth without abandoning the gains of science.

The Shining: Kubrick’s unheimliche manoeuvre

How do you…fill your days?’
My editor was looking at me with a hint of concern, in a cafe on Portland Street. She was worried I was losing my edge. It had been almost a year since my first book had come out, and still I hadn’t started working on another. Well, I thought to myself. Kubrick didn’t rush his projects. 12 years between his penultimate and final movie. Besides, how could I explain to her or anyone that I’d spent the last four days somewhere else entirely, perhaps in another dimension, also known as the Overlook Hotel.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It all started on Tuesday.

On Tuesday evening, I watched a film called Room 237. It introduces us to some of the online obsessives who, in the last few years, have put forward complex and often very sophisticated readings of Kubrick’s horror-masterpiece of 1980, The Shining. We hear from six critics, each putting forward a different master-theory of the film: that it’s about the Indian genocide, or the Jewish holocaust, or the faking of the moon landing. Some of the theories are more credible than others, but the film certainly convinces you that Kubrick is playing some strange semantic games.

There’s the question, for example, of whether the ghosts in the hotel are real or just a reflection of Jack’s inner demons. He only ever sees the ghosts when there are mirrors around. Who is the management of the hotel, the higher powers driving him to kill his wife and child? There’s also the weird ending, with the photo of Jack from a party at the hotel in 1921. He is told that he’s ‘always’ been the caretaker. Has he been reincarnated? And who in damnation is that guy in the bear suit?

Then there are the little details that have driven online theorists crazy with speculation. The film is full of continuity errors – furniture appearing then disappearing, photos on the wall changing arrangements. The first scene in the hotel takes place in a room which appears to have an impossible window (see the map below) – as if the hotel’s architecture doesn’t make sense, like a building in a dream. These hints of hidden meanings and codes have driven people to construct theories bringing together every single detail in the film, from typos on the pages Jack writes (‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’) to the cartoon figures on Danny’s bedroom door. Everything becomes soaked with hidden significance.

Re-activating Animism

One way to understand the film is as an exploration of how we have an emotional need to find hidden meanings, as Sigmund Freud discussed in his essay, Das Unheimliche, or The Uncanny. Kubrick and his co-writer Diane Johnson repeatedly read and discussed this essay while writing the script for The Shining.

In his essay, Freud begins by exploring the etymology of the German word unheimliche, the opposite of heimliche which means ‘homely’ or ‘familiar’. He suggests that the uncanny is the fear we feel when the homely is made strange and frightening to us. Freud then explores some of the plot-devices with which Gothic writers produce this feeling in us  – ghosts, dopplegangers, telepathy, curses, apparitions in mirrors, inanimate objects coming to life, events from the past repeated, numbers repeated, symbols and patterns repeated, all of which produce the over-riding sense of “something fateful and unescapable”. Freud suggests that these Gothic plot-devices work on us emotionally because they reconnect us to our pre-modern animist beliefs. The uncanny, he writes, connects us to

the old animistic conception of the universe, which was characterized by the idea that the world was peopled by the spirits of human beings, and by the narcissistic over-estimation of subjective mental processes (such as the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts…the carefully proportioned distribution of magical powers)…It would seem as though each one of us has been through a phase of individual development corresponding to that animistic stage of primitive man, that none of us has traversed it without preserving certain traces which can be re-activated.

Romantic literature attempted to keep alive this old animist paradigm within the scientific-industrial age, and succeeded for a while, but gradually such beliefs came to seem more and more childish to us, and were pushed to the margins of our culture, into nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and then into the ‘low art’ of fantasy, horror, science fiction and comic book culture. Modern men and women duck into the low dives of ‘trash culture’ to re-activate their primitive belief in the spirit-world.

Kubrick recognised this cultural-religious function in sci-fi (he explored animist-religious ideas in 2001: Space Odyssey) and in horror-fantasy. He rang up Stephen King at 7am one morning, in their first conversation, and launched in with ‘I think stories of the supernatural are always optimistic, don’t you?’ King, perplexed, asked ‘why do you think that?’ ‘Because supernatural stories all posit the basic suggestion that we survive death.’ They appeal, he later said, to our ‘longing for immortality’. They also posit the suggestion that there is some higher pattern, some secret dimension, to our banal material existence, which is also perhaps an optimistic idea, even if the secret dimension turns out to be Evil.

