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‘Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius; and the uniformity of a work denotes the hand of a single artist.’
Gibbon is surely right. The majority of poets, novelists, composers, and, to a lesser extent, of painters and sculptors, are bound to spend a great deal of their time alone, as Gibbon himself did. Current wisdom, especially that propagated by the various schools of psychoanalysis, assumes that man is a social being who needs the companionship and affection of other human beings from cradle to grave. It is widely believed that interpersonal relationships of an intimate kind are the chief, if not the only, source of human happiness. Yet the lives of creative individuals often seem to run counter to this assumption. For example, many of the world’s greatest thinkers have not reared families or formed close personal ties. This is true of Descartes, Newton, Locke, Pascal, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein. Some of these men of genius had transient affairs with other men or women: others, like Newton, remained celibate. But none of them married, and most lived alone for the greater part of their lives.
Creative talent of a major kind is not widely bestowed. Those who possess it are often regarded with awe and envy because of their gifts. They also tend to be thought of as peculiar; odd human beings who do not share the pains and pleasures of the average person. Does this difference from the average imply abnormality in the sense of psychopathology? More particularly, is the predilection of the creative person for solitude evidence of some inability to make close relationships?
It is not difficult to point to examples of men and women of genius whose interpersonal relationships have been stormy, and whose personalities have been grossly disturbed by mental illness, alcoholism, or drug abuse. Because of this, it is easy to assume that creative talent, mental instability, and a deficient capacity for making satisfying personal relationships are closely linked. Regarded from this point of view, the possession of creative talent appears as a doubtful blessing: a Janus-faced endowment, which may bring fame and fortune, but which is incompatible with what, for the ordinary person, constitutes happiness.
The belief that men and women of genius are necessarily unstable has been widely held, especially since the time of Freud. It cannot possibly be the whole truth. Not all creative people are notably disturbed; not all solitary people are unhappy. Gibbon, after his initial disappointment in love, enjoyed a particularly happy and equable life which anyone might envy. As he wrote himself:
When I contemplate the common lot of mortality, I must acknowledge that I have drawn a high prize in the lottery of life … I am endowed with a cheerful temper, a moderate sensibility, and a natural disposition to repose rather than to activity: some mischievous appetites and habits have perhaps been corrected by philosophy or time. The love of study, a passion which derives fresh vigour from enjoyment, supplies each day, each hour, with a perpetual source of independent and rational pleasure; and I am not sensible of any decay of the mental faculties’ According to the scale of Switzerland, I am a rich man; and I am indeed rich, since my income is superior to my expense, and my expense is equal to my wishes. My friend Lord Sheffield has kindly relieved me from the cares to which my taste and temper are most adverse: shall I add, that since the failure of my first wishes, I have never entertained any serious thoughts of a matrimonial connection?
As Lytton Strachey wrote in his essay on Gibbon:
Happiness is the word that immediately rises to the mind at the thought of Edward Gibbon: and happiness in its widest connotation – including good fortune as well as enjoyment.
Some might allege that Gibbon, by renouncing his love for Suzanne Curchod at the behest of his father, had cut himself off from the chief source of human happiness, and should be labelled pathological on this account. Sexual love may have played little part in Gibbon’s life, but Gibbon’s other relationships were rewarding. Although the immense labour of composing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire necessitated long periods of solitary study and writing, Gibbon was equally happy in company. When he was in London, he led an active social life, was a member of Boodle’s, White’s, and Brook’s, as well as of The Literary Club, and was appreciated everywhere as a fascinating talker. In addition, he displayed a touching affection toward his aunt, Mrs Porten, who had largely been responsible for his upbringing, and a gift for friendship which was most clearly manifest in his long and close relationship with Lord Sheffield. Gibbon occasionally laments his solitary state in his correspondence, and toyed with the idea of adopting a female cousin. But the prospect of matrimony was a daydream which he soon dismissed.
When I have painted in my fancy all the probable consequences of such an union, I have started from my dream, rejoiced in my escape, and ejaculated a thanksgiving that I was still in possession of my natural freedom.
Modern insistence that true happiness can only be found in intimate attachments, more especially in sexual fulfilment, does not allow a place for characters like Gibbon. It is clear that, although his friendships were many, his chief source of self-esteem and of pleasure was his work, as the famous sentence which closes his autobiography makes plain.
In old age, the consolation of hope is reserved for the tenderness of parents, who commence a new life in their children; the faith of enthusiasts who sing Hallelujahs above the clouds, and the vanity of authors who presume the immortality of their name and writings.
Gibbon was a classical artist whose style embodies an attitude toward the follies and extravagances of mankind which is both ironic and detached. Romantics, like Rousseau and Coleridge, detested him for this reason. In his writings, Gibbon’s human sympathies certainly appear as limited: sex is generally treated as a subject of amusement; religion dismissed as superstition. But the immensity of the task he set himself demanded such a stance. To impose order upon the turmoil and confusion of so long a period of history required an Olympian perspective. Gibbon’s humanity did not, and could not, manifest itself in his great history; but the warmth of his feelings towards his friends and the affection which they showed him demonstrate that the man himself possessed a human heart. By most of the standards adopted in the past, Gibbon would be rated as exceptionally well-balanced. It is only since Freud advanced the notion that heterosexual fulfilment is the sine qua non of mental health that anyone would question Gibbon’s status as a more than commonly happy and successful human being.
It is not only men and women of genius who may find their chief value in the impersonal rather than in the personal. I shall argue that interests, whether in writing history, breeding carrier pigeons, speculating in stocks and shares, designing aircraft, playing the piano, or gardening, play a greater part in the economy of human happiness than modern psycho-analysts and their followers allow. The great creators exemplify my thesis most aptly because their works remain as evidence. That mysterious being, the ordinary man or woman, leaves little behind to indicate the breadth and depth of interests which may, during a lifetime, have been major preoccupations. The rich may accumulate great collections of the works of others. Enthusiastic gardeners can be notably creative and leave evidence of their passion which lasts for years, if not for as long as a book or a painting. But nothing remains of a passion for windmills or cricket. Yet we must all have known people whose lives were actually made worthwhile by such interests, whether or not their human relationships were satisfactory. The burden of value with which we are at present loading interpersonal relationships is too heavy for those fragile craft to carry. Our expectation that satisfying intimate relationships should, ideally, provide happiness and that, if they do not, there must be something wrong with those relationships, seems to be exaggerated.
Love and friendship are, of course, an important part of what makes life worthwhile. But they are not the only source of happiness. Moreover, human beings change and develop as life goes on. In old age, human relationships often become less important. Perhaps this is a beneficent arrangement of Nature, designed to ensure that the inevitable parting with loved ones will be less distressing. In any case, there is always an element of uncertainty in interpersonal relationships which should preclude them from being idealized as an absolute or seen as constituting the only path toward personal fulfilment. It may be our idealization of interpersonal relationships in the West that causes marriage, supposedly the most intimate tie, to be so unstable. If we did not look to marriage as the principal source of happiness, fewer marriages would end in tears.
I shall argue that human beings are directed by Nature toward the impersonal as well as toward the personal, and that this feature of the human condition is a valuable and important part of our adaptation. We share with other animals the prime biological necessity of reproducing ourselves; of ensuring that our genes survive, though we do not. But the long span of human life which extends beyond the main reproductive period also has significance. It is then that the impersonal comes to assume a greater importance for the average person, although seeds of such interests have been present from the earliest years.
The great creators, as we shall see, may in some instances have been deflected from human relationships toward their own field of endeavour by adverse circumstances which made it difficult for them to achieve intimacy with others. But this is a matter of emphasis rather than substitution. It does not imply, as some psycho-analysts assume, that creative endeavour is invariably an alternative to human relationships. One might argue that people who have no abiding interests other than their spouses and families are as limited intellectually as those who have neither spouse nor children may be emotionally.
Many ordinary interests, and the majority of creative pursuits involving real originality, continue without involving relationships. It seems to me that what goes on in the human being when he is by himself is as important as what happens in his interactions with other people. Something like one third of our total lifespan is, in any case, spent in the isolation of sleep. Two opposing drives operate throughout life: the drive for companionship, love, and everything else which brings us close to our fellow men; and the drive toward being independent, separate, and autonomous. If we were to listen only to the psycho-analytic ‘object-relations’ theorists, we should be driven to conclude that none of us have validity as isolated individuals. From their standpoint, it appears that we possess value only in so far as we fulfil some useful function vis-à-vis other people, in our roles, for example, as spouse, parent, or neighbour. It follows that the justification for the individual’s existence is the existence of others.
Yet some of the people who have contributed most to the enrichment of human experience have contributed little to the welfare of human beings in particular. It can be argued that some of the great thinkers listed above were self-centred, alienated, or ‘narcissistic’; more preoccupied with what went on in their own minds than with the welfare of other people. The same is true of many writers, composers, and painters. The creative person is constantly seeking to discover himself, to remodel his own identity, and to find meaning in the universe through what he creates. He finds this a valuable integrating process which, like meditation or prayer, has little to do with other people, but which has its own separate validity. His most significant moments are those in which he attains some new insight, or makes some new discovery; and these moments are chiefly, if not invariably, those in which he is alone.
Although major talent is rare, creative people remain human beings with the same needs and wishes as the rest of us. Because they leave behind records of their thoughts and feelings in their works, they exemplify, in striking fashion, aspects of human striving which are common to us all but which, in the case of ordinary people, escape notice. Perhaps the need of the creative person for solitude, and his preoccupation with internal processes of integration, can reveal something about the needs of the less gifted, more ordinary human being which is, at the time of writing, neglected.
What happiness? Who can enjoy alone.
Or all enjoying what contentment find?’
The current emphasis upon intimate interpersonal relationships as the touchstone of health and happiness is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Earlier generations would not have rated human relationships so highly; believing, perhaps, that the daily round, the common task, should furnish all we need to ask; or, alternatively, being too preoccupied with merely keeping alive and earning a living to have much time to devote to the subtleties of personal relations. Some observers, like Ernest Gellner, suggest that our present preoccupation with, and anxiety about, human relationships has replaced former anxieties about the unpredictability and precariousness of the natural world. He argues that, in modern affluent societies, most of us are protected from disease, poverty, hunger, and natural catastrophes to an extent undreamed of by previous generations. But modern industrial societies are unstable and lacking in structure. Increased mobility has undermined the pillars of society. Because we have more choice as to where we live, what society we should join, and what we should make of our lives, our relations with the other people who constitute our environment are no longer defined by age-old rules and have therefore become matters of increasing concern and anxiety. As Gellner puts it, ‘Our environment is now made up basically of relationships with others.’
