“So I think where people tend to end up results from a combination of encouragement, accident, and lucky break, etc. etc. Like many others, my career happened like it did because certain doors opened and certain doors closed. You know, at a certain point I thought it would be great to make film documentaries. Well, in fact, I found that to be incredibly hard and very expensive to do and I didn’t really have the courage to keep battling away at that. In another age, I might have been an academic in a university, if the university system had been different. So it’s all about trying to find the best fit between your talents and what the world can offer at that point in time.”
On the day that we finish our academic years is a day that fills us all with a sense of pride and fulfilment. We feel ready and prepared for whatever life decides to hurl in our general direction, for we are armed with ‘knowledge’. What could possibly go wrong? Then little by little you realize that it’s what you were not taught that proves the most invaluable lessons of all – like how to realise your potential, to be confident, to communicate efficiently, to find a balance in your life or even simply how to remain calm. The School Of Life, based in Central London, strives to challenge traditional teachings and endeavours to reorganise our pre-conceived ideas on life in general. Through addressing different ideas and philosophies the school offers a ‘wisdom’ of sorts and a better sense of direction. Past classes have included ‘How to be a better friend’, ‘How to worry less about money’, ‘How to have a better conversation’ and ‘How to face death’ with weekend cycling trips, reading retreats, a tour of the M1 and even a ‘holiday inside your head’ for the more economically-minded.
This social enterprise was founded in 2008 by the author Alain De Botton, who’s many writings draw upon the relevance of different philosophies in our everyday dealings. His books are widely praised for their lack of condescendence and more therapeutic approach to philosophy. In his School of Life Sunday Sermon on ‘Pessimism’, de Botton formed the argument that we should all be defeatist in our general outlook, that if you have high expectations this can only lead to disappointment and failure, whereas if you lower them then one can only do better. He went on to say that most self-help books get it very wrong when they tell us to gain control and get up and go and do amazing things, that we all have the power and capability to have everything we desire. Realistically there is no room in the world for us all to be Bill Gates, – we can’t all succeed and have it all, all of the time. Success has to be balanced with failure. We also are a society of meritocracy where it is ingrained in our minds that we are owed merit, that we deserve it. In ancient Greece the Stoics would give thanks and make an offering to the Goddess of Fortune if they gained merit because they were fully aware that it could be taken away just as easily. De Botton ended his sermon reminding the congregation of Nietzsche’s claim that only from our darkest moments do we realize exactly what we yearn from life, and thus forth encouraged us all to praise the rain and say “well it was bound to happen anyway”, to listen to Leonard Cohen, to place a skull on ones writing desk (as they did in the Middle Ages to remind oneself of ones looming death), or to even take oneself off to look at glaciers, for it will remind you how small you are, and make you understand that life is short and that we have to keep our priorities real. Guests were then heartily invited into the foyer for a nice cup of tea and some misfortune cookies.
In the forming of The School of Life, De Botton enlisted the help of Tate curator Sophie Howarth and brought together not only the help of numerous philosophers but also contributors from all angles of the cultural spectrum including story-teller Damian Barr, The Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson, V&A Museum curator Zoe Whitley, Magnum photographer Martin Parr and interior design legend Ilse Crawford. The discussion points are varied, but one of the themes that whet my appetite the most is in making ancient/past philosophies accessible and applicable to our modern living. Their ‘Drinks with Freud’ event is headed by philosopher Robert Rowland Smith and whisks us up to leafy Hampstead home of Sigmund Freud for an evening unleashing your unconscious.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, moved to London from Vienna after the Anschluss (Nazi invasion) of Austria in 1938. Although he was already 80 years old with just 1 year before his eventual death, together with his family he was able to bring over his entire collection of furniture and antiques. Taking a closer look inside his awe-inspiring study you can observe the Biedermeier furniture alongside his collection of Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Oriental antiques. Amongst the legion of pint-sized figurines on his desk lies a 19th century Qing Dynasty table screen, figures from Greece’s Hellenistic period (300-250B.C.), the head of Osiris (Egypt, third intermediate period, 1075-716B.C.) and Isis suckling the infant (Egypt, late period, 664-525B.C.). The shelves containing books of his favourite authors (Goethe, Shakespeare, Heine, Multatuli, Anatole France) are adorned with Egyptian death masks from the 19th Dynasty (1292-1190B.C.) He was clearly a widely read and cultured man who even went so far as to describe himself as a ‘godless Jew’. Throughout his life he travelled to many an archaeological site and often used his collection as a metaphor when comparing our changeable and fading conscious thought to the unchangeable unconscious thought, – “I illustrated my remarks by pointing to the antique objects about my room. They were, in fact, I said, only objects found in a tomb, and their burial had been their preservation.” To the right of his desk stands his illustrious and original analytical couch, made enticing with its array of plump velvety cushions. Freud would himself sit out of view behind his patient in a green tub chair and listen to their ‘free association’. He would start each of his sessions by asking his patient to say whatever came into his/her head without any conscious selection, something that has become a fundamental method of psychoanalysis today. Freud was very fond of his Hampstead home, saying that it was incomparably better to the small and dark apartments in Vienna and since his death his daughter Anna has preserved both the rooms and the garden to how her father left it.
