In conversation with Robin Holtom (2)
Here HOT’s Chandra Masoliver continues her conversation with local artist, writer and art therapist Robin Holtom about different understandings of mental illness, as illustrated in his recently published book, ‘Perceval’s Quest’, plus Robin’s own views on orthodoxy and heresy – and the present-day treatment of people diagnosed as mentally ill.
“Perceval’s campaigning work for the reform of the lunacy laws and for better treatment of asylum inmates meant that he has been rightly hailed as a pioneer of the mental health advocacy movement.”
One of the main themes throughout your book ‘Perceval’s Quest’ is about orthodoxy (the commonly upheld opinions of the day) and opposing views, which may be regarded as heresy, thus creating an ‘outsider’, judgmental view of dissenters. You write that Perceval’s “moving, inspiring and often very funny story throws light on the way religious ideas of heresy have reformed as scientific ideas of ‘madness.'” Do you feel this is politically relevant today?
Perceval’s world was one of widespread belief. We see this as strange in Islam, but it was not so different in Britain up until the second half of the Victorian era: for example, you could only teach in a university if you were ordained. Our view of Islam is complicated by the West’s bigoted secularism and its intransigence about Islam.
Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump are both, in very different ways, engaged with the same issues – and they are both called ‘crazy’, which is not saying anything meaningful. There’s the power of calling someone crazy when you don’t want to understand them – because they threaten comforting certainties. That is the attraction of religious sects, and drug cults, and freemasonry. It’s a seduction into single-minded bigotry.
What is your opinion on the present-day treatment of people diagnosed as mentally ill?
Psychiatric hospitals are much worse today than they were in the 1970s; and in the 70s, they were worse than in the 1850s. Fewer cases were confined then. In the 1850s, before what Henry Maudsley (1) described as ‘chemical restraint’, psychotropic drugs were not used.
To-day, in Hastings, you are locked up automatically, and you can only get in by going through two locked doors. Even the large old bins of the 70s were better; things have gone from poor to dreadful. There is a very small budget to-day, and staff are unnecessarily constrained by health and safety. When I worked in Springfield as an art therapist, I had a free hand; I was paid by the Education Authority, it wasn’t about meeting targets or patient safety – it didn’t occur to me that patients shouldn’t use a Stanley knife.
There’s a lot of talk about imprisoning people for taking drugs, but not much is said about being locked up for not taking drugs. That these facts are not placed side by side in people’s minds is a measure of a strange disjunction in orthodox thinking: they should be seen in the same bag.
Drugs alter the mind, that has been known for ever. The mind is a material, created by transformation, by air, food, what you see, etc. Orthodoxy describes some experiences as a crisis, so a person may be forced to take drugs, usually against their will. In one situation a person is punished if they do take drugs, and in another if they don’t. These decisions are based on someone maintaining ‘they know best’. That is medical orthodoxy, and it is tied up with the financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry.
In his ‘Narrative’, John Perceval wrote: “I suspect that many of the delusions which I laboured under … consist in mistaking a figurative or a poetic form of speech for a literal one.” He decoded his previous concrete beliefs into metaphorical ones. The idea of delusions as metaphor has always fascinated me. What are your thoughts on this?
Delusions simplify. Perceval learnt to question whether his keeper was Jesus Christ or the simple Samuel Hobbs. It was painful to recognise his keeper was merely Samuel Hobbs, and painful to realise he was locked up in an asylum by Samuel Hobbs.
I don’t think all delusions are metaphors; they are waking dreams, with an oblique reference to the truth, not a direct one. Dreams really are a key to things.
When do you think a person slips into that waking dream of delusion?
When the hypnosis of ordinary waking life breaks down. The limitation is in the ordinary waking consciousness; we need to be able to question or transcend this perspective. The problem is how to achieve it without excessive distress or fragmentation. Gurdjieff (2) said: “Blessed is the man who has no soul, and blessed is the man who has a soul. The person in between is the person in trouble.”
In the Introduction to ‘Perceval’s Quest’ you wrote about a key moment as an art therapist at Springfield Hospital, when you were silently reading a letter about a Mrs Warrington, when a patient on the other side of the room looked up and said “Where is Warrington?”. When you told the Medical Superintendent, he said “Don’t do too much thought broadcasting, Robin.” Doesn’t this presuppose telepathy?
John Perceval had precognitive experiences before his breakdown. And I was interested to learn that the family of John Logie Baird, who invented television, here in Hastings, were spiritualists. So what we now take as a mundane banality may have derived from a Victorian heresy.
Gurdjieff said everything is material, even God, so there is no need to hypothesize ghosts as non-material things. Because of their nature, subatomic particles pass through us all the time. It could be possible to develop a sensitivity to them. This might include telepathy, and that question “Where is Warrington?” This is where it all started for me.
With this question I realised I was straying into heresy, not using a medical model of illness, but seeing that this patient had particular powers. I had been talking about extra sensory perception (ESP) with the Medical Superintendent, who was an intelligent and sensitive guy, but thought transference between a psychotherapist and a ‘burnt-out’ schizophrenic, who was a lovely man, was dodgy to him. The Superintendent cut off there, and he tried to cut me off too, because it would suggest something positive in that man’s condition. This presents a problem for psychiatrists, and nowadays they have given up altogether, and become legal drug dealers.
This was at the heart of why I wrote that book, and the need to explore heresy and orthodoxy, and why this is still with us and has never gone away, and probably never will do. I don’t know the answer; it’s probably the same reason why God put Adam and Eve in their quandary.
What has been Perceval’s legacy?
As well as illuminating our understanding of mental illness and anticipating some of the insights of Freud, Perceval’s campaigning work for the reform of the lunacy laws and for better treatment of asylum inmates meant that he has been rightly hailed as a pioneer of the mental health advocacy movement.
‘Perceval’s Quest’ by Robin Holtom, 2016. Available from Bookeeper, 1, Kings Rd, St Leonards, or from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org cost £9.00.
(1) Henry Maudsley 1835-1918 A pioneering British psychiatrist, commemorated in the naming of the Maudsley Hospital and the annual Maudsley Lecture at the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
(2) George Ivanovich Gurdjieff 1866-1949, an influential mystic, philosopher, spiritual teacher, composer and dance teacher, of Armenian and Greek descent.
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