Gellner goes on to affirm that the realm of personal relations has become ‘the area of our most pressing concern’. Our anxieties in this field are compounded by the decline of religious belief. Religion not only provided rules of conduct regarding personal relationships, but also offered a more predictable, stable alternative. Relationships with spouse, children, or neighbours might be difficult, unfulfilling, or unstable; but, so long as one continued to believe in Him, the same could not be said of one’s relationship with God.
Although I am far from agreeing with everything which Gellner has to say in his book about psycho-analysis, I think he is right in alleging that psycho-analysis promises a form of salvation; and that this kind of salvation is to be attained by purging the individual of the emotional blocks or blind spots which prevent him from achieving fulfilling interpersonal relationships. Gellner is also right in thinking that psycho-analysis has exerted so widespread an influence that it has become the dominant idiom for the discussion of human personality and personal relationships even by those who do not subscribe to all its doctrines.
Psycho-analysis has changed considerably during the course of the twentieth century. The main change has been the increase in emphasis upon the patient’s relationship with the psycho-analyst. Psycho-analysis now insists that analysis of transference, that is, of the patient’s emotional response to, and attitude toward, the psychoanalyst, is the most essential feature of psycho-analytic treatment. Indeed, recognition of the importance of transference has been a main factor in creating common ground between psychotherapeutic schools like those of Freud and Jung which in other theoretical ways are still poles apart. Although the status of psycho-analysis as an effective method of curing neurotic symptoms has been questioned in recent years, the influence of concepts derived from psycho-analysis is pervasive. In most varieties of social work, for instance, consideration of the client’s capacity to make human relationships is thought to be a vital part of case-work; and attempts are often made to improve this capacity through the agency of the client’s relationship with the social worker.
In the early days of psycho-analysis, the emphasis was not so much upon the analysis of transference as upon retracing the course of the patient’s psycho-sexual development. The parient was primarily regarded as a separate individual, and his emotional attitude toward the analyst was considered as secondary, or indeed as an obstacle to psycho-analytic investigation. When Freud began his investigation of the origins of neurosis during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, he invariably found disturbances in the sexual lives of his patients. The edifice of psycho-analysis came to rest upon the foundation of the theoretical scheme of sexual development, from infancy onward, which Freud postulated as a consequence of his investigations.
In Freud’s view, the various types of neurosis were related to the patient’s failure to progress beyond the early stages of sexual development; to fixation at the ‘oral’, ‘anal’, or ‘phallic’ stage, which prevented progress toward ‘genitality’, as Freud named the stage of sexual maturity. Freud believed that mental life was originally directed by the ‘pleasure principle’; that is, by the need to avoid pain and to obtain pleasure. He also believed that the nervous system, and hence the mental apparatus, had the function of reducing the level of intensity of the instinctual impulses which reached it, by finding ways of expressing, and therefore of discharging, those impulses. The idea of psychological health and happiness became linked with the existence, or achievement, of sexual fulfilment.
It became widely assumed that, if a person was happy and healthy, he or she must be enjoying a satisfying sexual life; and, conversely, that if a person was neurotically unhappy, there must be a disturbance in his or her capacity to find sexual release. During Freud’s lifetime, the main emphasis was upon instinctual satisfaction; that is, upon the capacity for orgasm. It was tacitly implied that, if partners were able to give each other satisfaction in this way, other aspects of their relationship could be taken for granted. Sex was the touchstone by which the whole relationship could be evaluated. If a patient could overcome the blocks which had caused fixations at immature stages of sexual development, and attain the genital stage, there would then be no obstacle to the establishment of relationships with others on equal and mutually rewarding terms.
Freud assumed that neurosis invariably had its origin in the circumstances of the patient’s early childhood. The task of the psycho-analyst was to facilitate the recall of early traumatic memories which had been repressed because they were painful or shameful. Following the discovery made by his colleague Breuer, Freud found that, if a patient suffering from hysteria could be persuaded to recall the exact circumstances in which a particular symptom had originated, and could also re-experience the emotions connected with those circumstances, the symptom would disappear. As Freud went on to treat other types of patient, the original emphasis on traumatic incidents somewhat declined in favour of recall of the whole emotional climate in which the patient was brought up; but neurotic symptoms were still assumed to originate from the circumstances of the first five years of life.
Psycho-analysis could therefore be regarded as a process of historical reconstruction; a technique for unearthing the events, feelings, and phantasies of the patient’s early childhood. There was little need to examine current relationships, and still less to involve the patient’s friends and family in a treatment which was chiefly concerned with subjective responses dating from a period of the patient’s life about which they probably knew very little.
Psycho-analysts were often criticized for treating their patients too much as isolated individuals, without reference to their families and friends. The latter, often to their chagrin, were generally discouraged from any participation in the analytic process, and were not usually seen by the psycho-analyst or asked for information about the patient’s behaviour and relationships at home. But, if psycho-analytic theory in its original form is accepted, treating the patient without direct involvement of those currently close to him is reasonable. No one except the patient has access to the phantasies and feelings of his early childhood. Even the most detailed account which parents might give of the patient’s early years will not disclose what the psychoanalyst is seeking: the patient’s subjective reaction to those childhood circumstances rather than the facts themselves.
When Freud first initiated psycho-analytic treatment, he did not anticipate that he would become emotionally important to his patients. He hoped to make psycho-analysis into a ‘science of the mind’ which would ultimately be based upon, and be as objective as, anatomy and physiology. He saw his own role as that of a detached observer, and assumed that his patients would have the same attitude toward him as they would toward a medical specialist in any other field. When he discovered that this was not the case, that his patients began to experience and to express emotions of love and hate toward himself, he did not accept such emotions as genuine expressions of feelings in the here-and-now, but interpreted them as new editions of emotions from the past which had been transferred to the person of the analyst.
Freud originally regarded transference with distaste. As late as 1910, long after he had recognized the importance of transference, he wrote to Pfister:
As for the transference, it is altogether a curse. The intractable and fierce impulses in the illness, on account of which I renounced both indirect and hypnotic suggestion, cannot be altogether abolished even through psycho-analysis; they can only be restrained and what remains expresses itself in the transference. That is often a considerable amount.
In Lecture 27 of Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud reiterates his conviction that transference must be treated as unreal.
We overcame the transference by pointing out to the patient that his feelings do not arise from the present situation and do not apply to the person of the doctor, but that they are repeating something that happened to him earlier. In this way we oblige him to transform his repetition into a memory.
Since Freud’s day, and, more particularly, since the emergence of the object-relations school of psycho-analysis, there has been a shift of emphasis in understanding and interpreting transference. The majority of psycho-analysts, social workers, and other members of the so-called ‘helping professions’ consider that intimate personal relationships are the chief source of human happiness. Conversely, it is widely assumed that those who do not enjoy the satisfactions provided by such relationships are neurotic, immature, or in some other way abnormal. Today, the thrust of most forms of psychotherapy, whether with individuals or groups, is directed toward understanding what has gone wrong with the patient’s relationships with significant persons in his or her past, in order that the patient can be helped toward making more fruitful and fulfilling human relationships in the future.
Since past relationships condition expectations in regard to new relationships, the attitude of the patient toward the analyst as a new and significant person is an important source of information about previous difficulties and also provides a potential opportunity for correcting these difficulties. To give a simple example, a patient who has experienced rejection or ill-treatment is likely to approach the analyst with an expectation of further rejection and ill-treatment, although the patient may be quite unconscious of the fact that this expectation is affecting his attitude. The realization that he is making false assumptions about how others will treat him, together with the actual experience of being treated by the analyst with greater kindness and understanding than he had expected, may revolutionize his expectations and facilitate his making better relationships with others than had hitherto been possible.
As we have seen, Freud discounted any feelings which the analysand expressed toward the analyst as unreal, and interpreted them as belonging to the past. Today, many analysts recognize that such feelings are not merely facsimiles of childhood impulses and phantasies. In some cases they represent an attempt to make up for what has been missing in the analysand’s childhood. The analysand may, for a time, see the analyst as the ideal parent whom he never had. This experience may have a healing effect, and it can be a mistake to dispel this image by premature interpretation or by calling it an illusion.
As we saw earlier, Freud considered that the psycho-analyst’s task was to remove the blocks which were preventing the patient from expressing his instinctual drives in adult fashion. If this task could be accomplished, it was supposed that the patient’s relationships would automatically improve. Modern analysts have reversed this order. They think first in terms of relationships, second in terms of instinctual satisfaction. If the analysand is enabled to make relationships with other human beings which are on equal terms, and free from anxiety, it is assumed that there will be no difficulty in expressing instinctual drives and attaining sexual fulfilment. Object-relations theorists believe that, from the beginning of life, human beings are seeking relationships, not merely instinctual satisfaction. They think of neurosis as representing a failure to make satisfying human relationships rather than as a matter of inhibited or undeveloped sexual drives.
Transference, in the sense of the patient’s total emotional attitude or series of attitudes toward the analyst, is therefore seen as a central feature of analytical treatment, not as a relic from the past, nor as ‘a curse’, nor even, as Freud later regarded it, as ‘a powerful ally’, because of the power which it gave him to modify the patient’s attitudes. Today a psycho-analyst will usually spend a good deal of his time detecting and commenting upon the way in which his patients react to himself, the analyst: whether they are fearful, compliant, aggressive, competitive, withdrawn, or anxious. Such attitudes have their history, which needs to be explored. But the emphasis is different. The analyst stuthes the analysand’s distorted attitude to himself, and by this means perceives the distortions in the analysand’s relationships with others. To do this effectively implies the recognition that there is a real relationship in the here-and-now, and that analysis is not solely concerned with the events of early childhood.
