Reflecting, Restoring, Renewing: Illuminating visits with Jules (Renard) and David (Foster Wallace)

Richard Raubolt, Ph.D.

Epigraph

“As I grow to understand life less and less, I learn to love it more and more.”

-Jules Renard

“There are no choices without personal freedom, Buckaroo, it’s not us who are dead inside. These things you find so weak and contemptible in us – they are just the hazards of being free.”

-David Foster Wallace

Jules Renard showed up in my mailbox in plain cardboard affixed with Amazon’s familiar black swoosh on the side panel. He was a surprise, I didn’t know him then. Beneath the plastic bubble wrap I read “Nature Stories”, nature stories, me? Histoires Naturelles, a book on trees, animals, and vegetation was something I ordered? Amazing. Well since I had this simple, cute, little text complete with cute, simple little drawings I thought I’d have a quick read and move on; I was expecting the book “Getting Even” so I could get on with the writing about nonforgiveness I began last year in Lago Mar.

As I am standing here with Jules (and soon David) you know my plans changed. That I am not on a first name basis with dead authors, French or otherwise, also tells you something of the intimate impact these writings had on me. Yet, as so often happens, a book shows up unexpectedly with dead-on timing. My jaggedness of ill temper and worry were rising to full pitch. I knew I needed a balm for the infections gripping my spirit. Renewal comes from many sources but literature written with truth often soothe best, words that help me see and feel more clearly.

Rather than tell you about Jules Renard or his ideas, let me expose his writing as I found him.

Lying in Wait:

“The man with the gun is sitting beside a tree; the barrel is resting on one of its branches. He’s listening as the wood falls asleep; the trees begin to take on human shape. The great peace of nightfall steals into his heart.

He’s smiling at the moon and the moon is smiling back. Soon, he puts down his gun beside him and, drumming with his fingers and gently nodding his head as if beating time to their movements, this friendly hunter has no regrets as he sits watching the rabbits dancing their minuet.”

Hunting for Picture:

“He jumps out of a bed early and sets off only if his mind is clear, his heart pure, and his body as light as a summer shirt. He doesn’t take any food or drink. He’ll be drinking fresh air and sniffing healthy scents. He leaves his weapons at home and will be happy just opening his eyes; they’ll be nets to capture pictures: the pictures will enjoy being captured.”

One more and I’ll stop or we’ll be here quite awhile;

The Swan:

“He glides over the pool like a white sleigh gliding from cloud to cloud. He hungers only for fleecy clouds that he can see forming, drifting, and dying in the water. He wants one of them. He takes aim with his beak and his snowy neck makes a sudden dart.

Then he takes it out, like a woman’s arm coming out of her sleeve.

He’s not caught anything.

He takes a look: the clouds were scared and have vanished.”

I don’t know if you are as taken by these writings as I am. I just kept reading and then ordering other books by Jules. As I did I came to know, count on really, the felt impact of his words on me. He made the ordinary come out of hiding.

I could not read him silently. I would laugh, murmur, comment in agreement or clap my hands in conversational delight with my friend from beyond. He began to make my world fresh again; the common became uncommon, ideas long held were turned on slight angles exposing different textures, a simple phrase contained novelty I had not imagined and to my great surprise my patients became purveyors of metaphors.

I also came to rely on the experience of re-reading Jules Renard as meditations. I’d thumb the turned down papers of his books until I saw a highlighted passage or notation that caught my eye. I would (and still do) pause, read, close my eyes and drift into reverie. I might then find a memory, image, sensation or word but always a quiet space of appreciation in my mind. Many entrees like, zen koans, stretch beyond reason, or at least are more than reason alone, and push into intuitive or felt experiences; I find great pleasure in learning that undermines my logic seeking brain. Jules, for instance writes: “My misshapen head cracks through all clichés.” With humanity lightly touched yet deeply grasped he also offers: “There would seem to a lot of needles between us. We keep getting pricked, it is not painful, but, still, there is blood.”

In his journal, I further discovered why he influenced writers so diverse as Donald Barthelme, Susan Sontag. Someset Maugham and Samuel Beckett, to name-drop a few. Again and again he is to make a simple, arresting observation, turn it inside out and present a stylistic truth. His language is poetic and rigorously exact. The engaged reader of Jules has his/her assumptions delicately but powerfully swiveled about in often insightful disorientation. Jules writes, for example, “I desire nothing from the past. I do not count on the future. The present is enough for me, I am happy man, for I have renounced happiness.”

