Reflections and confessions in the aftermath of the year 2020
This will be the third in a sequence of annual confessions I began in 2018. The motivation for these is to connect and form common cause with the students entering the Nigredo Stage of the Magnum Opus Programme that commences each year in January, to conduct my own psychic housekeeping, and to take a moment to pause and reflect on the virtue and vices of the year I have lived through. It is through the act of confession that I can retrospectively construct a meaningful and cohesive narrative of the prior year, locate myself now, and refine my intentions for the coming year. I am attempting not only to discover the meaning, but to tease out the Telos of my personal myth.
A confession, such as this, is also a journey back in time. An attempt to retrieve the past and in some way redeem it. It is redemptive because in the act of confession what was previously inert, a factoid, hapstance, meaningless blunt reality, becomes available for symbolisation. Confession, and its accompanying steps: illumination and education, create the possibility of transformation and individuation. Confession is no small part of the charisma of not only the Catholic Church, but of a myriad of institutionalised transformative methodologies, including, of course, psychoanalysis. The advantage of psychological confession over its religious counterpart is that it does not the confession be an act of contrition or of fidelity to an external moral cannon. In this sense the confession is purer and admits itself to greater possibilities. However, psychoanalysis is itself an ivory tower, with strict edicts on the neophyte seeking admittance to its hallowed sanctum. The truth is though that confession is an act open to all. It is a technique, which, once learned, is always available to the subject.
Confession is quintessentially a creative act, and like all creative forms demands a disciplined practice on the part of the practitioner. With this in mind,
My Third Annual Confession.
Twenty twenty was a tough year for South Africa. Hell, it has was a tough year all round!
The year of the Coronavirus pandemic. A year of polarisation, discord and alienation. A time where the fragility of truth has never been more evident. Whatever truth once was and whoever was authorized to deliver it to us, at least as a social and cultural phenomenon, has been clearly displaced by “fake news”, opinion, rumor, political and ideological posturing, and wildly differing interpretations. Quite possibly this has always been the case, but it has never been more obviously and explicitly so. The myth of “Truth” has been exposed as fairy tale! I do not mean there are no facts. On the contrary, we are swimming in them. Rather it is the distinction between truth and factoids that is increasingly in contrast.
Seventeen odd years ago, I dreamt of the apocalypse. It was what certain indigenous people refer to as a “big dream”. It offered, in symbolic form, the Telos of my life over the next two decades; and in my conscious engagement and grappling with the dream, directly influenced my life’s trajectory. In my attempt to understand the dream, I became aware of several other traditions, films, books, and cultural commentators that had a similar intuition. The idea that, to use the title of Žižek’s book, we are living in the end times. This intuition was so strong that at the beginning of last year (2020), prior to the news of the pandemic breaking, I directly challenged my masterclass students to get their houses in order before the imminent arrival of apocalyptic forces.
Where does that leave us at the start of 2021?
Well, honestly, I confess to being as confused about the future as the next person. There are a few things though that do seem relatively clear. The Corona virus pandemic and accompanying lockdown, with its attendant implications and suffering are not over. Far from it. Beyond the immediacy of navigating the new world order, amidst the plague, many of the economic, political and social changes, in response to the pandemic, are here to stay and their impact will significantly shape our future. I have the sense that, metaphorically, we are inhabitants of Mapleton New York trying to make sense of the world after the Rapture, as so perspicaciously and intuitively depicted in the HBO series The Leftovers.
What exactly comes next though, I have no idea.
We are living through a global paradigm shift. Those who do live through it that is, naturally, as we know, many have already and many still will depart. I think it is fair to say, things have irrevocably changed. Just over a year after the virus was first identified and around ten odd months after the WHO declared covid-19 a pandemic its spread continues unabated. Much of the world is in one or other form of official “lockdown” and the ethos of “social distancing”, the wearing of face masks in public and hand sanitization has been ubiquitously adopted. All of this is set to continue well in 2021, at a minimum, but more probably, until an effective vaccine is developed, tested, and universally rolled out. It would be remiss not to mention that the idea of compulsory vaccination, albeit by irresistible persuasion and not physical force, is an Orwellian nightmare scenario for many. Such reservations notwithstanding, its adoption will take time and, I would think, not be the end of the corona story. I am loathe to speculate on scenarios beyond that point. Suffice to say, I think we are obliged to accept the world has changed and what once was, no longer is.
Somewhat ironically, 2020 has been an exceptionally good year for me personally. Not without its challenges, but overall, possibly one of the best years of my life.