The analytical encounter is, after all, unique. No ordinary social meeting allows detailed study of the way in which one party reacts to the other. In no other situation in life can anyone count on a devoted listener who is prepared to give so much time and skilled attention to the problems of a single individual without asking for any reciprocal return, other than professional remuneration. The patient may never have encountered anyone in his life who has paid him such attention or even been prepared to listen to his problems. It is not surprising that the analyst becomes important to him. Recognizing the reality of such feelings is as necessary as recognizing the irrational and distorted elements of the transference which date from the analysand’s childhood experience.
This concentration upon interpersonal relationships and upon transference is not characteristic of all forms of analytical practice; but it does link together a number of psycho-analysts and psychotherapists who may originally have been trained in different schools, but who share two fundamental convictions. The first is that neurotic problems are something to do with early failures in the relation between the child and its parents: the second, that health and happiness entirely depend upon the maintenance of intimate personal relationships.
No two children are exactly alike, and it must be recognized that genetic differences may contribute powerfully to problems in childhood development. The same parent may be perceived quite differently by different children. Nevertheless, I share the conviction that many neurotic difficulties in later life can be related to the individual’s early emotional experience within the family.
I am less convinced that intimate personal relationships are the only source of health and happiness. In the present climate, there is a danger that love is being idealized as the only path to salvation. When Freud was asked what constituted psychological health, he gave as his answer the ability to love and work. We have over-emphasized the former, and paid too little attention to the latter. In many varieties of analysis, exclusive concentration upon interpersonal relationships has led to failure to consider other ways of finding personal fulfilment, and also to neglecting the study of shifting dynamics within the psyche of the isolated individual.
A number of psycho-analysts contributed to the rise of ‘object-relations theory’ as opposed to Freud’s ‘instinct theory’. Amongst these analysts were Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, and Ronald Fairbairn. But the most important work in this field has been that of John Bowlby, whose three volumes Attachment and Loss are deservedly influential, have inspired a great deal of research, and are widely regarded as having made a major contribution to our understanding of human nature.
Bowlby assumes that the primary need of human beings, from infancy onward, is for supportive and rewarding relationships with other human beings, and that this need for attachment extends far beyond the need for sexual fulfilment. The ideas which Bowlby is expressing derive from a welcome synthesis between ethology and psycho-analysis. By emphasizing attachment, which is distinct from sexual involvement, although often associated with it, Bowlby has widened the psycho-analytic view of man and human relationships, bringing it more into line with the findings of workers in other disciplines:
Bowlby’s Attachment and Loss originated in his work for the World Health Organization on the mental health of homeless children. This led to subsequent study of the effects upon young children of the temporary loss of the mother and to a far greater appreciation of the distress suffered by young children when, for example, they or their mothers have to be admitted to hospital.
Human infants begin to develop specific attachments to particular people around the third quarter of their first year of life. This is the time at which the infant begins to protest if handed to a stranger and tends to cling to the mother or other adults with whom he is familiar. The mother usually provides a secure base to which the infant can return, and, when she is present, the infant is bolder in both exploration and play than when she is absent. If the attachment figure removes herself, even briefly, the infant usually protests. Longer separations, as when children have been admitted to hospital, cause a regular sequence of responses first described by Bowlby. Angry protest is succeeded by a period of despair in which the infant is quietly miserable and apathetic. After a further period, the infant becomes detached and appears no longer to care about the absent attachment figure. This sequence of protest, despair, and detachment seems to be the standard response of the small child whose mother is removed.
The evidence is sufficiently strong for Bowlby to consider that an adult’s capacity for making good relationships with other adults depends upon the individual’s experience of attachment figures when a child. A child who from its earliest years is certain that his attachment figures will be available when he needs them, will develop a sense of security and inner confidence. In adult life, this confidence will make it possible for him to trust and love other human beings. In relationships between the sexes in which love and trust has been established, sexual fulfilment follows as a natural consequence.
However, attachment varies in quality and intensity, partly depending upon the mother’s reaction to, and treatment of, her infant; and partly, no doubt, upon innate genetic differences. Although the overt response of an infant to the mother’s departure may appear to be similar in different instances, the consequences of her prolonged absence may vary considerably from case to case. Research indicates that children brought up in institutions are more disruptive and demanding than children reared in nuclear families. It is likely, though not absolutely proven, that such children are less able to make intimate relationships when grown-up than those who have had the advantage of a close-knit, loving family. Experiments with separating infant monkeys from their mothers indicate that it is not difficult to produce an adult monkey which is incapable of normal social and sexual relationships. However, human beings are extraordinarily resilient, and even children who have been persistently isolated and ill-treated may be able to compensate for this if their environment changes for the better.
In Chapter 12 of the first volume of Attachment and Loss, Bowlby discusses the nature and function of attachment from the biological point of view. From his extensive knowledge of attachment behaviour in other species as well as in man, he concludes that the original function of attachment behaviour was protection from predators. First, he points out that isolated animals are more likely to be attacked by predators than animals which stay together in a group. Second, he draws attention to the fact that, in both man and other animals, attachment behaviour is particularly likely to be elicited when the individual is young, sick, or pregnant. These states all make the individual more vulnerable to attack. Third, situations which cause alarm invariably cause people to look around for others with whom to share the danger. In the case of modern man, the danger from predators has receded, but his response to other forms of threat remains the same.
This biological interpretation makes good sense. Modern man seems pre-programmed to respond to a number of stimuli in ways which were more appropriate to the life of a tribal hunter-gatherer than they are to urban Western man at the end of the twentieth century. This is notably so in the case of our aggressive responses to what we consider threat, and also in the case of our paranoid suspicion of strangers. Both kinds of response may have been appropriate for our tribal ancestors, but are dangerous in times when we are menaced by the possibility of a nuclear holocaust.
Bowlby makes the important point that attachment is not the same as dependence. It is true that it takes human beings a very long time to grow up. The period from birth to sexual maturity constitutes nearly a quarter of the total lifespan, which itself is longer than that of any other mammal. Our early helplessness and extended childhood provide opportunity for learning from our elders, which is generally supposed to be the biological reason for the prolongation of immaturity in the human species. Man’s adaptation to the world is dependent upon learning and the transmission of culture from one generation to the next. Dependence is at its maximum at birth, when the human infant is most helpless. In contrast, attachment is not evident until the infant is about six months old. Dependence gradually diminishes until maturity is reached: attachment behaviour persists throughout life. If we call an adult dependent, we imply that he is immature. But if he has no intimate attachments, we conclude that there is something wrong with him. In Western society, extreme detachment from ties with others is usually equated with mental illness. Chronic schizophrenics sometimes lead lives in which relationships with others play virtually no part at all. The capacity to form attachments on equal terms is considered evidence of emotional maturity. It is the absence of this capacity which is pathological. Whether there may be other criteria of emotional maturity, like the capacity to be alone, is seldom taken into account.
Anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists all concur in regarding man as a social being who requires the support and companionship of others throughout his life. In addition to learning, social co-operation has played an essential part in man’s survival as a species, just as it has in the survival of sub-human primates, like baboons and chimpanzees. As Konrad Lorenz pointed out, man is neither fleet of foot nor equipped by nature with a tough hide, powerful tusks, claws, or other natural weapons. In order to protect themselves from more powerful species and in order to succeed in hunting large animals, primitive men had to learn co-operation. Their survival depended upon it. Modern man has moved a long way from the social condition of the hunter-gatherer, but his need for social interaction and for positive ties with others has persisted.
There are, therefore, many reasons for giving a high place to attachment in any hierarchy of human needs. Indeed, some sociologists would doubt whether the individual possesses any significance when considered apart from the family and social groups of which he is a member. Most members of Western society assume that close family ties will constitute an important part of their lives; that these ties will be supplemented by other loves and friendships; and that it is these relationships which will give their own lives significance. As Peter Marris has put it:
The relationships that matter most to us are characteristically to particular people whom we love – husband or wife, parents, children, dearest friend – and sometimes to particular places – a home or personal territory that we invest with the same loving qualities. These specific relationships, which we experience as unique and irreplaceable, seem to embody most crucially the meaning of our lives.
In Marris’s view, these unique and irreplaceable relationships act as points of reference which help us to make sense of our experience. We are, as it were, embedded in a structure of which unique relationships are the supporting pillars. We take this so much for granted that we seldom define it, and may hardly be conscious of it until some important relationship comes to an end. As Marris points out, recently bereaved persons often feel, at any rate for a time, that the world has become meaningless. When we lose the person who is nearest and dearest to us, we may discover that the meaning of life was bound up with that person to a greater extent than we had supposed. This is the usual pattern; but we must also remember that some people, even after losing a spouse who was dear to them, feel a new sense of freedom and take on a new lease of life.
When Robert S. Weiss studied a number of people whose marriages had recently ended, and who had joined a group for single parents, he found, as might be expected, that, although they gained support from the group, they still complained of loneliness. No amount of friendship was enough to compensate for the loss of close attachment and emotional intimacy which they had experienced in marriage.
But, however crucial such relationships are for most people, it is not only intimate personal relationships which provide life with meaning. Weiss also studied married couples who, for one reason or another, had moved a considerable distance from the neighbourhood in which they had been living. Although their intimate attachments to their spouses were unimpaired, they were distressed at no longer feeling part of a group.
In other words, whether or not they are enjoying intimate relationships, human beings need a sense of being part of a larger community than that constituted by the family. The modern assumption that intimate relationships are essential to personal fulfilment tends to make us neglect the significance of relationships which are not so intimate. Schizophrenics, and other individuals who are more or less totally isolated, are rightly regarded as pathological; but many human beings make do with relationships which cannot be regarded as especially close, and not all such human beings are ill or even particularly unhappy.
Social structures of the kind found in the army or in a business may not give individuals the same kind of satisfactions which they might obtain from intimate relationships, but they do provide a setting in which the individual feels he has a function and a place. Gellner’s contention, referred to above, that modern society is so mobile and fluid that it has made many people feel disorientated and insecure, is to some extent countered by the fact that many workers are reluctant to abandon a familiar setting even if offered more rewarding opportunities. The fact that a man is part of a hierarchy, and that he has a particular job to carry out, gives his life significance. It also provides a frame of reference through which he perceives his relation with others. In the course of daily life, we habitually encounter many people with whom we are not intimate, but who nevertheless contribute to our sense of self. Neighbours, postmen, bank clerks, shop assistants, and many others may all be familiar figures with whom we daily exchange friendly greetings, but are generally persons about whose lives we know very little. Yet, if such a person disappears and is replaced by another, we feel some sense of loss, however transient. We say that we have become ‘used to’ so-and-so; but what we miss is mutual recognition, acknowledgement of each other’s existence, and thus some affirmation, however slight, that each reciprocally contributes something to life’s pattern.
