September 17, 2013

In Treatment

Dear Wafers, and Waferettes:

I was planning to post the following essay on this blog after I gave it as a talk for book promo for Spinning Straw Into Gold. I wrote several bookstores in New York and Los Angeles, but they had no interest in hosting me (most didn't bother to write back). So...might as well give up on that, and post it now. Hope you guys enjoy it, in any case.

In a similar you all can imagine, I don't get a lot of invitations to speak in the U.S., for some odd reason, but I do have one nice assignment coming up, namely a lecture at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA on Nov. 19. It will be held at 5 p.m. in the Northen Auditorium of the Leyburn Library, for those of you within striking distance of Lexington, and who might wish to attend.

And now, without further ado, the essay:

In Treatment was an HBO TV series that debuted in 2008 and ran for three seasons, starring Gabriel Byrne in the role of a psychotherapist named Paul Weston. It was based on an Israeli series of the same name (Be Tipul, in Hebrew); apparently, many of the episodes were verbatim translations of the Hebrew originals. Personally, I found the show highly addictive. Dr. Weston has a veritable parade of troubled patients traipse through his office, and their problems are unfailingly gripping, even mesmerizing. He seems to be a good therapist, although the results are rather mixed: some folks improve, some seem to go nowhere, one may have even “accidentally” committed suicide (triggering a lawsuit from the dead patient’s father). But the most powerful aspect of the show is that in the fullness of time, nothing is quite what it seemed to be. Paul’s own therapist (played by Dianne Wiest) seems to be empathic and supportive, but winds up using Paul as material for a novel she writes, in which the “Paul” character is cast in a very bad light. One of Paul’s patients, an Indian man living in an unhappy situation with his son and daughter-in-law, tricks Paul into getting him deported back to Calcutta, which is where he wants to be. Paul falls in love with his second (and final) therapist (played by Amy Ryan), but knowing how the mechanism of transference works, can’t decide if it’s love or illusion. What she gets him to see, in the course of a few weeks of therapy with her, is that he has spent his entire career getting over-involved with his patients as a substitute for having a life of his own. At age 57, the ground has shifted from under his feet; he has no way of knowing what is true and what is invented, and as he tells his therapist, “I’ve lost my way.” He even wonders if he ever loved his ex-wife, or whether he is capable of love at all.

The final session is a tour de force by virtue of being anti-climactic. Paul ends his therapy and walks out into the Brooklyn night, having nowhere to go and nothing to do. This is as un-Hollywood as it gets: no satisfying wrap-up, no happy ending, just a state of wandering through the world with no meaning and no sense of direction. The most one can extract from this last scene, if one insists on being optimistic, is the Socratic dictum, “Ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.” Maybe. But for the time being, existential loss is just that—loss. The gray night of the soul, perhaps, except that to me, the non-resolution of the story had an almost religious quality to it.

Which is probably why I watched the last episode several times, on DVD. I had been in Paul’s situation at age 28, when I came to the conclusion that my academic career was a farce; or at least, unreal. I remember I was living in England, on leave from my university in the United States to write my first book, and a British graduate student came to see me for advice about his research and his career. I can’t remember what I told him, but I remember feeling hollow, formulaic. Could I encourage him to pursue something that I no longer believed in? It was late afternoon by the time he left, and it was already starting to get dark. I sat in my chair and looked out across the room, feeling depressed. I had no idea what life was about, or how I might ever feel happy again. I felt like an empty shell. As the months passed, the dark night of the soul became increasingly dark.

How all that got turned around is another story, and a rather involved one, best saved for another time. But in a nutshell, it involved faith, which to me meant betting everything on something that was invisible, and in contemporary American culture very much of a long shot. Not God, I hasten to add; but definitely something involving the life of the spirit. I guess, at the end of the final episode of In Treatment, I wanted to pull Dr. Weston into a nearby café and talk to him about belief. Why, I’m not sure. Perhaps because he’s such a sympathetic, earnest, and honest character; perhaps because I felt that people with that level of integrity deserve a good life. Perhaps because I would have felt lucky to have had him as a therapist, or at least, a friend. I really don’t know. But belief is not really transferable, in any case. It’s hardly a matter of an intellectual decision, but rather something that emerges from your body, in a visceral way. There are no shortcuts in the life of the spirit, as it turns out; each of us has to find our own way.

