August 20, 2010

How to be positive while still being negative: The positive power of negative thinking: Part 1

Not everyone believes in a one-size-fits-all Smiley face universe. Some have a strategy of focusing on all the terrible things that might happen in order to make it turn out good.  Their logic goes: if I think of the worst before it happens, it will prevent it happening. Therefore, the goal is good, and it is what saves them. Only the method is a bit twisted.

For me, thinking the worst just leads to the bad being amplified to the power of ten; yet, in theory, the principle of harping on the negative might have something going for it, if practised with skill. I have encountered people who swear by their lives does work for them. It’s worth the benefit of a little doubt, if only to glean whatever insight there is to be had. 

There are many facets to consider before you decide which side of the positive/negative spectrum you fall. The first being that supposing that there is only a positive-negative binary opposite can distort the clarity of the picture. After all we know that within pain-pleasure, good-bad, male-female spectrums, there are also many shades of grey. These word opposites are clumsy, but for now language is the most convenient tool.   

Let’s say for the sake of argument, that you can be a right old contrarian to your heart’s content.  It could even be fun. Growing old always seemed to confer the right to be as cantankerous and bloody-minded as ‘nan’, the cockney granny in the Catherine Tate show.   But young people too can be elegant contrarians.  According to Dr. Rorem, author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (2001), this method of visualising that you’ll go blank in an important presentation, that if you get on a plane, it is bound to fall out of the sky, is a ‘defensive pessimism.’  Most people recognise this feeling, but just how constructive is it? Rorem suggests that it is a valuable adaptive mechanism.

If you feel you are one of those people, a genuine contrarian, then you will well know what agony of fun it is to resist the tide, and go against others and visualize the worst.  Let the positive types be as foolish as they like, blithely ignoring what could go wrong. If you are not sure where you stand, you can take Rorem’s  QUIZ  to find out your score.

At least this approach does not try deny that the anxiety is there, or go into an orgy of ‘you damn well should be positive’ and ‘thou shalt be upbeat’. It might just be an idiosyncratic personalized protection strategy. But I wonder how effective it is at unlocking people from their imaginary shells.  Neuroses come in different coloured packages- this one is marked  ‘ultra safe’. 

It is true that too much of a good thing can be wonderful, it can also be a bore.  Aldous Huxley warned in Brave New World (1932) that a culture that tries to impose happiness on everyone is doomed to cause havoc. If the search for happiness is based merely on aversion to pain and blindsides diversity and variety of feeling, it can eliminate what it means to be human. Not that this would stop the let’s-all-be happy brigade from trying.  

Being able to see the positive in the negative might strike some as absurd and even a dead end. Yet, it is a valuable skill if we can be bothered to learn it. It helps here to attempt to understand the principles of the Tao.  If the world is divided into contrary but complementary elements: Yin, the receptive, and Yang, the active, each element contains and embraces its opposite, while forming a third energy. The world is interface between the extremes which oscillate and integrate back and forth. They are there for a reason.  Seasons and cycles alternate, you wait long enough, the opposite aspect becomes prominent. It's a self balancing, self correcting system. 

That’s why, though often overlooked, being patient can prove successful in the long run.  Wanting what you want when you want, can cause suffering. Yet suffering is a vital part of the picture, helping us to understand what it is to be alive.  So too with the negative and the positive attitudes. The negative then is the positive in waiting, the positive, the negative is ready to burst through. We need them both to survive and enjoy 'difference'.

However, I would say that if strategic pessimists were in control, designing our utopia, they would as in Brave New World have us all inhabit their hell, without a glimmer of the good stuff. This drive to be negative tendency can easily rationalize the behaviour, entrenching them in the habit of feeling unhappy because separate from the world.  I for one would join the happy brigade in a negative dystopia.

In a recent interview, writer Adam Haslett, an American who was brought up in Oxford, said that, ‘in the USA, I’m a pessimist among optimists, but in the UK, I’m an optimist among pessimists.’ Having lived in both countries I have to agree. By rights I should belong somewhere in the mid Atlantic.  The attitude you have can place you in between the usual. The spectacles you wear are relative to your social conditioning.  British people could do with daily doses of positivity and, for Americans, a dollop of pessimism now and again to temper their Pollyannaish behaviour wouldn’t go amiss.  Funnily enough, it was an American, Ambrose Bierce, who penned the most scathing definition of optimism as ‘the doctrine or belief that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly.’ People like Bierce were probably the leading constructive pessimists of their day by Rorem's definition.

Ultimately, whether we are pessimists looking only for the difficulty in every  opportunity, or optimists looking for opportunity in every difficulty should not matter at all, as long as we oscillate enough to appreciate the variety in it all.