Relationships of this kind play a more important role in the lives of most of us than is generally recognized. When people retire from work in offices or institutions, they miss the familiar figures who used to provide recognition and affirmation. It is generally accepted that most human beings want to be loved. The wish to be recognized and acknowledged is at least as important.
In Western societies today, a large number of people live lives in which intimate relationships play little part, however much they recognize the lack, or attempt to compensate for it in phantasy. Instead of being centred on spouse and children, their lives are based upon the office where, although they may not be loved, they are at least recognized and valued. People who have a special need to be recognized, perhaps because their parents accorded them little recognition in childhood, are attracted to office life for this reason. Although some types of work may require short periods of solitary concentration, most office workers spend relatively little time alone, without human interaction, and, for the majority, this seems to be an attractive feature of office life.
The importance which less intimate, comparatively superficial relationships play in the lives of most of us is also attested by the kind of conversations we have with acquaintances. When neighbours meet in the street, they may, especially in England, use the weather as an opening gambit. But if the exchange is at all prolonged, the conversation is likely to turn to talk of other neighbours. Even the most intellectual persons are seldom averse to gossip, although they may affect to despise it. It would be interesting to know what proportion of conversation consists of talking about the lives of other people, as compared with talking about books, music, painting, ideas or money. Even amongst the highly educated, the proportion cannot be small.
Failure to make, or to sustain, the kind of intimate attachments which the object-relations theorists maintain are the main source of life’s meaning and satisfaction does not imply that a person is necessarily cut off from other, less intimate human relationships. Whilst it is certainly more difficult for most people to find meaning in life if they do not have close attachments, many people can and do lead equable and satisfying lives by basing them upon a mixture of work and more superficial relationships. Edward Gibbon, from whom I quoted in the , is a good example. We should also remember that exceptional people have suffered long periods of solitary confinement without coming to feel that their lives are meaningless, whilst others have deliberately sought weeks or months of solitude for reasons to which we shall return.
Bowlby, in the penultimate paragraph of the third and last volume of Attachment and Loss, writes:
Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when he is an infant or a toddler or a schoolchild but throughout his adolescence and his years of maturity as well, and on into old age. From these intimate attachments a person draws his strength and enjoyment of life and, through what he contributes, he gives strength and enjoyment to others. These are matters about which current science and traditional wisdom are at one.
I have been a consistent admirer of Bowlby’s work since I first encountered it. Because of his insistence that psycho-analytic observations must be supported by objective stuthes, and because of his use of ethological concepts, he has done more than any other psycho-analyst to link psycho-analysis with science. But attachment theory, in my view, does less than justice to the importance of work, to the emotional significance of what goes on in the mind of the individual when he is alone, and, more especially, to the central place occupied by the imagination in those who are capable of creative achievement. Intimate attachments are a hub around which a person’s life revolves, not necessarily the hub.
‘We must reserve a little back-shop, all our own, entirety free, wherein to establish our true liberty and principal retreat and solitude.’
In infancy and early childhood, attachment to parents or to parent substitutes is essential if the child is to survive, and secure attachment probably necessary if it is to develop into an adult capable of making intimate relationships with other adults on equal terms. Although broken homes are deplorably common in Western society, parents who are concerned about their children’s well-being try to provide them with a stable, loving background which will promote secure attachment and the growth of self-confidence. In addition, most parents will try to ensure that their children have plenty of opportunity to encounter and to play with other children of the same age. In both sub-human primates and in human beings, secure attachment between mother and infant encourages exploratory behaviour. A child who is sure of his mother’s availability will generally want to explore his immediate environment, play with toys, and come into contact with whatever else may be in the room, including other children. There is some evidence to suggest that children as young as eighteen months old benefit from being allowed to mix with their peers. It is certain that interaction with children of the same age provides opportunities for learning social skills which are not provided by interaction between parents and child.
For example, rough-and-tumble play, which is important in learning how to handle aggression, is common between children of the same age, but rare between parent and child. Attitudes to sex are generally acquired from other children rather than learned from parents. The study of adults who complain of sexual difficulties often discloses that, as children, they were unusually isolated. Because they did not learn from other children that sexual curiosity and sexual impulses are universal, they grew up feeling themselves to be different from others; perhaps uniquely evil.
In , we saw that most adult human beings want both intimate relationships and the sense of belonging to a community. In childhood, secure attachment to parents or to parent-substitutes is vital; but relationships with other children also provide social experience of a kind which is irreplaceable.
There has been, and continues to be, a great deal of research on these two aspects of child development; but virtually no discussion of whether it is ever valuable for children to be alone. Yet if it is considered desirable to foster the growth of the child’s imaginative capacity, we should ensure that our children, when they are old enough to enjoy it, are given time and opportunity for solitude. Many creative adults have left accounts of childhood feelings of mystical union with Nature; peculiar states of awareness, or ‘Intimations of Immortality’, as Wordsworth called them. Such accounts are furnished by characters as diverse as Walt Whitman, Arthur Koesder, Edmund Gosse, A. L. Rowse and C. S. Lewis. We may be sure that such moments do not occur when playing football, but chiefly when the child is on its own. Bernard Berenson’s description is particularly telling. He refers to moments when he lost himself in ‘some instant of perfect harmony’.
In childhood and boyhood this ecstasy overtook me when I was happy out of doors. Was I five or six? Certainly not seven. It was a morning in early summer. A silver haze shimmered and trembled over the lime trees. The air was laden with their fragrance. The temperature was like a caress. I remember – I need not recall – that I climbed up a tree stump and felt suddenly immersed in Itness. I did not call it by that name. I had no need for words. It and I were one.
A. L. Rowse describes similar experiences when he was a schoolboy in Cornwall.
I could not know then it was an early taste of aesthetic sensation, a kind of revelation which has since become a secret touchstone of experience for me, an inner resource and consolation. Later on, though still a schoolboy – now removed downhill to the secondary school – when I read Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ and ‘Intimations of Immortality’, I realised that that was the experience he was writing about.
Modern psychotherapists, including myself, have taken as their criterion of emotional maturity the capacity of the individual to make mature relationships on equal terms. With few exceptions, psychotherapists have omitted to consider the fact that the capacity to be alone is also an aspect of emotional maturity.
One such exception is the psycho-analyst, Donald Winnicott. In 1958, Winnicott published a paper on ‘The Capacity to be Alone’ which has become a psycho-analytic classic. Winnicott wrote:
It is probably true to say that in psycho-analytical literature more has been written on the fear of being alone or the wish to be alone than on the ability to be alone; also a considerable amount of work has been done on the withdrawn state, a defensive organization implying an expectation of persecution. It would seem to me that a discussion on the positive aspects of the capacity to be alone is overdue.
In ,1 referred to Bowlby’s work on the early attachment of the human infant to its mother, and to the sequence of protest, despair, and detachment, which habitually occurs when the infant’s mother is removed. In normal circumstances, if no disastrous severance of the bond between mother and infant has occurred, the child gradually becomes able to tolerate longer periods of maternal absence without anxiety. Bowlby believes that confidence in the availability of attachment figures is gradually built up during the years of immaturity; more particularly during the period from the age of six months to five years, when attachment behaviour is most readily elicited. However, sensitivity to the presence or absence of attachment figures continues until well into adolescence. Many middle-class English children who had experienced total security in early childhood have had their expectations rudely shattered when sent to boarding school at the age of seven or eight.
It is generally recognized that clinging behaviour is indicative of insecurity. The child who will not let the mother leave, even for short periods, is the child who has no confidence in her return. Conversely, the child who has developed trust in the availability of attachment figures is the child who can increasingly experience being left by such figures without anxiety. Thus, the capacity to be alone is one aspect of an inner security which has been built up over the early years. Although there are children who shun company and are pathologically isolated, that is, who are in the ‘withdrawn state’ referred to by Winnicott, a child who enjoys some measure of solitude should not be confused with such children. Some children who enjoy the solitary exercise of the imagination may develop creative potential.
Building up a sense of security can be seen as a process of conditioning. Repeated confirmation of the presence of attachment figures when needed conditions the child to favourable expectations of their future availability. Psycho-analysts usually refer to this process as introjecting a good object; meaning by this that the attachment figure has become part of the individual’s inner world, and therefore someone on whom he can rely even though the person concerned is not actually present. This may seem far-fetched, but most people can think of times at which they have said to themselves, ‘What would so-and-so do in this situation?’ They are then relying upon someone who, although not there in reality, has been incorporated into their imaginative world as someone to turn to in a dilemma.
Winnicott suggests that the capacity to be alone in adult life originates with the infant’s experience of being alone in the presence of the mother. He is postulating a state in which the infant’s immediate needs, for food, warmth, physical contact and so on, have been satisfied, so that there is no need for the infant to be looking to the mother for anything, nor any need for her to be concerned with providing anything. Winnicott writes:
I am trying to justify the paradox that the capacity to be alone is based on the experience of being alone in the presence of someone, and that without a sufficiency of this experience the capacity to be alone cannot develop.
Winnicott goes on to make the extremely interesting suggestion that
It is only when alone (that is to say, in the presence of someone) that the infant can discover his personal life.
Infants, because they are immature, need the support of another person if their sense of being ‘I’, that is, a separate person with a separate identity, is to develop. Winnicott conceives that this begins to happen when the infant is able to be in the relaxed state which is constituted by the experience of being alone in the presence of the mother. After being in this state for a while, the infant will begin to experience a sensation or impulse. Winnicott suggests that
In this setting the sensation or impulse will feel real and be truly a personal experience.
Winnicott contrasts this feeling of personal experience with what he calls
a false life built on reactions to external stimuli.
