Suffering and the Mind


While looking through a book about  Francis Bacon's paintings yesterday I came across the following quotation from TS Eliot's essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent':

'The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind that creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.'

I found myself re-reading this over and over in order to tease out its meaning. I think the reason I did this is because to me there is no separation between the man and the mind. As somebody with OCD, the mind is the source of the man's suffering. I then began to wonder if there is too much of the suffering mind (and the suffering man) in my novel and therefore not enough artistic objectivity - the digesting and transmuting of the passions that Eliot talks about. Perhaps I had this artistic distance between myself and my subject matter when I was writing about Afghanistan and Tokyo. I researched these places a lot and tried to do them some kind of justice in my writing. I also used different styles, tones, and vocabulary to suit the different settings. My Tokyo setting takes the form of a thriller novel, with an increase in the pace and an emphasis on the sense of danger and intrigue. Perhaps in doing so I was stepping away from the personal and the suffering of the mind.

When writing from the perspective of my main character, Quentin, I wanted to show just how debilitating and disruptive OCD is. I wanted to show the intrusive thoughts and the compulsions interrupting and destabilising Quentin's mind and soul as well as the structure and order of the text of which he is a part. While doing this I had to keep in mind that Quentin is a character in a novel with his own thoughts and motivations; he is not me. The obsessions, compulsions, and disruptions had to serve a narrative purpose as well as being truthful and uncensored depictions of how this condition affects people's lives. I found a first-person literary fiction narrative to be the ideal vehicle for depicting the mind of somebody with OCD. Quentin has a love/hate relationship with the poetry of John Milton. He admires the great poet's work and wants to be like him, but he also finds that Milton's imagery of sin and suffering begins to feature in his intrusive thoughts along with the figure of Milton himself. There is a particularly menacing depiction of Satan entering the Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost Book IV that I can't help but read as analogous to an intrusive thought attacking a person's mind:

As when a prowling wolf,

Whom hunger drives to seek new haunt for prey,


Leaps o'er the fence with ease into the fold


So clomb this first grand thief into God's fold


Thence up he flew, and on the tree of life,

The middle tree and highest there that grew,

Sat like a cormorant; yet not true life

Thereby regained, but sat devising death

To them who lived; nor on the virtue thought

Of that life-giving plant, but only used

For prospect, what well used had been the pledge

Of immortality.

                       (Paradise Lost Bk IV. ll. 183b-84; 187; 192; 194-201a)


The hunger of the condition for our attention and energy is here in these lines, as is the insistent nature of the intrusive thoughts in their intention to cause maximum possible disruption and discomfort. A wolf entering a pen of unsuspecting sheep is an entirely appropriate metaphor for what it is like to experience OCD for the first time and try to make some, any, sense of what is happening to your mind. We are scared and ashamed of the intrusive thoughts when they occur. We try to make them go away, or to stop them happening in the first place. We stop doing things we enjoy because we think if we stay away from other people it will stop the thoughts from happening. The condition makes us panic like sheep in a pen under attack from a dispassionate, vicious wolf. Satan's flawed and perverse use of the tree of life as a perch from which to plot mankind's downfall makes me think of the way in which intrusive thoughts try to trick us into performing compulsions with the promise of short-term relief from discomfort. Like Satan in the Garden under his various disguises, the compulsions pretend to something that they most definitely are not: the solution to our problems. 

There is a deceptive element to the compulsions that is so destructive. They present themselves as the solution when really they are part of the problem along with the intrusive thoughts. Similarly, Satan invents a problem for Eve of her not being truly free due to God's single prohibition of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. He creates a false problem and then offers Eve the false solution that if she only takes a bite from the forbidden fruit, she will attain true knowledge and true freedom. Satan of course knows that what he is prompting Eve to do is not the solution to the problem, but the problem itself in the form of an act that will seemingly offer relief but will in fact bind the intruder, Satan, to our minds even more firmly. 

Compulsions are only concerned with the propagation of the lies contained within the intrusive thoughts. In my book I have tried to show how the mind of the person with OCD suffers from the deceitful union of obsession and compulsion. My ambitions are literary and I feel happy and alive when I am writing. I want this novel to work as a novel and to be challenging and rewarding to read. I also want to play my part in bringing OCD out into the open so that it can be seen in all its ugliness and hopefully increased awareness of the reality of the condition will help first-time sufferers to get the help they need and know that they are not alone in experiencing OCD. 



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