The Reflections Of A Solitary On A Snowy Afternoon In JanuaryWhat did you think of that snowstorm on Saturday? Was Mr. Frost nipping at your nose? Did you even work on Saturday or did you have the day off? I heard that the libraries closed two hours early, at three-thirty. You were released from your workday chores prematurely, in mid-afternoon on Saturday, if indeed you were engaged with them at all.
On Saturday I occupied myself with Mr. Frost together with a host of other authors who populated my imagination as welcome guests: Jane Hamilton, Marya Hornbacher, Edith Wharton, Primo Levi, Boris Pasternak, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Brenman-Gibson. Stanley Greenspan was here too. But then, Dr. Greenspan is always here; he holds the key to my inner world, and he comes and goes at will. Oh, and lest I forget, Lord Byron visited briefly to convey a unique message "To Ellen."
In my loneliness I become a spectator. My imagination leads a procession of living creatures before me. I watch and listen to these guests of my imagination as I would a performance at the theater. And at times these fantastic creations of my inner world seem more real than reality itself. I may be affected by a theatrical exhibition; on the other hand, I may not be affected by an actual event which appears to concern me much more. I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but a spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned. This doubleness may easily make us poor neighbors and friends sometimes.
I came across a poem of Robert Frost's that seemed especially appropriate: "Brown's Descent." The opening lines read: "Brown lived at such a lofty farm that everyone for miles could see his lantern where he did his chores in winter after half-past three. And many must have seen him make his wild descent from there one night, 'cross lots, 'cross walls, 'cross everything describing rings of lantern-light. Between the house and barn the gale got him by something he had on and blew him out on the icy crust that cased the world, and he was gone!"
I hope you got home safely if you drove through the snow, Brian. My own life is like an unending slip and slide; I seem to be continually at the edge of an abyss, mere seconds and a few feet from swerving involuntarily into oncoming traffic. I fear crashing into the traffic in the opposite lane, hurling into the windshield -- hurting myself and damaging the rearview mirror.
My entire existence, in some sense, can be viewed as the lived aftermath of an accident, or series of accidents -- a fall from grace. I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error or else an unfortunate accident. I hadn't learned that it can happen so gradually you don't lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing. You don't necessarily sense the motion. I've found it takes at last two and generally three things to alter the course of a life: You slip around the truth once, and then again, and one more time, and there you are, feeling, for a moment, that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of a snowdrift.
That's the way I feel now. I feel as if I'm at the bottom of the heap, struggling to ascend from the snowdrifts that ensnare me in a winter wasteland.
At this moment, the problem is compounded by a writer's block. I feel I'm straining for something to say, something to express. I feel immobile, locked in the grip of a creative and emotional deep freeze.
There is a stillness without and a confused tumult within. I gaze out my window. I seem a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that is warm and sentient in me fast bound below the surface; but there is nothing unfriendly in the silence. The silence is a balm for my inner disquiet. I simply feel that I live in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I have the sense that my loneliness is not merely the result of my personal plight, tragic as it is, but has in it, as I've hinted many times before, the profound accumulated cold of many stark and harshly-demanding winters.
The night following the storm was perfectly still, and the air so dry and pure that it gave little sensation of cold. The effect produced on me was rather a complete absence of atmosphere, as though nothing less tenuous than ether intervened between the white earth and the gray sky above.
I let the vision possess me as I contemplated what to write to you, buddy. I am never so happy as when I abandon myself to these epistolary dreams. A wave of warmth goes through me as I think about the fact that for me the act of writing (not to mention paraphrasing, as well as outright plagiarizing) is the prolongation of a vision.
Saturday night. I set about to write. I scribbled some notes in longhand. What I wrote that night fell into two parts. Clean copies -- improved versions of earlier scribbling -- were set out in my best penmanship. New work was written in an illegible scrawl full of gaps and abbreviations. In deciphering these scribbles, I went through the usual disappointments. Last night these rough fragments had moved me, and I myself had been surprised by some felicitous passages. Now these very passages seemed to me distressingly and conspicuously strained.
The passages didn't flow. A clear and pleasing narrative did not materialize. I felt torn between a fevered urgency and a bitter languor. I cannot blame my inner censor for the block; that censor, like a good psychoanalyst, contemplated my outpourings with evenly-hovering attention. The ideas were there all right, but they failed to materialize into a cohesive communication. I not only feel that I am incomprehensible to others; I am sometimes incomprehensible to myself as well. There were many false starts -- and jarring stops. It was like driving through a winter storm. My thoughts made slow headway, and a vague fear gripped me as I envisioned veering off a train of thought or, alternatively, into a jarring wreck of incompatible ideas. The driver in a winter storm strives vigilantly for a commodious path, and is dismayed when he finds how far, after a seemingly interminable ride, he still remains from home.
It has been the dream of my life to write with an originality so discreet, so well concealed, as to be unnoticeable in its disguise of current and customary forms; all my life I have struggled for a style so restrained, so unpretentious that the reader or the hearer would fully understand the meaning without realizing how I assimilated it. I strive constantly for an unostentatious style, and I am dismayed to find how far I still remain from my ideal.