Throughout most of his professional life, Winnicott was particularly preoccupied with whether an individual’s experience was authentic or inauthentic. Many of the patients whom he treated had, for one reason or another, learned as children to be over-compliant; that is, to live in ways which were expected of them, or which pleased others, or which were designed not to offend others. These are the patients who build up what Winnicott called a ‘false self’; that is, a self which is based upon compliance with the wishes of others, rather than being based upon the individual’s own true feelings and instinctive needs. Such an individual ultimately comes to feel that life is pointless and futile, because he is merely adapting to the world rather than experiencing it as a place in which his subjective needs can find fulfilment.
Although Winnicott’s suppositions about the subjective experiences of infants are impossible to prove, I find his conceptions illuminating. He is suggesting that the capacity to be alone originally depends upon what Bowlby would call secure attachment: that is, upon the child being able peacefully to be itself in the presence of the mother without anxiety about her possible departure, and without anxiety as to what may or may not be expected by her. As the secure child grows, it will no longer need the constant physical presence of the mother or other attachment figure, but will be able to be alone without anxiety for longer periods.
But Winnicott goes further. He suggests that the capacity to be alone, first in the presence of the mother, and then in her absence, is also related to the individual’s capacity to get in touch with, and make manifest, his own true inner feelings. It is only when the child has experienced a contented, relaxed sense of being alone with, and then without, the mother, that he can be sure of being able to discover what he really needs or wants, irrespective of what others may expect or try to foist upon him.
The capacity to be alone thus becomes linked with self-discovery and self-realization; with becoming aware of one’s deepest needs, feelings, and impulses.
Psycho-analysis is also concerned with putting the individual in touch with his or her deepest feelings. The technique employed could be described as encouraging the individual to be alone in the presence of the analyst. This analogy particularly applies to the procedures used in the early days of psycho-analysis, before the analysis of transference became of such central importance (see ). The use of the couch not only encouraged relaxation but also precluded eye contact between analysand and analyst. This prevented the analysand from being too preoccupied with the reactions of the analyst to what he was saying, and thus made it easier for him to concentrate upon his own inner world.
Some analysts still believe that providing a secure milieu in which the patient can explore and express his most intimate thoughts and feelings is at least as important as any interpretations which they may offer. One analyst whom I knew personally illustrated this point with the story of a patient whom he saw three times per week over a period of a year. At every session, the patient lay down upon the couch and plunged straight into free association. At the end of the year, the man pronounced himself cured, and proffered his grateful thanks. The analyst declared that, during the whole of this period, he had offered no interpretations whatever. Even if this particular story is slightly exaggerated, the analogy with what Winnicott postulates as taking place between the secure infant and the mother is striking.
As we have seen, patients in analysis can be helped to form better relationships with other people in the outside world by working through and understanding their relationship with the analyst. When a person is encouraged to get in touch with and express his deepest feelings, in the secure knowledge that he will not be rejected, criticized, nor expected to be different, some kind of rearrangement or sorting-out process often occurs within the mind which brings with it a sense of peace; a sense that the depths of the well of truth have really been reached. This process, which in itself contributes to healing, is facilitated by the analyst’s providing a suitably secure milieu, but is not necessarily dependent upon the analyst’s interpretations. The story of the patient who said he was cured despite, or because of, the silence of the analyst can be seen to contain a strong element of truth. The process of healing, in such cases, is very like the healing which may occur as part of the creative process in solitude.
Integration also takes place in sleep. We are all alone when we are asleep, even though we may be sharing a bed with a loved person. When faced with a problem to which there is no obvious answer, conventional wisdom recommends ‘sleeping on it’, and conventional wisdom is right. Most people have had the experience of being unable to make up their minds when faced with a difficult decision, and of going to bed with the decision still not taken. On waking in the morning, they often find that the solution has become so obvious that they cannot understand why they could not perceive it on the previous night. Some kind of scanning and re-ordering process has taken place during sleep, although the exact nature of this process remains mysterious.
Another example of integration which requires time, solitude, and, preferably, a period of sleep, is the process of learning. Students find that they cannot easily retain or reproduce material which they have tried to commit to memory immediately before taking an examination. On the other hand, material which has been learned at an earlier stage and ‘slept on’, is much more easily recalled. Some kind of reverberation around neuronal circuits must be linking new material to old material, and committing new material to the long-term memory store.
Although we spend about a third of our lives asleep, the reasons why we need sleep are not fully understood. That we do need it is certain. As interrogators long ago realized, depriving prisoners of sleep is a relatively quick method of breaking them down. Although a few exceptional people can, without deterioration, survive without sleep for quite long periods, the majority of previously normal human beings exhibit psychotic symptoms like delusions and hallucinations after only a few days and nights without sleep. It is also worth noting that many episodes of mental illness are preceded by periods of insomnia.
The integrating function of sleep may be linked with dreaming. In 1952, Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that there were two kinds of sleep, which can be shown by recording the electrical activity of the brain during sleep to follow a regular cycle. As subjects relax and fall asleep, the fairly rapid electrical waves which are characteristic of the brain’s waking activity are replaced by slower, more ample waves. These slower waves are accompanied by slow, rolling eye movements which can easily be seen through the closed eyelids of the sleeper, and which are entirely involuntary. It is possible to record these eye movements at the same time as the brain waves. When people first go to sleep, they enter quite quickly a stage of deep sleep from which it is difficult to rouse them. After about thirty or forty minutes, they begin to sleep more lightly; the sleeper’s breathing becomes faster and more irregular; there are small twitches of his face and fingertips, and his eyes make rapid movements as if he was actually looking at something. This phase of rapid-eye-movement sleep, or REM sleep as it is now called, lasts about ten minutes. Then the subject returns to sleeping more deeply. The whole cycle lasts about ninety minutes. Someone who sleeps for seven and a half hours generally spends between one and a half and two hours in this lighter, REM phase of sleep.
A high proportion of people who are awakened during REM sleep recall a dream, whereas very few of those awakened during the deeper phases of sleep do so. In other words, it looks as if most people dream every night for short periods every ninety minutes or
Following the discovery of the two varieties of sleep, it became possible to prevent people from dreaming whilst still allowing them an adequate period of sleep. Early experiments in depriving subjects of REM sleep suggested that not allowing dreams to occur produced a variety of symptoms, but later experiments have not confirmed this finding. However, those deprived of dreaming show an increased proportion of REM sleep to deep sleep when dream deprivation is discontinued.
The same phenomenon has been observed in people taking barbiturates, amphetamines, or alcohol. When the drugs are stopped, a rebound phenomenon occurs. The subject shows an increase in REM sleep as if he were trying to make up for what had been missing. According to William C. Dement, schizophrenics in remission show a particular need for REM sleep. After only two nights of dream deprivation they showed an excessive REM rebound. When not in remission, that is, when experiencing overt symptoms of schizophrenia like hallucinations and delusions, or when exhibiting types of bizarre behaviour characteristic of the illness, schizophrenics do not show REM rebound after two nights of deprivation. If further experiments confirm that the overtly psychotic do not need dreams to the same extent as normal people, the old idea that schizophrenic illness is ‘dreaming whilst being awake’ becomes even more convincing. Conversely, although normal mortals do not become psychotic even if totally deprived of REM sleep, entering the mad world of dreams each night probably promotes mental health in ways we do not fully understand.
It seems clear that some kind of scanning or re-programming takes place in dreams which has a beneficial effect upon ordinary mental functioning. Dreaming seems to be biologically adaptive. Stanley Palombo suggests that dreams are concerned with matching past and present experience. He thinks that
the dream compares the representation of an emotionally significant event of the past with the representation of an emotionally significant aspect of the previous day’s experience.
This information-processing function of the dream is concerned with allotting the new experience to the right slot in the permanent memory. Whether this model accounts for all dreams is dubious; but it goes some way to explaining why it is that in dreams, time is so often out of joint. If past and present are being compared, it is not surprising that, in the dream, they so often appear to be confused.
Another example of some kind of re-ordering process taking place in the brain can be discerned in the stage of the creative process which Graham Wallas called incubation. Wallas’s first stage is preparation. The creative person develops some preliminary interest in a particular subject, collects material, and reads everything he can find about it. Next, a period of time intervenes during which the accumulated material simmers, or is unconsciously scanned, compared with other mental contents, organized, or elaborated. We do not understand what goes on during this period of incubation, but it is a necessary prelude to the next stage, that of illumination. This is the time at which the creative person has a new insight, discovers a solution to his problem, or in some other way finds that he can order the material which he has accumulated by employing an overriding principle or an all-embracing conception.
The time taken for incubation can vary from a few minutes to months or even years. Brahms said that, when a new idea occurred to him, he would turn to something else and perhaps think no more of the new idea for several months. When he took it up again, he would find that the idea had unconsciously assumed a different form at which he would begin working.
It would be absurd to suggest that the new idea was reverberating through the networks of the brain for several months to the exclusion of all else. The brain is highly complicated, and capable of carrying out a great many operations simultaneously. But the parallel with the scanning or sorting process which occurs spontaneously in dreams, or which is deliberately encouraged by prayer or meditation, is striking. What takes place in the circuitry of the brain is a mystery; but it can be confidently asserted that these processes require time, passivity, and preferably solitude. Creative people may or may not need the peace of being physically alone. Schubert and Mozart, for example, could concentrate on their ideas in circumstances which others would find distracting. But observers have generally noted that such people are greatly absorbed with their own thoughts even when in company. Winnicott’s paradoxical description of ‘being alone in the presence of’ may be relevant not only to the infant with its mother, but also to those who are capable of intense concentration and preoccupation with their own inner processes even when surrounded by other people.
The fact that mental processes of the kind discussed above require time, and that incubation resulting in new insights may need long periods of gestation, may also be related to one factor which some researchers have singled out as characteristic of human intelligence. Intelligent behaviour has been defined as ‘behaviour that is adaptively variable within the lifetime of the individual’. It is the opposite of the kind of behaviour governed by pre-programmed patterns which is characteristic of many species further down the evolutionary scale. Behaviour determined by built-in responses to environmental stimuli is both automatic and immediate. Human behaviour, which is in most circumstances much more flexible, not only depends upon learning, and hence upon memory, but also upon the capacity not to respond immediately and automatically to a given stimulus. Stenhouse suggests that, if intelligent behaviour is to evolve from instinctive behaviour, three basic factors must be developed.