There is so much more to say on this topic. In Part 2 of this post,  we'll delve even deeper into the role of therapy,  dark humour, and the brilliant uses to which unhealthy disappointment can be put.  


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August 10, 2010

How Trauma is Released Through Art: Roman Cieslewicz Posters Retrospective

Roman Cieslewicz

The Healing Power of Posters by  Roman  Cieslewicz, a Retrospective, Royal College of Art, organised by the Polish Cultural Institute.

If anyone needs evidence  that art can heal old wounds – the theme of this blog – all they have to do is look at a few film posters. 

Who would have believed that posters helped people, perhaps even an entire nation, Poland, to adjust to their overlords, the Soviet Union, in the last few decades of the 20th century? 
Roman Cieslewicz (1930-1996) was an artist with a steadfast vision who combined visual wit with stark disturbing imagery that transfused angst into eloquent visual communication. His skill juxtaposing images, words in startling combinations, using a simple cut and paste collage technique is extraordinary. Even today we might look twice at these memorable, even scary designs. It does not surprise me to find that these images expressed people's innermost conflicts and feelings. So, while his work teeters on the edge of disturbing, nightmarishly surreal, it is also revelatory, with hints of grim humour.   

Roman Cieslewicz
Karl Gustav Jung had great foresight in putting art at the centre of psychotherapy which was highly unusual at the time - the early 1920s - yet his understanding of art has since borne great fruit, spawning the field of  art therapy. One of Jung's key ideas was that it is the power of the unreconstructed image alone that heals. That it simply appears in your mind at any given point of your life should be honoured. That is its visual language. Whether it morphs or not after that is immaterial. The image resonates like sounds vibrate.

Roman Cieslewicz
Some might argue that harping on images of conflict, pain and trauma, the split self, opens itself up accusations of obesesing with the negative.  These are after all the materials thrown up by the dark recesses of our minds.  I would say that if it's done badly, perhaps, but, ultimately: great art is never depressing. Quite the opposite, it is cathartic and quite good for us, like a lot of things we don't like.  It is also what you do with it that counts.Cieslewicz also used a mirroring technique but his posters seem to well up with a self conscious dream like quality that echoes Surrealism.  Should we therefore look away or look more closely to come to terms with the uncomfortable? Is it better to paint pretty flowers and trees or paint the otherwise inexpressible stuff that constitutes the the psychodrama of self? I think you know the answer.  Both are needed.

Roman Cieslewicz
This exhibition of posters at the Royal College of Art is a reminder  that some artists characterize an attitude of grim survival which seems very 20th century to us now, although we are still not free of oppressors. Poland was under Soviet rule when Cieselewicz did his early work. Later,  in Paris, his work exhibited a more sophisticated Pop Art element.  These posters demonstrate the livid, torn, and mirrored faces. His poster for Dziady (1967) a play with political overtones at the national theatre, expressed the profound pain and anguish of a repressed people. Thus a sub text emerged.  The image of an encrusted man with his heart and soul frazzled  to the empty core came to stand for David versus Goliath - Poland against the Soviet Regime. People knew what it meant deep down.

Roman Cieslewicz
The need to understand why disturbing work is necessary is still relevant today. We are still in need of imagery that sublimates both inner and outer conflict. To overlook art's purgative function might just be throwing out baby with bath water. 

That great art is cathartic goes some way to explaining why we love to see tragedies played out over and over in Operas and great dramatic plays like Hamlet and MacBeth. In seeing that the fates of opposed characters can be locked in battle in such a way that the inevitable happens follows a logic way beyond just being nice. The resulting work, the dramatic clash can ennoble and enhance our knowledge of who we are. To turn away from what scares us dooms us to forever repeat it.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, the proper way to view art was like the ancient Greeks who transformed disease into great beneficial forces. Their secret was to honour illness like a god.

Art approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing. She alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror and absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live’. ( The Birth of Tragedy)

Roman Cieslewicz
Many recent exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection have given witness too show that it is people on the edge who are  possibly in the greatest need of art as the transformational tool. Yes, it creates powerful emotions and those are difficult to handle, yet, strange to say, it is by nailing the images that obsess  and confuse the mind that we can become free of the troubling emotions. 

This is true of all the arts from words to music. We have at our disposal the tool to transform our scary bits, reintegrating their scattered fragments back into a semblance of order and meaning.

It is this profusion that  heals..  Art is the soul’s medicine.

Roman Cieslewicz
16 July - 17 August
MON-SAT 11am - 7 pm
Kensington Gore
London SW7 2EU


Kieron Devlin

Next Healing Through Writing Workshop, Weds, October 27th at Moving Arts Base, Islington, N1