Reports on Inner Circle Seminars

Reports on Inner Circle Seminars

Dr Johnson on ‘Madness’
A seminar in Dr Samuel Johnson’s London house to celebrate the 300th anniversary of his birth and to develop his existential thinking on ‘madness’
Inner Circle Seminar No. 145
Sunday 8 November 2009

Reported by Angela Buxton

Dr Samuel Johnson

I am indebted to Anthony Stadlen for introducing me to the work of Samuel Johnson, about which I knew very little until I decided to attend Anthony's all-day Inner Circle Seminar No. 145 on 8th November 2009 devoted to Johnson’s views on ‘madness’ and their relevance for psychotherapists. In preparation for this seminar, I began to read some of the work of Dr Johnson and was amazed by the wisdom therein and its relevance to my work. I am surprised that I have not come across this phenomenological writer before. I began with The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, (recently nominated on the Radio 4 programme 'Open Book' as a neglected classic) which is written in the style of a Persian tale and describes how Prince Rasselas lives in the ‘Happy Valley’ where he is kept for his own good, surrounded by every luxury that can be provided for him. The only problem is that he cannot leave. Rasselas becomes discontented and longs to find a different way of life. He escapes from the valley together with his sister, her lady-in-waiting and a philosopher and they travel together, all searching for the happiest way of life. For me, this mirrors the issues that many of my clients struggle with: how to move from a life of dependency to one of responsibility in which they can pursue their own answers to the question of how to live. Part of the subtlety of the book is that Johnson shows how a single ‘choice of life’ cannot guarantee happiness or fulfilment. The ‘choice’ has to be constantly renewed. In this respect, Johnson is a truly existential thinker.

The seminar was one of many events this year celebrating Dr Johnson’s tercentenary (he was born on 18th September 1709), but it was the only one to focus on his thoughts about ‘madness’. It actually took place in his own house, today a museum (Dr Johnson’s House: in Gough Square, just off Fleet Street. We had the exclusive use of his whole house for the day, a beautifully restored structure originally built in 1700 and redolent with memories of Johnson made manifest by the many portraits of him at different times of his life as well as portrayals of his friends and family. The seminar itself was held in the Dictionary Garret on the fourth floor, where he worked with his clerks on his great English Dictionary, which took him seven years to complete and was the first comprehensive Dictionary of the English language, with a lasting influence on English language and literature. We had lunch near his favourite seat (and Dickens’s) in the Chop Room of the nearby inn, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, and a wonderful afternoon tea with fruit pastries and almond-and-amaretti biscuits in the Withdrawing Room on the second floor of his house. The curator of Dr Johnson’s House, Stephanie Pickford, was present all day to help the seminar go smoothly.

The seminar was interdisciplinary as are all the Inner Circle Seminars and so in our discussions we had the benefit not just of Anthony's knowledge of the life and work of Dr Johnson but the perspective of Beatrice Clarke, an expert in English literature. Most of the participants were psychotherapists and of these most described themselves as existential, but there were also representatives of psychoanalysis and humanistic therapies. I was interested to find that one third of the participants had travelled from outside London in order to attend this seminar, two from as far afield as Sheffield, however apparently this is nothing because I am told by Anthony that for his next seminar someone is travelling from Hong Kong.

The day began with an examination of the two volumes of Johnson's own dictionary, huge, fragile, leather-bound tomes, in order to understand what he meant by madness, mind and melancholy. After some serious discussion, Anthony lightened the mood by suggesting that we try to guess Johnson's definition of a horse. None of us was correct and the answer was: 'a neighing quadruped'. This was an important reminder that as well having the characteristics of wisdom and erudition, Dr Johnson had a superb sense of poetry, and of humour. We proceeded to discuss his life as described by James Boswell and other biographers. This giant of a man was unconventional and dedicated to the pursuit of truth. This did upset some of his peers and perhaps may disturb some current day readers, but I found it both moving and inspirational to read Dr Johnson's own words as he described with brutal honesty his struggles to lead his life as he thought it should be led in the face of prolonged ill-health and physical pain, bouts of melancholia and poverty and increasing fear of madness and terror of dying.

We discussed Dr Johnson's life and reported sayings as well as his poetry and his phenomenological essays, for example ‘Sorrow’ written in 1750. During Boswell’s very first visit to Johnson in his home (not at that time in Gough Square) Dr Johnson criticised the incarceration of his friend the poet Christopher Smart in a madhouse because he had been praying in the street. Dr Johnson said those people who did not pray at all were much madder, and Smart was doing no harm, so he should not have been shut up. These 18th-century comments have striking 21st-century relevance.

We also talked about Rasselas, focusing upon the sensitive portrayal of madness towards the end of this short book. As the afternoon wore on, Anthony read ‘This is the last’ (1760) to us, a very relevant work for existential therapists. We ended the day with the question to the psychotherapists present of how they would work with Johnson if he were to come to them for help with his melancholia. I would recommend any existential therapist to read the work of Dr Johnson (as well as being thought-provoking, Rasselas is a jolly good read and the essays and poetry are written so very beautifully) and indeed not to miss future Inner Circle Seminars where matters relevant to all psychotherapists can be discussed openly with fellow professionals.