Or more to the point of interest for my psychoanalytic practice: “One should operate by dissociation and not by association, of ideas, as association is almost always common place, dissociation decomposes, and uncovers latent affinities.”

I find these thumbnail musings renew me, pierce my assumptions and render me reflective about my own use of language. I love the turn of a phrase or a compelling insight delivered with grace and originality. My mind, I find, dances with delight at such delicious cleverness and self-effacing truth.

I know too I need such writing as an antidote to the long hours with patients; hours where words, mine and theirs, grind about the room like rusty, bent bicycle chains, slack and worn from over use. Grating familiarity just filling space can drag on from hour to hour. Such exchanges are as thin as tin plating and just as enlivening.

For me these can be dangerous times: times where I can impatiently act out to break the tension or ease the boredom. There are times a quip laced with droll sarcasm comes too easily or alternately where I can roll into myself in silent “fade outs” risking an addict’s nod to parched stories heard so many times before. Twisting, I turn between the urge for excitement or the silence of boredom. Hauntingly I can pursued by Pascal’s stark summation: “ I have discovered that all evil comes from this, man’s being unable to sit still in a room.”

After writing the initial draft of this paper, I had my dear friend, Michael Lariviere, read it over to comment. Michael introduced me to what he calls “the analyst’s prayer:” “Please come to me, speak to me and pay me.” But even if the financial issue is a source of anxiety and is therefore of paramount importance, it is still the first part of the prayer that addresses the essential: the analyst is someone who needs stories, who thrives on them.

The analyst’s desire is a desire for stories. These stories enable us as analysts to revisit our own and perhaps read them differently. Adam Phillips reminds us, “we don’t need more abstruse abstractions, new paradigms or radical revisions- we just need more good sentences.” This is true I believe in written words or speech. We need to use our words and stories to mark out new psychic territory, imaginings, if you will, beyond stale renditions emptied by predictability.

In analytic moments when I am struck dumb by familiarity and put myself outside the session I try to gain re-entry by changing the conversation, by changing my language. I may play with a word aloud associating (or dissociating) to alternate meanings or offer perhaps an interpretation intentionally incomplete and left suspended for the patient’s own completion. I seek to initiate a new present through a disruption of the old through introduction of the unanticipated. Most of all, however, I reach for literature that opens what is closed off in me.

Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist, who has studied readers of substantive literature suggests: “The language of literary works gives forth something different with each reading.” Psychotherapy, as with substantive literature, is perhaps best described as tragic where more questions are raised than answered and where conflict does not result in despair. Jonathon Franzen, while applying the word tragic to literature may also be describing therapy when he uses it “to highlight its distance from the rhetoric of optimism that so pervades our culture.” Franzen’s call is to recognize the need for unpredictability to maintain ethical and intellectual integrity. As a telling example of this juxtaposition Davis Foster Wallace’s deleted subtitle to Infinite Jest was to be “a failed experiment”.

A patient one day, on spotting my copy of the journal by Jules with its turned down corners sitting next to my chair, and being a writer himself asked to look at the book. I handed it over hesitantly and watched as he handled as I do: turning the ear marked pages in no particular order, reading a few paragraphs aloud thumbing through more and reading again. He then looked up and said: “He’s good, how about I swap you a book for a book, temporarily. I must have looked confused (I was) and worried (I was) for he went on to say: “You won’t be disappointed, it’ll be part of my therapy. The book I have in mind saved me from being even more crazy than I am: since he was pretty crazy, as he put it, I was intrigued to receive his selection, it was not lost on me that this was also an unconscious attempt to help me help him.

What I did not know was the book, “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace, would simply and beautifully set in motion considerations both similar and distinct from Jules. Most significantly the book form of a commencement speech (Kenyon 2005) caused me to reflect on choices and the meanings of boredom in my life and in my practice.

Sometimes there is no escape from boredom; sometimes there should be no escape from boredom. This is the perfect counterpoint to my use of Jules. For at times we all need a breather from life as we lead it but this is different than a distraction. It took me sometimes to recognize the difference, some time, and David Foster Wallace’s telling description of a “natural default setting,” he writes: “This is not a matter of virtue-it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hardwired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” That David was ultimately unsuccessful in his own attempts, as most, maybe all, of you know of his suicide after a 20 some year battle with severe depression or as Wallace referred to it; “the Bad Thing”, does not diminish the sincerity or wisdom of his message.

