February 2018


Donald TrumpThis was the book, Donald Trump tried to ban, but failed. Michael Wolff was given unique access to the west wing as a fly on the wall journalist for the first nine months of the Trump presidency. If his host knew what he would produce, he would have been swatted. The result is an appalling indictment of the president and his administration.

Trump had never expected to win the election; he had banked on losing and then making a lot of money in television. He wanted to become the most famous man in the world and he probably is, but not for the reasons he would have liked. Donald Trump is undoubtedly the least qualified and capable president, America has ever known. He had never worked in government before; never studied law or politics; he had a degree in economics and estate management from a minor university. He was a businessman, joining his father’s business as soon as he graduated. All he knew of politics was gleaned from the television news.

Not only that but the personality of the man seems totally at variance with the role of a president. Wolff paints a picture of a man, who is impulsive, mercurial, emotional, paranoid and totally uncontained and unpredictable. Despite his macho persona, Trump is a man who cannot make decisions. He may seem to make up his mind very quickly, largely on the basis of how he feels about the last person who came to see him, but he changes it just as rapidly. On difficult decisions, he prefers to procrastinate and let them make themselves or hand over the brief to someone else and then forget about it. If it succeeds, he takes the credit, if it fails, then they have screwed up and are fired. According to Wolff, Trump cannot see the bigger picture, and therefore tends to make rash, polarised judgements about situations. He has a very low attention span and never listens to advice. He gets bored with people who present him with the information he needs to know, he never reads briefings, he doesn’t even follow his own script when he has to give a speech and is likely to go off on a rant and repeat himself. This all implies a limited capacity to think.

Trump reacts to personalities rather than issues, either loading them with fulsome praise or dismissing them completely. He creates dramas; he wants to be the centre of attention, even when it is bad news, he has little empathy and can be ruthless and cruel when he doesn’t get his own way. Were it about any other person, Wolff’s book might be dismissed as media hype or dysphoria; fake news – to quote a Trumpism, but it seems to confirms what most of us already know already; the man is quite unsuited to be the de facto leader of the western world. What seems so shocking about Fire and Fury is just how damningly, the man and his administration are portrayed.

Wolff reports that Trump is universally derided by members of his staff, who variously describe him as a child, a clown, a moron, an idiot and stupid. But is he so cognitively challenged? After all, he was a very successful businessman and in his words, very very smart. Isn’t it more that he is emotionally unstable. Donald Trump would appear to be a text book case of a narcissistic personality disorder.

Donald was fourth in a family of five children, which might suggest he had to fight to get his parents’ attention.  Trump’s father, Fred, was a belligerent, uncompromising, ruthless man; he created a son, who was driven to achieve his father’s approval.  Donald’s relationship with his father was ambivalent; he both resented his control but was at the same time devoted to him and determined to become a much more successful businessman. Donald must have been difficult teenager for his father to send him away to a military academy, where he subsequently excelled. I could not find any information about Donald’s relationship with his mother, but I would guess from his subsequent behaviour around women, he needed his mother’s love, but didn’t always get it. Mary- Ann Macleod Trump, who emigrated to new York from Stornaway in the Outer Hebrides,   was more reserved with her children than her husband and somewhat vain.  She had a curious orange hair style rather like her son’s.

Although he quickly became a billionaire from his real estate business, the world of Manhattan and in particular the media, regarded him as a joke, a lightweight, a wannabe. Donald Trump hates to feel humiliated and will always seek revenge.  His emotional insecurity was soothed by a sense of entitlement; he always had the money and power to get his own way.

You would think that for a man who prides himself in being a good judge of people, Trump would appoint a top team to run the country.  Not so: Trump needs to be in control; he is too insecure and sensitive to criticism to let others be seen to run the country. The people Trump has chosen to help him are either his own family, hustlers who believe they can manipulate him to get their own agendas met, or ‘yes men’ who try to manage him by letting him think he is in charge, while they get on with the business of government.

