Jennifer Fox’s documentarian style drags our visceral intuitions (or, at least she did mine) from a safe distance, alert, transfixed into that intra-personal dialogical space, fluid, personalized. The space is translucent as it navigates between the phantasmal and the real, the past and the present, the child and the adult. It’s a story within a story embedded in a story; multiple perspectives drawn from this intra-personal dialogue resentful of those inter-personal inquisitions (mostly with her partner) seemingly standing objective privy to a clear sighting of sexual abuse. Nietzsche says, ‘perspectivity is the fundamental condition of life,’ and by this I suspect he meant more than just that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” We all see things, adopt or acquire a perspective from a relative vantage point.
The parable of old tells a telling tale of its own. Blind men come to “see” this ‘elephant’ from their perspective, privy to only fragments of its physical instantiation in the world, and each goes away exclaiming what they had found: “it’s a spear!,” “it’s a fan,”, “it’s a wall,” “it’s a rope,” “it’s a tree,” “it’s a snake”! Self-limiting in our engagement, only a God’s eye view could ever become acquainted with the infinite possible perspectives from which it would be experienced. And yet, this is only part of the story ( 😉 ). The foreground alerts us not only to selectivity, but also to a modality of meaning, without which no thing ever experienced would be anything at all. Someone can be heard saying: “get things into perspective,” suggestive of a narrow stance, and with it the implicit accusation that “however things may come to be perceived relative to your engagement, some perspectives are better than others.” Optical perspectivism seems uncomplicated and only obviously true, except when one takes seriously the exclamatory claims: “it’s a snake!,” “it’s a tree!,” and so on. Indeed it is the very thing Plato would plant in our minds to have us question the relationship between what one says and how things are. After all, it is an elephant that each in her turn only fragmentarily perceives from her vantage point, coming to the mistaken viewpoint that the object that she has on her hands is a snake and not an elephant. The illustration is misleading, however. Any sensible object is tied to its background or context – there is no Godly view from which one could possibly take in all infinite perspectives – and the nexus of meaningful relations amongst other objects in the world, including oneself. Perceptual experience is always interpreted within a rich context of signs that signal a perspectival view of the the world. Why is breaking up frames of experience at the outlined periphery of said elephant more true of how the world is experienced than breaking it up at the outmost regions of one’s perceptible frame such that what you see in not an elephant at all but a landscape?
Optical perspectivism is similar to perspectivism tout court which argues that there are many possible conceptual frameworks or perspectives from which judgments of truth or e-valuations can be made. In the absence of “objectivity” or any definitive way in which the world can be said to be, is there a measure of “truth”?
Nietzsche, as others that mount some relativistic or contextualized view, argues both against all arrogant attempts at delineating what is objectively true, and in favour of more sophisticated, perspectival versions of the truth.
“Perspectivism.” It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm. (F. Nietzsche, The Will to Power, §481)
The Tale is a narratival story that finds confident, successful, unorthodox Jennifer (played by Laura Dern) for years hibernating in a parable little Jenny (played by Isabelle Nelisse), her 13-year old intra-dialogical partner, schemed. She was one of 5 children, the eldest, and essentially invisible in a home wrecked with havoc. Bill (played by Jason Ritter) – her assailant – and Mrs. G (played by Elizabeth Debicki) – co-conspirator (?) – opportuned her rite of passage into womanhood, and at long last centre stage to her own life, she no longer experienced herself as a spectator inadvertently marginalized.
