Somedays with Salman Akhtar

March 13, 2018

“Someday” and “if only” fantasies have a certain universal appeal, and are probably part of our cultural programming thanks to the happily-ever-after cliché in children’s books and movies. But the darkest periods of my life have been characterized by a sheer fixation on these two sides of the same coin, a useless vacillation between nebulous, passive optimism and black, backward-looking resentments to the exclusion of a normal, functional ideational field, the tenacity of which can only be described as pathological. So it was with great relief and a sense of wonder that I encountered Salman Akhtar’s chapter on the origin and character of these specific fantasy types in the book Beyond the Symbiotic Orbit.

Of the catatonic sense of expectation at the extremes of “someday” fantasies, Akhtar quotes an observation of Karl Abraham’s (1924): “Some people are dominated by the belief that there will always be some kind person – a representative of the mother, of course – to care for them and to give them everything they need. This optimistic belief condemns them to inactivity.”

Is this true love’s kiss? The ultimate knight in shining armor fantasy? Is this person “sleeping beauty”? Or is this no more unnatural than the boyish best-friend fantasies of Pushkin, Doestoevsky and Lermontov, dreaming of Achilles and Patroklus, reading Schiller in Russia? Is this about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Or is this merely about striving to find, or make, a better world somehow?

watership down

Margaret Mahler, a leading separation-individuation theorist, argues (in Akhtar’s paraphrase) that one of the underlying mechanisms here is “a temporal displacement from past to future of a preoedipal, preverbal state of unity with the ‘all good’ mother of the symbiotic phase.” Akhtar links this pathology to early life events abruptly separating mother from child around the age of two. This is the age of separation and rapproachment phases in the mother-child symbiotic orbit, and this is the critical process that has been interrupted in individuals with pathological “someday” fantasies.

Just as happily-ever-after is a normal vein of wishful thinking, “someday” pathologies are typical of a wide range of personality disorders, according to Akhtar. He describes how a narcissist will industriously work to realize this impossible dream, while a borderline individual turns to infatuate attachment disorders and drug abuse to make the leap, and a paranoid individual fixates on obstacles in the path to realizing the idyll. A schizoid manifestation, he writes, is to “adopt a passive stance in which they are constantly waiting for a magical happening, a windfall, a chance encounter with a charismatic guru, or a sexual explosion of idiosyncratic transcendental connotations.” Emphasis mine.

Akhtar sees “if only” fantasies as a variant on “someday,” characterizing patients entertaining this version as follows: rather than pursue or await this “someday,” “they lack all interest in the future. They are constantly wringing their hands over something that happened in the past. They focus their attention on this event and insist that ‘if only’ it had not taken place everything would have turned out all right. Life before that event is glossed over and idealized.”


To sum up, Akhtar remarks, “In the ‘someday’ fantasy, future is idealized, leading to hope, optimism, and a search for ideal conditions. In the ‘if only’ fantasy, past is idealized leading to nostalgia, self-pity, and a certain kind of self-righteousness.” He points out how often these two fantasies operate “in tandem” – and this is exactly how I have experienced them.

Reading about this phenomenon from a safe place has been truly empowering. Dashing a dream that has held sway for too long feels like breaking a piggy bank – inside is only a little residual energy now, because these fantasies have been in remission for months now, but it still feels good to break it. After an expensive stint in talk therapy that felt interminably iterative, just peeling back layers of an onion without getting any closer to the cathartic transition, I’ve finally hit upon the analytic insight I was looking for in Laing, Freud, Rank, cognitive behavioral theory, you name it. Reading Laing in depth probably helped lay the groundwork for understanding Akhtar’s meaning, but I’ll say more about that later, when I’ve had a chance to watch the new David Tennant movie, Mad to be Normal, about Laing’s controversial but influential career in psychotherapy.

The most important take-away for me has been that it’s not just me – that under certain circumstances, this kind of thought process is organic and predictable. In fact, my parents – one a narcissist, the other borderline – may very well both have it, in a different form, in their own private lives. This brings me closer to understanding and feeling for them, in spite of everything.

