James Joyce: “The Dead”

July 25, 2008

James Joyce’s short story “The Dead”, from Dubliners (1914), touches on the issue of narcissism, one which is central to the “problems of living” that many clients who come for therapy experience.

Narcissism can be defined as an excessive amount of love and admiration toward oneself but in a psychological context it has a more specific meaning. It refers to a psychological condition characterised by self-preoccupation, lack of empathy and unconscious deficits in self-esteem.

Gabriel Conroy in “The Dead” fits this label. He’s in his mid-40s, a teacher and a journalist, happily married with children. He’s well-regarded as a teacher and a journalist and is his aunts’ favourite nephew who is to give the after-dinner speech at their annual Misses Morkan’s dance party. But he’s also preoccupied with what other people think of him and appears a bit bewildered by his own emotions and his effect on people. He appears too wrapped up in himself and whether or not he is highly regarded and so is unable to empathise with others. He is over-familiar with Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, and she takes offence. Dancing with a fellow teacher, Molly Ivors, he’s perplexed that she teases him about being a “West Briton” (an Irishman who looks to Britain rather than his native Ireland). She’s effectively accusing him of not being sufficiently Irish and not taking take enough pride in all things Irish but he comes away from the encounter irritated and perplexed.

His marriage to Gretta is a happy one up to a point but the party provides an example of the miscommunications between them. When Molly Ivors invites him to holiday with them in Galway (perhaps to make up for the teasing), he says he’s going cycling in Europe instead. Gretta is delighted by the idea of going to Galway but Gabriel says coldly that she can go alone if she likes.

Later on the cab drive home and back at their hotel he longs for intimacy with Gretta but she’s full of regret for her first love, of whom she was reminded when one of the guests sang “The Lass of Aughrim”. He feels slighted and sees “himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught sight of in the mirror”.

However, in a moment of epiphany (which Joyce is famous for), Gabriel appears to be able to transcend some of his own narcissism to empathise with Gretta and to feel some of the sorrow that she experiences. After Gretta has cried herself to sleep Gabriel is left wondering about the living and the dead. He looks out at the snow which “was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furley was buried …. he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe, and falling faintly, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”.

Bill Tucker, who includes this story in his “How People Change”, identifies narcissism as the central issue of the story.

Narcissism is the central issue in the psychological treatment of many patients, usually but not necessarily men, coming in mid-life to treatment for long-standing problems in love or work, sometimes accompanied by specific physiological symptoms. Like Gabriel, such men are unaware of their insensitivity to emotional issues and find themselves genuinely bewildered by the intensely negative responses they continually evoke. Like him they tend to be overly sensitive to slights and to indulge in constant monitoring of how they are perceived, with what we might incautiously compare to a teenager’s degree of self-consciousness. Gabriel is warmly regarded, but he does not feel connected to any of the other guests.

I wondered what a client like Gabriel Conroy might be like on the couch. In some ways he would be an ideal patient – intelligent, articulate, insightful and observant. He would classify as a high-functioning neurotic. Narcissistic patients tend to drone on at length about minor things (a bit like a blog!) but he is also observant enough to be able to apply insights to his own relationships and could make good use of therapy to connect with a rich, inner emotional life.


Two reviews: J.D. Salinger and “Lost in America”

June 9, 2008

One of the most intriguing opening lines of any novel has to be those of Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two haemorrhages apiece if I told anything personal about them.

Given Salinger’s fierce protection of his privacy and his refusal to give interviews or make public appearances over the last 30 years, the “two haemorrhages apiece” could apply equally to him. As openings go, Holden’s lines are a curious mixture of defensive and confessional with a literary reference thrown in for some added intrigue.

Like countless teenagers before me, I was completely captivated by Catcher when I first read it. Rummaging through some of my storage boxes yesterday (looking for Irvin Yalom’s “Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy”), I came across my old Penguin Modern Classics copy of Catcher together with a battered edition of short stories called, “For Esme With Love and Squalor”. On the inside cover my sister has written a short inscription to me for my 16th birthday when I visited her in Johannesburg in April 1986.