I guess it says something that In Treatment ran for three seasons. Americans are not big on ambiguity, or non-resolution, after all; they aren’t a terribly sophisticated people, in my experience. But are Israelis so different? I guess I would have to say yes: more honest, more in-your-face. Two Israeli films come to mind that have this quality of non-resolution, and are (like Be Tipul) very powerful because of it. The first I saw about twenty or thirty years ago, and can’t recall the name; but it involved a New Age guru living in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, and his devoted followers, who come to his apartment once a week for a group session. The guru, meanwhile, gets increasingly wigged out, until he finally becomes convinced (inasmuch as everything is supposedly in the mind) that he can fly. So he jumps off the roof of his apartment building, only to discover that gravity has other plans for him. In the wake of his death, his disciples are not able to put their shattered lives back together, and become like the children of Israel, wandering through the desert, but without Moses to guide them. I found it a very courageous film.

The second film is called The Footnote (2011), starring Shlomo Bar Aba and Lior Ashkenazi as a father and son caught up in an epic Oedipal struggle. I won’t bother to recap the story here, except to say that it ends on a huge existential question mark. The moment of truth has arrived in the relationship, and it is up to the father to bite the bullet or cop out, in accepting or not accepting a prestigious award that was actually meant for his son. As he is in line to be called and walk up to the podium, the film ends. It’s unclear what he is going to do. (At this point I had actually stopped breathing.) All three of these stories—Be Tipul, the flying guru, and The Footnote, affected me very deeply, and in recent weeks I’ve been trying to figure out why. Because they are Israeli, and I’m Jewish? Nah, that didn’t really ring true. And then it hit me: all of them involve uncertainty. Of course, if you were to ask me how I feel about uncertainty, I would tell you that I hate it; but I’m not sure I do. I may not love it, but I’m certainly intrigued by it. My first memory, at age two-and-a-half, was precisely about this theme; and I recall that Camus wrote somewhere that our first conscious moment contains the issue that we will dance around for the rest of our lives. As one psychoanalyst puts it, the infant’s first sensory experiences presage the way he or she will view and construct the external world. But here’s the catch: the external world that we seek out is in synchrony with our first sensory experiences; and if those experiences are, for example, ones of uncertainty, then what the adult will seek out—for comfort(!)—is uncertainty. This, then, is a paradoxical type of harmony, what this psychologist calls “primal confusion,” or the paradox of finding solace in uncertainty.

In the Jewish tradition, when you paint your house, you are supposed to leave a small but visible section of one of the interior walls blank. The idea is that only God is perfect, so it’s important for us humans to be imperfect as a reminder of this. I believe there is a similar tradition in Navajo weaving, of leaving one strand loose, unwoven, so that there is a place for the Great Spirit to enter. And the asymmetry of Japanese art may be based on the same sort of premise. Uncertainty—things out of order, out of kilter, unfinished and incomplete—is, on this interpretation, a great gift. Dr. Weston left the therapist’s office to float around Brooklyn like a rudderless ship; but if his therapist was right, he had never really lived an authentic life, and now that terrifying opportunity had been presented to him. Ditto, the devotees of the flying guru. And something similar is going on at the end of The Footnote, where the father could, if he chose, abandon his need for a hollow Oedipal victory and come clean—in public, no less.

I have not enjoyed uncertainty in my life; I have endlessly pursued ways to be able to stand on terra firma. But I have never escaped the aura of that first primal awareness, which stimulated me to search for the sources of security in human life for the next sixty-seven years. Nor is it an accident that my current research is on Japanese culture, which is based, like karate, on the creativity of empty space—the “meaning of meaninglessness,” as one Japanese philosopher called it. I have always envied those who were blessed with a deep sense of security, who moved through life free of anxiety—or so it seemed. I guess I still do. But there is no getting around it: for better or worse, without uncertainty I wouldn’t be, to quote the epitaph on Kierkegaard’s tombstone, that individual.

©Morris Berman, 2013