There is much that sounds familiar here – “chronic restlessness, unstable emotions, vacillating relationships, unrealistic goals, excessive self-absorption, defective empathy, egocentric perception of reality, impaired capacity for mourning, inability to love, sexual difficulties, and moral defects of varying degrees” in all the personality disorders, and “unstable mood, impaired capacity for ambivalence, intense oscillations of self-esteem, poorly integrated identity, difficulty in maintaining optimal distance in relationships” in the sequelae of an interrupted separation-individuation process. These thick descriptions paint a much more three-dimensional and fully human picture of my parents than the stilted caricatures they usually take on in my imagination.

Listening to Maria Callas, too, opened up a secret language of operative connotation in my memory of my mother’s conversational rhythms that told me more than words could how important her years as an opera student were to her personality development. That sounds so clinical to say, but it is only in the context of the clinical gaze that I’ve found the safety to look at “us” as a mother-daughter pair and not mere cats in a bag, scratching at each other to get out.

Rapproachment may be impossible, but I can’t afford to be ignorant of who this person who dominated my life for so long really is. Unfortunately, we are at an impasse in the rituals of forgiveness – she denies having done  X and I refuse to forget. Nussbaum’s vaunted prescriptions for “unconditional love” feel alien to me, as if they don’t apply here.

What I can do, however, is extricate myself from these unrealistic and futile pendulum swings between “someday” and “if only” in favor of  healthier coping strategies.

Many thanks to the filmmakers behind A Dangerous Method for, indirectly, prompting me to explore the insights of the psychoanalytic tradition, of which Akhtar’s work forms one small part.


Anger as food and the gods

March 5, 2018

After a long hiatus, I am hoping to get back to blogging regularly again. I’ll start with one of Martha Nussbaum’s newer titles in philosophy, Anger and Forgiveness. I haven’t finished it yet, but here I only need to discuss the first few chapters.

Why am I reading about anger? I distinguish my favorite actresses from the pack on this criterion more than any other, for their facility with anger in performance. Qorianka Kilcher in Shouting Secrets, Elizabeth Banks in The Next Three Days, Vanessa Redgrave in Coriolanus, Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth.

Why not some other strength? Perhaps because this one is so unusual in a woman. Not in real life, certainly, but in a screen acting career.


In the director’s commentary track to Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes is right to congratulate himself on casting Vanessa Redgrave in spite of her initial reservations about taking on the wronged mother’s role. Hers is the most explicit and profound line in the play:

“Anger’s my meat; I sup upon myself,
And so shall starve with feeding.”

Screenwriters often deny actresses access to much anger, especially when they have an ‘opposite number’ to adorn with their presence. Going straight to the heart of an outburst with convincing aggression, and making that move compelling without stripping it of ugliness, is rare. My Week with Marilyn builds up a vivid image of the alternative career track – an inwardly-collapsing vortex of vapid smiles enervated by wispy flights of fancy, all coif and no claws. What would capture my imagination, in contrast, would be to see Seneca’s Medea, quoted in the act of thrusting her children over the ledge (by Martha Nussbaum): “Do you acknowledge your wife?”

But is anger nourishing? Nussbaum finds it intrinsically unhealthy. Why then is it such a mark of distinction in a woman’s theatrical career, in my eyes?

Nussbaum deploys such vivid imagery sparingly in her treatise. She quickly puts to grass the daemons with whom she introduces her book, the “hideous” ancient Greek Furies who hounded survivors of blood feuds as tenaciously as Hamlet‘s Ghost, exhorting an infinitely reciprocal accounting in blood – revenge, always revenge. But her conceptual exposition of anger, its flaws, and their refractory reproduction in the scaffolding of conventional wisdom on forgiveness is compelling and of practical importance.

Giving anger’s definition in terms of the content of the experience, Nussbaum refers us to Aristotle and decomposes his definition as follows:

  • Anger is at a slighting or down-ranking (e.g., by injury or insult)
  • Of the self, people close to the self, or one’s “circle of concern” (no indifference)
  • Wrongfully done (as opposed to an innocent accident)
  • Causing the agent pain (whether direct or sympathetic, physical or psychic)
  • Involving a payback wish (“retribution”)

She argues eloquently that this final criterion of what makes an emotion an angry one necessitates a philosophical rejection of anger – explaining that except in a status-obsessed world in which reversing an upset in pecking order is the be-all end-all of existence, this payback fantasy is worthless, as it does nothing to alleviate the pain or right the wrong or undo the past or improve the future prospects of one’s circle of concern.

