Tuesday 16 April 2013

A letter from a Wicked Uncle

(this is mainly in reply to a blog post from my niece)

There are no conclusions. We live in a narrative arc of which we shall not live to see the end. I also am mad, but it does not matter. My goal - and, I suggest, yours also - should not be to cease to be mad, not be to be 'cured', but to live well and fruitfully as we are. To quote a famous prayer

Give me strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Yes, I do think the cause of the modern epidemic of mental illness is a sickness of society, not of individuals. I do think that those of us who manifest the symptoms of that illness are the canaries in the coal mine. You're right, of course, that for each of us, one of the seeds of our madness is childhood trauma - different childhood traumas, granted, with different impacts - but that doesn't invalidate my thesis. One can absorb just so many blows before a bone breaks, a blood vessel bursts, an organ shuts down, and equally the mind can accept just so many insults before it, in its own way, manifests injury. In a less sick society, would your childhood trauma have tipped you over into what the psychiatrists describe as 'mental illness'? Would mine?

I don't know. We can't know. But I suspect it would have been much less likely.

In any case, I don't think that doping myself into a condition in which I can tolerate society as it is is a solution which benefits anyone. But, I am not you. I have been able - I have been fortunate to be able -  largely to retreat from the world, to isolate myself to a high degree from the strains of our society. You cannot easily do that. You have to find your own way of living with the Black Dog, and it isn't for me to criticise your choices.

We spoke a lot yesterday about narratives, and memes; about narrative elements such as the king or magus - for example Myrddin, now usually known as Merlin, who was reputedly both - going mad and living wild in the forest for seven years. Tellingly, much the same story is told of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, almost a thousand years before him. About memes which repeat in many narratives. I have not consciously emulated Myrddin, that is not why I am here, but nevertheless my own narrative does in part repeat that meme. There is benefit for someone who is primarily a thinker in retreating from the world, in surrounding themselves with small physical tasks, with constrained possibilities; it helps one to slow down, to unwind, to separate the significant from the trivial. It also allows painful processes which exist below the layers of the conscious mind gradually to work themselves through.

Again, though, I have as a privilege the possibility of such a retreat, and you do not. Whether it would be good for you or not, you cannot be criticised for not taking an option you haven't been offered, and I'm not criticising. I'm also not pretending that I know that it would work for you. I don't.

But your distress at the sea of knowledge which you cannot navigate, which threatens to overwhelm you, is exactly the sort of distress which a retreat into simpler life, into simpler social interactions, into simpler tasks can address. No-one now can know the entirety of human knowledge. If that were ever possible, it was already ceasing to be possible by the fourth century BCE. Consequently, if one seeks to do something useful with knowledge, one must find a niche within knowledge in which one can do creative work.

We spoke yesterday about the software stack. Below the sort of software I write, there is a servlet container, a database engine, and some other essential daemons. These, I need to know how to command directly; I must know how to speak their languages, how to invoke them, how to address them. How to command them. But below those daemons are system libraries, and those I don't need to know much about. I need to trust them, as I need to trust the daemons. but I don't need to understand them. Below the system libraries is the operating system kernel. It is twenty years since I really understood what happens in the kernel. I don't need to. Again, it is sufficient that I trust. Below that again, the BIOS, and below that again, the microcode. All these layers are software; below the software stack are the hardware layers, which these days I really understand hardly at all.

I trust them. That is what matters. I understand the relationships between the intellectual artefacts on which my work sits, and I trust the competence and integrity of the people responsible for those artefacts, and that enables me to do useful work.

Software is a metaphor, of course. What is true of the software I write is just as true of my philosophical explorations. I build on ideas from Popper, from Kropotkin, from Feyerabend. They, in turn, built on ideas from further back in the history of philosophy. I have to understand, to examine, to question, to criticise the arguments of these people on whose my work is based, and in doing so I have to have at least some idea of the tree which stretches out beyond them. But if I trust those people on whom I found my argument, part of that trust is that I trust them to have examined those on whom they found theirs, and so on back.

So what I'm saying to you is that, in your studies, your task is simple. To find people who have produced useful work on which you can build. To establish whether you trust them. And once you've established that you do, treat them as your rocks, and build with confidence.

Your work - and mine - is something we can change. Have courage. Do it.

Your madness is, I suspect, something you cannot change - something which will be with you for the rest of your life. Find strength. Thole it. But, more than thole it, try to carry it gracefully, for your own sake and for the sake of those around you. That is certainly what I believe about my own madness, and how I attempt to bear it.

Madness is not easy. It's not fun. I wish that it could be taken away from you (and from me). But I have walked the path before you, and I am still walking. It is possible to live with it. It is possible to live well with it. Have hope. You can do this.

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