Steve Bannon was the White House Chief Strategist for the first eight months before he too was fired. Crude and as uncontained as his boss, he could speak the language, Trump liked to hear. They would have dinner together every night. But Bannon had his own ultra right wing agenda. It was Bannon who was behind the isolationism of Trumpian politics, who wanted to limit immigration, repeal Obamacare, build a wall along the Mexican border, withdraw America from the Paris Climate accord, but all of this was music to Trump’s ears. Bannon was like Thomas Cromwell was to the King, but Trump never had the guile of Henry VIII. The danger was that even if Trump disliked Bannon, he owed him a debt. It was Bannon, who was largely responsible for Trump winning the election with his ultra right populist politics. The two men were said to be closer than a marriage. Their recent divorce could still produce a lot of fall out.

Trump has now been in office for over a year and apart from a reform in the tax system, very little has been achieved. His first year has been a constant firefight. And if there wasn’t a crisis, Donald Trump with his not stop sequence of tweets and turns would make sure there was one. Members of his staff rarely have lasted more than a few months with the exception of his daughter and son in law. The investigation into the Russian influence in the 2016 election; the social media campaign against crooked Hilary, is coming ever closer and could result in impeachment. Bannon lurks under a rock at Brietbart News Headquarters biding his time, awaiting the fall. He has been reported as saying that the chances of Trump’s impeachment are 33%, resignation 33% and hanging on for the rest of his term 33%, dismissing entirely any change of a second term, at least not while there is a chance of a take-over by President Bannon.

If we can take Wolff’s observations and opinions at face value, the worrying question for the rest of the world is how the Americans could have elected somebody, who is so inept, to be their president? And why does he remain so popular? Michael Wolff may criticise the man, but perhaps we should question the society and the system that elected him? Has America got the president it deserved? Does a narcissistic society get a narcissistic president? Is it a dysfunctional news media that controls public opinion and politics these days? Whatever else Trump is, he is compelling news.

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Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think finally, the only real question.

Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one matter, only one finally worth telling.

But if this is your only story, then it’s the one that you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself. The question then is: do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth what happened, or move you further away? I’m not sure . One test might be whether, as the years pass, you come out better from your own story, or worse.

This is the start of Julian Barnes’ latest book, ‘The Only Story’, which Joan gave me on Valentine’s Day. I was touched: romance is clearly not dead, but then I read further ……

Paul was only nineteen when he met Susan. She was forty five and had two teenage daughters. They were drawn to partner each other in the mixed doubles tournament at the tennis club in the Surrey village where they both lived. Although they were not the most successful tennis partnership, they made each other laugh. Paul had a car and would take her home after tennis. Their unlikely relationship developed. The found time to meet other than at tennis, they spent weekends away together and Paul would even make love to her in her bedroom at home while her husband, whom she derided as ‘Mr Elephant Pants’, snored in another room. They were both smitten, though it was such a high risk affair.

They put money into an escape fund and ran away together, renting a flat in south east London. At first things went well. They were happy. Paul got into law school and studied to be a solicitor. He felt very responsible and grown up. But then, he began to notice that Susan was drinking rather a lot. She said that she needed it to relax, promised to give up, but after a while made no attempt to hide it from him; she was more obviously drunk when he came home and more irritable. Then Paul found that she was deceiving him by going back to see her husband when he was away at Uni. The drinking became worse and along with it, her mental state, but they were both too dependant on each other to end the relationship.

Eventually after several episodes when the police were called and Susan was admitted to a psychiatric institution for a time, Paul realised that his mental health was also deteriorating. He had to get away. He took a sequence of posts abroad, but not before he wrote to her daughter to ask if she would look after her mother. But he always kept in touch with Susan, coming back to see her whenever he was in London. Susan never stopped drinking, never got better and died prematurely of liver failure. Paul never married. Their’s was his only story.

Julian Barnes never seems to tell a happy story. His plot lines are full of convoluted and tortured relationships that explore the nature of the human condition. ‘The Only Story’ tackles several monumental themes: intergenerational sexual relationships, addictive attachment, and self annihilation.

Separation from one’s parents is a vital rite of passage for a young person. Although Susan is not his real mother and her husband is ignored and emasculated, not murdered, Paul’s relationship with Susan, conducted while he is still living in the parental home, is what Freud would have described as oedipal and does not allow him to develop his own identity. Instead, he forms an intense attachment with Susan, which lasts all his life. Susan, despite bearing two children and established in the community, is also naive, but too anxious to manage alone without the help of alcohol. They are both like children who have never grown up.