Jenny’s essay, tells the Tale that comes to unravel Jennifer who’d been left with an idyllic story of her first sexual experience with an older man. Later she’ll accuse little Jenny for leaving her to believe it was “a good thing”. Scenes of a caring man, Bill, patiently and lovingly (?) preparing little Jen for full penetration leave one feeling uneasy, especially when the face, the look, of this child and her tiny body are perceived underneath his full-figure. At first Jenny felt seen, visible for all the attention. She thought she’d been singled out; that she was special. They treated her like an adult, and she found strength and composure in that. Jennifer, reluctant, yet nonetheless discombobulated, turned suspecting when seeing the child-like figure of her 13-year old self was actually quite petite, still wearing the “innocence” of childhood. Jennifer looked to unravel the meaning of her Tale, for it was clear to her adult sensibilities that things were not quite as the story was told. Her mother was instrumental in moving Jen-nifer to face her assailant; but Jennifer wasn’t looking to accuse or condemn anyone. She wanted to understand why these people were so important to her, she wanted to unravel her story. For if there is one thing that rang true, it was that she was not a victim. She was not taken advantage of; she was not mistreated, she was not demeaned, she was not raped. When her mother asked, ill-heartedly but somehow prompted by the (seeming?) voluntary nature of her daughter’s sexual relation-ship, “did you enjoy it?,” Jennifer in a state of uneasiness, was clear that she did not. “I was a kid. I got something else. Love. I wanted to feel special,” she said. Her body knew first; her mind would only follow 30 years later. Hours of fornicating were followed by nights hanging over the toilet, vomiting through the night, until exhaustion would take her. Soon her wariness would turn existential nausea, and prompted by suspicions of a planned threesome, a weekend away together with Bill and Mrs. G, was cancelled. The day after we see Jenny, full-faced, serious, confident, talking directly into the camera: “I’ve made a decision. I am taking my life in my own hands.” She would end things with Bill. She called to inform him she wouldn’t be seeing him again, severing ties with both Bill and Mrs. G. She tells of how he begged her, cried, and she imagined that he’d never get over her, sending postcards to her deep into her adult years. This is the story she told herself. And so, the summer spent on the farm was described as heaven.
What did wee Jen have at her ready? What inventory of truths might Jennifer unravel to draw out the perspective she’d entertained? Jenny will come to tell Jennifer that the Tale was only a version of the truth. Premonitions voiced by adult Jennifer coming in as if a sage to caution her younger self could not be heard. Of course not. This was not Jenny’s truth, not even any of multiple intra-personal versions of her truth. For how could it be? Jenny’s horizon of meaning was indeed that of a precocious teen, self-affirming in her advocacy of self, yet emotionally starved.
“The claim that truth is found and that ignorance and error are at an end is one of the most potent seductions there is. Supposing it is believed, then the will to examination, investigation, caution, experiment is paralyzed…“Truth” is therefore more fateful than error and ignorance, because it cuts off the forces that work toward enlightenment and knowledge.” (F. Nietzsche. The Will to Power
Inexperienced Jenny, Jennifer would be heard saying, was a child of the 70s, a time sex was not moralized, “forced” penetration not demonized. The perspective coasts the waves of sexuality from within a fluid movement of self-expression, exploration, mind-expansiveness, openness, and contra-labeling attitudes. Bill would be patient and loving (I know this is not what readers will find easy to hear as they want to shout “Rapist!,” but it is not how Jenny experienced herself. It would be negligible, I suspect, even within the context of mental health and personal development, to impose an exhaustively simple narrative on Jenny) as he prepared her both emotionally and physically for intercourse. She would be the one to plead with her parents to spend weekends alone with her “assailants.” She’d experience herself as grown up and in charge of her life, for that is how Bill and Mrs. G would speak to her. Bill would entreat her to question the conventionalism of marriage and the like as a species of social tyranny (too strong?). She’d see herself as counter-cultural in her affairs, distinct, empowered, authorially driven. First vocalized in due difference to her family, and later as she severed ties with Bill, climaxing in The Tale she would tell – she would not experience herself as anything short of autonomous!
It is, as with all things, a matter of negotiation. For short of discursive fluidity, that beautiful, charming, magical force of energy coagulates, eventually becoming dense, hard matter that in time builds walls. “A lie is an outward expression of a falsehood one inwardly knows to be false, meaning the liar can still know the truth. A conviction, on the other hand, is an inward certainty one has attained the truth, and thus in many cases, gives way to an arrogance that enmeshes one in a web of delusion and falsehood, and cuts one off from the possibility of moving towards knowledge” (unknown source 😦 ). Was Jenny violated? Was she actually taken advantage of? Did she in her desperation to be seen confiscate autonomy to do her bidding? Of course, but also not at all! 13-year old Jenny’s perspective experiences herself within a paradigm of constructs that nurtured a sense of authentic emancipation from literally marginalizing and alienating circumstance. She did not, could not, experience herself as Jennifer now 30 years later could. We may certainly speak to the delicate age of Jenny, circumstance that made her vulnerable to the likes of Bill, but that would also only be to hear the story from Jennifer and our own adult, particularized sensibilities, leaving Jenny quite invisible all over again. An imposed silence upon her carefully crafted script is not to emancipate Jenny from extrinsic forces but to leave her quite without voice. To Jennifer. Does she now within her adult comportment experience herself, through this visceral reenactment of her youthful self, as violated? She’d struggle through the entire film with answering that question for herself.