The most important factor is that which gives the individual animal the power not to respond in the usual way to the stimulus situation which previously initiated an instinctive sequence culminating in a consummately act. This power not to respond may be absolute, or may be merely the ability to delay the response – withhold it provisionally, as it were – but its absence would negate the very possibility of adaptive variability in behaviour.
If the individual is to produce a new response to a given situation, he must be capable of learning and also of storing what he has learned. Stenhouse’s second factor is the development of a central memory store in which items which are functionally related can be filed, and against which new experiences can be measured. We have already encountered Palombo’s idea that dreams may be concerned with the process of sorting and comparing new experiences with past experiences.
Stenhouse’s third factor is the development of some capacity to abstract or to generalize.
There must be an ability for seeing similarities and differences, if some memory items rather than others are to be selected to act as modifiers of present behaviour.
This capacity is present to some degree in all animals capable of learning from experience, but is particularly highly developed in man.
The idea that intelligent behaviour is dependent upon not responding immediately to any given situation can also be linked with the phenomena of dreaming. In dreams we may picture ourselves travelling, walking, running, fighting, or, in any number of other ways, being physically active. Yet in reality dreamers show little movement other than rapid eye movements and a few twitches of their limbs. There is an inhibition of the motor centres of the brain at the same time that the cortex shows increased electrical activity. Experiments in cats have shown that, if the part of the brain responsible for inhibiting the motor centres is destroyed, the animal will act out its dreams by showing aggressive or playful behaviour even whilst asleep. The inhibition of motor activity which occurs in dreams can be seen as one way of delaying immediate responses so that some kind of sorting activity can occur in the brain.
A comparable inhibition of motor activity occurs when we are awake and engaged in thinking. Thinking can be regarded as a preliminary to action; a scanning of possibilities, a linking of concepts, a reviewing of possible strategies. Eventually, thinking results in some sort of physical action, even if this is no more energetic than pressing the keys of a typewriter. Whilst thinking is going on, this eventual action must be postponed. Many people find this postponement difficult, and engage in some kind of displacement activity whilst thinking, like walking up and down, smoking, or playing with a pencil. Thinking is predominantly a solitary activity, although others may be present when an individual is concentrating upon his own thoughts.
Another analogy to Winnicott’s concept of the capacity to be alone is prayer. Prayer goes far beyond merely asking for benefits for oneself or for others. Prayer can be a public act of worship; but the person who prays in private feels himself to be alone in the presence of God. This is another way of putting the individual in touch with his deepest feelings. In some religions, no response to prayer from any supernatural being is even expected. Prayer is undertaken, not with the intention of influencing a deity, nor with any hope of prayers being directly answered, but in order to produce a harmonious state of mind. Prayer and meditation facilitate integration by allowing time for previously unrelated thoughts and feelings to interact. Being able to get in touch with one’s deepest thoughts and feelings, and providing time for them to regroup themselves into new formations and combinations, are important aspects of the creative process, as well as a way of relieving tension and promoting mental health.
It appears, therefore, that some development of the capacity to be alone is necessary if the brain is to function at its best, and if the individual is to fulfil his highest potential. Human beings easily become alienated from their own deepest needs and feelings. Learning, thinking, innovation, and maintaining contact with one’s own inner world are all facilitated by solitude.
‘Dans le tumulte des hommes et des événements, la solitude était ma tentation. Maintenant, elle est mon amie. De quelle autre se contenter quand on a rencontré l’Histoire?’
Charles de Gaulle
The capacity to be alone is a valuable resource when changes of mental attitude are required. After major alterations in circumstances, fundamental reappraisal of the significance and meaning of existence may be needed. In a culture in which interpersonal relationships are generally considered to provide the answer to every form of distress, it is sometimes difficult to persuade well-meaning helpers that solitude can be as therapeutic as emotional support.
One distressing change in circumstances which is almost universally experienced is bereavement; of spouse, child, parent, or sibling. Research has confirmed the common-sense supposition that coming to terms with bereavement takes time; and has also disclosed that the process of mourning may be hindered by the various defensive measures which human beings employ when they wish to avoid experiencing painful feelings.
Some of these measures are reinforced and hallowed by the distaste which the English upper and middle classes traditionally show for overt expression of emotion. The man who has just lost a dearly loved wife, but who nevertheless goes to the office as usual, makes no reference to his loss, and perhaps works longer hours than usual, tends to be admired. This is partly because we prize stoicism; and partly because the sufferer who says nothing about his feelings is saving his fellows embarrassment. Many people do not know what to say to a bereaved person. If such a one himself behaves as if nothing has happened, his friends may thankfully conclude that he does not want them to express sympathy.
Admiration for the courage which such a person is displaying is misplaced. Every psychotherapist will have had the experience of treating patients in whom mourning has been delayed and uncompleted because they had tried to deal with their loss by adopting a stiff upper lip or a mask of indifference. When the dead person is mentioned during the course of psychotherapy, the patient will sometimes exhibit uncontrollable grief, although the loss may have taken place some months or years previously.
Objective studies have demonstrated that widows who do not show emotion shortly after bereavement suffer from more physical and psychological symptoms during the subsequent month; remain disturbed for longer; and, thirteen months after their loss, are still showing more disturbance than those who were able to ‘break down’ during the first week.
Many cultures provide for a period of mourning by preventing the bereaved person from going to work or engaging in ordinary activities. In the last chapter, mention was made of certain psychic processes, like incubation, which require long periods of time for their completion. Mourning is another example of a process which may be very prolonged indeed. In rural Greece, bereaved women mourn for a period of five years. During this time, the bereaved woman wears black, visits the grave of the deceased daily, and begins by conducting conversations with the departed. Often, the grave is personified: rather than talk of visiting or tending the grave, a woman will speak of visiting her husband or daughter. The rituals demanded have the effect of emphasizing the reality of the loss.
Many Greek villagers subscribe to what can be called an indigenous theory of catharsis. They recognize that in spite of the desirability of immersing oneself fully in the emotions of pain, grief, and sorrow, the ultimate goal of a woman in mourning is to rid herself of these emotions through their repeated expression.
The end of mourning, the final acceptance of death, takes place after the body is exhumed. The bones of the dead person are then collected, placed in a metal box, and join the bones of other villagers in the local ossuary.
A new social reality is constructed which enables the bereaved to inhabit more fully a world in which the deceased plays no part … This process is brought about through a gradual reduction in the intensity of the emotions associated with death, through the formation of new social relationships with new significant others, and through the constant confrontation with the objective facts of death, climaxing in the exhumation of the bones of the deceased. The result of this process is as complete an acceptance of the final and irreversible nature of death as is possible.
Following bereavement, orthodox Jews are expected to stay at home, apart from a daily visit to the synagogue, whilst others feed and care for them. Although Murray Parkes casts some doubt upon how effective Jewish customs may be in some families, my own limited experience suggests that partial segregation of the mourner and the prohibition of normal working activities is beneficial. Coming to terms with loss is a difficult, painful, and largely solitary process which may be delayed rather than aided by distractions. Any rituals which underline the fact that bereavement is a profoundly traumatic event are helpful. In Great Britain today, religion is in decline, and there are few guidelines to indicate what is expected of mourners. When conventional periods of mourning were decreed, and the state of the mourner proclaimed by the adoption of black clothes, it was probably easier for the bereaved person to make the adjustment needed.
Although the support and sympathy of relatives and friends is helpful to bereaved persons, coming to terms with the loss of a loved person who was very close to one can only partially be shared. The process is essentially private, because it is so much concerned with intimacies which were not, and could not be, shared with others when the deceased partner was alive. The work of mourning is, by its very nature, something which takes place in the watches of the night and in the solitary recesses of the individual mind.
Mourning is one example of a long drawn out mental process leading to an eventual change of attitude. Instead of regarding life as necessarily bound up with, or even constituted by, the existence of an intimate relationship with the deceased person, the mourner comes to see matters differently. The mourner may or may not form new, intimate ties; but whether he or she does so or not, the mourner usually comes to realize that the significance of life is not entirely constituted by personal relationships; that the life of a person without intimate relationships also has meaning.
Changes of attitude take time because our ways of thinking about life and ourselves so easily become habitual. In the early days of psycho-analysis, analysts were reluctant to take on patients who were in their fifties or older, because it was thought that the possibility of bringing about changes in attitude were slender. In subsequent years, it has been realized that even elderly people are capable of change and innovation. Some people find it hard to adapt to any kind of change in circumstances; but this rigidity is more a characteristic of the obsessional personality than it is of being old.
Whether in young or old, changes of attitude are facilitated by solitude and often by change of environment as well. This is because habitual attitudes and behaviour often receive reinforcement from external circumstances. To take a trivial example, anyone who has attempted to give up smoking comes to realize that the wish for a cigarette often depends upon cues from the environment which recur at intervals. Finishing a meal; sitting down to work at a familiar desk; reaching for a drink after work is over – such trivial reinforcing stimuli are well known to everyone who has struggled with the habit. This is why many people find it easier to give up smoking when they go on holiday. In an unfamiliar place, where one no longer does the same thing at the same time each day, cues from the environment either disappear or lose some of their significance.
Holidays arc escapes from the routine of ordinary day-to-day existence. When we feel in need of a holiday, we often refer to needing ‘a change’. Holidays and the capacity to change march hand in hand. The word ‘retreat’ carries similar overtones of meaning. Although retreat in the face of the enemy may precede defeat, it does not necessarily do so: reculer pour mieux sauter applies to a variety of mental and physical manoeuvres including sleep, rest, and recreation. The word ‘retreat’ itself may be used to indicate a period of time, and by extension a place, which is especially designed for religious meditation and quiet worship. The Retreat was the name given to one of the most famous British mental hospitals, founded in 1792 and still flourishing, in which the pioneer Samuel Tuke instituted a regime of tolerance, kindness, and minimum restraint By providing a safe ‘asylum’ from the harassments of the world, it was hoped that salutary change in the disturbed minds of the mentally ill would come about.