Saturday evening I had tried to convey, by words so simple as to be almost childish and suggesting the directness of a poem, my feelings of mingled idealism and fear and longing and courage, in such a way that should speak for itself, almost apart from the words.
Looking over my rough sketches now, I find that they needed a connecting theme to give unity to the lines, which for lack of it fell apart.
I take a break from my writing, and look out the window. I peer closely and inquisitively at the flakes of snow on the window ledge. Each crystal flake has an individual identity. Like a poem, each flake speaks of itself alone in a lyrical manner. Each six-sided flake expresses its own self in a broad, spacious hexameter. The regularity of the rhythm, independent of the meaning and inherent in the meter itself, does not strike me as doggerel; rather it contains a unique message expressed in infinite variety within a set form. Variety of ex
Like the narrative of the psychoanalytic patient, every detail of the snowflake's form, however trivial, has a meaning. In the snowflake each crystalline projection has a structural function just as the analytic patient's outpourings follow narrative necessity.
The patient expresses his thoughts with clinical parsimony. In psychoanalysis the preferred explanation for a series of symptoms tends to be cast in terms of single events from the patient's past rather than different events on different occasions. The single event may be repeated again over time but the form of the event tends not to change. Similarly, nature endows each snowflake with an economy of ex
The flake makes you think of something solid, stable, well-linked. In fact it happens also in crystallography as in architecture that "beautiful" edifices, that is symmetrical and simple, are also the most sturdy; in short the same thing happens with the crystal as with cupolas of cathedrals, the arches of bridges, or the well-designed theater whose structure follows the demands of acoustical science. And it is also possible that the explanation is neither remote nor metaphysical; to say "beautiful" is to say "desirable," and ever since man has built he has wanted to build at the smallest expense and in the most desirable fashion, and the aesthetic enjoyment he experiences when contemplating his work comes afterward. Certainly, it has not always been this way: there have been centuries in which "beauty" was identified with adornment, the superimposed, the frills; but it is probable that they were deviant epochs and that the true beauty, in which every century recognizes itself, is found in the upright stones of a simple farmhouse or the blade of the farmer's ax.
Early Saturday afternoon I looked out my window. The old park -- or what remains of it -- came right to the tool shed, as if to peer at my face and remind me of something. The snow was already deep. It was piled high on the tool shed. Snow hung over the edge of the shed, like the rim of a gigantic mushroom. A solitary raven was perched on the roof devouring, in Lord Byron's words, "the yellow harvest's countless seed." For a moment the bird freezes in an upright position, fixed like a stage prop suspended in time. The world stops.
Although it was early afternoon and full sunlight, I felt as if I were standing late at night in the dark forest of my life. Such was the darkness of my soul, such was my dejection. The new moon shining almost at eye level was an omen of separation and an image of solitude.
I paused and reflected. My mind wandered. Thoughts and images emerged unbidden as I contemplated the blinding whiteness of the snow. A mirage appeared, as a thought out of season. I was in Bayreuth, Germany, in January. The tool shed directly across from my apartment window appeared to me as a chimera; it was Wagner's Festival Theater in mid-January, six months before the summer opera festival will begin. The theater has fallen into its customary winter disuse. As for the out-of-season festival theater -- a "beautiful" edifice of magnificent symmetry and noble and imposing forms -- on a lofty hill outside the town, when there was only the falling snow to be seen and the auditorium was bare, comfortless, and shadowy, it felt to me less like a place of high art and pleasure than a vacant library that had closed early on a snowy January day -- or, perhaps, a New England barn, atop a hill that everyone for miles can see.
The mirage seemed to give the appearance of a somewhat arcane sensation, a suggestion of something simultaneously flaunted and guarded, a sort of a private delusion waiting to be revealed. Through the charms and simplicities of Bayreuth, during the months before the summer festival, the image of Richard Wagner perpetually looms, like an icon or an ideal -- the comforting presence of an imagined friend, perhaps -- and in my fancy left my mirage of Bayreuth in a condition of half-bewitched expectancy. Just you try putting Wagner out of your mind in Bayreuth -- even in January! Wagner became in this moment a symbol of All-Things-wished-for but denied: an embodiment of frustrated enticement. He became a symbol of the special friend one despairs of ever finding. I recognized my emotional emptiness in the phantasm of the out-of-season, vacant theater at Bayreuth. And then, in a moment the image of Wagner that had gripped my fantasies disappeared, as if it had been blown out on the icy crust that cased the world, and he was gone!
I was left with a spiritual hunger borne of a disconnected feeling. The disconnected mood which strains for closure more in the artist than in others is the same bridge that joins me to Victor Hugo's "miserables." My emotional starvation welcomes as a brother fellow seekers: idealistic souls who pursue an inner vision of truth and meaning in defiance of the compact majority. But my starvation, however painful, also aids me in that central necessity for any artist -- to find a communicative Form or structure whereby I can simultaneously heal my inner disconnections and end my disconnection from others. My gift -- if it be called a gift -- permits me, while integrating the contrarities within, to provide such integration for my audience as to unite me with it. This is the self-healing and other-healing function of all art.
