A week or so before I got a job as a support worker on a psychiatric ward, Lou Reed died of liver cancer at his home in Southampton, New York.
From my own narrow perspective, it was a sad, strange thing to experience the loss and very public mourning of someone who had got me through so much loss, mourning and general misery of my own. In terms of managing to find words (and more) which just got whatever psychological wreckage I was attempting to untangle, there was no-one who had even come close to Lou. Even at his more upbeat points he’d still hit you with a lyric like “Just a perfect day, you made me forget myself, I thought I was someone else, someone good.” And of course this post couldn’t be without a mention of the exquisitely depressing “Sunday Morning”; full of these restless, miserable feelings that sink and tumble down on top of each other, and pull you into half-believing you’ve wasted your entire life and everything is over, and then that bass lazily bumps back up again to the beginning of the riff, and things roll on and on and you can’t help smiling at the beauty and artistry of it all.
The strange ability of words and music (and indeed other art forms) to transfigure and alleviate human suffering is hardly a neglected topic (though I still think Nietzsche does it best.) However the person I want to spend the remainder of this post talking about- the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein- isn’t someone really known for his writings on aesthetics, and in fact the paragraph quoted below doesn’t purport to be about art at all. What it does do, though, is attempt to undermine a heap of misconceptions about language and misery, misconceptions which make explaining the effect of the former on the latter much harder to suss out.
One of the fallacies that Wittgenstein seems keen to dispose of is the idea that talk of our sensations and feelings- pain in his most famous example- works roughly along the lines of having an strange internal object called a “pain” (perhaps ‘inside your mind’, or some similar metaphor), and using the sentence “I’m in pain” to refer to it; ‘I’m in pain’ being a way of verbally ‘tagging’ or ‘making a picture of’ our pain.
Instead he tentatively offers an alternative account:
“Here is one possibility: words are connected with the primitive, the natural, expressions of the sensation and used in their place. A child has hurt himself and he cries; and then adults talk to him and teach him exclamations and, later, sentences. They teach the child new pain-behaviour.
“So are you saying that the word “pain” really means crying?”
“- On the contrary: the verbal expression of pain replaces crying and does not describe it.” (Wittgenstein, 1953, Sec 244.)
This is absolutely key. If language “expresses” our pain (instead of merely offering a way of “name-tagging” it), in a similar way to how an outpouring of rage such as punching a wall or screaming at someone can alter our feelings of anger and frustration, then so can manifesting those same feelings verbally. And whilst the debate over what precise wording truly describes our inner turmoil is liable to get metaphysical and quite frankly just weird, what is a valuable or fruitful expression of it is something most people can have a crack at without tying themselves in too many philosophical knots.
Stephen Mulhall in his wonderful book “Wittgenstein’s Private Language” begins one such crack by questioning the apparent callousness of the adults in Wittgenstein’s example, quoted above. Why do they try and teach the child words, instead of just comforting it? It all seems a bit cold and uncaring. However he quickly follows it up with the thought that perhaps we could interpret their teachings not as an alternative to offering comfort, but as their way of doing so.
He argues that we could see “the provision of a language for pain to someone immersed in inarticulate suffering as a means of giving him some perspective on his own condition- at least enough distance from it to articulate that condition, and thereby to place him in the position of acknowledging the state he is in, which must include acknowledging that it may end, that he may be comforted, that he might transcend that state, if only in his imagination.”
The acquisition of language, he continues, “displaces us from a position in which [our pain] is nothing less than everything to us- a way in which our identity is overwhelmed by the particular state we happen to be in.” (Mulhall, 2007, p36.)
Being able to verbally express what’s going on with you (to articulate your sufferings) is important. And not just for yourself, but also for anyone else who happens to find that the words you’ve come up with might also be ones they can use to best express their unhappiness, or misery, or ‘mental illness.’
I’m not hopelessly naive about this. I realise that some people don’t feel able to talk, or don’t want to, and even if they could it’s not like talking about what’s going on ‘in’ your mind is some kind of magic cure all. (Come on, I’m not Freud.) However I do think it helps. And more than that, I think that the reason people latch on to their diagnosis in the way they often do has little to do with abdicating responsibility (as is often claimed by the more cynical staff at my ward) and a lot more to do with relief at finally finding at least some words to talk about their inner lives.
See here’s the rub; I just happen to think that words like “Schizophrenic” or “Borderline” or “Manic Depression” are pretty poor ways to express the huge tumult and tangle of thoughts and feelings that go through people’s heads. That with the entirety of human history and culture and art at our disposal, we could hopefully attempt to think of better ways to do so than the crude and reductive labels that psychiatrists tend to rely on.
In her tribute to Lou Reed, his life-partner and decades long musical collaborator Laurie Anderson spoke of mastering the ability to “feel sad without being sad.” (Anderson, 2013 in Rolling Stone.) I don’t exactly exactly know what this might mean, or why it would be good, so I’m going to replace with one of my own. What’s important is to be a person feeling despairing, or empty, or depressed or paranoid and not simply to just experience that undiluted, so it feels like it is all there is. Feeling like you are sad, instead of just feeling sadness.
And yes, music like Lou Reed’s can be brilliant at doing that, but so can words, on their own. I just can’t help but think that there still aren’t enough people talking and writing about all this stuff.
So please do. And please feel exceptionally free to contribute to this blog. With whatever thoughts or reflections on mental health “stuff”, abstract or personal, that you’re happy to share. The last thing I want it to be is my own personal soapbox.