Friday, March 12, 2010

SPINNING THE SELF

History was never my favorite subject -- and therefore not my best subject -- I think because of the way it was taught in high school. “History” was usually the coach’s subject so it was just something to get him onto the faculty payroll, but more than that was the idea that history really happened, that it can be nailed down, determined, the winner crowned, all one thing, beginning-to-end, turning point and climax, that’s it. Luckily, we went on to English classes taught by brilliant maiden ladies who cautioned us about propaganda. (They would be college professors today.)

It wasn’t until people like Howard Zinn began to say, “Hey, wait a minute. What about the Chinese/Jews/women/gays/Blacks in the West? Their story may not be at all the same. What about the Native American side of this story, not as whites tell it but as told by NA’s themselves? And what about the women in those tribes? Would they tell the same story as the men?"

And there we are: rhizomes. The grand highway, the broad determinable river, gone. Now we look at the interweaving streams, the islands and oxbows, the tuft here and microclimate there, and it adds up rather differently.

I’ve just watched seven videos about mostly American history since WWII. It traces out a coherent theme but it is a minority set of connections about what has brought us to where we are, at least partly because much of it has been secret, or at least unacknowledged, and that is part of the story itself. They are BBC one-hour programs organized into two “series” that a person can watch on the Internet. The first is “The Century of the Self,” four programs; the second is “The Power of Nightmares,” three programs. As it happened, I was watching the BBC series “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier . . .” through the same time period, which added a little edge. I don’t know whether the sum total of the combination is terrifying or just enlightening -- even hopeful simply because it brings the sunshine.

This will not be exhaustive or subtle because I’ve only seen the series once through and didn’t take notes. Anyway, this is only a thousand word post and you can easily see the series for yourself, though it amounts to a work day of time. By now I've watched seven one-hour BBC shows, four from "The Century of the Self" and three from "The Power of Nightmares."

All are by a guy named Adam Curtis, who had access to the BBC morgue or “clip dump” and he evidently sat through hours and hours of them to find what he puts in the background of these vids. He's deadly focused on how the big shots manipulate the rest of us, always trying to make us think we're acting as thinking human beings when we are NOT. There are arguments against what he says, but he doesn't include them, just concentrates on his message. The clips are amazing. Some are laugh-out-loud funny and others are just so bizarre you gasp. And he doesn't spare the concentration camp bodies.

In fact, that’s where we start: the confounding atrocities perpetrated by Hitler and the German nation’s failure to understand and prevent them. Those who had to flee included Freud, who had just proposed the idea of the subconscious. Until then no one had really understood that human minds include a great aquifer of thought that cannot be consciously accessed or controlled, a kind of animal thought seething with sex and violence. Freud invented psychoanalysis as a way of tricking those ungoverned thoughts out into the open by free-associating in a sort of hypnogogic state while lying on a couch with Freud taking notes and smoking cigars. The doctor’s privilege: “trust me because I have training and sit while you lie down.”

People were desperate to understand human behavior so as to rationalize and prevent such things from happening again, so Freud and psychoanalysis became very trendy. (Curtis doesn’t discuss the phenomenon of the flood of high professionals and artists who were displaced from Germany to Manhattan just as slick magazines were looking around for subject matter after the war and telling American this was IT, the real authorities.) Freud’s “thing” was to develop a superego in both the person and in the society that was strong enough to keep the garbage can lid on the nasty forces of inner darkness, which were defined according to what his Viennese society thought was nasty. Therefore, he “analyzed” his daughter, Anna, because she had been masturbating. The upshot was that she remained all her life her father’s acolyte, living in her father’s house, never marrying or having relations with a man, but in close intimacy with a woman who had four children. She analyzed the children. One died of alcoholism in adulthood and a second committed suicide.

The other major failure of psychoanalysis was even more notorious: the case of Marilyn Monroe, a big story for the slicks. The footage of Marilyn at her best, bouncing and shining, next to the footage of her in near-suicidal madness is stunning. Arthur Miller, it is suggested, drew much of his hatred of authority-based stalking and stigmatizing from watching Marilyn. It wasn’t just McCarthy.

Video two is about Bernays, Freud’s nephew, and how he used the insights of Freud to invent “public relations” -- what we now call “spin.” His first case was breaking the taboo on women smoking. Unattractive himself, he was insidiously clever at controlling people’s emotions. His daughter, however, seems pretty clear-headed and says she really resented being called “stupid” along with all the rest of humanity. The daughters in this series, all old women, are quite brilliant, maybe more than their famous fathers.

Video three is William Reich’s departure from Freud and then many people working in active opposition. This daughter is the most appealing of all, though Reich himself ended up a madman obsessing about the magic powers of orgasm which he tried to control with a box and a massively militaristic gun. Freud’s silly notions broke down into some even sillier ones: people lying on their backs on mats in huge rooms, screaming to “let it all out.” EST. We see footage of Fritz Perls working with people releasing their dangerous and powerful (so they think) inner monsters by posturing within a circle of rapt listeners. Esalen is explained. When I was in Saskatoon in the Eighties, the local therapists were still going to Esalen for workshops and bringing back the techniques to use. All I can say is that there were plenty of “inner monsters” in Saskatoon. They didn’t even have to hide very much. Many were Stalin’s victims’ descendants.

Tomorrow: “The Power of Nightmares.”

2 comments:

artemesia said...

You mean Howard Zinn, Mary! But we knew that!

I loved it when he was mentioned in Good Will Hunting by his neighbors and fans, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

prairie mary said...

Thanks for watching my back, cousin!

Now if you could tell me why my titles and tags don't work. . .

Zinn was just on the radio a few nights ago.

Prairie Mary