The last five odd years, since I separated from my ex-partner of over twenty years and the mother of my three children, have been challenging. I never saw the split coming and the separation, even though by mutual agreement and relatively congenial, has taken many years of intense inner and outer work to assimilate. Relationships, even the best relationships, are difficult for me. Its not so much that I do not care for others. On the contrary I care deeply. Not always of course and certainly not everyone. I am selective and discerning in who I allow to get close to me. However, I suffer from several challenges in relating to the other that make my relationships challenging.
To pick just two significant issues by way of illustration: I have the capacity, one which can be useful in certain situations, but which ultimately is hardly a virtue or conducive to sustaining long term relationships, to stop feeling. I am able and inclined when I feel mishandled or poorly treated, in some fashion, to simply stop caring, to switch off my heart light, as it were. I am able to to completely dissociate from any feelings if pushed far enough or cornered in some way. It is a strange and not entirely unpleasant experience, but one which I think is not fully human or ethical. When this happens, I find in myself a steely core of absolute ruthlessness that I imagine to be not dissimilar to what men in combat or even murderous psychopaths experience/access.
Added to this, I struggle to make space for the other. It is not, as I mentioned, that I do not care, it is just that I care more about myself and having my own way. I am not big on compromise. I am, I would say, without meaning to offer a full-blown diagnosis, pathologically selfish. This is, I believe, to the degree one can truly know oneself and one’s motivations, which, if psychoanalysis teaches us anything, is limited, in part a consequence of (drumroll…surprise, surprise) developmental trauma!
I grew up in home with two alcoholic parents. I do not say that to denigrate them, I think they did their best given their characters and I loved them both dearly. I was especially close with my father. It is simply the truth of the matter. And the alcoholism, as it is often the case, came with much accompanying violence, rage, chaos, and misery. Suffice to say, my childhood home was, whilst not without happiness and even joy on occasion, an environment of uncertainly, insecurity and anxiety. This, no doubt, impacted significantly on my brother and me. My brother being six years younger and of a somewhat different disposition, seemed to get the worst of it. He committed suicide in 2019, after a lifetime’s struggle with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse issues. I, at least, made it out alive. But this early trauma left me with a few psychic scars. Among these, a certain degree of attachment disorder and separation anxiety, an inferiority complex, and a kind of blunt inwardly directed sadism. Added into this rather unfortunate psychic milieu, from my paternal line I have a generationally transmitted attachment to the feminine – the Farah men, not entirely atypical of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean men, never quite cut the umbilical cord, and a challenging and in many ways quite cold relationship with my late mother – God rest her soul.
My selfishness and arrogance, (which I will get to shortly), are not purely personal, but generationally transmitted family characteristics. The selfishness of my paternal line is legendary (literally) and present not only in my ancestors, but also in my children. A short story about my late grandfather Tony, illustrates this quite well.
The story, told by Francis Bahasiem at a luncheon at my grandparent’s home in Jo’burg, was about an occasion when Francis, as a much younger man, had done a job for my grandfather, back in the old country. My grandfather and Francis hailed from Sebhel, Lebanon. They were peasants and lived a very humble and austere existence. Tony, my grandfather, had hired Francis, the younger man, to work on a piece of land with him for the day – I don’t know the exact nature of the work they were doing but it was hard physical labour. As lunch approached both men were exhausted and starving. Tony instructed Francis to walk to my grandfather’s home and to collect his lunch that his wife had prepared. The house was about a mile from were they were working, so Francis had a fair walk there and back. My grandmother had prepared some Kibbeh nayyeh, a rare treat. As Francis, walked back to the site where they were working and where my Tony was wating, his hunger weighed on him and the smell of the food cuased him start salivating.
He finally made it back and gave Tony the lunch, a plate of Kibbeh nayyeh with the accompanying Lebanese flat bread, olive oil and spices. A veritable feast! Now, knowing my grandfather as he did, Francis wondered what his portion size might be. He sat patiently and waited for my grandfather making quite a show of adding the oil and various spices to his meal, to divide a portion of it for him, who was there in his employ and without any food except that which my grandfather would graciously bestow. As it turned out he waited a long time because Tony just kept eating, seemingly forgetting altogether about the presence of his younger companion and employee for the day. Eventually Francis, in desperation, climbed up a small quince tree to find some quince to eat. By this time Tony had finished the meal and lay down in the shade of the quince tree to close his eyes for a few minutes before they resumed the day’s labour. Notincing Francis in the branches of the tree, my Grandfather was inspired and called out, “Francis, find me one nice quince!”
This is the karmic load we, the Farah’s, bare, some more graciously than others.