Engineering the Uncanny

What Kubrick does in The Shining, and what David Lynch does in his works, is masterfully re-activate these animistic traces and engineer a sense of the uncanny. (Kubrick made the crew watch Lynch’s Eraserhead before making The Shining to give a sense of the mood he wanted to evoke, while Lynch’s Twin Peaks is clearly influenced in turn by The Shining). Take Kubrick’s repetition of certain numbers. Freud noted:

we of course attach no importance to the event when we give up a coat and get a cloakroom ticket with the number, say, 62; or when we find that our cabin on board ship is numbered 62. But the impression is altered…if we come across the number 62 several times in a single day, or if we begin to notice that everything which has a number – addresses, hotel-rooms, compartments in railway-trains – always has the same one, or one which at least contains the same figures. We do feel this to be ‘uncanny’, and unless a man is utterly hardened and proof against the lure of superstition he will be tempted to ascribe a secret meaning to this obstinate recurrence of a number…

Kubrick seized on this idea for The Shining. The cover of his edition of Stephen King’s novel is covered with scrawls of him trying to work out ways to use the number 217, which in King’s novel is the hotel-room where Danny and Jack see a witch (it’s changed to the number 237 in the film).

Kubrick’s copy of Stephen King’s The Shining

Kubrick repeats the number 42 throughout the film – on Danny’s shirt, on the number-plate of Hallorann’s car. When Danny and his mum are watching TV, it’s showing a film called The Summer of 42. The numbers 2, 3 and 7 when multiplied together make 42. The stools in the bar where Jack meets the ghostly barman are arranged in a group of four and a group of two. And so on.

Kubrick also plays with mirrors, twins, dopplegangers and doubling to suggest hidden connections between figures – Danny is connected by telepathy to Hallorann, Jack is haunted by the ghost of the previous caretaker Grady, or maybe he is the previous caretaker. David Lynch did the same sort of thing in Twin Peaks – Laura is doubled with her evil doppleganger from the Red Room, and also with her cousin Maddy. Her father Leland is also Bob, who appears when he looks in mirrors. In the Red Room, the giant is doubled with the dwarf, who speaks in reverse in a sort of mirror-language, just as Danny does when he chants Red Rum. Both Kubrick and Lynch also use garish carpet patterns to suggest hidden patterns in reality (they should have opened a store together: Uncanny Carpets).






The Uncertainty of the Uncanny

At the heart of the uncanny is a confusion of the self and its boundaries. The philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that in the modern secular age we all have ‘buffered selves’ that are walled off from nature and from each other. In the animistic age, we had ‘porous selves’, selves without firm boundaries, invisibly connected to each other by thoughts, energies, elective affinities, and also connected to the spirit-world, capable of being invaded by  benevolent or malevolent spirits. In the modern world, we are autonomous agents trying to figure out what to do in an indifferent universe. In the animist world, we are the creatures of the Fates, threads in some cosmic pattern of Good and Evil.

The uncanny is a particularly modern emotion, however, because it rests on an ambiguity and uncertainty about whether there is a natural or a supernatural explanation for the eeriness of the atmosphere. The Bible is not an uncanny work because it is very clear that all the supernatural events are the work of God or the Devil. There is no ambiguity. The Shining is an uncanny work because there is this uncertainty. This is what initially drew Kubrick to King’s novel. The ghosts appear at the corner of our eye, at the margins of our modern rational consciousness.  The events in the Overlook Hotel could be explained in secular Freudian terms as fantasies emanating from the hidden violence in the Torrance family – Jack’s murderous anger and Danny’s Oedipal rage. The Shining could simply be a story of male domestic violence against women and children. Likewise, Twin Peaks could simply be a drama about an incestuous family.