Inevitably, their relationship fails. Perhaps it was too intense, too needy; it didn’t allow any personal space But as Susan’s love deteriorates into a tiresome habit and then into a kind of hatred, the alcohol addiction that comes to replace it disintegrates from a prop to become a means of self destruction. To survive, it seems, relationships must be a balance of independence and togetherness. The secret of life, as the child psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott once said, is ‘to be alone in the company of others’, but that requires a degree of self reliance and responsibility. We can end up hating a partner either because they are too needy or because we need them too much. The sad thing is that, having risked all for their love, Susan and Paul had to make it work. They had made a trap for themselves.

Why do human beings tend to have this inclination to do the very thing that is likely to damage them the most? Is it that they fear not being able to do the thing they want to do so they pretend they never wanted to do it anyway? Or is it more than that? Do they just want to destroy the whole idea of self control and responsibility? Would they rather live for whatever gives them excitement or pleasure, even if that turns out to be the route to meaninglessness and self hatred?

FreudFor many years, scientists thought that consciousness was a peculiarly human phenomenon that resided in the cerebral cortex, that deeply fissured cap of fatty substance that overlies the more primitive ‘brain stem’ that we share with other mammalian species. The things that we didn’t ‘know’, our ‘unconscious’ mind, that raison d’être of psychoanalysts that controls our instincts and drives, was thought to be hidden down in the brain stem adjacent to those centres that control basic functions like respiration, temperature control, sleep and eating. Under certain circumstances, however, this ‘dark matter’ in the unconscious was thought to surface and influence our feelings, thoughts and behaviour, but it may be accessed through the psychoanalytical interpretation of dreams, symptoms, free association and behaviour. Freud called the conscious mind, ‘the ego’, representing the self or ‘I’, while the ‘unconscious’ was the ‘id’ or ‘it’. The purpose of psychoanalysis, he asserted, was to make the unconscious conscious, so that our reason for our drives and behaviour could be understood and changed.

Once an idea has been accepted, scientists try to fit their observations to that theory, but in Science, there is never any absolute certainly, there are just ideas that seem to fit our observations better than others.

In the beginning was the feeling.

Earlier this month, at a conference venue overlooking the Regent’s Canal just before it disappears into the tunnel that burrows under the London Borough of Islington, the South African neuropsychoanalyst, Professor Mark Solms claimed that Freud got it the wrong way round. The great man confused the content of consciousness, all the associations stored in the cortex, with its function. In 1923, he wrote that the ‘conscious’ ego is derived from the environment as discerned by our major sense organs. The ‘unconscious’ id, on the other hand, detects certain changes within the body as fluctuations in the tension of instinctual needs (or drives), which are perceived as feelings. So how, declared Solms, can the ‘id’ be unconscious? Consciousness emanates from the brain stem as feelings that include include desire, joy, hunger, care, curiosity, play, fear, disgust, sadness, loss, pain and are related to certain basic physiological functions. After all, we can all feel happy or sad without the mental capacity to recognise we are happy or sad, let alone reflect on what caused the feeling.

So, in direct contrast to Freud, Solms asserted that the id, representing our feelings or needs, is conscious, while the ego – all the stuff stored in our cortex – aspires to be unconscious. After all, we can only hold a very limited range of content in our conscious mind at any one time. The vast majority, 99.999%, is sequestered away unregarded until required. Similarly, most of our actions are automatic. Think of the way we use a keyboard, drive a car, play tennis. If we tried to think about what we are doing, we would instantly make mistakes.

So do our feelings about what happens make us aware of content tagged with the same emotional salience stored in the cortex? Is consciousness rather like a librarian searching the stacks with a torch for relevant content? Are we only conscious of particular associations, stored in the cortical stacks, when those are triggered by feelings? This would seem unrealistic, since the range of feelings even allowing for every minor nuance would only run in the hundreds if that while database of memories in the cortex, even allowing for complex associations probably amounts to hundreds of thousands. So is it more that what happens accesses memories and that their emotional tag causes us to react in much the same way as the immune system reacts to bacterial antigens displayed on the surface of macrophages? After all, the way we think about things can certainly affect our feelings just as our feelings influence the way we think. In science as in life, things are rarely either/or, but both.