These psychic vices, on their own, would be a mere trifle, easily navigable, were they not defended and infinitely compounded by my arrogance. In my case, added to my own compensatory strategy, this arrogance is generationally and culturally encoded. Arrogance blinds the subject to his flaws. It amplifies and compounds his psychic blind spots. Arrogance has kept me obdurately on many a path when clearly it was a dead end. Painful as it may be to confess, and more precisely, I must add that a combination of arrogance, apathy, stupidity, and a healthy dose of masochism, have frequently had their way in misguiding me. I am, somewhat to my credit, someone who says yes to life’s invitations. Whilst overall better the yes than a no, in the final analysis it has led down at least as many snakes as it has up a few ladders. In my defence, youthful enthusiastic naivete and a high testosterone count also contributed to many of these misadventures.
I have witnessed how arrogance and conceit have contributed to much suffering in my immediate and extended family, as well as in many of my student and clients. Although, frankly, in the spirit of honesty, which this confession at least pretends to, my own arrogance and the arrogance of the male line in my family, is unusually prominent. Without intending to universally generalise the role of gender in this regard, I do think men are often more susceptible to being blindsided in this fashion. It is as a man, as any man will tell you, exceedingly wounding to stop and ask for directions. I have learned to admire and even envy the remarkable capacity in the feminine to course correct, to be open to new knowledge, even when it contradicts, or possibly especially when it contradicts, the prevailing paradigm. In the Lacanian sense the discourse of the hysteric is, or at least can be, immensely useful, i.e., the one who aware of her own void/emptiness, demands that it is met and filled. Although archetypally the hysteric’s demand, being an unconscious drive, must remain unmet, it is, as is intuitively and experientially corroborated, exceedingly useful in moving the hysteric’s story along. Whereas, finding myself in the register of “the one who knows”, the one to whom the hysteric addresses her question in the Lacanian discourse, I am typically reliant on my own resources and authority. Although, like any discourse, this too is not without its merit, its shadow is calcification and even petrification of one’s world view and a tendency to sacrifice nimbleness of thought and being for forward momentum. Another way of thinking about this tension is between the authority or knowing and transcendence. The aspiration and impulse toward transcendence is not driven by knowing, but by not knowing. As Jung puts it,
“I for my part prefer the precious gift of doubt, for the reason that it does not violate the virginity of things beyond our ken.”
Whilst I embrace doubt philosophically, my character is disposed to the position of authority and this, whilst serving a useful social function, comes at a terrible personal price. As Slavoj Žižek points out, the one in charge is always and essentially an imbecile. The emperor never has any clothes on!
My year in review
2020 taught me some valuable lessons and offered welcome gifts. I learned to slow down a little – in my case this was still a sprint but was a little less frenetic than normal. The time I found especially valuable was during the hard lock down, which lasted for around four months in South Africa. Not seeing anyone or going anywhere, except to buy groceries occasionally, was a relief. It made me realise how demanding and exhausting the typical pace of my life is. When we went for a drive along the coast during the lockdown the natural beauty of the ocean and the mountains – admittedly I live in one of the most spectacular locations in the world, Cape Town, was even more breathtakingly beautiful than normal. The quietness of the roads, the absence of crowds and reduced pollution gave nature and even the urban architecture an added brilliance, calmness, and presence. If I had to pick a single thing from an abundant year, it would be the Secret of the Golden Flower Practice that I facilitated and did myself for the four months of the hard lockdown. In essence this was the practice of individuation as a daily ritual. Viewing each day as a separate and complete lifetime. This is probably the most valuable breakthrough and insight I have had into the practice of individuation in many years, possibly ever. The 2020 film and music schools, and the identity programme, were also exceedingly rewarding. I met and had the chance to collaborate with some very stimulating and knowledgeable scholars over the course of the year. These are connections and ideas which, inshallah, will inform and enrich the Centre’s programmes over the next few years.
On a more personal note, my eldest child, my daughter Kiva, completed her Bachelor of Social Science last year and is growing up to be a fine young woman, one I am proud to call my daughter and someone who will be a lifelong friend. Both my sons are now taller than me, and my eldest son’s physical strength, adeptness and vitality has eclipsed my own. It is hard to put into words how profoundly rewarding and numinous that is. I had the occasion recently to swim in the ocean with him and to have him keep an eye on and assist his “old man”, was an experience of a mythological character. I could go on about the beauty, community, love, and pathos of the year, which were all present in abundance, but will, for fear of self-indulgence, curtail further remarks along these lines.
