Yesterday I ended my hour of reading practice with a thought about the relation of feelings to thought and my sense that a distance between feeling and what we are able to think, is one of things that cause many people to suffer mental/inner/spiritual distress. ‘We have our feelings but we can’t match them up with what we believe about reality.’ What we think is often of poor quality and many times downright wrong (speaking for myself at least) but what we feel is, however possibly misdirected, a genuine and direct personal experience. Yesterday’s reading reminded me of a thought from psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion which I have been turning over in my mind for a good number of years. It seems related to what happens in Shared Reading:
If a person cannot ‘think’ with his thoughts, that is to say that he has thoughts but lacks the apparatus of ‘thinking’ which enables him to use his thoughts, to think them as it were, then the personality is incapable of learning from experience. This failure is serious. Failure to eat, drink or breathe properly has disastrous consequences for life itself. Failure to use emotional experience produces a comparable disaster in the development of the personality.
W.R.Bion, Learning From Experience
The key word in that first sentence must be ‘with’ – Bion’s suggestion is that there are things (as it were, objects) we call ‘thoughts’ and there is an action which may be performed with them (verb) which we call ‘thinking’. There are things you can do something with. Sometimes we don’t do it. Stuff gets stuck.
The thought jolts into a new perspective when we get to the fourth sentence – ‘failure to use emotional experience produces a comparable disaster in the development of the personality’ – and thoughts and emotion are understood to be part of the same biological system. They are like eating and breathing part of our survival kit. Not using feeling and thought, the action of thinking, can damage, even kill, us.
I want to use an example of something from real life. Say you have a child who has been part of a badly functioning family. Child is suffers at hands of parents, is taken away by social workers, placed in foster care. Lives with ten, fifteen sets of foster carers as things continue to go wrong, child is distressed, uncontrollable. Foster carers can’t cope for long. Child gets moved a lot. many broken relationships. By the time I meet him aged twelve this child has a mass of huge emotional experience, like a tangle of threads, ripped out telephone wires, lumps of stuff, broken bottles, smashed hopes… child has more of this inner debris than most adults will accumulate in a lifetime. Child has emotional experience but he cannot use it because he cannot think his thoughts. He doesn’t have a good story to explain his feelings. He is very unlikely to be able to face the truth (mum and dad were a mess/ill/couldn’t help me). This child is (emotionally) starving, he is unable to ‘use’ his emotional experience. He’s had the experience, but as T.S.Eliot says, ‘missed the meaning’.
I turn back to Silas. Yesterday we saw that Silas had feelings but no way of thinking about what was happening to him as he was falsely accused and cast out by his social group, the sect in Lantern Yard. Numb and unable to ‘think’, Silas seems to enter a state of frozen animation, losing his fiance, was well as his wider community:
Marner went home, and for a whole day sat alone, stunned by despair,
without any impulse to go to Sarah and attempt to win her belief in
his innocence. The second day he took refuge from benumbing
unbelief, by getting into his loom and working away as usual; and
before many hours were past, the minister and one of the deacons
came to him with the message from Sarah, that she held her
engagement to him at an end. Silas received the message mutely, and
then turned away from the messengers to work at his loom again. In
little more than a month from that time, Sarah was married to
William Dane; and not long afterwards it was known to the brethren
in Lantern Yard that Silas Marner had departed from the town.
I ask myself what it would be like to sit for a whole day, ‘stunned by despair’. I think ‘stunned’ indicates absence of the ability to think, perhaps the needful absence of feeling. Trying to imagine his state, I recall Emily Dickinson’s poem;
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
In terms of preserving himself, his love, Silas cannot act and does not seem to feel. He is ‘without any impulse to go to Sarah and attempt to win her belief in
his innocence’. That impulse might eventually take the form of a thought but it would start as a feeling – I love her, she loves me, I need her, she’ll love me – but there is no feeling. Silas is a dead man walking. The only thing he can do is his work. The mechanical labour of the hand-loom is like a safe place for him. I was struck by George Eliot calling it ‘a refuge’ and that he gets into it.
Mechanical labour is a comfort when you feel bad – how many people furiously clean their kitchen in the middle of a domestic row? Cleaning the stove! Wire wool! Bleach that sink! I don’t think these are only my habits. there is a need to let some other rhythm take over. For Silas, letting the loom take over is a refuge. It makes a clacking noise. There is a rhythm to it. The problem is, of course, that temporary refuges we create in our distress – the child running away, glue sniffing, our adult drugs or silences – while they begin as things we get into to escape, become things we can’t get out of. The refuge becomes a prison.
This is what Bion calls ‘a disaster in the development of the personality’ equivalent to the failure to breathe or eat. George Eliot has set us up with a story of a man whose life is completely smashed up, which sits alongside The Winters’ Tale as one of the great stories of human breakage and repair. Why on earth any school curriculum inventors, examination setters, ever thought this was a suitable book for twelve-year-olds I cannot imagine. They ruined George Eliot for several generations of readers.
I said that Bion’s thought seems connected to what happens in Shared Reading. This is a thought I’ll try to come back to another day. But I think before going on to Chapter Two I’ll have a poetry day tomorrow. Something delightful.