It is only by writing these letters that I seem able to derive any satisfaction from life. Social avenues of engagement with others seem blocked by the barrenness of my frozen soul. I am forever locked in the grips of a slippery slope that I desperately want to ascend, but to which I -- like Camus's Sisyphus -- am forced to submit in fatal descent. I lack the capacity for true engagement with others, and so I occupy myself with an imaginary connection with a distant and unseen audience through the communicative form of these letters.
For the genuine artist, the search for a suitable form competes in importance with the need to express a particular content. Mere content alone veers toward dissolution and incomprehensibility in the absence of a unifying structural barrier or boundary.
Structural issues of a different kind also mediate social relatedness, for, as Erik Erikson has observed, true engagement with others is the result and the test of firm self-delineation. Where this is still missing, the individual when seeking tentative forms of friendship is apt to experience a peculiar strain, as if such tentative engagement might turn into an interpersonal fusion amounting to a loss of identity, and requiring, therefore, a tense inner reservation, a caution in commitment. Because I myself have never resolved this strain I isolate myself and enter, at best, only stereotyped and formalized interpersonal relations. For where an assured sense of identity is missing even friendship becomes a desperate attempt at delineating the fuzzy outlines of identity by mutual narcissistic mirroring: to make a friend then often means to fall into one's mirror image, hurting oneself and damaging the mirror.
I seek a real person, an actual other, a comrade-in-arms -- a psychical ballast, as it were -- with whom I can share my thoughts and feelings.
If I can't make a friend, I would hope I might find a therapist with whom I could communicate: someone whose opinions I can respect, someone who might offer narcissistic nourishment to ease my emotional starvation. But at the moment there is no one.
What I desperately need at this time is a therapeutic process, including a transference relationship and the skillful guidance of a seasoned therapist to avail myself of opportunities for new growth: someone who can appreciate the needs, limitations, and capacities associated with my ego structure. What I need is a therapist who has a road map of the structural components of my ego processes to go alongside a road map of intrapsychic content (e.g., wishes, conflicts, fears), that can increase my understanding of my Self and improve my day-to-day adjustment.
Let me tell you something important, Brian. An important fact: I grew up in the theater. My parents were actors and directors, and I myself began performing when I was just a child. There is no place on earth that fosters narcissism like the theater, but by the same token, nowhere is it easier to believe that you are essentially empty, that you must constantly reinvent yourself in order to hold your audience in thrall. In childhood I became fascinated with transformations, with mirage and smoke and mirrors (rearview or otherwise). Perhaps a genetically less sensitive, less porous, and less gifted youngster would have responded with greater resilience to his family and would have achieved a more comfortable day-to-day adjustment. But I was hypersensitive to the goings-on in my family, and my early life in the theater exacted its toll.
I need a therapist who has a rich understanding of the various dramas played out in my intrapsychic life. I need a therapist who will sit quietly as he watches the play unfold, while being in his or her own mind also a co-actor. I need a therapist who appreciates the psychodrama of therapy: one who, within the walls of his office, is able to surrender his identity to the phantoms that haunt his patients, continually attending to the form of the moment of communication while bearing in mind the whole session as it echoes and repeats the form of the patient's life drama. I require a therapist who can accommodate the multifarious diffusion of my identity -- my inner gallery of characters -- and who can surrender himself to the act of witnessing the entire process of my inner drama play out.
Put another way, I need a therapist who understands the structure of my ego -- my psychic terrain, one might say -- and whose map of that structure will permit me to arrive home safely on a snowy, winter afternoon. Someone who knows which roads are navigable, which ones are temporarily blocked, and which roads are permanently impassable. There is nothing more frustrating to a passenger riding in a winter storm than the driver's self-aggrandizing false promises: promises about the ease of travel along a particular road that are ba
It's especially important clinically to understand the structure of the ego, in addition to the particular dynamic phenomenon the ego is struggling with at any moment so that therapist and patient can knowledgeably journey across the patient's mental landscape: to observe the patient's wishes and abstracted feeling states, make connections between different wishes and feelings (as well as different sides of a conflict), and understand these in historical, current, and future contexts.
Be that as it may.
It is now early evening on this snowy day in mid-January. The storm has all but passed. The stir is over. I step forth once again to peer outside my window. I strain to make the far-off images beyond my windowpane yield a cue to the events that may come in the days ahead. Night and its murk transfix and pin me, staring through thousands of stars. I cherish this moment, this rigorous conception of a snowy winter evening, and I consent to play my part therein as spectator. But another play is running at this moment, so, for the present, I seek a premature release. And yet, the order of the acts has been schemed and plotted, and nothing can avert the final curtain's fall. The January thaw will soon take off the polish of the snow's crust. I bow with grace to natural law. I stand alone. All else is swamped in fuzzy dissolution. To live life to the end, while peering back to the path one has already traversed, is not a childish task.