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Do my tweets really matter?

The pathologies of modern life.

“Find a band to manage. Understand the news. Study Japanese. Practise the harp,” reads Sasha’s to-do list in Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. Egan distills in four short sentences a prevalent kind of anxiety. Sasha’s goals require her to possess multiple shades of talent and skill, and the list is poignant because we know it’s unlikely she’ll actually do these impressive to-dos. Had the list read, “Become a better teacher. Walk more frequently. Remember people I love,” its poetic impact would have been quite different. But Egan wishes us to anticipate the miniature tragedy awaiting Sasha just as it awaits us all during lives in which there is never time to download all the photographs; lives in the context of which, like Sasha, we find it hard to “understand the news”, not solely because we are wise to the fact we are not hearing the whole story, but because the concept of “understanding” entails a purposive change in behaviour in order to make it feel meaningful.

A new book by Anne Cvetkovich, Depression, A Public Feeling (Duke University Press, £15.99), sets out to challenge “contemporary medical notions” of depression “that simultaneously relieve one of responsibility (it’s just genes or chemicals) and provide agency (you can fix it by taking a pill)”. Depression, she says, “can be seen as a category that manages and medicalises” the feelings associated with “keeping up with corporate culture and the market economy, or with being completely neglected by it”. A section in which Cvetkovich describes her own depression is followed by chapters that focus on contemporary artists and also on a number of writers, each of whom suffered from depression and writer’s block. In anatomising her “lived experience” of writer’s block, Cvetkovich invites the reader to ask whether, despite the trade-specific terminology, this is still a symptom exclusive to writers.

In a celebrated essay published in Harper’s magazine in 1996, Jonathan Franzen describes being “a local kid returning to St. Louis on a fancy book tour”. This was “obscurely disappointing” to him, but he said nothing, having “already realised that the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot weren’t simply fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture.” What kind of mattering would have been enough?

Franzen’s disappointment was directed outwards, at “the culture”, but its source, like the source of every writer’s ability to turn lived experience into symbolic stories, may have been in his own infantile development. The nostalgia implicit in “no longer mattering” refers to an idealised past but perhaps also, unconsciously, to a remembered experience. The desire to matter as much as we once did to our mother is at the broken heart of all narcissistic endeavour, whether it’s writing novels, tweeting or carrying the right kind of handbag. Writing fiction is the symptom of many psychological distortions – a terror of mortality among them – the most poignant of which is a longing for perfect recognition, perfect understanding. This is the illusion hovering at the end of every painstakingly edited line. There was a time when Franzen’s mother imitated his “wuh” sound, mimicked his O-shaped gape, as if it was a work of genius, as if it mattered to the culture. The secret motivation of even the most gifted writer may be to enjoy this again – this is our blueprint for the experience of mattering – and “writer’s block” is perhaps a fancy way of describing the moments in which this seems impossible.

Franzen’s “obscure disappointment” developed into what he called “depression”. He is a writer, so it got pretty intellectual and complicated. He describes his emergence from this state in terms of his writing, as “a move from depressive realism”, in which “you decide that it’s the world that’s sick”, to “tragic realism . . . the most reliable indicator [of which] in a work of fiction, is comedy”. The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein described aspects of infantile development that bear comparison with Franzen’s ordeal. In order for a baby to emerge from a primitive mental state, which Klein called “paranoid-schizoid”, he must acknowledge the separateness and the coexisting virtues and flaws of his mother. This new consciousness comes with grief but it also engenders compassion and art, and one of its reliable indicators is comedy. Once experienced, the paranoid-schizoid state is not forgotten, however; it is recalled in adult life through paranoia or any state that seeks to locate an unequivocal badness outside the self. There have always been experiences afforded by a writing life – the omnipotent fantasy at the desk, the horrors of the mixed reviews – that seem to invite this recollection.

But as a psychotherapist I see people with solicitor’s block and banker’s block and designer’s block and surgeon’s block – and the pain is the same pain in each case. The variation is in its intensity, the circumstances in which it is experienced and the vocabulary used to describe it. The degree to which the “block” gives rise to “depression” in writers, or non-writers, may depend on each individual’s adjustment to the impossibility of “mattering” in any way that obliterates the fact of death, the possibility that there is no God and the minuteness of the self in the grand scale of time. Existential fears, like the literary ones that give them a specific iteration, may be a grown-up way of recalling the first experience of powerlessness, of “not mattering” to a mummy busy with an independent life.

When asked to name what sort of training is required to become a writer, Hemingway is said to have replied “an unhappy childhood”. Could it be that people are all somehow becoming more like individuals who have, historically, become writers? Could our lives all somehow be offering experiences very like writers’ experiences? No matter how extraordinary the circumstances in which they experience their “not mattering”, writers are themselves extraordinary only in the sense that our maladjustment to ordinary vulnerabilities requires such extraordinary palliation – whole lives spent toiling away at not very lucrative works of art. Tolstoy eventually gave up writing because he felt it distracted him from the more important work of prayer. He was probably right but it is hard to be so generous to his private soul as to wish away his art, even though its production must have required him to realise – even after Anna Karenina – that he still didn’t matter enough and there would need to be another book.

Cvetkovich notes the universal vulnerabilities exacerbated by the specific crises of her academic life – getting tenure, writing papers, teaching, publication. This widescreen perspective makes room for her abstract idea that “depression emerges in response to the demand that the self become a sovereign individual defined by the ability to create distinctive projects and agendas”. The consequence of this “demand” is that “those who fail to measure up . . . are pathologised as depressed”. Sasha’s to-do list captures precisely this contemporary desperation to “create distinctive projects”, which, if you don’t write a book, require a personalised and personally demanding array of accomplishments. And alongside this need to prove oneself sits the related longing to achieve a meaningful role in an unfathomable, media-imparted sense of the world. Or, in Egan’s excruciating abbreviation, to “understand the news”.

Though Cvetkovich’s prose can sag with a peculiarly American brand of preciousness and indiscriminate rapture, her perceptions are agile. She notes the ways in which our culture particularly excites and torments the self-obsessed or narcissistic elements of human personality, just as the experiences of the writer have always excited them. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “A poet can survive everything but a misprint” or of Truman Capote, “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” We all come with these narcissistic traits good-to-go – every “personality disorder” is an intensification of normal traits – but they have not always been so ubiquitously and so precisely stimulated. It may be that in each age our common traits find distinct stimulae and expression, emerging like a scatter of lit and unlit Christmas lights, and that this pattern characterises the age, just as the pattern of individual neuroses characterises the individual.

That the paralysis associated with “writer’s block” is currently available to anyone who is not primarily occupied with survival is a result of the particular torments and tormenting ideals of our time. Among the torments are emigration, divorce, long working hours and secularisation, all of which help to make a tormenting ideal of the “sovereign individual”. When this ideal meets with the inadequate means we have for experiencing it – through technology, mass-marketed products or the dream of fame – the set-up offers a surging reconnection with infantile grief. We usually associate this type of mental agony with the immaturity and self-absorption –out of which Woody Allen has made a glorious career – of creative artists.

Cvetkovich, who is a founder of a group called “Feel Tank Chicago” (feel, not think), views this prevalent agony as a form of “political critique”. People who now suffer just like writers, might have suffered in other ways in other times, but this is how they suffer now. There is, after all, a non-literary version of Franzen’s “obscure disappointment” to be felt while using Facebook; it’s possible to realise that no matter how much you “personalise” your technology, it will never be personal. Some may even find themselves clutching their heads, Proust-like, and asking, “Do my tweets really matter to the culture?”

Talitha Stevenson is a writer and psychotherapist

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.