Confession Quartus: explorations of ironyStephen Farah
This follows a tradition I started in 2018 of writing a personal confession at the end of each year. As such, and as the numerically astute may have already noticed, there is one confession missing. I confess, I neglected to do this at the end of 2021. I will attempt to remedy this somewhat by not focussing too narrowly on the past year, but rather looking back at my life over the last two-years: 2021 and 2022.
This confession is done in sympathy with the students entering the Nigredo Stage of Magnum Opus, which is in Jung’s framing the initial stage of the psychoanalytic process. Confession is the basic principle and keystone of self-reflection and inquiry. We begin the process of inquiring into our character and exploring the unconscious in the act of confession. I have found this practice and ritual quite salutary and an excellent exercise in psychic housekeeping.
Although I have chosen to do this publicly, I do not recommend this practice of public confession, unless done for a specific purpose, such as my own in this instance – i.e., to provide an example of the practice, rather that it should be done in the confines of one’s personal journal, or, at least, such is my counsel.
I do, however, strongly encourage you to take up the practice of an annual confession.
These preliminary comments and qualifications made,
my fourth official confession.
I confess that I am getting older, and now, at the age of fifty-five years, it dawns on me that I don’t have all that long left to live. I am dying. Of course, everyone is dying in the sense that every day we are alive we’re also one step closer to death. Nevertheless, the immanence of death, naturally, looms much larger for me now than it did twenty or even ten years ago. Not only death, but old age, decrepitude, diminishing physical and mental faculties.
This painful fact was brought home to me this year through the “frozen shoulder” I suffered. After six months odd of intense exercise, during which time I started to feel a return to a greater level of physical vitality, better body shape, lighter and stronger, I suffered this unexpected setback, from which, over six months later, I have yet to recover. This has been a major obstacle to my exercise and fitness. Beyond that though it has also made me feel old and slightly disabled. This is the first time I have ever experienced anything like this. It has affected me and my physical acuity negatively and most unpleasantly.
In addition to the frozen shoulder, chronic issues with my diet and inability to get down to my goal weight and diet yoyoing is frustrating. Admittedly it hasn’t been all bad and could certainly be worse. I have made some progress on this over the last year, but less than I would like. And then simply getting older, looking older, the grey hair, my pallor, expression etc. annoy me. I look like an older man, and in some ways, I look quite old for my age.
I have spent too long sitting at my laptop (as I am right now), shrinking. My muscles atrophying, my posture increasingly bent over, joints stiffening, and in so doing, have sacrificed my relationship with the world out there. The world of flesh and blood people, not of avatars but of mountains and lakes and animals and forests. My dreams have shrunk. My soul has withered. My world has narrowed.
In part, I have made this sacrifice because I find navigating the virtual world more agreeable and certainly easier (!) than the world “out there”. More importantly thought it was in the pursuit of a single consuming dream. And yet, as I sit here and write this, I am struggling to articulate quite what that dream is…something to do with winning this game of life, of achieving a state of sublime being, wherein my existence and person would be validated, my sins would be forgiven, my failures forgotten and I would be loudly, maybe even deafeningly, applauded. To say that makes me sound like a pathological narcissist of course, which, frankly, may be accurate. But it’s not only that, there is also an element of something else. An element of wanting to do something good, something worthwhile, something that means something with my life here on earth.
Since around 2015 I have gone through a period of intense personal change. One that involved suffering, loss, and mourning, and navigating extremely challenging relational dynamics, not to put too fine a point on things. These are of course only the bare bones of that journey, which ground I won’t re-tread here. The point I want to emphasize is that my fate over this period has been one of being subjected to intense psychological, emotional, and spiritual pressure. I have been in the alchemical athanor and forged in the fire of my fate. These kinds of experiences are never the thing one would choose given a choice -at least not if one knew what one was choosing, but they do, or can, when properly assimilated, forge one’s spirit in a way that easier and more comfortable times cannot.
Writing this now reminds me of an encounter I had in Lamu, at a reading by the Russian novelist. Mikael Iossel, of extracts from his book, ‘Love like Water, Love like Fire’, which I will say a little more about in due course. At the recital I was introduced to an American gentleman, who upon hearing I was “a Jungian”, recited a quote he recalled from Jung, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” To which I laconically replied, “I think that was Conan the Barbarian,” but which our host for the evening, the masterful and clearly erudite Crotian author, Josip Novakovich, correctly attributed to Nietzsche.
