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What We Talk About

I posted this piece some time ago. I have linked it to a current post (09/06/09) in order to support a series of posts on ‘surveillance theatre’ that will, probably, culminate in some comments on Charlie Kaufman’s movie ‘Synecdoche New York‘ (2008).

Go along to the Anti-University in Rivington Street in Shoreditch any night of the week in 1969 and, without paying any money, you could attend lectures, participate in encounter groups and witness tirades designed to take a wrecking ball to comfortable habits and cherished assumptions. The place hummed with insurrection and was eagerly attended by an extraordinary cohort that sprung from the street, the squat, the commune, the asylum, the drop-in clinic and the academy. The toilet had no door, the phone had no dialling lock, the clients no patience.

One evening at the Anti-U, anti-psychiatrist David Cooper was talking about Vietnam to a group of thirty young men and women. He put it to us that America behaved as if it were a fair but stern father correcting the errant child that was Vietnam.The group was excited by this mapping of the psychopolitics of the family onto a scene of international conflict. The windowless room was thick with smoke and the Cooper Groupers, as we called ourselves, ran with the idea, elaborating it on the hoof. Cooper, shaggy red beard and shoulder length hair, puffed awkwardly on his cigarette yet remained bear-like and imposing. I had known him for two years and found him kind but often scaring in the extremity of his prescriptions for the death of the family and the triumph of a world of melted categories.

A voice from the back of the room cut through the discussion. “Of course, what we’re really all talking about is who’s got the power in this room – Cooper or us.” The debate skidded to a halt. Cooper nodded sagely. I knew that I had just come across one of the great Secrets of Life, a paranoid truth that I have come, over the decades, to rely on as much as the A to Z.

I saw that there, beneath our noses, all the time, whatever we’re doing, whenever we do it, lies a remarkable covert operation. We talk about ourselves all the time! Power articulates us! All conversations on all topics are mere tissues, scarcely opaque, draped over an unceasing, frankly brazen, project to analyse power relations and optimise our place in them. Even when we talk about matters of vital importance, matters of the world and its pain, we are covertly discussing, with additional help from our stances and gestures, how we experience our interlocutors.

I turned to study the speaker. Slouched against the wall, beyond the last row of chairs, was a dark-haired young man of about my age, wearing a suit, white shirt, no tie. He had a long nose, beetling eyebrows and piercing, shifty eyes. I’d seen him at the Anti-U before – his name was Patrick Schofield and I knew he was a patient of Cooper’s.

I made friends with Patrick and embarked on a crash course in forbidden knowledge. The son of the owner of the renowned and eponymous Leeds department store, he lived alone in a large flat off Queensgate in South Kensington. At some point in his university education he had drifted sufficiently far from a state of equanimity to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act and committed to Scalebor Hospital near Ilkley. Not craving any species of salvation that his doctors might proffer, he battled through the vegetalising drug regimes, endured the intermittent offhand interviews and sluggish group therapies, consistently managing to nurture and preserve an acuity of vision that, on a bad day would make him see things that were not there and, on a better day, allow him to assay that day and its denizens with a soaring clarity.

Patrick’s doctors were gratified, despite his general lack of compliance, when he asked to edit the Scalebor monthly magazine, hitherto an unprepossessing clutch of stapled and gestetnered white A4 sheets with a cover of another colour. He decided that in addition to the patients, the doctors and nurses should be invited to contribute and the whole would be prefaced with an essay written by himself.

The essay proved so incendiary that its author was promptly discharged into the community, where his capacity to endanger the mental hospital staff would be considerably reduced. In a coolly argumentative prose, Patrick had systematically uncovered a dreadful secret: there was no therapeutic agenda at the hospital, patients were kept there in order to legitimise a constant battle for power between the doctors and nurses. The objects of the struggle were the patients and the prize for the winner of the battle was control over the patients’ lives.

With forensic doggedness Patrick considered the roles, purported and actual, of all the various classes of clinician, therapist and carer in the Scalebor system. He described an intricate lattice of struggles and alliances, demonstrating throughout that each faction craved an intimate dominance of the drugged inmates. I read the piece, so it seemed to me, without blinking or breathing. The essay reached beyond the walls of the gothically named institution and offered a critique of all institutions. Patrick was a magus, to know him was to be initiated into the dark art of the seer of everyday life, one who found the behavioural world at his fingertips a wasteful irritation, a candied rind to be peeled peremptorily away before you could get the pips to squeak.

The world began to race. The combination of counterculture, LSD, my own radical anti-psychoanalysis and Patrick was steadily stamping out pockets of resistance in hitherto troublesome areas. Armed with a portfolio of exceptional insights, I felt exhilarated yet beleaguered. One problem I had was my conviction that, despite the occult nature of the behaviours I was discovering, everyone knew what was going on. They all knew what we were all up to and had conspired to conceal it from each other, out of a sense of shame and embarrassment. This is certainly what Antonin Artaud thought, and look what happened to him. Rather than glide through my new life on the ice-skates of insouciance, I found myself growing more guarded in case I inadvertently gave the game away with a knowing look or a fumbled Masonic handshake.

If all this threatened at times to rear up and turn the world inside out, it was processed by Patrick himself with unfaltering logic. Effectively oblivious to the ostensible, he moved though a terrain of threats, violence and betrayal in which all whom he encountered were stained with perfidy. Many of the assaults he endured were barely acknowledged by the miscreant – they were everyday violences perpetrated blindly in the shadowy cut and thrust of the universal secret struggle. On one occasion, for example, I was sitting in an armchair in Patrick’s flat, talking with the degree of unease that I often felt in the presence of his effortlessly merciless gaze. He interrupted me, pointing to my right foot, which was supported by my left knee and projecting towards his chair. I had been pointing and flexing my toe in a heedless, jiggling way. “Your foot,” he observed, “kicking at my chest.” I’m afraid he was absolutely right. There was no other explanation for it. To deny ownership of the gesture would be to compound the assault.

When it got too much Patrick would rearrange the environment to make more room. As I suggested, this was a logical operation. Others took it as proof of his insanity. Troubled by his relationship with David Cooper he determined to embark on a quest which would heal the situation at many levels. Boarding a train at Paddington he set off for Wales then, alone in a first-class carriage, shaved off all his hair, including his eyebrows. He was now the Sacrificial Lamb. Fiercely inspirited but still wary, he concealed his true purpose from others by donning a woman’s wig of short, curly hair. After a couple of hours the train seemed to slow down. Patrick peered out of the window and was delivered of an awesome sign. Writ large, in black on white, the words CARMAR THEN slid into view and stayed before him, obscuring all else. He knew then that he was most significantly attuned, whether to the wellsprings of providence or to the abyss, he could not tell.

Bonkers now, heading further and further west. He will not eat or drink, for he must present himself to Cooper in a condition of purity. The train will go no further. He steps down and wanders through the streets of a little town. A little city, to be precise. The smallest city in the United Kingdom. He had arrived at St. David’s Head. It was a logical operation.

Patrick wouldn’t ring up after an episode, I’d go round there. He would tell me about his capers, acknowledging that they were, perhaps, a bit off, but always explaining their symbols and teasing out their meanings. There was no question of resisting an imminent caper, any more than you would resist going to the corner shop for milk. He found it strange that the lives of others were not similarly punctuated, given what was going on.

I didn’t see him for a while. The phone rang. I chatted with a friend. He said “Sad about Patrick, wasn’t it?” What? “Sad that he’s gone.” Where? Where’s he gone? “Oh, you don’t know! He went to Beachy Head. He jumped off.”

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