When I was at home, I was in a better place

I am a railway child -or, more specifically, I am the child of a railway father. And as a result the family was transferred to a new location every few years; I have lived in almost every province of Canada at one time or other, so home for me was always a shifting target -a work in progress. Even now, if anyone asks me where home is, I have to think. Is it where I live right now? The place I lived the longest? Or maybe my favourite house…? You wouldn’t think it would be that difficult; I don’t imagine it is for most people, and maybe that’s why they ask. Home, according to the English anthropologist Mary Douglas, ‘is always a localisable idea. Home is located in space but it is not necessarily a fixed space… It need not be a large space, but space there must be, for home starts by bringing some space under control.’ I suppose I’ve controlled many spaces, but it’s just that I’m being asked to choose.

The idea of Home has always been elusive for me; I have usually felt orphaned -or perhaps  foster-homed would be a better way to describe it. I lived with loving parents in pleasant houses that, just as I was beginning to feel ownership, were snatched away along with any roots I had put down or friends with whom I had shared some time, however briefly.

I mention this because of an essay in Aeon.com that caught my eye: https://aeon.co/essays/what-does-home-mean-if-your-bed-is-on-the-pavements-of-paris It was written by Johannes Lenhard, a research associate and coordinator at the Max Planck Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change. He did two years of ethnographic research on people living on the streets of Paris who had no fixed abode. As such, one would assume that they had no place they regarded as ‘home’, and yet that would be wrong.

As Lenhard writes, ‘homelessness is very much the product of the malfunction of social, economic and welfare systems, paired with life events such as mental or physical illness, divorce, death and domestic violence. But what might surprise outsiders is that the people I met on the street often didn’t think of themselves as abject or suffering.’ Often, in fact, they ‘were actively struggling to make homes on the street, both literally and symbolically, not simply sitting still. Focusing on the negative and stifled experiences of the homeless invariably produces an incomplete picture, and obscures the creative and resourceful practices that people deploy to deal with their situation.’ Those people ‘on the streets of Paris were striving – in their own ways – towards being better selves’ and Lenhard ‘came to understand the activities, processes and routines that they [the street people] engaged in – begging, making a shelter, accessing temporary housing, etc – as practices of the self geared towards a better life, as practices of homemaking on the street, as practices of hope.’ And, as the French philosopher Michel Foucault said, the self is ‘not given to us … we have to create ourselves as a work of art’.

The hardest thing, I suspect, is imagining how a person living on the streets month after month, year after year, could still be aiming for a fulfilled life -for a home. Lenhard quotes something the American anthropologist Cheryl Mattingly wrote in her book, The Paradox of Hope, about chronically ill people in the United States. Interestingly, it applies equally to the so-called homeless people of his study: ‘Hope most centrally involves the practice of creating, or trying to create, lives worth living even in the midst of suffering, even with no happy ending in sight.’

Home, therefore, could also be somewhere, not in the present ‘but about one’s hopes, about making home [in] an imagined place where one has not yet arrived.’ Home making, then, is a process, ‘involving the material and the imaginative, social connections and mundane acts. Routines, habits and rhythms – often as simple as regularly visiting certain neighbourhoods, shelters and food kitchens…’ That can be home.

Maybe that’s why the young man who always seemed to be sitting with his dog on a busy street corner near my office, seemed so surprised one day when I asked him where his home was. Every day when I walked past him, he smiled at me like we were old friends. I suppose we were, really. For months, I’d made a point of putting any loose change I had in my pocket into the little tin at his feet -and yet he’d smile even when I didn’t contribute anything. He seemed as happy that I even noticed him each time I passed -most didn’t, he told me one time.

I suppose I was as intrigued by his dog, an old black lab that always wagged his tail at me, as I was by the boy. Anybody who can care for a dog is someone I can care for, so we sometimes talked. Nothing too personal, of course -I didn’t want to embarrass him- but both of us were curious about each other, I could tell.

We knew each other’s names: his was Brian, and his dog was Jeffrey -not ‘Jeff’ mind you, Jeffrey. He was quite adamant about that -he never told me why, nor why he’d chosen the particular corner where he sat, for that matter, although I suspect there are rules. Territories. Spaces available that are controllable for a while -until they aren’t… I never asked about that.

But I was curious about where they went at night. It wouldn’t be a safe space then, nor, for that matter was it ever sheltered in the rain. Brian and Jeffrey had not been there the previous winter, and on rainy days there was a space open on the concrete where they weren’t…

And yet when I asked him about his home he merely smiled, hugged his dog, and looked up at me as if the very question meant I could never understand: I had never lived like him -like them. They were a Magisterium apart. But, as I watched the two of them together, happy in the moment, I think I finally understood what Foucault had meant. Brian, I think, would be happy with that, too…

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That way madness lies

To portray something -to make it believable- there has to be at least some understanding by the audience of what is being portrayed. Much in the sense, I suppose, that was suggested in the 1974 paper in The Philosophical Review by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, asking what it would be like to be a bat. Not so much how it would feel to have the added sense of sonar, or be able to fly in the dark, but more about the consciousness of itself. As Wikipedia explains Nagel’s thinking: ‘an organism has conscious mental states, “if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism to be itself.”