In an aphorism entitled “To What Extent The Thinker Loves His Enemy,” from Dawn of Day, Nietzsche advised:
Make it a rule to withhold or conceal from yourself anything that may be thought against your own thoughts. Vow it! this is the essential requirement of honest thinking. You must undertake such a campaign against yourself every day.”
Tiny revelations contrary to that more idyllic picture would eventually come to canvass a grander/eur perspective and a Truth, a Tale, that could no longer be squandered, snuffed out by paradigms so inhospitable to what she’d seemingly known all-along.
Jennifer would finally piece the puzzle together. She’d find her assailant. Mrs. G, once a stunning woman of elegant composure and vibrancy, now a rag-doll of questionable lucidity, would tell her nothing. She’d have to put her journalistic expertise to the quest and extract the truth from detractors, restrainers, and oppressors of the truth. Clues brought her to a young woman recruited to enjoin the threesome, now turned preschool teacher, who would, herself shocked to know Jenny was but a child (the school age of her students) at the time, reveal the true dynamics of the affair. Mrs. G was the recruiter who’d bring conquests to Bill’s bed. Neither overtly criminal in demeanour. Both, in fact, ingratiating, mentoring, caring. It is only her adult sensibilities that see the sinister undertow enveloped in preying upon the gullibility of the emotionally frail. Bill’s warmth is chillingly experienced by adult viewers, but Jenny would not want to betray the respect they’d shown her by bowing out of this adult affair, and behaving, as it were, as a child!!!!!! This Jennifer would slowly, shrillingly, come to experience in herself, reaching a climax in a very public confrontational scene with Bill where, desperate for closure, would seek to understand how Bill (a grown man), with her present-day, now adult, sensibilities, could possibly prey upon the youthful innocence of a trusting little girl! Closure would not come as he’d insist, telling his own tale, that she was a willing participant! Shrunken and defeated, she would find no restitution in her tale.
My take away is that we all hibernate in perspectives weaved into our living lives, making it our Truth, our Tale. Glimmers of light sneaking in illuminating what lies beneath seems inescapable, even when repressive impulses may continue to win the day. For Jennifer it was her mother, The Tale, penned by her younger self, that awoke her to the fable she’d learned to call home. I suspect, the Tale, shall be retold many times over, when life experience occasions retrieval and renegotiation in that lifelong process of recalibration!
I stand with a cast-away heart and a delicate psychical world firmly in the act of incertitude that everything is a miracle. The standard price for authenticity? Inner turmoil! I’ll take it! To Nietzsche: I shall ‘make it a rule never to withhold or conceal from myself anything that may be thought against my own thoughts. I vow it! This is the essential requirement of honest thinking. I aim to undertake such a campaign against myself every day.’ (F. Nietzsche, Dawn of Day)
Clients invariably seek out philosophical counselling to address or resolve a problem that seems to arise from a sense of inner tension with their existing life situation. In other words, clients or counsellees come not because they have been diagnosed with a panic disorder, ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or because they have been perceived to be in unhealthy relationships, are under-achievers and the like. Rather, it is their subjective experience of themselves living such life-circumstances that impresses upon them the awareness that they are not living as they should or as they would like.
The unsettled nature of this form and level of self-awareness, of course, motions to the opacity of this subjective experience and the perceived quandary which typically leaves clients feeling overwhelmed. A Socratic lesson long quoted amongst pedagogic enthusiasts concerns this point of self-awareness – Socrates would pose directed questions about matters personally relevant to the interlocutor’s moral standing with the intent to publicly expose inconsistencies which would throw him into an aporetic state. Prior to the subjective experience of one’s own shortcomings and their social – and for some existential – import, discourse would be disingenuous.
Of course, this does not suggest that those intrinsically motivated are not genuinely interested in the object of inquiry. Rather, the suggestion is that the subjective or self-conscious experience of their own understanding is lost to them since their inquiry is disengaged, and thereby factors the subjective experience out of the equation.
Philosophical counseling, as I have argued previously, is a transformative art, that aims to open up creative forms of thoughtful and self-critical reflection. Neither the relayed knowledge of one’s predicament by others (as with those who are diagnosed by others), nor the intellectualized awareness of oneself (as one intrinsically motivated) suffering from certain acknowledged limitations could charter a path to self-understanding. The client would, if you will, have to be in “crisis” mode which is attainable as a subjective experience of one’s understanding of one’s predicament.