This, too, was the concept underlying the ‘rest cure’ for mental disturbances promoted by Silas Weir Mitchell, an American neurologist who practised during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Its twentieth-century successor was ‘continuous narcosis’, a technique of keeping patients asleep by means of drugs for twenty or more hours out of the twenty-four. As we have seen, drugs, by inhibiting REM sleep, tend to prevent sleep from knitting up ‘the ravell’d sleave of care’ as effectively as it does unaided, which may be one reason why this treatment is no longer in use.
Both the ‘rest cure’ and continuous narcosis involved removal from relatives and partial isolation. Today, the fact that isolation can be therapeutic is seldom mentioned in textbooks of psychiatry. The emphasis is upon group participation, ‘milieu therapy’, ward meetings, staff-patient interaction, occupational therapy, art therapy, and every other means which can be devised of keeping the mentally ill constantly occupied and in contact with one another as well as with doctors and nurses. In the case of schizophrenic patients, who are too easily inclined to lose contact with the external world altogether, this ceaseless activity is probably beneficial. I am less persuaded of its value in depressed patients; and regret that the average mental hospital can make little provision for those patients who want to be alone and who would benefit from being so.
That solitude promotes insight as well as change has been recognized by great religious leaders, who have usually retreated from the world before returning to it to share what has been revealed to them. Although accounts vary, the enlightenment which finally came to the Buddha whilst he was meditating beneath a tree on the banks of the Nairanjana river is said to have been the culmination of long reflection upon the human condition. Jesus, according to both St Matthew and St Luke, spent forty days in the wilderness undergoing temptation by the devil before returning to proclaim his message of repentance and salvation. Mahomet, during the month of Ramadan, each year withdrew himself from the world to the cave of Hera. St Catherine of Siena spent three years in seclusion in her little room in the Via Benincasa during which she underwent a series of mystical experiences before entering upon an active life of teaching and preaching.
Contemporary Western culture makes the peace of solitude difficult to attain. The telephone is an ever-present threat to privacy. In cities, it is impossible to get away from the noise of motor traffic, aircraft, or railways. This, of course, is not a new problem. City streets, before the invention of the automobile, may, intermittently, have been even noisier than our own. The iron-bound wheels of carts travelling over cobbles make more noise than rubber tyres on asphalt. But the general continuous level of noise in cities is constantly increasing, despite the attempts of legislation to curb it.
Indeed, noise is so ubiquitous that many people evidently feel uncomfortable in its absence. Hence, the menace of ‘Muzak’ has invaded shops, hotels, aircraft, and even elevators. Some car drivers describe driving as relaxing, simply because they are alone and temporarily unavailable to others. But the popularity of car radios and cassette players attests the widespread desire for constant auditory input; and the invention of the car telephone has ensured that drivers who install it are never out of touch with those who want to talk to them. In the next chapter, we shall look at some aspects of ‘sensory deprivation’. As noise abatement enthusiasts have discovered, its opposite, sensory overload, is a largely disregarded problem. The current popularity of techniques like ‘transcendental meditation’ may represent an attempt to counterbalance the absence of silence and solitude which the modern urban environment inflicts upon us.
Removing oneself voluntarily from one’s habitual environment promotes self-understanding and contact with those inner depths of being which elude one in the hurly-burly of day-to-day life. In the ordinary way, our sense of identity depends upon interaction both with the physical world and with other people. My study, lined with books, reflects my interests, confirms my identity as a writer, and reinforces my sense of what kind of person I consider myself to be. My relationships with my family, with colleagues, friends, and less intimate acquaintances, define me as a person who holds certain views and who may be expected to behave in ways which are predictable.
But I may come to feel that such habitually defining factors are also limiting. Suppose that I become dissatisfied with my habitual self, or feel that there are areas of experience or self-understanding which I cannot reach. One way of exploring these is to remove myself from present surroundings and see what emerges. This is not without its dangers. Any form of new organization or integration within the mind has to be preceded by some degree of disorganization. No one can tell, until he has experienced it, whether or not this necessary disruption of former patterns will be succeeded by something better.
The desire for solitude as a means of escape from the pressure of ordinary life and as a way of renewal is vividly illustrated by Admiral Byrd’s account of manning an advanced weather base in the Antarctic during the winter of 1934. He insisted on doing this alone. He admits that his desire for this experience was not primarily the wish to make meteorological observations, although these constituted the ostensible reason for his solitary vigil.
Aside from the meteorological and auroral work, I had no important purposes. There was nothing of that sort. Nothing whatever, except one man’s desire to know that kind of experience to the full, to be by himself for a while and to taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good they really are.
Byrd was not escaping from personal unhappiness. He describes himself as having an extraordinarily happy private life. Nevertheless, the pressures of organizing a variety of expeditions during the previous fourteen years, combined with anxiety about raising money for them and the inevitable publicity which surrounded his achievements, induced what he called ‘a crowding confusion’. He reached a point at which his life appeared to him aimless. He felt that he had no time to read the books he wanted to read; no time to listen to the music he wanted to hear.
I wanted something more than just privacy in the geographical sense. I wanted to sink roots into some replenishing philosophy.
He also admits that he wanted to test his powers of endurance in an existence more rigorous than anything he had yet experienced. His hopes for finding a new meaning in life were realized. In his diary for 14 April, he records:
Took my daily walk at 4 p.m. today in 89° of frost … I paused to listen to the silence … The day was dying, the night being born – but with great peace. Here were imponderable processes and forces of the cosmos, harmonious and soundless. Harmony, that was it! That was what came out of the silence – a gentle rhythm, the strain of a perfect chord, the music of the spheres, perhaps.
It was enough to catch that rhythm, momentarily to be myself a part of it. In that instant I could feel no doubt of man’s oneness with the universe. The conviction came that that rhythm was too orderly, too harmonious, too perfect to be a product of blind chance – that, therefore, there must be purpose in the whole and that man was part of that whole and not an accidental off-shoot. It was a feeling that transcended reason; that went to the heart of man’s despair and found it groundless. The universe was a cosmos, not a chaos; man was as rightfully a part of that cosmos as were the day and night.
On another occasion, he refers to feeling ‘more alive’ than at any other time in his life. Unfortunately, Byrd became ill, poisoned by the fumes of a faulty stove. The latter part of his account is largely concerned with his fight against physical weakness rather than with his oceanic, mystical experience. But in spite of the nearly fatal outcome of his experience, Byrd, four years after his ordeal was over, was able to write:
I did take away something that I had not fully possessed before: appreciation of the sheer beauty and miracle of being alive, and a humble set of values … Civilization has not altered my ideas. I live more simply now, and with more peace.
What Byrd is describing is a mystical experience of unity with the universe which is familiar to those who have read similar accounts furnished by religious adepts. As William James wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience,
This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness.
In his paper Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud refers to the correspondence which he had with Romain Rolland, to whom he had sent his book dismissing religion, The Future of an Illusion. Rolland complained that Freud had not understood the true source of religious sentiments, which Rolland affirmed to be ‘a sensation of “eternity”, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded – as it were, “oceanic” Freud states that he can find no trace of any such feeling in himself. He goes on to say that what Rolland was describing was ‘a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole’.
Freud proceeds to compare this feeling with the height of being in love, in which a man may feel that he is one with his beloved. As might be expected, Freud regards the oceanic feeling as a regression to an earlier state: that of the infant at the breast, at a period before the infant has learned to distinguish his ego from the external world. According to Freud, this is a gradual process.
He must be very strongly impressed by the fact that some sources of excitation, which he will later recognize as his own bodily organs, can provide him with sensations at any moment, whereas other sources evade him from time to time – among them what he desires most of all, his mother’s breast – and only reappear as a result of his screaming for help. In this way, there is for the first time set over against the ego an ‘object’, in the form of something which exists ‘outside’ and which is only forced to appear by a special action.
Freud is not impressed with Rolland’s claim that the oceanic feeling is the source of religious sentiments. Freud claimed that man’s need for religion originated with the infant’s sense of helplessness: ‘I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.’ However, he admits that the oceanic feeling may have become connected with religion at a later stage, and surmises that ‘oneness with the universe’ is
a first attempt at a religious consolation, as though it were another way of disclaiming the danger which the ego recognizes as threatening it from the external world.
Although we are all subject to self-deception and to a variety of wish-fulfilling illusions, Freud’s account of the oceanic feeling and its meaning is less than satisfactory. It seems a more important experience than he admits. Defensive strategies and escapist wish-fulfilments generally appear superficial and partially inauthentic even to those who are employing them. But those who have experienced the states of mind recorded by Byrd and by William James record them as having had a permanent effect upon their perception of themselves and of the world; as being the profoundest moments of their existence. This is true both of those who have felt the sense of unity with the universe and of those who have felt the sense of unity with a beloved person.
Freud was right in seeing a close similarity between these two varieties of unity, but wrong in dismissing them as merely regressive. Such feelings are intensely subjective, and are hardly susceptible of measurement or scientific scrutiny. But to feel totally at one with another person, or totally at one with the universe, are such deep experiences that, although they may be transient, they cannot be dismissed as mere evasions or defences against unwelcome truths.
It is certainly possible that the oceanic feeling may be related to early infantile experience of unity with the mother. Merging of subject and object, of the self with Nature or with a beloved person, may be a reflection of the original unity with the mother with which we all begin life and from which we gradually become differentiated as separate entities. But Freud, perhaps because he himself denies ever having had such an experience, treats it as illusory; whilst those who describe ecstatic feelings of unity usually portray them as more intensely real than any other feelings which they can recall.
Ecstatic experiences of unity are sometimes connected with an acceptance of, or even a wish for, death. Wagner, who idealized erotic passion as the prototype of ecstatic unity, ends The Flying Dutchman with the redemption of the wanderer by Senta’s love and suicide. The original stage directions demand that the transfigured couple shall be seen rising toward heaven in the glow of the setting sun above the wreck of the Dutchman’s ship. Götterdämmerung, the last of the four operas which comprise The Ring of the Nibelung, ends with Brünnhilde mounting her horse and leaping into the flames of Siegfried’s funeral pyre to join him in death. Tristan und Isolde ends with the Liebestod; with Isolde expiring in ecstasy on the corpse of Tristan. Wagner himself wrote of this:
one thing alone left living: desire, desire unquenchable, longing forever rehearing itself – a fevered craving; one sole redemption – death, surcease of being, the sleep that knows no waking! … Its power spent, the heart sinks back to pine of its desire – desire without attainment; for each fruition sows the seeds of fresh desire, till in its final lassitude the breaking eye beholds a glimmer of the highest bliss: it is the bliss of quitting life, of being no more, of last redemption into that wondrous realm from which we stray the furthest when we strive to enter it by fiercest force. Shall we call it death? Or is it not night’s wonder world, whence – as the story says – an ivy and a vine sprang up in locked embrace o’er Tristan and Isolde’s grave?
