Monday, July 25, 2022

A Facebook Post From Two Years Ago

 I want more tradition, but I want it to pervade ordinary life. I am for the traditionalism of Tuesday morning on a workday. The traditions, customs and rituals that can fill the most ordinary moments are the ones that count to me, not the "big ticket" traditions that happen once a year or every now and then, and require great expense and planning. They are important, too, but they seem far less important. What is the point of cramming all our traditions into weddings, funerals, baptisms, Christmas, big sporting occasions, etc., if ordinary daily life becomes completely drab and humdrum?

For the same reason, I'm not attracted to the idyll of living in some sleepy, old-fashioned village. I want to be in the belly of the beast. I want to take contemporary life at its most soulless and utilitarian and try to make the most of that.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Getting Outside

After a fair amount of very conventional posts, including an honest-to-God book review, I'm going to indulge myself in one of those idiosyncratic pieces which give this blog its unique flavour (or so I like to think).

In recent times, my mind has been much on the idea of getting outside, as I put it in my blog post. And, in particular, the sensation of "getting outside".

What do I mean by getting outside? In simple terms, the psychological experience of seeing something from another perspective, a larger perspective, and the sense of strangeness and (very often) liberation that stems from this.

I don't know if you ever had the experience, in your childhood, of trying to step outside your consciousness and look at it from outside. We can all do this to some extent. We call it "self-awareness" and it seems to be a step up from simple awareness. A drunk who knows he is drunk has self-awareness. Someone who knows his judgement is clouded by emotion is self-aware.

You can, somehow, look at the operations of your own mind. But what is this "you" that is looking at the mind? It has to be something outside that mind, in some sense. At least, a part of the mind outside the rest of the mind.

And then, when you find yourself thinking about that, it must be some other part of the mind looking at that part, which is looking at all the seems as though we can never directly "catch" the gleam of consciousness.

The thought is a bit giddy, like looking at the corridor of images created when one mirror is pointed at another, and a human figure is reflected again and again down the whole corridor. Or like the visual creations of M.C. Escher. Or the thought of waking from a dream, which turns out to be a dream, which turns out to be a dream..

There's always another "outside", whether we are talking about human consciousness or anything else.

When you get out of your bed, you still have to get out of your bedroom. And then out of your house. And then out of your neighbourhood. And then out of your city. And so on.

I thought I could best explain the point by appealing to this idea of successive "outsides". But the sequence is not the important thing, not the thing I'm trying to evoke.

I'm trying to evoke the feeling of "getting outside", and how peculiar and unique it is. It can be dizzying, liberating, intoxicating, unsettling, or all of the above. I'll try to give some examples.

There is a popular Irish TV show called Reeling in the Years, which I like. The premise is ingeniously simple; it's a collection of TV footage from a particular year, shown against a soundtrack of music hits from that same year. There is no narrator, only a series of captions.

When it comes to episodes on those years that I actually lived through-- the nineties, for instance-- I'm struck by a very strange sensation indeed. I remember all (or most) of the scenes that I'm watching, but I never saw them as a whole like that. When we are living through a particular period, we are immersed in one thing at a time. We don't think of them, particularly, as being a part of that year-- any more than we now thinking of the war in the Ukraine when we are discussing the Top Gun sequel.

Stepping outside of the flow of events, seeing it as a unity for the first time, gives you an entirely different perspective. It's like looking at your home town from the top of a mountain.

I've noticed the same shift in perspective, the same sense of getting "outside", occurs when I read a biography, particularly a biography of a writer or an artist or some sort of creator who has drawn extensively on their own life.

For instance, C.S. Lewis (despite his avowed hatred of navel-gazing) is a writer who wrote about himself a lot, as in his autobiography Surprised by Joy. Lewis seems so self-aware, so self-critical, so insightful, that it's easy to take his account of events as definitive. He is such a confident, forceful personality that the reader is lulled into agreement.

So it's a surprise to learn, for instance, that Lewis's account of his boarding school days seems to have been strongly distorted by his prejudice against the place. His brother, and other contemporaries, hardly recognized his description. The same is true of George Orwell and his own account of his schooldays.