The hare as a hieroglyph of 'to be'
Inner Circle Seminar No. 82
Sunday 7 November 2004

Reported by Naomi Stadlen

The three-hares motif on a mediaeval fragment of stained glass
in Long Melford church, Suffolk
(photograph copyright Chris Chapman)

This was one of Anthony Stadlen’s Inner Circle Seminars, and was called ‘The Mystery of the Hare’. It was held on Sunday 7 November 2004, in honour of the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of The Lady of the Hare by the English anthropologist and Jungian analyst, John Layard.

The plan expanded when Anthony learned about the ‘Three Hares Project’. This was a research study by Dr Tom Greeves, an archaeologist, cultural environmentalist and historian, to trace an enigmatic motif of three hares chasing each other in a circle, each ear shared by a pair of hares, from Buddhist cave-paintings in China through the Middle East to seventeen churches on Dartmoor. Professor David Singmaster, a professor of mathematics and metagrobologist (expert on puzzles), a world authority on mathematical puzzles such as the Rubik Cube, had also contributed to the three-hares research. Both Dr Greeves and Professor Singmaster agreed to speak at the seminar.

A third guest was the poet David Harsent, who had based a cycle of poems, Lepus, and the libretto for a composition by Harrison Birtwistle, The Woman and the Hare, for soprano, reciter and instrumental ensemble, on themes from The Lady of the Hare.

Seventeen seminar participants contributed and asked questions. It was a real exploration, not simply virtuoso performances by the presenters.

Anthony opened the day by introducing The Lady of the Hare, placing it in the history of both Jungian analytical psychotherapy and family therapy. He explained that Layard rightly called it the first attempt to describe what actually happened in a Jungian analysis. Jung, in a letter to Layard, admired it but deplored its publication as ‘throwing pearls before swine’. Jung’s own case studies, while giving fascinating mandalas and mythological ‘amplifications’ of the ‘material’, contain almost nothing of what is going on in the patient’s life or between the patient and analyst. Layard’s case was also a pioneering one in that he did not just accept the ‘identified patient’, a young ‘mentally defective’ girl, but instead saw her mother (the ‘lady of the hare’), to try to facilitate insight and change in the whole family.

Anthony read a dream aloud from the case, drew attention to Layard’s interpretations, and asked participants what they thought. Anthony pointed out that, while there were phenomenological aspects to Layard’s interpretations, he actually changed the ‘manifest content’ of the dream (the dreamer said she was standing ‘beside deep water’, and Layard told her she was ‘in deep water’), and also introduced his own assumptions as to the dream’s meaning. Layard’s first words on his response to the dream were ‘I could not refrain from…’ Anthony commented that a psychotherapist should above all have the phenomenological humility to refrain.

Next, Tom Greeves gave a slide show, revealing how the three-hares motif was found in at least four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. One participant urged him to agree that the universal recurrences must endorse Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious. But he replied that he thought it important to keep an open mind, and wait for further information.

After lunch, David Harsent explained how he came across The Lady of the Hare as a teenager working in a bookshop. He started by reading aloud his unpublished text for a second version of Birtwistle’s The Woman and the Hare, followed by about eight of his poems from Lepus. One was titled: ‘The hare as a hieroglyph for the auxiliary verb “to be”’. This was based on Layard’s observation, of striking interest for existential psychotherapists, that, in ancient Egypt, the hare was used in this way. We then heard a recording of The Woman and the Hare.

David Singmaster presented further findings on the three-hares motif from round the world, and he showed how it arose naturally from certain purely formal, mathematical-puzzle considerations. He thought that people had subsequently read various different numinous, archetypal, and religious meanings into the motif. This was a useful caveat, complementing and confirming Tom Greeves’s caution against too quickly assuming one knows the ‘meaning’ of the hares motif.

Anthony then returned to discuss, at last, the dream that gave Layard the title for his book: the dream of the killing of the (apparently trusting and willing) hare. Again Anthony asked how Layard’s powerful interpretation of the dream’s meaning – the killing of the hare as a religious sacrifice, the outward sign of an inner spiritual transformation in the ‘lady of the hare’ – could be confirmed or disproved.

Anthony raised three questions. First, had the dream interpretation been helpful? Second, did it made sense to ask whether it was true? Third, if it did make sense, was it true? He pointed out that Freud, Jung, and Boss all acknowledged that ‘incorrect’ interpretations could be helpful, but each insisted that his own interpretations were true.

Anthony left the second and third questions for participants to reflect on. They had been discussed in detail at a number of previous Inner Circle Seminars, and would no doubt be at future ones.

Limiting himself here to the first question, Anthony reported briefly on the findings of his interviews with surviving relatives of the ‘lady of the hare’, including her daughter, Margaret, and villagers who had known the family during the Second World War.

The findings threw some doubt on Layard’s rather grandiose claims. He had analysed the dreams of the ‘lady of the hare’ to try to help Margaret and he claimed that Margaret had blossomed in consequence. However, neither Margaret herself nor Anthony’s other interviewees had noticed such a blossoming at the time of Layard’s ‘treatment’. Only later, after her father and mother had died, did Margaret at last raise her head to greet people in the street, get a job, and find a husband. Her parents had regarded her as a hopeless case with a hereditary ‘taint’, and had opposed her efforts to get work and make relationships.

By the end of this many-sided seminar, participants were not tired but excited. The three guest speakers seemed like the three hares, linked by their thoughts, if not by their ears. Anthony’s questions probed the empty centre, enhancing the mystery. This was not an event of closed answers, but one of open questioning of the possibilities of being.

[More reports of seminars to follow.]