Thursday, 31 January 2013

Authenticity and the conception of other lives

I’ve not had time to think about a conversation I had with Gloria last week in our new favourite off-campus coffee shop (The Coffee Shop).The day before, I had seen a recording of a BBC4 programme about the lives of three men detained under the Mental Health Act.

One, Andrew, had bipolar disorder and, still in the more manic phase of his condition, could not disguise some wry pleasure in the event that prompted his detention: a high speed car chase followed by three panda cars. He seemed pleased by his own skills and the performance of his car even whilst, as a late middle aged retired consultant pathologist, somewhat embarrassed. He was equally enthusiastic about another recent decision: to leave his wife of 26 years and set up a new life by himself in a bungalow.

We followed the course of his treatment: some mood stabilisation but also a slide into a more depressed state and then later anti-depressants. We also saw him discharged to his bungalow and, a month later, saw that it remained unfurnished aside from a bed and television. (The way the film was shot suggested that he spent all his time on the bed watching TV.)

Throughout this, he commented on a key feature of his illness: that after making rash decisions in his manic state he would have to deal with their consequences when he returned to normal. But he distinguished the decision to separate from his wife from such cases. That is, he did not think it had been made when he was not in his right mind.

Towards the end of the film, however, he admitted that he had gone back to live with his wife and we saw him wearing a Christmas jumper, playing the piano, in a well furnished, comfortable home, in marked contrast to the dreary bungalow.

This was a documentary in which we had only a very small and apparently carefully edited snapshot of three lives so it seems somehow impertinent to speculate on Andrew’s actual relationship. But it prompts the question: what would it be for such a decision to be merely the product of not being in one’s right mind, as opposed to an authentic decision. On one reading of the events described and shown, he took the decision to separate around the time of manic and exuberant feelings and, despite his later claiming ownership of it, the decision was not backed up by much commitment to a new life (buying furniture etc) and was reversed within a few weeks. But on another reading, the consequences of just such a decision would always be daunting; it would be hard to organise a new house whilst depressed and unused to public transport; the run up to Christmas would tempt one back to the family home etc. That is, on the second reading, whilst the decision might come to nothing, it need not be inauthentic. So in what does the difference consist? What makes a life an authentically chosen life?

My suggestion in the Coffee Shop – which moved a bit under critical scrutiny – was that it needs a self-conscious conception behind it. In some sense to be unpacked, there has to be an element of choice, within what is practical, albeit: a sense that the life lived is one among other possibilities. But, of course, we do not reflect or exercise much choice when the alarm rings at 6:50am for work. Getting up and off is habitual. So the idea of a self-conscious chosen conception must allow for un-self-conscious habit. Gloria’s sceptical alternative was that for most people, for most of the time, habit dominates and there is little reason to postulate an underlying conception. In the face of this, I think that the most I can say is that there has to be a standing possibility of stepping back from an engaged habit or practice and, perhaps, to give such talk of a ‘possibility’ any content, it has to be exercised from time to time. (How often? No idea.)

Still, I don’t think that such an idea, now suitably weakened, is utterly implausible. Here are two popular cultural examples which suggest that people do have such conceptions and do think about them from time to time.

On house buying television programmes in which we get to hear the deliberation of potential purchasers, their discussion is not restricted to the kind of description and assessment that the estate agents might deploy as to the properties and qualities of the houses. Typically it includes that (rooms are light and spacious and have attractive views, or not). But we also hear comments about the kind of lives the house would allow the buyers to live: what they would do or not be able to do were they to buy it. Rooms are linked to possible uses in more than just the sense that a dining room ‘affords’ dining. So at least in the case of house buying, the conception of other lives becomes available.

The other example is familiar from interviews with successful (or unsuccessful) sports men and women after a key event when they are asked about subsequent training (eg. after immediate celebration and rest). Rowers are a particularly good example. They often express a dread of a return to early morning winter training but then reflect that it is probably worth it because of the prospect of success next year or at the next Olympics. It is not merely that the prospect of a medal is a telos which structures and explains their training behaviour. Having a telos might be part of an unreflective habit. (Perhaps they row to the rhythm of the phrase: ‘I am going to win a medal’.) But, in the post race interview, at least, they suggest occasional deliberation about the value of the habit, even if there is no place for such deliberation before dawn on cold rives on winter mornings.