In his book Beyond Endurance, Glin Bennet describes the oceanic feelings of being at one with oneself and with the universe which accompany solitary journeys. The search for such experiences constitutes one reason for such journeys; but they may carry with them the temptation of suicide. Bennet quotes the case of Frank Mulville, a single-handed sailor who, in the Caribbean, had an overwhelming desire to look back at his beautiful yacht, and let himself over the side in order to do so. The sight so inspired him that he was seriously tempted to let go the rope and merge himself for ever with the sea.
Bennet gives another example of the same danger which was recorded by Christiane Ritter. She spent a number of days entirely alone in a hut in the north-western part of Spitzbergen, when her husband and his companion were away hunting. She described a variety of illusions and hallucinations, including a feeling that she was somehow identified with the moonlight. She had a dream of water flowing under the ice which seemed to be enticing her. After being alone for nine days, she did not dare venture out of the hut.
Keats captures both ecstasy and its link with death in his Ode to a Nightingale’.
Darkling I listen; and for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to the, To cease upon the midnight with no pain, While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad In such an ecstasy!
The association of ecstatic states of mind with death is understandable. These rare moments are of such perfection that it is hard to return to the commonplace, and tempting to end life before tensions, anxieties, sorrows, and irritations intrude once more.
For Freud, dissolution of the ego is nothing but a backward look at an infantile condition which may indeed have been blissful, but which represents a paradise lost which no adult can, or should wish to, regain. For Jung, the attainment of such states are high achievements; numinous experiences which may be the fruit of long struggles to understand oneself and to make sense out of existence. At a later point in this book, Jung’s concept of individuation, of the union of opposites within the circle of the individual psyche, will be further explored.
‘The worst solitude is to be destitute of sincere friendship.’
In the last chapter, some of the beneficent effects of freely chosen solitude were outlined. Solitude which is imposed by others is a different matter. Solitary confinement is generally perceived as a harsh penalty, and when solitary confinement is accompanied by threats, uncertainty, lack of sleep and other measures, the victim may suffer disruption of normal mental function without being able to muster any compensatory reintegration. On the other hand, less rigorous conditions of imprisonment have sometimes proved fruitful. Being cut off from the distractions of ordinary life encourages the prisoner with creative potential to call upon the resources of his imagination. As we shall see, a variety of authors have begun writing in prison, where this has been allowed; or have passed through periods of spiritual and mental turmoil which have later found expression in their works.
Punitive imprisonment for criminals was initially conceived as a method of enforcing repentance; a humane alternative to horrific physical punishments like amputation, branding, flogging, breaking on the wheel and other tortures or brutal methods of execution. Local jails, in which vagrants, alcoholics, beggars and other nuisances could be temporarily confined were in widespread use for centuries. Jails were also used to house accused persons awaiting trial, and convicted criminals awaiting punishment. But imprisonment as a specific punishment for serious offenders is a comparatively recent sanction. Norval Morris claims that
the prison is an American invention, an invention of the Pennsylvania Quakers of the last decade of the eighteenth century … In their ‘penitentiary’ the Quakers planned to substitute the correctional specifics of isolation, repentance, and the uplifting effects of scriptural injunction and solitary Bible reading for the brutality and inutility of capital and corporal punishments. These three treatments – removal from corrupting peers, time for reflection and self-examination, the guidance of biblical precepts – would no doubt have been helpful to the reflective Quakers who devised the prison, but relatively few of them ever became prisoners. The suitability of these remedies for the great mass of those who subsequently found their way to the penitentiary is more questionable.
This is, of course, ironic understatement. Today, imprisonment is generally recognized as being worse than useless in the fight against crime. Its deterrent effect is dubious, its reforming effect negligible. Prisons reinforce a criminal subculture by herding offenders together. Long sentences, by separating criminals from their families, lead to the break-up of family ties. Since the availability of family and social support after release is one of the few factors known to make reconviction for further crimes less likely, protracted imprisonment actually increases the probability that subsequent offences will be committed. Availability of suitable employment after release is another factor which has been shown to diminish the chances of reconviction. But most societies are so unwilling to spend money on prisons that programmes for retraining prisoners or teaching them new industrial skills are quite inadequate.
In ordinary British prisons, solitary confinement is seldom used except as a comparatively brief punishment for serious violence. In France, at least until recently, solitary confinement was used during the initial part of life sentences, though tempered with some participation in group activities. Originally, isolation was supposed to encourage remorse and subsequent reform by forcing the convict to confront his own conscience. The single cells in which sentences were served were modelled upon those of the monastery. But prison authorities came to realize that isolation imposed considerable stress upon prisoners, and led to mental instability and unruly behaviour. Although association with other criminals carried the likelihood of reinforcing the choice of crime as a way of life, this disadvantage came to be considered the lesser of two evils. Long periods of isolation became recognized as cruel as well as ineffective.
Moreover, since the Second World War, prisons in Britain have become so permanently overcrowded that solitary meditation upon the evils of their crimes is no longer a practical possibility for prisoners, even if it were thought desirable. Today, cells designed for one prisoner have to be occupied by three. This contravenes the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners adopted by the United Nations Congress of 1955, which states that each prisoner shall occupy by night a cell or room by himself, except in conditions of temporary overcrowding.
In Denmark, a high proportion of detainees awaiting trial for criminal offences are kept in solitary confinement whilst their cases are being investigated. No other European country uses isolation in pre-trial detention to this extent, although there have been recent complaints of similar practices in Sweden. Periods of isolation vary from two weeks to four weeks or more; but several instances are known of detainees spending between one and two years in isolation.
Detainees spend twenty-three out of every twenty-four hours in a small cell. They are allowed two half-hour periods of exercise alone, but their solitude is otherwise interrupted only by visits to the lavatory and the delivery of meals. In spite of being allowed books, radio and television, letters, and, in some cases, supervised visits, even this degree of isolation often has deleterious effects upon mental functioning. Many detainees complain of restlessness, insomnia, inability to concentrate, and partial failure of memory. They find it difficult to measure the passage of time, and invent obsessional rituals to mark the hours and give structure to the day. When these rituals are interrupted by interrogation or by visits from a lawyer, they become intensely anxious. Self-mutilation and suicidal attempts are common. In 1980, seven out of ten successful suicides in prison were those of pre-trial detainees. If isolation is prolonged beyond a few weeks, many detainees complain of inexplicable fatigue. Some become almost totally apathetic; others lose control of their emotions to the point of believing that they are going mad. Even when removed from isolation, many symptoms persist. Detainees complain that they cannot remember what they read; that they cannot even follow a television programme. It is hardly surprising that some make inaccurate or contradictory statements to the police when being interrogated. After prolonged periods of isolation, many fear resuming social relationships and dare not risk intimacy. Such impairment of the ability to relate to others may persist for years.
If such dire mental sequelae follow short periods of isolation which, in other respects, are comparatively humane, it is not hard to imagine how much worse are the effects of solitary confinement by totalitarian regimes in which the most elementary human rights are disregarded. The paper by Lawrence Hinkle and Harold Wolff on the techniques of interrogation and indoctrination employed by Communist states has become a classic, and I have drawn heavily on their account.
The usual procedure is as follows. A person suspected of crimes against the State, that is, of being a political dissident, is placed under surveillance. So are his friends and associates. The suspect often becomes aware of this scrutiny, and suffers acute anxiety as a consequence. When sufficient ‘evidence’ has been accumulated, the state police proceed to arrest him. Anyone thus arrested is assumed to be guilty, although the crimes of which he is accused are never specified. The arrest usually takes place in the middle of the night. Prisoners whose cases are relatively unimportant may be confined in cells with other prisoners, who are often informers. But prisoners from whom information is required, or who are destined for public trial, are placed in solitary confinement. The cell is small. It usually has only one window which is placed above eye-level so that the prisoner can see nothing of the external world. But the door of the cell contains a peep-hole through which the prisoner can be observed at any time without his knowledge:
At all times except when he is eating, sleeping, exercising, or being interrogated, the prisoner is left strictly alone in his cell. He has nothing to do, nothing to read, and no one to talk to. Under the strictest regimen, he may have to stand or sit in his cell in a fixed position all day. He may sleep only at hours prescribed for sleep. Then he must go to bed promptly when told, and must lie in a fixed position upon his back with his hands outside the blanket. If he deviates from this position, the guard outside will awaken him and make him resume it. The light in his cell burns constantly. He must sleep with his face constantly toward it.
Usually, the temperature of the cell is too cold for comfort, although it may sometimes be overheated. The food provided is unpalatable, and hardly enough to maintain nutrition. The combination of partial starvation, deprivation of sleep, uncomfortable temperatures, and continuous, intense anxiety combine to undermine the resistance of all but the most robust of prisoners.
During the first three weeks of this regime, most prisoners become intensely anxious and restless. They are not allowed to talk to the guards, nor to have any contact with other prisoners. They are given no information about what is to happen to them, and no information about what may happen to their families and friends. Many prisoners find that uncertainty is the worst torment which they experience.
After about four weeks, most prisoners realize that their protests, enquiries and requests are entirely fruitless. They are experiencing in reality what, for most of us, is only a phantasy; the basic human nightmare of being entirely helpless in the hands of malignant persecutors. This, I believe, is one of the fundamental fears of mankind; dating perhaps from earliest infancy, when every human being is totally dependent upon, and at the mercy of, persons who are much more powerful than himself.
At this point, many prisoners become profoundly depressed. Some become confused and hallucinated. Others cease from any kind of spontaneous activity, stop caring about their personal appearance and habits, and enter upon a state resembling depressive stupor.
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