January Musings. Freedom, Mutual Recognition, and Mysticism

A monthly package of musings on readings, podcasts or videos, music/art, and psychology. I muse on psychology/psychoanalysis, somatic stuff, culture and art that has touched and inspired me.

Book: “Everybody. A Book About Freedom” by Olivia Laing

This month I finished “Everybody. A Book About Freedom” by Olivia Laing. I was made aware of this book because my husband had listened to an interview with Laing on Vox Conversations (lovely podcast). The book is a unique and well-executed work of writing about pretty much everything through the topic of freedom in the widest sense and specifically bodily freedom. Laing explores the topic of freedom by examining the lives of a bunch of both well-known and lesser known individuals who impacted liberation movements in their own ways, including Wilhelm Reich, Andrea Dworkin, Malcom X, Susan Sontag (also including some personal reflections on her own life). The person who gets the most focus throughout the book is Wilhelm Reich, a radical doctor and psychoanalyst from the 2nd generation of analysts. But the book is also a crash course in several areas like the early history of psychoanalysis, the sexual liberation movement, and civil rights history.

So why do I love this book? Because Laing demonstrates with loads of fascinating historical details what we should all know already: That the fights for (all forms of) liberation are not as straight-forward as we would like them to be and that the societal as well as individual transformative work that leads to freedom is messy and ambiguous. The world cannot be divided into good guys and bad guys on the question of freedom. The peculiar life of Wilhelm Reich is an incredibly good example of this. Laing takes us on a journey through his fascinating and tragic life and draws lines to other remarkable figures who, like Reich, gave their lives to liberation movements in ways that deserve examination.

The book takes on several questions: What does it mean to feel free? What does it feel like in one’s body? How is the body a force of freedom in its own right? Or a tool for resistance? What is the relationship between bodies and freedom? Why is the body such a battlefield?

One of the things that touched me the most from the book is the notion that all forms of oppression are brutal when (or because) they turn the body itself into a prison. “The body’s needs quickly become unbearable when they are not met”, as Laing puts it. This captures the essence of Laing’s project: “The political world can make bodies into prisons, but […] bodies can also reshape the political world”, p. 244. The “problem” with the body is its vulnerability. But Laing’s project is to show us how bodies are “full of power and […] their power is not despite but because of their manifest vulnarabilities.” (p. 15).

One of the big philosophical debates Laing illuminates is whether you believe the constraints of authority put on the individual by society are preferable to what the world would look like if humans had total freedom to unfold their nature. Freud believed so, but Reich disagreed. Laing thankfully does not impose an answer on me as the reader. I did get a sense of Laing’s political and philosophical leanings as I was reading (closer to Reich than Freud, but not clear-cut), but I did not feel lectured or nudged towards any political echo chamber. Laing makes use of storytelling as a thoughtful and competent historian. Through the stories of all the people she brings to the party, I was brought to reflections and insights on my own. Refreshing indeed. Reading Laing feels more like having a thoughtful conversation. It’s not a moralizing lecture. On the contrary, Laing does not tell the reader what to think. She offers a reflective experience using stories of lived lives; specifically, the stories of bodies, in their own language, “distant from speech but just as eloquent and meaningful.” (p. 21).

Podcast: “Think About It” Episode “Great Books 18: Jessica Benjamin’s “The Bonds of Love”

In my preparations for teaching (I teach an intro to psychodynamic theories class), I was researching resources other than readings for my students and found a most excellent interview with renowned psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin. I include texts by Benjamin in my syllabus, and while Benjamin is a great writer, this podcast is a gem. In her own words, in a warm psychoanalytic conversation with Uli Bauer, Benjamin explains her work and offers an overview of her framework.

Benjamin is arguably on the top 5 of most influential psychoanalytic thinkers of our time. She is a main contributor to the fields of relational psychoanalysis, theories of intersubjectivity, gender studies and feminism. Benjamin has examined the question of freedom and intersubjectivity in depth in her reinterpretation of psychoanalytic theory to understand the problem of domination (“Bonds of Love”). In other words, Benjamin is one of the key people who brought classic psychoanalysis into a modern egalitarian (feminist) worldview (PSA: No, Freud isn’t dead, he is more like reincarnated in a new form). I would dare to say that psychoanalysis would not have survived if it wasn’t for the feminist reinterpretation and transformation of it that Benjamin is a central representative of.

Psychoanalysis had to go through a reinterpretation for its full potential to be revealed. As Benjamin puts it, “feminism has provided a fulcrum for raising the Freudian edifice, revealing its foundation to lie in the acceptance of authority and gender relations.” (Bonds of Love, p. 7). In the authoritarian (sexist) world order, there are only the options of either domination or submission. A glaring issue with this thinking is that it overlooks the possibility of something other than the two positions of master and slave – the position of being equal subjects. This position is only possible if we can recognize each other as similar yet distinct centers of experience; subjects in our own right. Which means we need to look at the intricacies of relationships to understand any subject – as there is no such thing as a subject outside a relationship to other subjects. Benjamin explains how we must believe in the third option of mutual recognition to connect and stay true to the sharedness of our world. “If you believe in repair, you are more likely to create it”, Benjamin reminds us in the conversation with Bauer. We must believe that mutuality is an option for any repair to happen. In other words, we must believe in recognition of each other as the foundation of our subjectivity and therefore also the foundation of any repair happening between subjects.  

This is a far too short introduction to Benjamin’s work and does not in any way do it justice – which is why I recommend this podcast as an excellent way to get a sense of her work and how it relates to everything from the early infant-caregiver relationship to global issues of systemic inequality. Listen to it and get a sense of why it’s so hard to come into the world, to get a sense of yourself as a subject through your caregiver’s mirroring of and difference from you, why recognizing each other as separate subjects is a paradox, and why this paradox creates tension and struggles that lead to the conflicts of inequality that have existed as long as humanity.

Music: “Vulture Prince” by Arooj Aftab

This month I also discovered the musician and producer Arooj Aftab. I know nothing about South Asian music or the Sufi music tradition Aftab’s music is part of (I understand her work is unique in her reinterpretation of an old tradition). Maybe that is why it was a touching experience to discover her album, Vulture Prince, as an outsider. Without any prior knowledge of this music style or tradition, I was taken over and into a feeling state I rarely experience.

The track “Last Night” captures this feeling the most of all the songs on the album. The lyrics seem simple but turns out to have a mesmerizing meditative effect. It’s like Aftab moves down to deeper layers of felt sense for every repetition of the same sentence: “Last night my beloved was like the moon – so beautiful”. This phrase might read like simple or even naïve poetry, but in Aftab’s voice, it becomes clear that there is a deeper meaning – or rather feeling ­– hidden in the words. The Sufi spiritual tradition related to this music is based on “a form of devotional Muslim poetry and song that pursues enlightenment via a deep, mystical relationship with God”. That is exactly the feeling that “Last Night” brings up in me. A feeling that this composition has more to it than the sounds. A feeling that the almost 6 minutes of this track is more like a journey down through layers of consciousness, although there will always be something left outside of the realm of consciousness. Something hidden.

“Last Night” ends with the words: “Grace far beyond my grasp – The rest is silence”. Discovering things that can bring me to that sense of appreciation and pause is rare. And it should be like that. Taking in any art, thoughts, words, idea, or creative expression that offers “grace far beyond my grasp” will never be a thing in the everyday feed, nor should it.

References

Benjamin, J. (1988). The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon Books.

Laing, O. (2021). Everybody. A Book About Freedom. New York: W.W.Norton & Company.

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