Reading a biography of a beloved writer always has this quality of startled outsideness. While we were reading this author's books, his voice seemed like the voice of God. We are taken aback to find that God is just another guy, one with blindspots and naivety and gaps in his knowledge. At least, I am.

Of course, we find ourselves stepping outside once again when we are shown the biographer's own prejudices and blinkers.

We have the same reaction even more forcefully the moment we realize, towards the end of childhood, that our parents are not infinitely wise, nor are they right about everything.

Another example: I have this sense of "outsideness" when I unexpectedly find myself outside a particular discourse, a particular set of assumptions.

For instance, we are all so habituated to political correctness today-- even those of us who detest it-- that we get a jolt whenever we find ourselves in a non-politically correct discussion. I imagine a similar reaction must have been felt when the citizens of the Soviet Union heard Marxist-Leninism being openly questioned for the first time.

Another example, from my own experience: returning to Dublin after a New Year spent in London, and suddenly feeling a strong awareness that Dublin was a relatively small city, and just one place in a much bigger world. Of course I knew this, but I'd somehow never really appreciated it until then.

I could continue in this vein forever, but perhaps I have made my point. I'm not trying to make any moral or ideological point. I simply think that this sense of "outsideness" is something worth pondering, something that adds much to the flavour of life. And perhaps it does have a moral or philosophical significance. I suspect it does, but I don't insist upon any.

Monday, July 18, 2022

A Facebook Post From 2020

These old posts come to my attention through Facebook's "Memories" feature. Anyway, these are still the things I worry about three years later.

These are the things that strike me as important and imperilled as I enter into my mid-forties, in 2020.

1) Cultural diversity-- the real sort, not the nominal, skin-deep sort. That specialness and character should be preserved against the tide of sameness. I worry about this all the time, incessantly.

2) Poetry. Poetry seems ever more important to me. Poetry seems, not only essential in itself, but the necessary corrective to all that is utilitarian, banal, and dehumanising in society. And it seems to me that poetry has never been more marginalized in the life of society than it is today.

3) Something I can only evoke by a term such as "folklore", or "oral tradition". Ballads. Parlour games. Campfire tales. Local legends. Everything that is not commercialized, commodified, passively consumed, or mass marketed.

I am always preoccupied by these subjects. I don't claim they are more important than others. But they feel most urgent to me.

And what about the Faith? Of course, the Faith. But the more I learn of the Faith the calmer and surer I feel of it. Our Lord's promise to St. Peter is a sure rock we can rest on. We need the Church to save us, not the other way round. That victory has been won already.

 (We still need to evangelize, of course.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Book Review: The Life of Gregory Zilboorg

The Life of Gregory Zilboorg, 1890-1959 (two volumes), by Caroline Zilboorg
Routledge, 2022

I'd never heard of Gregory Zilboorg until a few months ago. I encountered his name while reading about Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk and author of The Seven-Storey Mountain. Zilboorg played only a passing role in Merton's life, when Merton had developed a typically dilettantish interest in psychoanalysis and came to him for advice. However, the article where I came upon Zilboorg's name mentioned that he (like Merton) was a convert to Catholicism, and my antennae tingled.

Luckily for me, a comprehensive two-volume biography of Zilboorg has been published this very year, and I read it avidly.

I love conversion stories, and I've read quite a few books about Catholic converts. As far as I can remember, I've never seen Zilboorg mentioned in these books.

Who was he? He was a Russian-Jewish psychoanalyst who moved to America after the Russian Revolution, and who became a national figure, even appearing on magazine covers and in cartoons. He analysed various famous people, such as the composer George Gershwin and the author Lillian Hellman. He was a prolific writer, particularly noted for his History of Medical Psychology. He also translated Russian plays and novels into English (including We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a dystopian novel which predates both Brave New World and 1984).

And, of course, he was a Catholic convert. He was received into the Church late in life, just five years before his death, but he had been moving towards Catholicism for a long time before that. The break-up of his first marriage and his subsequent marriage to an Episcopalian, who had no intention of becoming Catholic, delayed his reception by many years.

