The Psychoanalysis of Brexit

In the 2016 referendum we placed Parliament in a double bind.  Half the electorate said, “Keep us in the EU and we will love you”, and the other half said, “Take us out of the EU and we will love you.”  (I say half and half: a 52 – 48 majority in favour of leaving is barely statistically significant.)  In psychiatry, the double bind was first described by Bateson and his colleagues in the 1950s.  A subject was given two conflicting commands by somebody in a position of authority, and was denied the freedom to articulate that the dilemma was impossible to solve.  To be in a double bind is to suffer extreme anxiety.  It was thought that prolonged exposure to a double bind might be a potential cause of schizophrenia.  In that sense, we may conclude that the House of Commons, collectively, has gone mad.

Mrs May is repeatedly subjected to the double bind.  Last week her government suffered the worst defeat in parliamentary history, and then almost immediately she was reassured by the House in a vote of confidence.  This is like a parent saying “I love you” to a child, while administering corporal punishment.  Mr Corbyn told her to take “no deal” off the table, while the right wing of her party told her to keep “no deal” on the table.  But the EU has told her that her deal is the only deal available, and the House has told her that the only deal available is off the table.

Santayana taught us that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  Has Westminster been schizophrenic before?

For his preface to Volume 2 of his Autobiography, Bertrand Russell chose The Defiled Sanctuary, by William Blake:

I saw a chapel all of gold

That none did dare to enter in,

And many weeping stood without,

Weeping, mourning, worshipping.


I saw a serpent rise between

The white pillars of the door,

And he forced and forced and forced

Till down the golden hinges tore:


And along the pavement sweet,

Set with pearls and rubies bright,

All his shining length he drew, –

Till upon the altar white


Vomited his poison out

On the bread and on the wine.

So I turned into a sty,

And laid me down among the swine.   

Volume 2 of Russell’s Autobiography starts on the eve of the First World War.  Russell thought of himself as a Faustian figure, for whom Mephistopheles was represented by the Great War.  He thought that Britain’s declaration of war on Germany was an act of collective madness.  He saw the war as a descent into barbarism.  He would have fits of black despair.  He had visions of London as a place of unreality – its inhabitants hallucinations – in which bridges would collapse and sink, and the whole city vanish.  He told T. S. Eliot about it, and Eliot put it into The Waste Land.  Russell’s apocalyptic vision reminds me of the atmosphere of more than one television drama by Nigel Neale – reaching an apotheosis in the sixth episode of Quatarmass and the Pit – in which all the characters, including the protagonists, become mesmerised by a force of evil, and are on the brink of losing their humanity.  The descent into barbarism was experienced by people who were not in charge of their own psyche.  To say that the First World War was “caused” by Prussian aggression or an upset in the European Balance of Power is a bit like saying that the tragedy of Macbeth, Macbeth’s destruction, was “caused” by his vaulting ambition.  Russell realised that the impulse to war had to be understood in psychoanalytical terms.  We go to war, apparently, because it is in our nature so to do.  It is sometimes said the outbreak of the Great War was governed solely by railway timetables – a flippant remark no doubt, yet it carries the sense that events developed a momentum of their own, and people were powerless to influence them.

We see something similar happening in the thirties, and in the run-up to World War Two.  Between 1936 and 1939 Churchill wrote a series of fortnightly letters which appeared in book form in 1939 (Step by Step, Oldhams Press Ltd 1939).  In the second of these, Stop it Now! (April 3rd 1936) he pleaded with the European powers to come together under the auspices of the League of Nations to curtail Nazi aggression.  “Stop it!  Stop it!!  Stop it now!!!  NOW is the appointed time.”  Churchill lamented the fact that people seemed incapable of seeing an approaching agony, and taking effective measures to prevent it.  Rather, they were “amused from day to day by headlines and from night to night by cinemas.”  Again, there is a sense that people are living in a trance.

If The Defiled Sanctuary is the poem that defines the world just before the Great War, then surely in respect of the eve of the Second World War we must look to Yeats:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.   

And now?  Our problem now is not that we are about to make the wrong decision and go down the wrong path, but that we are not even able to articulate the nature of our predicament.  One possible reaction to finding oneself in a double bind is to switch off.  I find myself listening to the news and the wall-to-wall Brexit coverage with a degree of detachment, the way King Lear wanted to sit and listen to the court news with Cordelia when he was withdrawing from life –

Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out…

But then, Lear went mad.

What poem should we choose to reflect our life and times?  Well, it’s Burns season.  What about To a Mouse?       

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best-laid schemes o mice an men

Gang aft agley,

An lea’e us nought but grief an pain,

For promis’d joy!


Still thou art blest, compar’d wi me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But och!  I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear!

An forward, tho I canna see,

I guess an fear!  







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