In my local town there is a putt-putt course. At the entrance a bold sign exclaims, ‘This game is played at your own risk!”
What are they afraid is going to happen? Might some senior citizen misjudge the strength of his swing and fatally club someone? Perhaps he could fall into the churning blades of Windmill or impale himself upon the plastic spires of Castle? Perhaps he might be swallowed by Snake or rudely thrown to the thundering tracks at Bude Station.
One of the hallmarks of Narcissistic Culture is our capacity to live with split realities. The strange torsion of your mind required to make the putt-putt sign meaningful entails a keeping apart, a split, between child and adult worlds that is really crying out for a unifying symbol to help us with the apparent contradiction of adults playing a child’s game.
Our world is full of such split realities. Collectively we fight for peace and oppress in the name of liberation. George Orwell called it ‘doublethink’, the capacity to hold opposing realities, believe in them both and, most importantly, not have your world disturbed by the contradiction.
Such splits are typical of both the Borderline Personality Disorder and the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. They tend to be more obvious with the former which often makes the borderline person appear more ‘crazy’ than the dapper narcissist who rarely looses his cool, but in fact his veneer of calm is only permitted by the split in him remaining unconscious. The wounding that caused it is earlier, more damaging and requires stronger defences.. The borderline is actually a bit tougher and can spend at least some time agonising over their failings.
This is because the borderline has one foot across the developmental threshold responsible for symbol formation and the emergent transcendant function that can deal with splits like self/other, inner/outer, conscious/unconscious. The narcissist however, has fewer tools to bridge opposites. His wounding is prior to the developmental stage of a negotiated reality with the world, before the possible transformation of ‘between’.
The alchemists say that, ‘to those who have the symbol the passage is easy’. This is because the healing symbol turns contradiction into paradox and makes us better able to live with ourselves.
‘How can you live with desiring desirelessness?’ someone asked a buddhist sage. ‘It just doesn’t bother me,’ replied the master.
In the West we achieve this capacity to live ‘au dessus de la mellee’ with much greater difficulty. We devalue relatedness and the feast of alternative perspectives it brings. We also devalue ‘Mother’. Freud never uses the pronoun, not once in all his books on childhood. But it is upon mother that the capacity for symbol formation depends.
‘The main threat to the modern infant is that he is the child of a dissatisfied mother.” S de Bouvoir.
If the child is un-contained by mother’s justified yet grevious distraction, then the emerging facets of himself cannot cohere or reorganise themselves into more evolved forms. Time will pass to no avail. There will be no mediation between self and other, no dialogue between I and me and no baseline for behaviour. The world will be ‘ready-at hand’ to quote Hiedeggar, stock to be used and abused rather than having the world be’ present-to-hand’, which is characterised by care and that which is between.
What to do?
An old Sufi story will help us.
The Chicken Prince was so called because the Prince of the Realm would insist on being naked all the time and pecking the ground like a chicken. He could not be persuded to join in even one of the courtly occasions in the proper attire, nor heed a single nicety observed by the good people of that place. The king was in despair. All his wise men had failed him.
Then, one day, an old herder from the hills came to the gate. He knocked saying that in the woods he’d heard a voice telling him to come to the help of the people and so he was lead before the Prince who was in the courtyard pecking away. The old man threw off all his robes and began to peck at the ground alongside the Prince who was a bit surprised…
but a bit relieved.
They pecked and pecked.
Then the old man began to hum as he pecked. Everything seemed to be okay. The Prince was a bit taken aback but it also soothed and so he tried it and discovered to his amazement that he could peck and hum together. They spent the whole afternoon humming and pecking.
Next day, after much humming and pecking, the old man began to make music like water over stones while he pecked. He quietly gurgled and span his sounds as he pecked. The Prince was a bit startled but he was also comforted by the old man’s undinting pecks and so he was encouraged and tried it for himself . It was delicious. He began to sing and peck and got so excited that before he knew it, it was time for bed.
Next day the Chicken Prince found the old man under one of the tables in the feasting hall muttering words to himself as he pecked and he kept certain things that seemed precious to him close by. He pecked and coddled his treasures and made words. The Prince was amazed but with a whoop he scampered off and found a treasure of his own making words all the way.
All day they pecked and coddled their treasures and made words.
Next day the old man had words and pants. The Prince was deeply impressed. ‘Why are you wearing pants?’ asked the boy, making his words.
‘I can be a chicken and wear pants’, said the old man. It seemed to be true. So he tried it and his pants were wonderful. So were his cool shoes. He found that even knives and forks were no impediment to his being able to express his inner chicken whenever he wanted. When he was in the mood…
which was less these days…
and so the Prince grew up to be wise and just…
and the old herder went back to his hills and wondered about stuff.
So what had actually happened? The kindly herder had done what he did best, he gently herded the disparate fragments of the Prince’s psyche into the same space so that they could get to know one another. He gave the boy the chance of finding his transcendent function, his treasure, by bearing the tension between opposing realities.
”The transcendant function is not something one can do oneself, it comes from experiencing the conflict of opposites.’ C G Jung.
”facilitates transition from one attitude to another.” ibid
If there is a cultural pattern in early development, a collective trend in response to the schism between mother and infant inevitable in misogynistic society, one in which children are bound to feel they have to supress themselves to live and that being made to feel bad about oneself is for your own good, then we will become collectively split, people of the lie, ever in retreat from the horror that to follow one’s own destiny is a form of self annihilation. The threshold cannot be crossed.
”Madness is not simply a propensity to participate in alternate realities but a loss of power to move freely among them.” J Nelson.
You can come across any number of examples of this in every day life. I was out walking my dog in the lane. A much older man overtakes at high speed, ‘power walking’, all sweat and gasping. A mile further on he’s ground to a halt. As I pass by he staggers over, grasps my arm and begins a monologue about potholes in the road where he comes from and how the roads here are like silk. The glory of the warm lane actually beneath his feet is apparently being saved for later, for when he in that traffic jam on the potholes. Morning or evening he’s a stranger to now. And the common thread of his day is that he’s never here.
A bit further on and my neighbour storms out of his cottage, flapping the sleeves of his jumper in frustration at the gorgeous indian summer sky. ‘You just don’t know what to do!” he yelled. As if the sun lacked the etiquette of observing proper form for the season.
On the way to the shop I bump into a mate with a long face. He’s certain his future is blighted despite the fact that he has just qualified in a new vocation and has been given a work placement. It doesn’t add up. Though this feeling of dependence and being unfed is congruent with his life script. His wife joins in the wail of inevitable poverty and miserlyness. It didn’t seem to occur to them that life is people and that they were therefore talking about each other, taking pythonesque comfort from the shared agreement and mutual head nodding of just how awful they really are.
Further along an aquaintance asks what I’ve been up to. I tell him I’ve been walking the dog and in the woods. ‘Ah the woods’, he muses wistfully. ” I love the woods but I’ve never got a good enough reason to go there,” .. all imparted jovial and calm, yet how it must tear at him not to have sufficient cause to do what he loves. Upon what precedent must such a double bind be nested? What can be inferred about the quality of life itself from such a trap? Does he feel the same about sex, friendship, a vocation? And if so what kind of fractious, driven, inner hell can it be when the richness of life is not a sufficient reason to live it?