Sunday, February 19, 2006

Truth, love, sex, death

are the things Leslie Farber was interested in, I've just read back through his essay collection The Ways of the Will and am basically just staggered by its force and perceptiveness, it's one of those rare truly mind-blowing books, recommended to me a year and a half ago by a person who saw much sooner than I did or could that my new academic book is really about the will.

There aren't many books like this around--this one has my very highest recommendation--books whose authors are not afraid to leap in and talk about really important things: its satisfactions are like those of the best novels, or at least of the kind of novel I love most (it has come clear to me in the last few years that my love for novels by Rebecca West, James Baldwin, George Orwell has a lot to do with their being essayists as well, there is a certain intellectual temperament that all these writers share that is what I most like & aspire to emulate when I am older & wiser than now). Farber shares with those writers the deep & rich condition of being both of & against the enlightenment in a particularly pressing and painful and yet productive way.

A few bits of Farber, in any case, the ones that just shake me with their insightfulness (there are essays here on jealousy and envy that are quite startling in what they see and say, and a scathing essay against the culture of death that makes him sound like he's channeling Swift and Burke only for the 1970s, he really hates Kubler-Ross and Masters and Johnson and the desire for scientific mastery of nature, I really cannot recommend this collection highly enough):

The realm of causation is treacherous ground for a man interested in the truth about himself. Although it is certainly probable that most phenomena of this world, human and otherwise, do have causes of one sort or another, an absorption with the role of causation in human affairs may lead to an habitual reduction of any human event to its postulated cause. It is apparent how such reduction promises refuge to a man beset by the necessity to "confess": once he turns his attention to cause, his personal responsibility (whether he acknowledges it or not) is diminished, along with any undue stress or discomfort he may have felt in facing what he believes to be his absolute worst. No matter what scandalous detail about himself he may reveal, he follows such revelation with "I am this way because . . .," and everyone relaxes.

Most of us, I imagine, can recall the times when we talked rather than had the sex we wanted, such talk concealing our true desires, and, in the same spirit, the times when the poverty of real talk provoked us into sexual consolation--or, to put the matter simply, when the lust for talk was obligingly transformed into sexual lust.

And a tiny parenthetical aside like "(what causes humiliation and the fall of self-esteem in the jealous person is not the wound of his loss, but his jealousy itself)" gives you the feel of his style as a thinker and observer and writer. Or his conclusion about envy, very much in line with the first quotation above (and here he has a bit the flavor of Judith Shklar): "[In] his absorption with historical origins, [the patient] may find it all too easy to locate a 'first cause' for his envy somewhere outside himself; this established, a few simple operations of logic can lead him to a deterministic reconstruction of the whole development of envy in him, guaranteeing his escape from the responsibility with which possible freedom of choice, past and present, would burden him. It seems to me that the most pressing concern, for the patient or for ourselves, in regard to so damaging and disturbing an affliction as envy, is not so much to ponder when, or even why, it may originally come into being, as to discover it now where it is, to outwit its distractions and disguises, to measure its fear of being called by name."

There's one essay here that really bothers me, "He Said, She Said." It contains many things I agree with and yet depends on a set of assumptions about men and women and the ethical centrality of the man-and-woman relationship that seems to me dated at best and actively poisonous at worst. This isn't just kneejerk political correctness, I am in many ways in sympathy with Farber's sadness about the fallout of the 1960s, but he says things here that make me very unhappy. Its inclusion in the volume--and yet of course I would rather know he wrote this than not...--gives a more polemical cast to the collection than I think it could have in its own time; I hate the idea that Farber is closed off to many readers because of his alignment (I'm not talking here of his intentions or of his politics, just of how the book seems to be oriented towards a variety of contemporary positions) with a certain strand of dogmatic cultural conservatism.

And yet this is supremely a book about listening: LF's widow Anne quotes another of his essays in the afterword, an essay on Martin Buber and psychoanalysis that includes the sentences "'listening requires something more than remaining mute while looking attentive--namely, it requires the ability to attend imaginatively to another's language. . . . Actually, in listening we speak the other's words. Or, to put it another way, the analyst is able to hear only what he, potentially at least, is able to say.'" Words to live by, eh?

Also recommended: Emily Fox Gordon's Mockingbird Years: A Life In and Out of Therapy, a wonderfully well-written and intelligent memoir that includes an account of, really, her salvation by way of therapy with Farber (but she doesn't gloss over the impossibility and violence of the whole enterprise, either; seriously, this book is a must-read, in some ways it's more accessible than Farber's and is certainly a great way into his stuff). And here was me a year ago raving about Farber and Gordon (and Peter Temple also, I can't believe that was only a year ago that I first read him).

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