For a name that bears as much levity as other breakthrough thinkers such as Darwin, Newton, Einstein, Marx and Copernicus, how did Freud change the way we think and why is it still relevant today? Robert Rowland Smith, who has spent much of his career as a Prize Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and has formed many an argument with the help of Freud’s writings, explains it to us in a nutshell. To start us off, Robert explains Freud’s influence in two very distinct ways: that we have unconscious activity and conscious behaviour that results from how our mind is organized and how it has developed from birth. First we have the ‘id’ (“The part of the mind in which innate instinctive impulses and primary processes are manifest” It’s our untainted and naïve thought. A Freudian slip is when our id escapes and says exactly what it wants to say – n.b. the TV presenter on saying goodbye to Ulrika Jonsson saying “Well, Ulrika, I’d like to spank you very much…”), the ‘ego’ (based on the reality principle of “I want/I need”) and the ‘superego’ (our understanding of rules and social order, or the “you can’t have it”). When we are born all we have is our ‘id’, but pretty soon our ‘ego’ kicks in (I want, I need etc.) and eventually as we grow up our superego begins to counteract against our ego when we discover that we can’t get everything we ask for. Basically the ego is the queue jumper and the superego is the British queue keeper. From these basic factors Freud drew upon different complexes from the stories of Oedipus and Narcissus. With Oedipus, Freud reiterates the perfect circle between baby and mother, – the baby needs milk, the baby gets milk. Momentarily, life is perfect. But then as we grow we have to compete for our mother’s attention (father or other siblings) and soon realize that we no longer get everything that we ask for, so our adult life is a constant battle between the ego and the superego. Our id is our repressed aspirations and wishes that are thrown into this imaginary waste bin that generally only come out through our dreams in our sleep. As for Narcissism, Freud draws upon the story of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection as an analogy to people who only think of themselves. This kind of selfish person has failed to connect with other people so they can only connect with themselves. When working with patients, Freud would try to determine the exact moment in that person’s life where they were unable to make that transition from connecting with one’s mother to other people. With this in mind, Robert Rowland Smith then encouraged the room of School of Life participants to engage in conversation with a stranger about money problems, secrets and lies and finally about ones sexual fantasies. In short, Robert instigated a Freudian therapy session of sorts.
So what exactly can Freud do for us? Many people do chose therapy to help steer them back onto the right road, but I for one have not. I don’t have difficulties in confiding with my close friends and family, although I do have to admit to possessing a rather gargantuan ‘id’ waste bin, – for the amount of time I spend scratching my brow whilst pondering over the eldritch and seriously abnormal slant to my dreams, I find that a cognitive interjection would often be most genuinely appreciated. The reality is that Freud only ever cured one person in his lifetime and today his theories face strong criticism. However, most good friendships and family structures are based on the ability to talk about repressed emotions and experiences and not only what’s on the surface but also what’s beneath the surface and Freud was simply showing us the importance of this cathartic release. (…in a nutshell!)
NEXT TIME ON LONDON INSIGHT: The School of Life’s Day of Good Design with Ilse Crawford