It seems likely current awareness is a feeling state that creates associations with stored memories and tags them with a particular emotional salience, transforming drives and feelings into object and verbal representations so they can be worked through and then restored to long term memory. We can sense the way this works when we recall our dreams. Dreaming is widely thought to be the way the brain consolidates experience. Dreams have a certain content, often related to what happened the day before, relevant, albeit somewhat abstracted, associations and a theme that is related to feeling. If it were not for the feeling, conscious perceiving and thinking would either not exist or would decay away. A mind unmotivated by feelings would be a hapless zombie, incapable of managing the basic tasks of life.

If we ever doubted the role of the brain stem in creating consciousness, consider those children born with hydranencephaly, who have no cortical development whatsoever; just a fluid filled space where the cortex should be. They not only wake up and go to sleep at appropriate times, but they also demonstrate the whole gamut of emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, love/care as well as what may regarded as pre-emotions such as hunger, thirst, discomfort. On the other hand, people with very discrete lesions in the brain stem, can go into a deep coma even though the cortex is completely intact.

Even cows can get the blues

Other mammals have the same brain stem structures as we do and, as any pet owner will testify, demonstrate the same range of emotions. It is a fallacy to say that animals have no feelings; they might not be able to reflect on those feelings but they feel everything and respond appropriately to a whole range of stimuli. It is their ability to think through situations, delay gratification and develop strategy, that seems limited compared with ours; though within their own environment, chimpanzees, dogs, dolphins and many other species, show remarkable cognitive capability. One of the books, I received last Christmas was ‘The Secret Life of Cows’. It described a whole range of caring, exploratory, aggressive, contented behaviours in animals which we often dismiss as stupid. James Rebanks described much the same in his Herdwick sheep in his book, The Shepherd’s Life. Even whales express a range of emotional behaviour. Perhaps we don’t wish to think that the animals we slaughter and eat have feelings too.

 

Goat

It was a day like many others, Martin a successful architect, is due to be interviewed on camera by his long term friend, Ross, who works in the media, but he is somewhat distracted. He cannot seem to remember things and is not at all bothered by his recent recognition in the form of a national award. And there is a funny smell about him.

Stevie, his wife of some 20 years, is mildly amused. ‘No’, she commented, ‘I do not think you are losing your mind. It’s probably some mid life crisis. You’re probably having an affair.’

A look of alarm crosses Martin’s face as he flippantly replies, ‘Yeah, I’ve met this wonderful goat.’ Stevie nearly chokes with laughter and says she will call in at the feed store when she’s  in town.

Ross arrives, but soon becomes exasperated with Martin’s vagueness. ‘What’s the matter with you?’, he enquires. ‘You can tell me. I am your best friend. I am always here for you’.

At length, Martin admits that he is having an affair. Ross is concerned and sympathetic. He acknowledges that was the sort of thing that happened to men of their age, talks of the adventures they had had before they were married. He then asked what her name is.
‘Sylvia’, Martin replied.
‘So who is Sylvia? What does she do?’
‘Oh nothing very much, just walks about the field and eats.’
‘So she’s the open air type. But doesn’t she have a job?’
‘No, of course not; she’s a goat!’ He shows him a photograph.
Incredulous and deeply shocked, Ross exclaimed. ‘Do you mean to tell me you’re fucking a goat?’
‘But you don’t understand; it’s not like that. The fact is, I’m in love with her.
‘Jeez, you’re in deep trouble. You need to get some help’. You have to tell Stevie. If you don’t, I will.

The next day, Martin returns home from meeting Sylvia. Stevie is pacing the room looking deeply upset. She is holding a letter. It is from Ross. She reads from it. ‘This is very difficult to write, but I think you should know that Martin is in a lot of trouble. He told me yesterday that he is having an affair. That would be bad enough, but the fact is that his partner is a goat.