It would be remiss though not to mention getting to spend the time I have with Alexia, the love of my life and closest companion. To be at her side, to hold her close and to witness her extraordinary unfolding has been to witness an exemplar of the individuation process and a great privilege. Truthfully, though, such companionship, enchanting as it may be, is not always easy.
I have spent ten months locked up with Alexia, someone to whom I once said,
I’d love to get you on a slow boat to China
All to myself, all alone
Get you and keep you in my arms evermore
Leave all your lovers weeping on the faraway shore…
This in reference to a scene from a film we both love, The Master, that came out during our courtship. When I said it though and at the time it seemed the feeling was very much mutual, truthfully, I meant it more metaphorically than literary. 24/7 for ten months with the same person is intense, particularly when both of you are intense and demanding personalities. It was true I wanted Alexia to abandon all her previous suitors on “the faraway shore”, easier said than enacted, but little did I count on her attracting so many new admirers along the way, least of all during a period of extended lock-down and social distancing!
As her natural superior in maturity, intellect, and insight, it never ceases to amaze me when she has the gall to criticise me. Me, can you handle it? Fancy her criticising me! The problem is not only does she criticise me, but she does this incessantly. When confronted about this, her standard defence is that she is simply enacting an archetypal impulse to speak the truth. She has some theory about this involving her name, I forget exactly what it is. Nevertheless this “truth speaking” if indeed that is what it is, has led to the odd exchange of harsh words over the last year.
One occasion stands out that illustrates both the agony and ecstasy of passionate eros. This was in September last year when although still in lockdown, travel was permitted. I took Alexia away for her birthday to a remote cabin on a farm in the Cederberg mountains.
It was pretty much as ideal and spectacular a romantic getaway as one could imagine. We spent a few days there that were filled with lots of laughter and a few adventures. One day the famer’s dog, Ninja, a doppelganger for Snowy from the Tintin books, whilst accompanying us on short hike, chased down a hole in the ground. From the sound and fury emerging from the burrowed hole, Ninja was clearly engaged in life and death combat with whatever creature had made its home there. In our imagination, possibly a rattlesnake! Alexia found me wanting in her command that I follow Ninja down the burrowed hole and rescue him. In frustration and desperation, she ran, quite some distance it must be said, to the farmhouse to alert the farmer. Only to be told this was a regular trick of Ninja’s, chasing Aardvarks! That he was in no danger and that practically every other guest who stayed at the cabin, inevitably arrived in similar distress to report just this emergency. It was clearly some type of inside joke between Ninja and his owner. Ninja it turned out had a quite a few tricks up his metaphorical sleeve. He had only just been returned from Cape Town, some two hours away by car, after following a hiking party leaving the farm, something they only discovered a day into their hike! He was clearly adept at stealth mode and deserving of his moniker.
On another occasion, whilst driving down the single sand road near the farm, we witnessed two pre-pubescent local boys, one of whom was lifting a third much younger companion on his handlebars, which he held with one hand and in the other his boombox. The road made a rather sharp descent at a certain point, ideal for gaining some serious speed on their freewheeling bicycles, before quickly rising again. At the critical point in the descent when maximum spend was achieved, the bicycle at the back, the one carrying the young child on its handlebars hit a stone. The accident that followed looked like a cinematic stunt! Neither boy was killed, but both had to be hospitalised. Whilst we waited with them for the ambulance trying to treat them for shock, one of their uncles arrived on the scene and proceeded to give them such a dressing down it seemed he was on the verge of beating them. Later, when Alexia related the story to the farmer’s son who managed the property, he laughed, saying, “Oh goodness those boys are constantly crashing their bikes on that road!”
The night preceding Alexia birthday, or more properly in the very early hours of her birthday, just after midnight, we were lying in bed awake. I suggested we make some tea and take that along with some cake we had and sit on the patio under the starry night sky to usher in her birthday. Now there are now words for the indescribable beauty of the night sky in the Cederberg. The night was perfectly still, there was not the slightest breeze or cloud in the sky. Other than the brilliance of the starry bowl of the night sky, there wasn’t a light for miles around us. It was so dark you could not see your hand in front of your face, and everything had to be navigated by touch. It was a moment where I witnessed the sacred and numinous beauty of the cosmos, surrounded by ancient mountains and the most beautiful woman in the world by my side. It felt, to quote my friend Carl Linderman, an astronomer, like a homecoming.