This is a roundabout way of wondering whether an audience could ever know if an actor is representing something realistically if they cannot imagine what it would be like to be that thing.

Mental illness seems as if it is sufficiently prevalent that most of us would be expected to understand whether or not the author, or the actor, has captured its essence accurately, and yet, for those of us who have not experienced the wide panoply of its manifestations -the majority of us, I suspect- we might be easily mislead. The more gripping or sensational portrayals of illness, might well come to stereotype the lot. To stigmatize the condition.

I was scrolling through the BBC Culture section when I happened upon an article that discusses some of these same issues: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180828-how-cinema-stigmatises-mental-illness

‘… the film industry has generally shown a shaky vision of mental health … It’s not that cinema evades ‘taboo’ themes here; it’s more that it tends to swing wildly from sentimentality to sensationalism.’ To attract an audience -i.e. to make a profit- ‘creative drama is drawn to the complexity and fragility of the mind – but mainstream entertainment still demands a snappy fix. And the definition of ‘insanity’ is inherently problematic.’

I am reminded of the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization -subtitled A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. He felt that the concept of madness was evolving over time: in the Renaissance, (as a thoughtful summary in Wikipedia puts it) the mad were portrayed in art ‘as possessing a kind of wisdom – a knowledge of the limits of our world – and portrayed in literature as revealing the distinction between what men are and what they pretend to be … but the Renaissance also marked the beginning of an objective description of reason and unreason (as though seen from above) compared with the more intimate medieval descriptions from within society.’

Later, however, ‘in the mid-seventeenth century, the rational response to the mad, who until then had been consigned to society’s margins, was to separate them completely from society by confining them, along with prostitutes, vagrants, blasphemers and the like, in newly created institutions all over Europe.’ (The Great Confinement).

‘For Foucault the modern experience began at the end of the eighteenth century with the creation of places devoted solely to the confinement of the mad under the supervision of medical doctors, and these new institutions were the product of a blending of two motives: the new goal of curing the mad away from their family who could not afford the necessary care at home, and the old purpose of confining undesirables for the protection of society. These distinct purposes were lost sight of, and the institution soon came to be seen as the only place where therapeutic treatment can be administered.’

But, back to the BBC Culture depiction of the role of cinema, ‘our mainstream perceptions of ‘madness’ are still fixated with movie scenes – much more emphatically, in fact, than the novels or memoirs on which they might be based. A classic film like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) seals the impression of a soul-destroying psychiatric asylum, where livewire convict RP McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) feigns insanity to escape prison labour – yet is ultimately crushed by the system. The dramatic depiction of patient treatment, particularly its brutal electroconvulsive therapy sequences, had far-reaching impact. In 2011, The Telegraph went so far as to say that the film was responsible for “irreparably tarnishing the image of ECT…’

Unfortunately, unlike many art forms, movies usually require a conclusion, a wrapping up of the story, and a realistic depiction of mental illness may not fit into that convenient format. There may be no black or white: not all characterizations can end either pleasantly or sadly -some are palimpsests, to be sure, but many can reach no definitive conclusions that would satisfy the average moviegoer. Hence the temptation to exaggerate, or at least frighten audiences into an odd manifestation of satisfaction.

The temptation, in other words, to see mental illness as alien, separate -like a creature we could not possibly understand because it is so different. As different, perhaps, as Nagel’s bat. But is it? Or was Foucault really on to something in his analysis of the way ‘madness’ seemed to be viewed in Renaissance literature and art -a view which accepted that at least some of the vagaries, some of the stigmata of mental illness, were merely variations of mental states that any of us could exhibit at times? And indeed, that occasionally intimated unique views on a world from which we might learn some important lessons -a world, though, that we might now discard, or shun as too bizarre. Too frightening. Too… real.

On the other hand, there is a danger of romanticizing the past, of airbrushing its naïveté into soft and reassuring colours; of assuming it was what it was because it had not yet been exposed to the unforgiving exigencies of current knowledge. A time when imagination and reality were sometimes allowed to merge. Encouraged to conflate.

It’s difficult to be certain where present day arts can be placed on this spectrum of understanding mental illness -not the least because it is difficult to know where it should be placed. But, suffice it to say, the more fully the illness is portrayed in all its complexity, the more we might be able to see it as a small, but important part of the tapestry of existence -a fragment of the struggle that marks all our days. And, as for any vicissitude, where there is suffering, we must provide succour and relief, and where there is dissimilarity, offer understanding and acceptance. Tolerance. The soul, says the poet Kahlil Gibran, walks upon all paths. The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed. The soul unfolds itself like a lotus of countless petals.