Notice in the latter case, one may be self-critically aware of oneself and her limitations, but in such a scenario one is rendered an object or specimen of discourse quite detached from the matter of experiencing oneself as the subject of this mode of understanding. The art of philosophical counseling would require what Kierkegaard referred to as “Subjective Truth”. “Truth”, he argued, “is Subjectivity”. What I borrow from Kierkegaard is this understanding of the mode of inquiry as concrete, engaged and refined, rather than biased, via the subjective particularity of the subject who is both the agent of discourse and constitutive of its unfolding.
My last reflection made a promise to return to the issue of suitable clientele or candidacy. The question was placed in the context of goals specific to philosophical counselling. Specifically, I had argued that “if philosophical counselling nurtures self-reflective understanding, then the aim of philosophical counselling must be an introspective exercise that aims to gauge, enhance and augment one’s understanding, a process integral to one’s interpretative framework orienting one in the world.”
Hence, I argued, “counselees looking for concrete solutions to their problems and/or decision-making are ill-suited to this cumbersome activity, as would individuals lacking mental sensibilities and certain dispositional traits of character including discipline, thoughtfulness and patience.” I now wish to be more explicit.
When speaking of concrete solutions and a decision making process, my point is that philosophical insights would remain at the periphery of any discussion or may be perceived as an unnecessary intrusion to the concrete exercise of providing a recipe for deciding “whether one should stay in an unhealthy relationship” or “5 steps to fighting procrastination” or “outlining research methods for a struggling PhD student”. Sure I could do that easily enough, and I could even accomplish it with the consensus of my client. However, there would be nothing particularly philosophical or personally insightful about the experience. The client would cash in on certain skills in practical reasoning, and adopt improved patterns of behavior.
What is philosophical about these otherwise practical questions? Someone who comes with relationship issues is bound to have a complex network of concepts that both defines his/her evaluative assessment and most importantly the particular issues that comprise his/her narrative. The same can be said of that individual that procrastinates. Indeed, someone who takes on a goal and consistently puts it on the back burning is involved in (unconscious) internal struggles that may vary from experience of self-worth, the value of the goal itself, orientations on life and more.
Once these are brought to the fore and the client is invited to explicitly negotiate the background of meanings from which his/her present stance is informed, the opportunity for rational self-reflective understanding is heightened. Notice the shift from outwardly oriented assessments often associated with practical judgments where one looks to the best means by which to acquire a goal, and an inwardly oriented experience of those concepts from which one gains insight into one’s own understanding of such matters.
This is a cumbersome and arduous process that may leave the client feelings as if s/he is taking many steps backwards, furthering him/herself from the attainment of the original goal that was in clear(er) proximity. Frustration, and a brewing sense of futility would alienate the client and hinder the cultivation of a personalized authentic dialogue of self-understanding. It is for this reason that certain traits of character seem pertinent, even if these may come in degrees and may also be strengthened by the philosophical counselling experience.
So what is this rational self-reflective understanding that philosophical counselling nurtures? An answer, indeed the question itself, imposes a certain presumption about the goals of philosophical counselling, which also seems prescriptively biased as far the eligibility of the counsellee is concerned.
If philosophical counselling nurtures self-reflective understanding, then the aim of philosophical counselling must be an introspective exercise that aims to gauge, enhance and augment one’s understanding, a process integral to one’s interpretative framework orienting one in the world. Counsellees looking for concrete solutions to their problems and/or decision-making are ill-suited to this cumbersome activity, as would individuals lacking mental sensibilities and certain dispositional traits of character including discipline, thoughtfulness and patience. Leaving this latter issue for next week, the practice of engaging counselees here involves cognition of how existing thought processes evolve not as disengaged, but as subjective, that is, intra-personal dialogue taken up a visceral understanding of one’s own experience, a kind of self-understanding.
Philosophical practice is neither diagnostic nor prognostic. Unlike counsellors of the psychological variety, we, as philosophers are firmly affixed to the transformative impact of our art.