Hardship and suffering it is true have one of two effects, they either crush our spirit and in so doing, effectively kill us or they forge a still stronger version of ourselves. But this transformation to a stronger version of our former selves is psychologically nuanced. Often the way we cope with hardship and adversity is to stop feeling, to split off that part of our psyches. This is the classical psychoanalytic defence mechanism, or one of them anyway.
This splitting does engender a form of strength, but one which comes at a great price. The loss of that part of our souls that previously had the capacity to feel, the loss of a certain sensitivity and capacity. The truer and more admirable strength, at least for those of us on the journey to wholeness and individuation, or so I claim, is to continue to feel but not to be crushed by the pain of that feeling. More challenging to be sure, but ultimately also more enriching and more human. Of course, this is easier said than done, and I think we all have our understandable limits of endurance. Nevertheless, when we speak of individuation and spiritual growth the aspiration is not the strength one may find in hardening one’s heart, but rather a type of wisdom and spiritual maturity that accepts suffering as part of the experience of being alive.
After this dark night of the soul, the last two years been a time of healing.
Of course, it hasn’t been a straight road, but then when is it ever. To be alive involves dealing with not only the vicissitudes of fate, but the turmoil of one’s own character. Emerging from the lockdowns and living in the world again has been life affirming although, like many of us I suspect, also not without its challenges. The very handy social exit excuse of curfew now being a thing of the past! Still, I’m happy the world is still here and we’re all alive to appreciate it. There were some dark moments in the depths of the covid pandemic. In some way along with this collective emergence from isolation, last year also saw me re-enter the world and life from my self-imposed cocoon of solitude.
At the end of January this year, 2022, I stopped drinking.
I never considered myself a drinker or “an alcoholic”. However, over the prior eight years, since moving to Cape Town, I cultivated an appreciation of a glass or two of red wine with my evening meal. I stopped drinking on the advice of an Ayurvedic physician, who strongly recommended this as a necessary measure in an overall wellness program. As such, I am quite pleased to say I am a little over a month away from being a year sober. 
This abstinence proved to be considerably more challenging than anticipated. It has involved becoming re-acquainted with my sober and temperate self. Now to be clear, I have never, nor do I now, aspire to temperance. However, it has proved a necessary evil in pursuit of that I do aspire to, which is consciousness. In addition to this, a few years ago, I also gave up eating meat. I made this choice partly for health reasons and partly in protest of the abhorrent practice of factory farming. Over the last few years, around three now, I have been a vegetarian and very occasional pescatarian.
My eldest son Ruarc, now seventeen and at the hight of youthful physical vitality, challenged me on these choices.
“At your age,” he said, “I think you should eat and drink what you want. I can understand a certain necessary temperance during early adulthood and middle-age. But in the twilight of your life it seems an unwarranted from of self-imposed suffering. Enjoy what little time you have left. Drink and be merry and to hell with the rest!”
I, respectfully, demurred and continue to do so. I am not yet ready to throw in the towel and call it a day. If you’ll forgive a little sensationalism, I will not go silently into the night, albeit a night of carousing as Ruarc advocated.
As if to confirm this sentiment, whilst on holiday just before writing this post, I encountered the most remarkable character. A man of prodigious physical vitality, stature, and presence, matching his exploits leading several overland trips through Africa in the nineteen-seventies. He made a big impression on both Alexia and me, and meeting and interacting with him was one of the highlights of our, quite spectacular, time in Kenya. This “ODC” – ordinary decent criminal, as he referred to himself, declined my invitation to ghost write his memoirs, claiming he preferred not to be a custodian of the state and feared a frank memoir, which, let’s face it, is the only one worth writing, may jeopardise this wish. To my point, this ODC, this bear of a man, clearly with the heart of a lion, and if the rumours which emerged at the “expat luncheon” are to be believed, the biggest dick, or one of them anyway amidst a population of well-endowed men, on the East Coast of Africa, was, now in his early seventies, slightly pickled. A bottle of wine a night, his nightly eucharist over many decades, will do that to you. 
I look around me at the effects of drinking particularly on long term drinkers, I am acquainted with quite a few, and observe that it hasn’t added to their charisma, except possibly whilst in the fugue state of inebriation and this, naturally, is short-lived. Not only drinking, but general indulgence. Although here I should qualify this by saying I am thinking particularly of alcohol and narcotics: both recreational and “medicinal”. It is uncontroversial to acknowledge that most forms of indulgence, particularly when overdone -although I confess the term “overdone” begs a question as to when it becomes applicable, nevertheless, weaken the body and spirit of the subject overtime. That said, alcohol and narcotics do seem to be especially malevolent in this respect.