Stevie is angry, upset, she can’t understand it. Their son, Billy, who is gay, is also deeply shocked. Suddenly, their whole world has been turned upside down. Everything their marriage stood for has been destroyed. Martin pleads with her to let him explain. He describes how he stopped by the farm at the top of the hill and Sylvia trotted over and sort of nuzzled him.
‘It was her eyes, she had such beautiful eyes. I just fell in love with her. I couldn’t help it.
‘No I have never stopped loving you, but the affection I had for Sylvia was so powerful, I could not resist her.’

Stevie wants all the details and with every new revelation, she destroys another piece of their home, first the ornaments, then the paintings, the furniture until their living room was littered with the wreckage of their marriage. Then she leaves.

Shortly after, Billy appears. He is deeply confused and upset. In between outbursts of anger, he tells his father how much he loves him, they embrace and, overwrought by the emotion of it all, the kiss they exchange on the lips was more than father son affection. At that moment, Ross comes in, takes in the scene and tells  them both they are sick. There is an argument. Martin tells him that he is no sort of friend to write to Stevie like he did.

Then Stevie comes back, her dress is covered in blood and she is dragging the dead body of a goat.

‘How could you?’ Martin cried, ‘she never did anything to you’
‘Yes she did. She loved you.’

Edward Albee’s play is at one level a parody of infidelity; the devastation inflicted on a home, a marriage, a family by an extramarital affair. It takes us through the trajectory, the concealment, the shock of the discovery, the role of the well meaning friend and the attempts to explain, which only seem to make things worse. While documenting the destruction of the family, it questions the identity of each of the participants, the strong, secure husband, the wife who created their home, the son who is coming to terms with his homosexuality and the ‘loyal’ friend. All are blown apart by the revelation. But this is not the sort of affair that can be slowly pieced together by explanation and understanding, what Martin has done is so transgressive, an act so unacceptable it defies repair.

 

the secretIris had known there was something different and rather strange about her since she was very small, but she could never quite put her finger on what it was.  Her mother, Elizabeth, was everything to her; she not only clothed her, fed her and cared for her as most mothers would, there was something deeper, stranger. Her mother knew her so well she seemed to be able to regulate the way she felt. This feeling of difference intensified when she went to school. Her mother had wanted to educate her at home, but was persuaded by the social worker that this would not be in Iris’ best interest. At school, the children seemed to know she was different, a bit weird but not in any obvious way. After all, she looked like a normal little girl, and she was bright and interested in things. Maybe it was the way she didn’t seem to want to join in with the other girls; it was like her mother was enough for her. As she grew older, her isolation intensified; she never hung out with the other girls. Her somewhat detached air of self containment irritated them and she was picked on and bullied, but her mother knew her so well and was always there to calm her and make her feel secure.

She began to ask questions. Why didn’t she have a father? Why were there no aunts or uncles; no grandparents? Why did her mother have no close friends? It was like she and her mother were everything each of them needed. As Iris developed into a young woman, they even looked identical: same height and shape, same colour hair, same way of walking, same choice in clothes. People did a double take when they saw them both together. It was weird. This feeling of strangeness grew in Iris; she wanted to know who she was and where she came from. Elizabeth was evasive, telling her that she was not old enough to know yet; she couldn’t handle it, but that only intensified Iris’ curiosity. Once, Janey, Elizabeth’s sister, came to Chicago. She kept looking at Iris and seemed almost frightened of her. It was all very odd.

Iris had to find out what was going on. When her mother went out, she began to search through her papers. In the cellar, she found an old filing cabinet. It was like a treasure chest. There were all sorts of things in there from way back: Elizabeth’s old school reports and certificates, letters from boy friends, a whole stash of letters from her mother, sad, poignant letters that indicated a big rift in the family, but there was no mention of Iris’ father. Then she found it; tucked away at the back of the bottom drawer  was her birth certificate. She hardly dare read it.  Next to the heading: father, the registrar had written ‘none’, and under that by way of explanation: ‘clone’.

So there it was. Iris was a clone of her mother. She was not a separate person, she was just a copy.  Suddenly, everything was explained: the unnatural closeness to Elizabeth, the sense of strangeness, the estrangement from family, the absence of a father – everything!  But it was devastating!  Was she some kind a monster; a freak of nature? Did she even exist outside her mother? What was the point of carrying on if she was just a copy of her mother?  What future did she have if it was already determined?  Could she ever have her own identity? She had to get away.