Philosophy has always raised questions and offered venues for discussion that challenge ordinary assumptions on all matters of human understanding. And yet surprisingly this discipline has been perceived as abstract, uninviting, impractical and direly impenetrable. Philosophical practice, and philosophical counselling in particular, steps in to alter this skewed perspective and bring it back to the arena of everyday life and living. This dialectical counsellee-counsellor interchange is not fixed upon defining the “truth” as some abstract, impersonal depiction of reality now and forever. Rather it is a conversation that nurtures a rational self-reflective understanding of all contending value-laden beliefs that have taken hold of one’s consciousness.
I suppose that the usual way of responding to this quandary is to talk about what is not philosophical, or more precisely what is not philosophical about psychology and the like.
Psychology is a science (even if in its origin it was itself philosophical, or born out of philosophical discourse and reflection). As such, it aims to ground the understanding of the human mind and behaviour in methods that yield measurable results.
Despite controversies even amongst psychologists/therapists, their treatment hinges on a therapeutic paradigm that rests on a clear understanding of health and unhealth. On the basis of this understanding, unhealthy mental and behavioural patterns are detected, classified, and causally determined with diagnostic, prognostic and treatments to boot. Sessions then aim to first diagnose a patient (methods may vary), elucidate causes (either exclusively by the therapists or in conjunction with the patient), and then proceed to implementing treatment.
Sessions conducted by philosophers do not follow this pattern at all. Philosophical counselling draws clients into an intra-personal and inter-personal dialogue that aims to elevate counselees from a static, or stagnant state of thinking and behaving to a self-reflective state invested in a deeper, more synthetic and analytic understanding of self and the world.
In his book In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World, linguist Christopher J. Moore says: “This [meraki] is a word that modern Greeks often use to describe doing something with soul, creativity, or love — when you put “something of yourself” into what you’re doing, whatever it may be.” For a glimpse into the meaning of meraki that shall (I wept..of course) viscerally transpose you, I give you Tom Booker, the horse whisperer:
Tom is something of a recluse, though quietly invested, but uncompromising, driven you might say, in his focused commitment to his companions. What is it about the Tom Bookers of the world that moves us? It’s his presence. His spirit. His manner of being. There’s no extravagance. Nothing showy or grandiose about him. He’s purposive, without being directional. Communicative, mostly in words spoken in silence. It’s a language quite foreign to those of us unaccustomed, uncomfortable, with emptiness, confusing it as we do with that intrusive, annihilating void that leaves us feeling quite vulnerable. We say too much, and too often. Tom is a man of patience; but not of idle waiting. Agriculturalists know about this. They tend to their land, waking before dawn, working alone or alongside others in silent understanding; they have a deep respect for life – animal and plant life. They know nature has her own delicate plan that can’t be rushed, but only tamed into loving “submission”.
It is the same with his companions: these beauties. Pilgrim is not just a horse. And Tom doesn’t just bring technical expertise to the fore. He knows his craft, of that there is no doubt. But he does not just execute techniques known to any horse trainer. Indeed that which is unique to one of meraki is not so much the excellence with which one executes one’s craft, but the manner in which it is accomplished. We do not speak of just one who may be loving or care about horses (or whatever the object of one’s involvement may be), of course, since inherent to meraki is the love that evolves from that invested, truly anchored, and personalized cultivation of one’s craft. It grows as one’s immersed understanding of one’s craft evolves, and transforms one from that person who performs certain activities to a horse whisperer as such. Horse training then is not something one does, it is who one is.
Sometimes readers are baffled that this profound manner of being could be captured in setting a table or cooking a meal. But one does not just set a table. One anticipates one’s dinner companions, contemplating all that might bring the mood of being present to the table. One then sets out to find the right decorative ensemble to make the table, shops for all the ingredients wherever such markets might take you, selectively placing each item into the shopping cart. Every task leading to the finale – the cooked meal, served at the table – will be deliberatively and caringly performed and hence not executed with anxiety, nor with a sense of rush or extrinsic standards, nor still with the desire to please. No, what moves one of meraki is her devotion in a mode of care.
Annie, a successful, hyperactive and obsessively controlling mother is lost in the fury of activities that arrest time, robbing her as becomes apparent, from the possibility of anything meaningful. She’s rushed because she works towards deadlines, scripting her success against masterfully executing high standards for her craft. She’s that technician of virtues devoid of heart.
Unlike Annie, Tom possesses a pervasive simplicity. No extravagances. Mitsein: speaks to the authenticity of Being without mitigating circumstance and posturing.
Slow down. Let go. Be in the moment. In every moment.