Moving beyond the question of wellness now, which whilst obviously important and valid, is possibly not what you might anticipate being the focus of my post and into the area you might hope I might more properly address, the psychic element and its affects.
I like these lines from Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love’, Surrealistic Pillow, (1967)
When the truth is found to be lies.
And all the joy within you dies.
A slight variation on it,
When the truth is found. To be lies.”
And all the hope. Within you dies. Then what?”
was used to good dramatic effect by Rabbi Marshak when seemingly addressing the enduring and heretofore unanswered existential search by Larry Gopnik. A search for some deeper meaning to life that might make sense of and possibly ameliorate his suffering, in the Cohen brothers ‘A Serious Man’ (2009). Despite interrogating a litany of lesser rabbis Gopnik came away empty handed. Finally, being received by the senior Rabbi Marshak, whom he was desperate to consult in hope of some redemptive wisdom, is met with this opening gambit by Marshak. One which seems promising at first , because it accurately portrays the situation of the protagonist Gopnik, the Cohen Brothers contemporary version of Job.
What first seems promising is apparently rendered meaningless by the fact that it turns Rabbi Marshak was merely repeating the opening lines of the Jefferson Airplane song, which he had heard on a Walkman confiscated from one of the young boys at the Torah School. And like the other rabbis that Gopnik encountered on his was up the rabbinical ladder, Marshak’s advice to Gopnik, “Be a good boy,” is equally or even more vacuous. However, on reflection, I think there is a depth to this attempt by the Cohen Brothers to address the existential dilemma, suffering and the seeming absurdity of the human condition, which is that it is best viewed ironically. The absence of an answer is, in contradistinction with the law of non-contradiction, an answer (well of sorts anyway).
Lost in Lamu
It may have started shortly after my unanticipated exit off the boat Samira. This was just after I caught the heel of my sandal on the seat of the boat, whilst my other leg and most of my torso were already on their way out of the boat and upon realising that there was no stopping the exit momentum nor recovering trapped foot in time to spare the ignominy of falling backwards into the water. This rather inelegant disembarkation while sporting a backpack filled with stuff best kept dry – kudos to Sealand Cape Town, whose claim that the rucksack is waterproof turns out to be a rare case of truth in advertising. It could have been while walking soaked and covered with silt from the low tide seabed, which I fell onto under the foot of sea water, stopping enroute to the house so Lex could give the pregnant donkey some love, avoiding Charlie, our very congenial colonial host whilst walking the garden path and carrying half the beach up to the house trapped in my now soaked strap on sandals. All whilst wryly attempting to maintain my sense of humour as the tears streamed down Lex’s face.
Whenever it began, by the time I was enjoying the welcome outside shower, it was about 33 degrees centigrade at this time of the afternoon, on reaching Brian’s House in Shela, that I had the opportunity and inclination to reflect more deeply on the nature of irony. Or maybe these reflections began a few nights before, whilst returning from the reading in Lamu. I cannot pin down their exact etymology with any certainty.
My late father, Saleem, had a penchant for the ironic, much to mother’s chagrin. It’s true his irony was frequently more sarcastic than ironic. Although not universally so. In any case it annoyed my mother, who experienced it as kind of passive aggressive behaviour, which, I would have to say, quite unironically, it often was. I have also adopted the habit of often speaking in an ironic register and haven’t advanced my cause or communication thereby. I often substitute irony for clear and simple communication, as a form of defence and I must confess, intellectual laziness. The whys and wherefores of that I won’t get into right now.
This brings me back to the recital by Mikael Iossel from his anthology.
I was taken with Iossel’s quintessential Russian literary style. A style and register that neither offers nor seeks any quarter in sparing one feelings of existential terror. With apologies to Iossel in advance, for butchering his prose – I don’t have a copy of the book at the time of writing this, so write here purely from memory on an eventful night. This apology made, Iossel -doesn’t the name already say everything you need to know (?), writes about life as a game of ever diminishing returns, wherein suicide, at least one committed in the prime of life, when such a gesture may still be considered properly dramatic, as a romantic notion. He caped these thoughts with the disenchanting realisation that one’s earlier youthful notions of infinite returns and one’s prodigious talent are ultimately found out for the ephemera they always were, and the grim but no less true realisation that one’s life will not be crowned by a transcendental feast with all of one’s prior acquaintances for a proper toast to your respective glories and decent send off into the hereafter.
The question one might enquire into here, is once again one of irony. Should we read Iossel as having ironic or literal intent in these aphorisms?
