In conversation with Robin Holtom (1)
Local artist, writer and art therapist, Robin Holtom, talks with HOT’s Chandra Masoliver about his background and what inspired him to write his book ‘Perceval’s Quest’, published this year, and recently reviewed in HOT. They discuss some of the psychological and philosophical themes that the book explores and their contemporary relevance.
“The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind, is the condition of the normal man. Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last fifty years.” R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience/The Bird of Paradise.
Please could you tell me a bit about how you came to live in St Leonards – and your life as an artist and art therapist.
I moved to St Leonards because I wanted to be near London, and there’s a lively artistic community here. I’m a member of Hastings Arts Forum and the trustee of a charity, a school for the Arts, which is independent and international.
From 1968-1970, I was doing a course in film at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and I went to see an exhibition Edward Adamson mounted at the Commonwealth Institute, of pictures from all round the world from mental hospitals. We chatted and he invited me to come and work at Netherne, a psychiatric hospital in Surrey. I became an apprentice art therapist, the ninth person to join the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT). Then I went on to work at Springfield Hospital from 1970-1978.
The most read book at the RCA at that time was by the anti-psychiatrist, R D Laing: ‘The Politicics of Experience’, (1) which contains a footnote about John Perceval. I also read Gregory Bateson, who wrote ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind.(2) He was Laing’s guru, an anthropologist, philosopher, psychotherapist and an expert in cybernetics and computers, married to the anthropologist Margaret Mead. Bateson edited Perceval’s ‘Narrative'(3) and referred to him as having written the earliest recorded account of the double bind, where a person is trapped in an impossible situation.
In 1978, I went to see Hugh Crawford in therapy; he was a member of the Philadelphia Association, a charity started by Laing. (4) Later I took part in their training and became friendly with the anthropologist Francis Huxley after sending him an article I wrote called ‘The Palace of the Intestines,’ about the baffling architecture of the big asylums.
What inspired you to write ‘Perceval’s Quest?’
I have been interested in John Perceval for years. The idea of this book gave me an intellectual research project, which compensated for the terminally good life I was leading – hippy, organic gardening. It kept me in touch with paradox. Perceval’s life was a quest, and a quest that is well worth celebrating. ‘Quest’ is also a reference to the legend of Parsifal, where the question is: ‘Who does the Holy Grail serve?’ And there is a connection, because Perceval’s family originally came over from Brittany, where the legend of Parsifal originated.
While I was living in Wales from 1984-2000, I met Gordon Strachan. He was a Church of Scotland priest, feminist, painter and writer about esoteric christianity. He wrote a book about Edward Irving, whose Church sect Perceval got involved with in Scotland. Gordon took me round the places where Perceval had been, where the Charismatic Church kicked off – the tiny villages around Gare Loch, where the nuclear base Faslane is now.
At Lampeter University there was a copy of the Charismatic preacher Robert Baxter’s book, also called a ‘Narrative’ (5) and I realised that Baxter and Perceval had very similar stories – and that the religious side of Perceval’s story was not touched on by Bateson or Laing. This gave a context to Perceval’s breakdown.
Laing and Bateson made the family the context, but there’s more to it than that. As a child I would write my name, then my address, the town I lived in, England, Europe, the world, the solar system, the Milky way – to reassure myself that I was embraced in a set of categories. But if one category crumbles, they all could do.
I have never had experiences like John Perceval, so I look to him as a witness. His family was a religious one and he was very attached to his family. Religion was not just a hobby for him. He was not like Baxter, who could become sceptical without feeling his existence was threatened, who allowed himself to have doubts, who could give himself choices. Such a moment can become a blip or a catastrophe.
In his book ‘The Death of the Family’, David Cooper (6), an associate of Laing, described how the family may contribute to, or precipitate, a breakdown in one of its members, referred to by Cooper as ‘the identified patient.’ What is your view on this?
The problem is that often the family can override individuality, so this sometimes gives people the excuse to scapegoat certain members. My first mother-in-law said chillingly that children are such a good investment against old age and loneliness. There’s a truth in this that people don’t like to acknowledge; there’s this burden of accountability. Perceval makes constant reference to debts of gratitude. This entangles people more than it should. Some families can write off that indebtedness and others don’t.
Individuals need to realise that unconditional love is short-lived, and the conditions families require are mystified and the results are often difficult to unwrap. Breakdowns can be explorations of that indebtedness.
I find it very interesting when you write about the clash between opposing forces within the self – like thought and emotion; reason and passion; love and hate/aggression. What caused Perceval to break down?
The precipitation of Perceval’s breakdown was his visit to a prostitute in Dublin. Having preached to the first prostitute who waylaid him, then succumbing to the second one, he could not tolerate the conflict with himself; he could not make a choice, so he said this led to his destruction. He then assumed he had syphilis and would go to hell, having betrayed his family’s values.
You say the ideas Perceval had were similar to those of Sigmund Freud and William Blake. What do you mean?
It’s amazing that after three years of persecution and torture, John Perceval had such analytical clarity, completely independent of anyone else. For example he wrote about opposites: opposites are tricky; slips of the tongue are the key – when you say the opposite of what you mean to say. Perceval noticed this, as did Freud fifty years later. Many words fluctuate between opposites, like the word to ‘cleave’ (to separate and to cling.)
Freud said there is an underlying stratum of thought where opposites are at one; he called it ‘primary process thought.’ We’ve overlaid this with a superstructure of consciousness that separates opposites. In ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, William Blake says: “Without contraries there is no progression.”
Opposites feature also in sarcasm – you say the opposite of what you mean, in order to mean the opposite of what you say. You do it when you are confused, or in John Perceval’s language, ‘deranged.’ It’s in everyday language such as “I love you to pieces.” However one shouldn’t moralise, we are contradictory beings – to deny this is the big delusion, and the danger.
‘Perceval’s Quest’ by Robin Holtom 2016. Available from Bookeeper, 1, Kings Rd, St Leonards, or from the author at email@example.com cost £9.00.
The second part of this interview will be published shortly.
Previous HOT article by Chandra Masoliver, reviewing Robin Holtom’s book, Perceval’s Quest: Delusions as metaphor: conflict and the middle ground.
(1) R D Laing: ‘The Politics of Experience’ 1967
(2) Gregory Bateson: ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’ 1972
(3) Gregory Bateson’s edition of Perceval’s ‘Narrative’ 1961
(4) The Philadelphia Association, a charity founded in 1961 by R D Laing and associates for “the relief of mental illness of all descriptions.”
(5) Robert Baxter was involved in the Charismatic Church and spoke in tongues. But he then wrote a book, ‘Narrative of Facts’ (1833) where he doubted the authenticity of the movement. This may have inspired Perceval, who published his ‘Narrative’ a couple of years later.
(6) David Cooper “The Death of the Family.” 1971
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