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The Human Evasion by Celia Green

Chapter 2 : The Characteristics of Sanity

Sanity may be described as the conscientious denial of reality. That is to say, the facts of the situation (apart from a few which are judged to be harmless) have no emotional impact to a sane mind.

For example, it is a salient feature of our position that we are in a state of total uncertainty. Possibly the universe started with a "big bang" a few aeons ago, or perhaps something even more incredible happened. In any case, there is no reason known to us why everything should not stop existing at any moment. I realize that to my sane readers I shall appear to be making an empty academic point. That is precisely what is so remarkable about sanity.

The sane person prides himself on his ability to be unaffected by important facts, and interested in unimportant ones. He refers to this as having a sense of perspective, or keeping things "in proportion".

Consider the wife of the Bishop of Woolwich. She says—I have sometimes been asked recently: "What effect has Honest to God and all the reaction to it had on your children?"1

That is to say, what effect has it had on her children that their father has written a book about the nature of reality which has attracted a great deal of attention. Have they become interested in their father's importance as a possible influence on the course of history? Have they started to take themselves seriously and determined to influence their generation? Or have they begun to take a precocious interest in theology, whether agreeing or disagreeing with their father? The Bishop's wife assures us that none of these unpleasant things have happened. What effect, then, has it had? "The simple answer is—practically none at all," she says. "Life goes on much as it did before." The vital questions continue to be "Do you have to go out tonight?", "What can I wear for the party?", and "What's for supper?"

This ability to keep things "in perspective", or upside down, is beautifully exemplified by certain remarks made by the aging Freud.

Seventy years have taught me to accept life with a cheerful humility....

Perhaps the gods are kind to us in making life more disagreeable as we grow older. In the end death seems less intolerable than the manifold burdens we carry.... I do not rebel against the universal order.... (Asked whether it meant nothing to him that his name should live) Nothing whatsoever.... I am far more interested in this blossom than in anything that may happen to me after I am dead.... I am not a pessimist, I permit no philosophic reflections to spoil my enjoyment of the simple things of life.2

To appreciate the full force of these remarks one must realize that Freud had already had five operations for cancer of the jaw, and was in more or less continuous pain. (It may be held that when Freud looked at a blossom and found it more interesting than pain and death and fame, this was because he was overcome by the astonishing fact that the blossom existed at all. But if this were so, I think he would scarcely refer to it as one of the "simple" things of life.)

He was not entirely immune from reminders of his finite condition, as is shown by other statements which he made at various times.

... there is deep inside a pessimistic conviction that the end of my life is near. That feeds on the torments from my scar which never cease.3

When you at a youthful 54 cannot avoid often thinking of death you cannot be astonished that at the age of 80 1/2 I fret whether I shall reach the age of my father and brother or further still into my mother's age, tormented on the one hand by the conflict between the wish for rest and the dread of fresh suffering that further life brings and on the other hand anticipation of the pain of separation from everything to which I am still attached.4 The radium has once more begun to eat in, with pain and toxic effects, and my world is again what it was before -- a little island of pain floating on a sea of indifference.5

However, in spite of all this he didn't lose interest in trivia, and in the eyes of any sane person this establishes his claim to possess great "emotional stability".

Seeing things in perspective usually means that you stand at a certain distance away from the objects of observation. The "perspective" in which a sane person lives depends on avoiding this manoeuvre. You have to hold a flower very close to your eyes if it is to blot out the sky. The sane person holds his life in front of his face like someone with short sight reading a newspaper with rather small print. It follows that he cannot have emotions about the universe, because he cannot see that it is there.

This is a salient feature of sanity—it does not include emotions about the universe. Some sane readers may object: "Once I was excited about anti-particles for several hours", or "I tried out solipsism for three whole days".

So, if it is insisted upon, we may qualify this statement as follows: Sanity may occasionally allow transitory emotions about the universe or reality, but it does not allow them to exercise any perceptible influence as motives in the life of the individual. At this stage in our argument we must regard it as an open question whether this is an accidental by-product of sanity, or whether it is the deliberate but unstated objective at which all sane psychology is aimed.

I must explain what I mean by an emotion about the universe—since this is an unfamiliar and bizarre phenomenon—so let me give an example. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the founder of linguistic philosophy, which has made so great a contribution to intellectual sanity in this century, was himself not quite so sane as he would have liked. Indeed, it may be argued that linguistic philosophy was itself the product of his strenuous attempts to remain sane enough. A case of an irritated oyster producing a pearl—the sane may reply—which does not detract from the value of the pearl. Possibly.

But it is undeniable that Wittgenstein did occasionally have emotions about the universe. So his biographer records: "I believe that a certain feeling of amazement that anything should exist at all, was sometimes experienced by Wittgenstein.... Whether this feeling has anything to do with religion is not clear to me."6

Notice in passing the fastidiousness with which his biographer hastens to disclaim any exact comprehension of this feeling. ("I believe the lower classes eat fish and chips from newspaper. Whether this practice has anything to do with nutrition is not clear to me.")

What more can be said of the sane person? He is ubiquitous, and so his characteristics are invisible. There is nothing to compare him with.

But let us consider the picture given in a jolly little booklet called A positive approach to Mental Health.7 (The cover is adorned with a picture of a happy fakir sitting beside an abandoned bed of nails.)