As an adolescent I could totally see myself in Holden Caulfield. We both came from ‘nice’ but dysfunctional families, we both read a lot and both suffered from what one reviewer calls “angst and alienation”. I liked his chatty tone and the way that he has about glossing over difficult things with a shrug. Salinger’s unauthorised biographer, Ian Hamilton, writes that by the late 1950s, Catcher (published in 1951) had “become the book all brooding adolescents had to buy, the indispensable manual from which cool styles of disaffectation could be borrowed”.

Interestingly, Catcher apparently has the distinction of being the most prescribed novel at high school in the U.S. and the most banned. One concerned parent counted 237 appearances of the word “goddam” in the novel, along with 58 “bastard”s, 31 “Chrissakes,” and six “fucks.”

Today, 22 years after I first read it, I find it difficult to read. Perhaps it brings back memories of being defensive and a bit lost as a late adolescent. I also find Salinger’s style a bit self-indulgent. He’s like a teenager who wants to be noticed and told how clever he is, but he doesn’t actually want to engage with his audience. Perhaps that’s too harsh but a brief comparison with another experience of growing up Jewish in New York (Nuland’s ‘Lost in America” below) makes Salinger appear lightweight. Of course that’s an unfair comparison since Salinger’s book was published in 1951 and was groundbreaking for its time (and also captured a sense of the post-war rebellion against authority and ‘phonyness’). I am intrigued by Salinger’s long silence (he hasn’t published since 1965) but reading the Wikipedia article on him here I can see why. His last published story, “Hapworth 16, 1924” was roundly criticised as being far too long, narcissistic and obscure. Sundeep Dougal comments that

The most common complaint against Hapworth has been that it should have been at most half its published length, ending at the point where Seymour finds another pad of paper and takes off again in what has been called “a pompous display of erudition”. The Los Angeles Times commented in 1988 that it “was widely regarded as narcissistic, prolix and ultimately obscure in its intent” …

Here is the opening of Hapworth:

Some comment in advance, as plain and bare as I can make it: My name, first, is Buddy Glass, and for a great many years of my life–very possibly all forty-six–I have felt myself installed, elaborately wired, and occasionally, plugged in, for the purpose of shedding some light on the short, reticulate life and times of my late, eldest brother, Seymour Glass, who died, committed suicide, opted to discontinue living, back in 1948, when he was thirty-one.

Since then, Salinger apparently writes only for himself and a select audience. He is now 89 and, according to his daughter, has a whole filing cabinet of unpublished writing, which is to be published after his death.

Sherwin Nuland’s “Lost in America: A Journey With My Father” (2003) is a moving account of growing up in New York with a father who was disabled as much by physical and emotional afflictions as by an inability to integrate into America. Nuland, who is a surgery professor at Yale, starts off with an extraordinary account of his own depression, which confined him to a mental hospital for a year when he was in his early forties.

I was a bit worried that the author’s depression would bring me down, but so far the book has been mostly about his quirky Russian immigrant father, who clearly had a massive influence on his life. His father, Meyer Nudelman, came to America as a Russian immigrant at the age of 19 but remained largely unassimilated into American society for the rest of his life, speaking his own dialect of Yiddish-English for example. The dust jacket sums it up pretty well:

… Pursuing the immigrant’s dream of a better life but finding the opposite, he [Meyer] lived an endless round of frustration, despair, anger and loss: overwhelmed by the premature deaths of his first son and wife; his oldest surviving son disabled by rheumatic fever in his teens; his youngest son, Sherwin, dutiful but defiant, caring for him as his life, beset by illness and fierce bitterness, wound to its unalterable end. … Lost in America, Nuland’s harrowing and empathetic account of his father’s life, is equally revealing about the author himself. We see what it cost him to admit the inextricable ties between father and son and to accept the burden of his father’s legacy.