In terms of conversion stories, Zilboorg's is somewhat unusual. As a young man he was a revolutionary, acting as a secretary for the Ministry of Labour in Kerensky's moderate government, which came to power in February of 1917 and was toppled by the Bolsheviks in October of that year. He fled from Russia in fear of his life.

This background, combined with the knowledge that he converted to Catholicism, might suggest that Zilboorg became a reactionary conservative, a Cold Warrior who renounced the utopianism of his youth and embraced a die-hard Republicanism. But this isn't what happened. Zilboorg remained a lifelong socialist, a humanist, and very much an Enlightenment thinker. He was an ardent opponent of the death penalty and something of a feminist, decrying the more misogynistic assumptions of early psychoanalysis.

He was also, however, a critic of scientism (as we would call it now), and a champion of the individual against the standardizing forces of modernity-- forces he saw operating in Western society as much as in the USSR. Like John Henry Newman, he rejected the notion that education, science, and "progress" would improve the human condition on their own.

In a lecture in Montreal, he said: "Ours is a civilization that spurns tradition and insists on pragmatic, mechanical routine, whereas the remedy in our civilization lies in restoring  the continuity of humanism, and of abolishing pragmatic, materialistic routine." 

The biography is a truly impressive piece of work, wonderfully researched but never sacrificing readability for a morass of detail. Although it's written by Zilboorg's daughter, it's definitely a biography rather than a memoir, aside from the occasional first-hand anecdote, and it doesn't idealize Zilboorg (who was often a controversial figure).

A picture emerges of a man who was driven, idealistic, epicurean, often high-handed, and weighed down with a sense of responsibility to the world, his profession, and his extended family.

Zilboorg was born in Kiev in 1890. Although the book mentions that Ukrainian nationalism was a force during his own lifetime, he never seemed to consider himself as anything other than Russian. Perhaps the pogroms he witnessed in his childhood inhibited any sense of Ukrainian patriotism. Ultimately, however, he seems to have been more an internationalist than anything else.

His father was a deeply religious man, but Zilboorg announced at an early age that he did not believe in the Torah and was not going to practice his childhood faith. Despite this, he continued to identify with his Jewish heritage. In 1938, he published a pamphlet entitled I Won't Apologize, taking his fellow Americans to task for not speaking out more decisively against Hitler's persecution of the Jews.

Zilboorg attended medical school in St. Petersburg, despite economic hardship and quotas against Jews in university education. The Russian Revolution broke out during his years there, and he found himself working as the secretary for the Ministry of Labour in Alexander Kerensky's provisional government. The history of the twentieth century, and even our own, might have been a much happier one if Kerensky had retained power, and if Lenin had been prevented from replacing him. Zilboorg worked energetically to this end. The account of the Russian Revolution is one of the most vivid and exciting parts of the book, and Zilboorg deserves great credit for his efforts to prevent the Bolshevik cataclysm.

Having failed in this, and realizing his life was in danger as an opponent of the Bolsheviks, he fled westward-- to Vienna, Germany, and the Netherlands, countries in ferment as World War One came to an end. He supported himself by lecturing and writing, and managed to live in high style even as he had no dependable income. Eventually, he got to New York in April 1919.

He stayed with his brother James who had emigrated to America years before. The relationship of Gregory and James is a running thread throughout the biography, as indeed is Gregory's relationship with his whole birth family, most of whom (including his parents) moved to Mexico between the wars. Gregory continued to send financial support from America. The passages featuring Zilboorg's birth family and in-laws have a certain flavour of situation comedy to them, with their domestic dramas serving as a sort of sub-plot to Zilboorg's career.

Soon after his arrival in America, Zilboorg worked as a guest lecturer with a kind of intellectual roadshow, the Chautauqua, a "travelling tent" company which took educational lectures, drama and music around the country. (It's always chastening to read about the popularity of public lectures and public meetings in the days before we all became glued to the television and, later, the internet. Zilboorg himself was quite withering about pop culture such as the music hall and the cinema, much preferring the theatre. He was, however, a big fan of boxing.)