The following day however, on Alexia birthday, was the passion of pathos. Lex and I had determined to do a short hike at the Algeria Waterfall nearby. The hike, up the side of a mountain should take about an hour each way, give or take. An hour each way that is, if you a not locked into an argument of such ferocity that very few steps you turn around to face each other and threaten to abandon the hike, threaten to abandon the relationship, threated to abandon each other and on and on. Such that, at some point when were already pretty high up the mountain, I seriously considered if it would not reduce the overall suffering of the occasion if I simply flung myself over the edge. Not in a direct suicide attempt, but more a kind of kamikaze death roll down the mountain, similar to that the Special Forces operatives were forced to do in the Lone Survivor. Ultimately, I didn’t act on this impulse and am here to tell the tale, psychically bruised, but physically intact. This debate, for want of a better term, ensued the entire hike, up and down from the waterfall, and added an additional two-hours to the usual two hours of the hike, so that we only got back to our car after dark!
Beyond the above, fortunately, my list of vices for 2020 is brief. This is a welcome relief after the rather brutal confessions of the last two years. There is not much to add to previous confessions about my blunt, self-serving, narcissistic, timid, small-minded, and irascible character, except possibly that it continues to frustrate me and others. I will say in my defence, I have made some progress in facing and dealing with my fear and sense of personal insecurity, although no doubt I still have a long way to go.
There are a few specific issues though I can pick out that need work.
Passivity, as my then mentor and supervisor, Professor Andrew Samuels once challenged me, I remain passive in many regards. Passivity is the hallmark of weak masculinity and of course antithetical to action and achievement. Apathy, fear, and personal comfort have collaborated to keep me a small, meek and mild personality in many regards. This is the danger of moderate success and comfort, it can pacify and ultimately petrify the soul, so the real Self remains stillborn.
Another issue, as already mentioned, is the calcification/anesthetisation of my capacity to feel deeply. This is also linked to and amplifies apathy. The less one cares, the less one is likely to act. I was a sensitive child and sensitive young man, and partly in self-defence, given the circumstances I found myself in as a child and later, young adult, I taught myself not to feel so deeply. The problem with developing such a defence is as, James hillman so adeptly points out, whilst it was a necessary adaptation for survival at the time, later in life the defence itself becomes the problem. Sometimes I am unable to feel, even though I want and need to. I have lost both my parents and my brother. During their funerals and mourning them I was only ever reduced to tears once, and then far too briefly. Believe me I need to cry, to howl even – it certainly is not the case that I was and am not heartbroken by their loss. Rather, that I am unable to access the healing balm afforded by deep visceral pathos and tears.
My self-expression, dramatic persona and creativity have suffered over the last five or six years. My focus being on other, admittedly not unimportant, things, has meant withdrawal of libido from the creative and expressive element of my anima. My soul has shrunk proportionately. Living in the world is tough gig, and the price is paid, all too frequently, by the soul. I aim to address this deficit going forward and an effort such as this one – my confession, modest as it might be, is a step in that direction.
At the start of 2021, my sense is of standing at an important threshold, both personally and collectively. As mentioned, in 2003 I had a series of three dreams, over a two-week period, that set out a kind of leitmotif and mythos for the next two decades of my life. I have the distinct impression of being at the denouement of that myth. Time and action have never felt more significant. I don’t know what the future has in store, but, like many, I am extremely weary of global events currently unfolding. Somewhat ironically, although well known, is that a time of intense crises is also an opportunity for change, evolution, and re-creation. It is to this that I commit my year. My intention going into this year is to embrace transcendence more fully, passionately, and courageously. Whilst no doubt, I will fail at least as often and a spectacularly as I succeed in this endeavour, I will not be bowed nor dissuaded by my failures. If I stray, I will return to the path and continue my journey. This is what I offer, I offer my heart and soul to individuation, my own of course, but also to anyone else who cares to join me in this. I do this irrespective of what life may have in store for us. It is all that I have and all that I am capable of.
Stephen Anthony Farah
 Or, to quote John David Ebert, by the “New Media Invasion”.
 Verso Books, 2010
 I do not mean by this qualification that I am intentionally being dishonest, but rather add the caveat to concede the limitations of honesty achievable in a public confession such as this one and as a generalised concession to the psychoanalytic axiom that the subject’s capacity for truthfulness is limited.
 C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, Page 8
 I am reminded of my late teacher the Duke de Chatillon, speaking of dreams many of his students had, around the time of my apocalyptic premonitions, in 2003, of urban landscapes that were devoid of any people.
 Literally “earth pig”, a species of bush pig indigenous to Southern Africa.
 A few nights prior to this, Carl had invited us to join him at an open air observatory in the Karoo, and when he saw the awe on my face at observing the celestial bodies and in reference to witnessing the beauty of the cosmos, he said, “Welcome home.”