DFW was a hyperkinetic word merchant who spent extravagantly but with disciplined purpose. In his own words, he wrote “ morally passionate, passionately moral fiction.” This is a simple enough definition although anyone who has read or tried to read him would agree there is nothing simple about his writing with long winding footnotes, two hundred or so word sentences and erudite diction intertwined with street slang. Still, and again simply put, David believed: “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” And good writing should help people feel less alone inside. A question from a piece of dialogue in Infinite Jest, David’s most acclaimed work, graphically illustrates this quest in the pop prose of the day: “So yo, then man, what’s your story?”

This question tore open the most debilitating aspect of the dullness that ensconced me: loneliness. I had become a long distance listener not a participating teller of stories.

In my restlessness, I had become more bored with myself than my patients. I had put myself in the patient’s chair and listened as my tired words drowned out other voices. In a note left behind for his uncompleted novel, now published as “The Pale King,” David seemed to be addressing my malaise when he wrote: “Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain, because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from.” With these words I could now see my boredom was a distraction from the wreckage I was experiencing in my ailing body; crippling symptoms giving rise to mind numbing, heart-slowing designer medications which in turn were giving rise to a dystonic brew of new as well as ancient fears terrifying enough to drive me into my natural default setting of rueful reclusiveness.

As I continued to read David I found Jules echoing a perspective and a sustainable route with and through my strands of emptiness. Rather than avoid, or try to, boredom (Wallace) or laziness (Renard) I would step into it, pay close attention to the experience, let it work into my pores and seep into my spirit.

From these experiences I would now suggest to each of you, that if my words have not put you there already, then to go into what is crushing, recognize it as you or at least a singular part of you. Breathe in discomfort and ride it through until you come out the other side. Once you have had your fill the avoidance is stripped away clean and black and white explodes in color. Color is life in many shades, not all pleasant, but at the very least more vivid. David calls this “bliss.” I’m not sure I can go that far. I am more in tune with Jules when he writes: “Let us always keep, even in the midst of our greatest joys a corner of sadness at the bottom of our soul; to serve as refuge in case of sudden alarm.” Both I think would agree with me that wakefulness is far preferable to the daze of inattentive blindness. Sometimes.

Damn, if only it was so clear. “Sessional blindness,” as I define and experience it, is not intentional. While it can be countertransferentially based I prefer not to pathologize it as such. I have over the years come to see such staleness as inevitable, normal and perhaps even a productive element of long term clinical work. Boredom exists in life, so why wouldn’t it enter the consultation room? After all, as the noted classics professor, Peter Toohey, writes: “Boredom is a normal, useful and incredibly common part of human experience.”

Despite the cheerleaders of positive psychology or gurus of ever expanding redemptive mindfulness, life is sometimes as flat and gray as a Michigan winter’s day. I, as an analyst, continue my search to find ways to rekindle embers of imagination for myself and my patients. Still on some days or weeks I, like perhaps some of you here today, may have to simply survive, sitting wounded in the dark with words nailed to the floor and no light to guide my path. I don’t think Jules or DFW would disagree.

Coda

As I read and re-read this paper, I have just presented, I was troubled by an insistent feeling that something was missing – something significant that registered the influence of Jules and David on me.

The whisper was undeniable: “You haven’t said it, not yet, you haven’t said it.” So I went back though writings by Jules and interviews of David only to realize, rather paradoxically, that what I was seeking lay elsewhere.

I found I needed my old friend Joseph (Joubert) once again. He is easy for me to forget because I give him away so often; to friends and colleagues, really anyone who will take him in and care for his delicacy of feeling and thought. Joseph never published although he wrote down his thoughts every day for more than forty years. All that remains of his writing are his notebooks. The one I have is translated by Paul Auster and there in this volume of selections I found my summation, at least for now:

“ Few minds are spacious; few even have an empty place in them or can offer some vacant point. Almost all have narrow capacities and are filled by some knowledge that blocks them up. What a torture to talk to filled heads, that allow nothing from the outside to enter them! A good mind, in order to enjoy itself and allow itself to enjoy others, always keeps itself larger than its own thoughts. And in order to do this, these thoughts must be given a pliant form, must be easily folded and unfolded, so that they are capable, finally, of maintaining a natural flexibility.”

If you would like to contact Richard Raubolt, Ph.D., his email is  r.raubolt@gmail.com

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