Eventually Zilboorg gained admittance to Columbia University's medical school. This took some effort, as his Russian qualifications didn't translate directly to the American academic system. His enemies in the psychoanalytic profession would later use this fact against him. Columbia University at this time required every student to pass a swimming test; indeed, it still does. Zilboorg got a friend to pass this on his behalf. He was never hesitant about asking favours.

Even before going to Columbia-- indeed, only seven months after arriving in America-- Zilboorg married Ray Liebow, a Jewish-Russian emigré herself. The marriage never seems to have been a happy one, although they did have two children together.

After Columbia, Zilboorg went to work in Bloomingdale, a psychiatric hospital in New York. Before long, however, he was drawn to the burgeoning psychoanalytic movement, and indeed became an official in the New York Psychoanalytic Society, setting up its library and bookshop. Controversy dogged him here, too: at one point he resigned from the Society because of questions about his account-keeping. The controversy, which seems to have been a storm in a teacup, eventually passed. The psychoanalytic profession seems to have been plagued by petty internecine quarrels, and this was not the only time Zilboorg would fall victim to them.

It would prolong this review unduly to follow Zilboorg's subsequent career in detail. He went into private practice as a psychoanalyst, but he continued to act as a part-time lecturer for various institutions (some of them Catholic, in his later years). He also wrote books (including a history of psychiatry which occupied him for many years, and was very well received), translated books and plays, gave lectures, involved himself in various professional organizations, and much more. Indeed, reading the biography, I found myself astonished at how much Zilboorg managed to accomplish. How did he find the time, never mind the energy? It's true social media had not been invented yet, but that only goes so far in explaining it.

And he still found time for hobbies. Learning the hobbies and past-times of the great is one of my favourite parts of biographies. Zilboorg's hobbies included boxing, photography, and cooking. There are many charming accounts of his "cooking retreats" with his friend Henry Siegerest, and indeed reproductions of the handwritten and hand-decorated menus they would make on such occasions.

Controversy hit Zilboorg again when some of his psychoanalytic colleagues became convinced he had acted unethically with a particular patient: accepting gifts (which he didn't deny) and making a business proposition (which he did). As the biography explains, the ethics of analyst-patient relations were much looser in those days, and psychotherapists would often accept gifts from patients, and even go on holiday with them. The account of the professional enquiry into this episode occupies many pages, but is quite gripping, with many of the sessions lasting well past midnight. Eventually, Zilboorg was acquitted by the vast majority of his colleagues.

In 1940, Zilboorg hired a secretary named Margaret Stone (nicknamed "Peg"), with whom he fell in love and began an affair. In 1946 he divorced his first wife and remarried Stone, with whom he had three children (including his future biographer). Neither Zilboorg nor his first wife had been baptised at the time of his marriage, and his second wife was an Episcopalian who had no intention of becoming a Catholic. This complicated his eventual reception into the Church for many years.

In the 1920's, Zilboorg had begun to attend Quaker meetings, although he doesn't seem to have regarded himself as a Quaker. In the mid-forties, he made the acquaintance of Noel Mailloux, a Dominican priest and psychology professor in the University of Montreal. After this, he began to move in Catholic circles, particularly those of the Dominican Order in Canada. He read Jacques Maritain and Thomas Aquinas. At one point he had a ten-minute audience with Pope Pius XII, and he became a friend of Archbishop Montini of Milan, later Pope Paul VI.

Zilboorg wrote frequently on the subject of psychoanalysis and faith. He became something of an intermediary between the two, defending psychoanalysis to his Catholic friends and defending religious faith to his psychoanalytic colleagues. "The spiritual level cannot be taken away from the human being", he wrote, "any more than you can take the human mind away from him and leave him still a human being". Psychoanalysis, he insisted, was not a replacement for sacramental confession. Nor was psychoanalysis a philosophy of the world or of life, it was simply a scientific theory of the human mind. It did not argue against free will, nor did it read sex into everything. (Zilboorg insisted that Freud's "eros" was more the equivalent of Aquinas's "sensuality" than it was "sex".)