She then ties this preoccupation with status, account-keeping and retribution into the formulaic “dance of forgiveness” extracted by the injured party, drawing on a rich handling of the Judeo-Christian confessional tradition for an etiology of the conventions we see in self-help books today for victims learning how to move through their anger. She moves on to deal extensively with one of my mother’s favorite books, The Dance of Anger, sympathetically and critically examining the therapeutic process in working with dyads where anger has become entrenched.

Ultimately, Nussbaum puts forward a radical rejection of both anger and forgiveness, even unconditional forgiveness, in favor of “unconditional love”. There is a problem here, however. Anger is incident-oriented, whereas love is person-oriented.

Nussbaum spends the second half of the book, which still lies ahead, elaborating on social justice applications of an alternative to anger which she terms the Transition, and defines as the forward-looking but incident-provoked emotional reaction going as follows: “How outrageous! Something should be done about that.”

In this way, she acknowledges the signal value and social fecundity of moral outrage, which she foreshadows in her introduction with a vignette about how the Greek gods domesticated the furies. Quoting Aeschylus, she describes how Athena strips these daemons of their hideousness, denies them access to human flesh and physically buries them under the foundations of the city, as so much fertilizer for the civil courts and political justice system.

This brings to mind Cavafy’s Growing Strong:

“He who wishes to strengthen his spirit,
must abandon reverence and submission. …
He will not fear the destructive act;
half the house must be torn down.”

Indeed, in an interview about portraying a serial killer taken by Alix Lambert for the anthology Crime, actor Michael Rooker is quite explicit about the connection between violent aggression and flourishing:

“With Henry, I saw it as nourishment. He’d see someone he’d like to consume and he’d go and take them and do what he wanted. He needed to nourish his spirit. His spirit, of course, was this flawed worm-in-the-brain kind of guy. When he was hungry, he ate. I love food, so it was a perfect handle to hook onto.”

Is this orality, the love-hate of infantile narcissism? Schizophrenia expert R.D. Laing emphasizes how preternaturally quiet in infancy his patients were, in contrast to a more well-adjusted infant’s “lusty crying” for the absent breast. Can infantile aggression, then, be a needful launching pad for some future psycho-social adjustment process?

I don’t have the answers here, but I want to close with a vignette from Richard Grant’s magnificent Sierra Madre travelogue, God’s Middle Finger. His early predecessor in the Sierra Madre travelogue genre, the Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholz, had also survived adventures sojourning with the cannibals of Queensland, and I will quote Grant at length in summarizing his disposition towards the natives.

“”What a misfortune it would be to die without having seen the whole world,” he wrote as a young man, shortly after dropping out of seminary school… In 1880, at the age of twenty-nine, he sailed to Australia to collect zoological specimens for the University of Chiristiania in Oslo and begin his self-appointed studies as a field ethnographer. He ended up spending four years in the Australian bush, one of them with a group of aboriginal cannibals … Mostly they preyed on other cannibal tribes, killing and eating men, women, and children alike. White people didn’t taste as good, they said, but the Chinese were delicious.

“Lumholz plied them with tobacco, for which they would do anything, and kept them in constant fear of his revolver. At first he was disgusted by their taste for human flesh and finally irritated because they talked about it so much.”

I like that account of Norwegian table manners at a cannibal convention.



Syncopation and coincidence: a problem poem

September 15, 2016

Turning to Robert Browning’s Fifine at the Fair as an exemplar of quantitative meter in English verse requires a disclaimer. I have it only on authority that this poem scans in quantitative dactylic hexameter at all – while of course an alexandrine line can be divided into four groups of three syllables evenly, in no instance does the poem appear to actually use four dactyls in a line, be they accentual-syllabic or quantitative.