They had a violent argument. Iris got her fingers round her mother’s neck and almost throttled her. They could both no longer exist in the same space. Then, some days later, in the middle of the night when Elizabeth was asleep, she left. She flew to New York.  It was where her mother’s family had lived.  She needed to fill in the gaps.  Perhaps if she knew more about her mother, she could begin to know herself.  She stayed in the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan, was picked up by a man in the bar, had sex with him more out of sense of curiosity than desire. She even went to the clinic where she was made and met the scientist who had produced her, but this just intensified her sense of alienation. With the help of Piotr, a strange geeky young man, she lived with for a time, she hacked into her aunt’s computer and found where her grandparents lived. She flew to Palm Beach and surprised them. Whether it was the shock of seeing Iris, meeting a facsimile of Elizabeth as she was when they had last seen her or just ‘natural causes’, her grandmother, who had not been well, collapsed while they were walking back from the beach.  Within a few days, she was dead, but not before Iris, as Elizabeth, was able to forgive her ‘mother’ for putting pressure on her to have a baby.  Her grandfather died a few weeks later.

Returning to Manhattan, Iris lived with Janey, enrolled in university to study molecular science, and went into therapy, though the psychoanalytical interpretations seemed too rigid and not entirely relevant to her situation. Then she met Robert first on an on-line chat room that allowed her to reveal who or what she was.  Robert recognised her own unique self, and they fell in love.  It was the final act of separation. She was no longer her mother. In a strange, dream like sequence, Iris and her mother see each other again while walking in France. They both stop, turn and walk the other way.

 

Eva Hoffman’s intriguing novel uses ‘the clone’ as an extended metaphor to explore the notion of separation. It is something that we all face. In the beginning we are part of our mother and then gradually we grow apart and establish a sense of our own identity. Childhood is a protracted process of separation until we leave home and live our own lives. Sometimes our mothers are reluctant to let us go and fail to give us the freedom to explore our own personality. Then we may struggle to separate or, needing ‘the other’ to survive, we may dive straight into a merger with somebody else, who then becomes our new soul mate.  Or we may never really separate; there are still mother and daughter dyads who claim to be ‘best friends’.

Elizabeth did not only try to prevent Iris from developing an independent life, in perhaps the ultimate narcissism, she  created her as a copy of herself.  Iris was Elizabeth, except that she wasn’t, in the same way that identical twins are not the same person. They may share an identical genetic template, but this becomes overlain with differences in experience so that with time they become different people. It raises the whole nature/nurture discussion. Genes can only provide a blueprint, a tendency to behave in a certain way; the rest is the epigenetic and psychological influence of environment and experience. The notion of self is a creation, not a given.

Iris may have looked like a young Elizabeth, but the influences on their lives were very different. Elizabeth never had such an incestuous relationship with her own mother; she had an extended family, a sibling, grandparents, friends. Iris had own known the intensity of her relationship with her mother and some difficult times at school and with friends as a consequence of that relationship; she was a different being, but, because of her unusual situation, somewhat flawed and autistic.  Her psychological development was much the same as many others, whose relationship with a parent is too close.  This was why, if she was going to find ‘herself’, she would need to ‘kill off the mother in her’.

Iris escapes and spends the next few years trying to discover who the is, first by archaeology through contact with the doctor who made her and her own extended family, and then by accreting layers of her own experience and finally by realising her own independent self in Robert’s recognition and acceptance. How she was created is no longer relevant. It is who Iris has become that matters. She is her own person.  But this is not a boy-meets-girl, happy-ever-after romantic tale. Robert and Iris didn’t get married. Perhaps, having struggled so hard to find her own identity, Iris was not willing to subsume it into a merger with another person.

 

The Secret by Eva Hoffman was published in 2001. Born in Cracow, Poland, to Jewish parents who had escaped the holocaust by hiding in the forest in Ukraine, Eva was brought up in Vancouver, went to University in Texas and now lives for part of the time in Hampstead. The Secret is undoubtedly informed by considerations of her own identity.