Kubrick complicates matters further by introducing a political level of significance. The violence in the film could also point to the historical violence of white Americans against Indians (the hotel is on an Indian burial-ground and there are Indian symbols around the hotel) or African slaves, or the Nazis against the Jews (42 was the year Hitler began the Genocide). Or the film could simply be a story of how the political elite (the hotel management and its powerful guests) use stooges like Jack for their state-sponsored mass murders – look, in the final photo, how Jack’s hand seems to be held up by the rich people around him. He is their  puppet, their errand-boy.

Can we escape the past?

Is The Shining really an optimistic film, as Kubrick suggested all horror stories are? On one reading, the film could suggest humans are trapped in cycles of violence, frozen in sin like Jack at the end of the film,  doomed to repeat our crimes over and over. On the other hand, Danny and his mother escape the Overlook Hotel. Danny is not lost in the maze – he retraces his steps and gets out. Perhaps we too can escape history.

Perhaps the film suggests that we’re at risk when we overlook things, when we forget the crimes of the past – like Dilbert Grady apparently forgetting that he killed his wife and children. Art holds a mirror up and show us our dark side, reminding us to take care, showing us a way out of the maze like Ariadne’s thread or Perseus’ mirror-shield.  Kubrick said: “There’s something inherently wrong with the human personality. There’s an evil side to it. One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious: we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly.”

Or perhaps that is too neat and utilitarian an explanation of art’s power, and art is in fact more dangerous than that. The uncanny, after all, is a dangerous emotion. Once activated, how can we be sure it will stay within the bounds of art and not spill out into reality? How can we be sure we will not ourselves be possessed by the old belief-system and find ourselves back in the demon-haunted world we thought we had left behind?

Kubrick wrote: “Freud said that the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully experienced in art than in life. If [horror] required any justification, I should think this alone would serve as its credentials.”  For better or for worse, we crave the uncanny. We have a deep emotional need for patterns of meaning and intimations of immortality. Freud would say that was the vestige of our primitive self, Jung would say it was our true self seeking its Maker.

Either way, modern life does not that satisfy this emotional need for the uncanny, so we turn to art, and to The Shining. We try to decipher Kubrick’s intentions as if he was God, and every detail of His creation is a clue to His meaning. Like lost souls, the acolytes haunt the Kubrick archives at the University of Arts London, which I imagine as a vast warehouse containing an almost infinite number of crates. And in one of those crates, perhaps, lies the key.


In other news:

John Gray is our next guest at the London Philosophy Club, on April 9. You can sign up here.

How useful would randomised controlled trials be in public policy, in areas like education for example? The debate rages on the internet, as Michael Gove dismisses ‘bad academics’ for blocking evidence-based policies, while some academics suggesting there are risks to thinking everything can be quickly solved by an RCT. Rebekah Higgit summaries the debate and provides lots of useful links here, while Evgeny Morozov warns of the risk of ‘solutionism’ in public policy, in his new book reviewed here.

Teenagers used to define themselves by whether they liked Blur or Oasis. Now they define themselves by whether they own Mac or Samsung, argues this piece. And, to prove how chic geekdom has become, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn’s new film sees them become hapless interns at Google. Sounds…pretty dire!

I’m working on an article looking at five years of Improved Access for Psychological Therapies (IAPT), the British government’s flagship mental health policy which has brought CBT to the masses. Here is a good blog by a therapist looking at the data coming out of IAPT. And here’s a good new article in Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology looking at the limits of evidence-based medicine in psychiatry (behind a pay wall alas).

A philosopher and psychologist debated whether psychology was a science or an art on Radio 3’s Nightwaves this week. The debate then rumbled on for days on Twitter…for all I know it’s still going. The discussion is 34 minutes in here.

Some new books. My friend Tom Chatfield from the School of Life has a new book out called Netymology, a dictionary for tech language. Another friend, Tom Butler-Bowden, has a new book out called 50 Philosophy Classics – I’ll publish an interview with him soon. I’m still reading David Esterly’s book about wood-carving and philosophy  – it’s really brilliant. I admire David a great deal.

Finally, here’s a Tumblr that made me laugh a lot this week – a collection of lousy book covers from the world of fantasy fiction. Enjoy, and see you next week.