What Browning does instead is use syncopation, alternating iambs with anapests in symmetrical lines that scan like this:

The tumbling troop arrayed, the strollers on their stage

u S u s u S u S u s u S

_ __ _ _ _ __ _ __ _ _ _ __

Here there is perfect coincidence between syllables with a strong stress (S) and a long duration (__), but this is actually the exception to the rule – take the stanza this line appears in for example:

Oh, trip and skip Elivire! Link arm in arm with me:

Like husband and like wife, together let us see

The tumbling troop arrayed, the strollers on their stage

Drawn up and under arms, and ready to engage.

Each line again has four strong stresses, two iambs and two anapests, but in quantitative scansion there is no coincidence and no regularity. Take the last line for example:

Drawn up and under arms, and ready to engage.

s S u s u S u S u s u S

__ _ __ __ _ __ __ _ _ _ __ __

The alexandrine (iambic hexameter) line is in French poetry what iambic pentameter is in English – a virtual necessity for serious poets using meter and rhyme. Even Shakespeare’s plays make extensive use of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) for speeches and soliloquies. Browning’s justification for using the alexandrine is clear – his characters in this dramatic poem make up a love triangle drawn from Moliere’s Don Juan.

His short prologue to the poem is in the more familiar English verse form of ballad meter, or alternating four-foot and three-foot lines. These lines achieve syncopation instead by skipping initial unstressed syllables in places and alternating iambs with trochees, as in this meditation on a butterfly seen by a swimmer:

Does she look, pity, wonder,

At one who mimics flight,

Swims, – heaven above, sea under,

Yet always earth in sight?

S u S S u S u

u S u S u S

S S u u S s S u

u S u S u S

The third line might be said to have an iamb (or a trochee) with a skipped syllable, followed by a dactyl, a spondee and a trochee, and in quantitative meter there is almost perfect coincidence, again starting with an iamb or trochee with a skipped syllable:

Swims, – heaven above, sea under,

__ / __ _ _ / _ __ / __ _

Whereas the first two lines have a slightly more awkward pattern of near-coincidence, with perhaps too many skipped syllables for any sense of regularity:

Does she look, pity, wonder,

At one who mimics flight,

__ / __ __ / _ __ / __ _

_ __ / _ _ __ / __

The last line, however, has pleasing near-coincidence, this time without any skipped syllables:

Yet always earth in sight?

_ __ / __ __ / _ __

Overall, there are precious few dactyls to be found, but a triple rhythm is nevertheless evident and significant to the poem’s skipping and tripping style, which makes light of the traditional duple feet of English-language poetry, even though it does not take much forcing of the language to impose a sing-song iambic hexameter on each line. Indeed, if you remove the visual device that primes the ear for a rhythmic subtext, that is, the knowledge of the orthographic code, if you will, the hexameter is the remainder – the most obvious rhythm in each line.

All this leaves me curious as to whether Moliere used any triple rhythms to introduce variety to the twelve syllable lines in his Don Juan – but I have not studied French, so on this I cannot comment.

Measuring rhythms in English verse

September 7, 2016

Taking a break from history for a while, I’ve decided to revisit territory I covered closely several years ago and then set aside, knowing someday I would pick up the thread again, but still unsure where it would all lead. Out of nostalgia for a very energetic period of creative writing, and to take advantage of two book length poems I’ve since been able to acquire my own copies of – Robert Browning’s Fifine at the Fair, and Cayley’s (notably obscure) translation of the Iliad. I quickly found myself making notes in their margins.

When I first began experimenting with quantitative meters in poetry, I had a very definite goal in mind – to write an epic in Homeric hexameters myself. But the more I learned about these exotic classical verse forms, the more academic my interest became. Ultimately, I became reserved about the possibilities of using such a meter (although I am still happy with some of the experiments I produced with it then).

In graduate school, I undertook a self-study course on the subject with the permission of a poetry instructor who had introduced me to Tennyson’s Ulysses and Dryden’s verse. I studied Renaissance and Victorian poetry in classical meters, and learned the Latin rules of quantitative scansion that they had adapted, with difficulty and with no consensus on the best approach, to the English language. The Latin rules, in turn, had been developed in imitation of the Greek classics.