"How does the person who is enjoying good mental health think and act?" the booklet asks, and proceeds to inform us, among other things, that "He gets satisfaction from simple, every-day pleasures." Freud, you see, certainly qualified.

"He has emotions", the booklet also informs us, "like anyone else." However, they are "in proportion" and he is not "crushed" by them. I think by now we have established what is meant by keeping things "in proportion"—i.e. you have most of your emotions about unimportant things. The booklet does not state this explicitly, but it certainly does not state anything to the contrary. It might, for example, be said that "the mature man is not unduly interested in matters of purely local significance, such as the state of affairs on this particular planet, because he realizes that they are of little ultimate significance." You will observe how outlandish that sounds.

The booklet becomes a little lightheaded when it comes to the matter of the mentally healthy person's interest in facts. "He's open-minded about new experiences and new ideas." A more accurate statement might be "A mentally healthy person has made a value judgement in advance that no idea or experience can be qualitatively more important than those he already understands. He is able to rely on his defense mechanisms and can listen with a bland expression to people with unpleasant ideas."

How does the mentally healthy person feel about his limitations? "He feels able to deal with most situations that come his way.... He tries for goals he thinks he can achieve through his own abilities; he doesn't want the moon on a silver platter." That is to say, he has so arranged his life that he doesn't try to do anything that doesn't seem pretty easy. "If he can't change something he doesn't like, he adjusts to it." "He knows he has shortcomings and can accept them without getting upset." That is, he has ways of pretending he does not mind about anything he cannot alter easily.

And how does he feel about other people? Here a slightly threatening note of reciprocity appears. "He is tolerant of others shortcomings just as he is of his own. He doesn't expect others to be perfect, either." "He expects to like and trust other people and assumes that they will like him.... He doesn't try to push other people around and doesn't expect to be pushed around himself." Let us just imagine what might have been said instead -- I know it will sound like the wildest fantasy. "He regrets his own shortcomings and is always willing to admire people with greater virtues and capacities than his own. He wishes to help other people, particularly those with higher aims and a more intense sense of purpose than he has himself. He does not expect to be liked in return for his help."

We have established that the mentally healthy person isn't going to let his life, with all its content of simple pleasures, be pushed around by anyone.

This, if you give it a moment's thought, ensures that all his relationships must be characterized by mutual purposelessness. If you once admit a purpose to the situation, it may make differential demands on different people.

Nevertheless, the sane person "is capable of loving other people and thinking about their interests and well-being. He has friendships that are satisfying and lasting. He can identify himself with a group, feel that he is part of it, and has a sense of responsibility to his neighbours and fellow men."

Notice that a friendship should be satisfying -- i.e. it is an end in itself, and not a means to an end. It should also be "lasting". Obviously if the friendship depended on community of purpose, it might be outgrown.

So it is plain that people constitute a rather large part of the mentally healthy person's world, but that all associations of persons have to be characterized by a mutual sacrifice of purposiveness.

I am reminded of the porcupines of Schopenhauer. They wanted to huddle together to keep one another warm, but found that their spines pricked one another. If they kept too far apart, they became cold again. So they established a distance at which they could keep one another warm without actually making contact with one another's spines. "This distance was henceforward known as decency and good manners."

The attitude of the mentally healthy person towards other people might be stated as follows: "He expects to derive warmth from his proximity to other people. He does not expect to derive anything else, and is willing to let other people derive warmth from him so long as they, too, abandon their prickly claims to possess needs of any other kind."

Before we leave this little booklet, let us consider that brilliant expression "mental health". It is, of course, a social euphemism of the same genre as "rodent operative" and "cleansing official". It saves sane people from embarrassment by permitting them to say that their confined and extraordinary relatives are not mad but "mentally ill" or even "mentally unwell". It implies that the human mind grows naturally and by biological necessity into the image and likeness of the Human Evasion, as the human body grows to a certain specified kind of shape. It implies that any deviation from the Human Evasion is the same kind of thing as a tumour or a running sore. It sanctifies the statistical norm. "Mental disease", the booklet says, "doesn't indicate lack of brain power but rather a malfunctioning of the brain and emotions. The individual just doesn't respond to various situations the way a normal person would" (my italics).

What can we add to this picture of the sane? One sane opinion. "... if I could spend the course of everlasting time in a paradise of varied loveliness, I do not fancy my felicity would be greatly impaired if the last secret of the universe were withheld from me."8

This opinion was held by a Gifford Lecturer in the 1930s. His lectures were entitled "The Human Situation", and they are a marvel of sanity from beginning to end. But they are outdated in one respect. We do not talk any more about "the human situation". The phrase implies that humans can be seen in relation to something other than humans. What we talk about now is sociology. Everyone is very proud of this fact. It is the quintessence of sanity.

  1. John A.T. Robinson, The New Reformation, S.C.M. Paperback, 1965, p.123.
  2. Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud: Life and Work, Vol. III, The Hogarth Press, 1957. p.133.
  3. Ibid., Vol. III, pp.70-71.
  4. Ibid., Vol. III, p.226.
  5. Ibid., Vol. III, p.258.
  6. Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Oxford University Press Paperback, 1958, p.70.
  7. Richard Christner, Published by the National Association for Mental Health, 1965.
  8. MacNeile Dixon, The Human Situation, Edward Arnold and Co., 1937, p.14.
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