Zilboorg was eventually received into the Catholic Church in 1954, by the Archbishop of Montreal Paul-Émile Léger. As the biography puts it: "During the service, he and Peg were then married and he was confirmed at the altar where the took his first communion. They day managed to include five of the seven holy sacraments, and there was surely immeasurable joy in everyone's hearts at the final 'ite, Missa est.' "
In the same year, he came to Dublin to receive an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland. There is a photograph of the ceremony in the biography. My eye quickly picked out the austere features of our own Dr. John Charles McQuaid. J.R.R. Tolkien was similarly honoured on the same day.

Zilboorg was to die five years after his reception into the Church, and so sadly never lived to see the Second Vatican Council, which would surely have been a welcome development to a convert so steeped in the Catholic humanist tradition.

The Life of Gregory Zilboorg is highly recommended. It's perfectly accessible to the ordinary reader who has (like me) no knowledge of psychoanalysis, and will be of special interest to those (also like me) who are interested in stories of Catholic converts.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

The Michael Sugrue Channel

I just want to make a quick recommendation of the Michael Sugrue channel on YouTube. I've watched hours and hours of material on this channel already.

Michael Sugrue is a retired philosophy professor who recorded a series of lectures in the nineties, which have today become something of a YouTube sensation. The lectures are mostly philosophy but also include forays into literature, myth and religion. Sugrue is himself a Catholic. There are quite a few videos about the Bible.

It's easy to see why they've become so popular. Sugrue is fluent (he rarely stumbles or hesitates and doesn't use notes), incisive, and funny.

Sadly, he is suffering from cancer today. Eleven years ago he was given five years to live. I wish him many more years, but it's wonderful that he lived to see his life's work become so popular.

Recently, to celebrate ten thousand subscribers, the channel posted some of Sugrue's own aphorisms, which included two corkers: "Always choose self-respect over self-pity" (a salutary reminder to me), and "He who kills time injures eternity."

Worth subscribing to!

Monday, July 4, 2022

Longing for Retreat

I haven't been on a spiritual retreat since my pre-marital course in November 2012, four months shy of a decade.

I wrote about that course here.

I'm surprised how much it has remained with me. I very often draw on it for spiritual sustenance. It had a strangely Pentecostal atmosphere, a group of Christian couples preparing for the adventure of life and marriage-- along with the presenting married couples, and the priest who was also in attendance. It was like basic training before being shipped into enemy territory.

(I remember the priest told us that he was drawn to the priesthood for the "romance" of the thing, which he illustrated with the words: "Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.")

After the retreat, me and Michelle went to a big shop nearby that had a huge inflatable snowman outside. It was a general store which had, among other things, lots of mugs and tea-towels that bore the words: "As for Me and my House, We Will Serve the Lord." Michelle bought me a selection of American sweets (or "candy") which we ate in the car park (or "parking lot") outside.

Today is the 4th Of July. America has its critics, and American religiosity has its critics even among Christians-- inside America, as well as outside. Nevertheless, it brought me great joy to see a general store selling mugs that said "As for Me and my House, We Will Serve the Lord". It wouldn't happen in Ireland, even though Mass cards are sold at the till in many shops.

Ever since then, I've wished for a mug with these words on it.

But more recently, I've found myself longing to go on retreat. I'm not sure how to go about it. I've looked at Catholic retreats in the Dublin area. Many of them seem a bit kooky or New Agey or whatever. There are also practical obstacles.

I've thought of suggesting to the chaplaincy in UCD that they run a retreat for staff, but I wouldn't want to attend without my wife and that might be asking too much.

Anyway, maybe you can spare a prayer that I get to go on retreat some time this year. I love everyday life and the ordinary but the hamster wheel is becoming more than a little wearing.

Explore Gothic Glasgow!

A friend of mine who is now living in Glasgow is offering walking tours of the city that focus on "the creepy, strange and spooky history of Glasgow".

He previously worked on the Dublin Ghost Bus tour of Dublin.

This chap has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of horror, and is very entertaining and funny, so I definitely recommend this tour if you ever find yourself in Glasgow. You might mention it to any friends in Scotland, or friends visiting Glasgow.

Here is the link.