Interestingly, neither Latin or Greek vernacular poetry or spoken language resembled, in rhythm, the movement of the hexameter line so well known from Homer and Virgil. Although the Latin rules bore some correspondence to what is now understood to have been Latin pronunciation, in each instance the rules were orthographic rather than auditory in application – an artifact of written literature that could only be reproduced aurally by artificial elongation of the “long” syllables (a foot scanned according to stress in accentual-syllabic versification is scanned according to duration in quantitative meter; in quantitative music two short syllables equal one long in duration). To complicate matters further, Renaissance and Victorian authors were educated in a Latin that had lost correspondence to classical pronunciation (which has been more successfully reconstructed since then). So to the extent that Virgil’s hexameters could be heard in Latin, these students of classical poetry were at a loss as to how.


Instead, they arranged their quantitative lines orthographically – that is, according to the arrangement of letters into diphthongs, digrams, pairs of consonants, and types of vowels. Syllables with “tense” vowels do tend to be pronounced “long” in English as in Latin, and diphthongs and consonant clusters can also lengthen the duration of a syllable, but often silent consonants were scanned identically to other consonants, and the tendency for English pronunciation to lengthen certain syllables in a line in connection with syntax or word prominence was long ignored.

e.g., the long e in “The scene was beautiful” is longer than the long e in “The scenery was beautiful” (Schuman 1977)

The first English poets to achieve audible quantitative meters were those who exploited coincidence, that is, the tendency of an accented syllable to sound longer in duration than an unaccented syllable. Here the Victorian poets experimenting with classical meters were aided by the phenomenon of isochronism – the tendency of English verse to give equal time intervals between stressed syllables in a line, so that in a line running

/ ‘ ‘ / ‘ / ‘ / ‘ ‘ / ‘ ‘ / ‘

the duration of the first two unstressed syllables is one beat, and the duration of the second syllables in each of the second and third feet is the same as the stressed syllables. Hence in quantitative meter, you have a dactyl and two spondees – spondaic substitution being permissible in all but the penultimate foot in an epic hexameter line, whereas the last two feet must be a dactyl followed by a spondee. This is important for the quantitative hexameter at least, because trochees and iambs are excluded in this verse form, whereas they are almost inevitable in English accentual-syllabic scansion (some experts would argue that there is no such thing as a true accentual-syllabic spondee in English, due to the rising and falling pattern of our speech habits, which strongly favor iambic pentameter lines).

I remember in my term paper on Tennyson’s Ulysses for this same professor, I introduced an alternate approach to scansion which distinguished between strong stress and weak stress to account for the difference between prominent stressed syllables and words that only acquired stress by virtue of their position in the line (i.e., because of rising and falling speech patterns and the momentum of the iambic pentameter rhythm).

My teacher found this system very confusing, but I still find it very useful, because in iambic pentameters, I very often feel I have come across a dactyl-iamb pair that violates the sing-song conventions of versification and introduces a sense of relief from the constrictions of blank verse without interrupting the regularity of ten syllable lines. Take this line – here the downhill movement of the water carries the stress away from the second foot, but the need for a break from the unstressed syllables and the mid-point of the line assigns prominence to a word that would not normally be emphasized (“from”):

e.g., “These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs”

u S u s u S u S u S

Tintern Abbey, Line 3

In contrast, had the waters been rolling breakers on the open sea, the second foot would have laid more stress on “rolling”, I think. Here there are opportunities to introduce tension between verse forms within blank verse, with some lines having a triple rhythm, some a tetrameter, and some passages evoking ballad meter (tetrameter alternating with trimeter for a seven beat enjambed line). The following line, for instance, can be reduced to three beats:

“With a sweet inland murmur.—Once again”

u u S u u S u s u S

Here listening for the beat, in particular for isochronism, as opposed to counting the syllables and enforcing an iambic rhythm on the line, yields a more complex sense of movement and pause to a very familiar poem.

I’ll return to Tintern Abbey later, but first, I want to focus on Browning’s poem. Unfortunately, just introducing the subject has taken up most of my time (and a great deal of space), so I will get to Fifine at the Fair in my next blog entry.