After the reading, by now quite late on the Friday night, we hired a boat, one of the two main forms of transport in Lamu, the other being the ubiquitous donkey. There are no cars in Lamu, the oldest authentic Swahili settlement in Africa, dating back to the fourteenth century, with a strong Arabic influence visible in the towns architectural style and predominantly Islamic community. Shortly after we boarded the boat at the docks, two young men joined us and the captain of the boat. We headed out into the deep darkness of sea at night, with only the stars for light. Soon realising that the two men, clearly friends of the boat’s captain, were slightly inebriated and quite animated, even possibly a little agitated, I had cause to wonder about the virtues of my haggling over the fare back to Shela with the almost threateningly quiet and inscrutable captain of the boat.
One the young men who had unexpectedly joined us on the boat, “Jidy” started touting us a ride on his dhow. He insisted on giving us his number and in the process showed us numerous photos on his phone of how well liked and intimate he was with numerous light-skinned foreigners. He was by all accounts a player and, to boot, seemed exceedingly fond of Alexia and wished to make a memorable, if not the very best, impression on her. During his rather agitated sales pitch I looked back at the captain and his companion’s faces but couldn’t read them in the darkness. I was uncomfortably aware that we were headed slightly off course for Shela and away from the shoreline, which we should have been following, and was weighing up our admittedly limited options.
At this point Alexia recalled seeing Jidy’s dhow and remembered that it had a flag with a Bob Marley image appended to its mast. Playing along, she asked him if he played music on his dhow. A question he apparently mistook for an invitation to break into song -whether this was convenient, or a genuine case of the question’s meaning being lost in translation and the mild sea breeze, I could not say. Whatever the case, Jidy immediately took up a small circular table on the deck of the boat and used it as a makeshift drum. So armed and accompanied by his companion who clapped the tune’s time, he began to sing, his eyes immodestly locked on Alexia. His song was in Swahili, so its meaning was not immediately apparent to us, however on request he translated the words and sang a few lines in English. I cannot recall the words exactly, but it went something like this,
Beautiful butterfly in the sky
I am a poor man but could and would be your husband if you’ll have me.
I could be misquoting the song, and to be fair it was more lyrical in the original Swahili. I was at this point feeling slightly anxious and was whilst listening with one ear also calculating the chances and merit of alighting the boat and swimming rapidly back to shore, or at least instructing Alexia to take such action whilst keeping the party going on board. My own swimming capacity, not to say that of mortal combat, being somewhat diminished consequent to the frozen shoulder. (You do recall the frozen shoulder, don’t you?).
Alexia by now urgently whispering to me, “where exactly do you think we’re going?” In what was starting to feel like an incursion by a couple of unofficial Somalian sailors, rather than the imagined lazy evening cruise to Shela. It was just at this point that out of nowhere on the destination of the detour, a floating bar, revealed itself and the two passengers prepared to alight. On his way out, Jidy hugged both of us warmly, with primal vitality and exclamations of, “One love!”
And just like that serenity was restored and we made our way home.
It was an intense and strangely exhilarating encounter. A strange musical interlude that included numerous chords, some melodic and other slightly discordant, floating on a dark ocean, under a starlight night sky, with dark-skinned men who weren’t afraid to let their heart-lights shine.
Of course, I am not attempting to enact overt white contrition and naivete, by claiming my anxiety was wholly incomprehensible. I don’t think it was or would, speaking frankly, have been too embarrassed to share the story. Nevertheless, it was illuminating to have my own historical prejudices and generational fears from chronic racial tension and violence that has endured in my home country well beyond its sell-by date, exposed and challenged.
The encounter and my reaction were not without a certain irony.
The thing of it is that I realise I have spent too long hiding.
Our comfort comes at great price, more arguably than any of us can afford. Well, at least, speaking for myself, such is my sentiment. I am tired of my well-worn paths, prejudices, and patterns. I need to challenge myself in order to stay alive and find the state of being alive worthwhile. There is no more gold in the mines I am used to. I mined those long ago and am now merely haunting them. If I am to live, individuate, and have a future, I need to challenge myself. I need to embrace discomfort and the unfamiliar, which is, for me at least, the most uncomfortable thing of all. I am not ready to kick off my shoes and don the gown and slippers of late middle age, despite such advice from certain members of the next generation. I hope never to be.
The crux of it and my aspiration for the new year is to turn away from everything I have become accustomed to using to anesthetise my pain. If there is ecstasy to be had, I sense it is by moving through the threshold of my current state and into a new phase and stage of consciousness. Or, if Darby Slick had it right and the truth turns out to be lies and all joy within me dies, I want to be ready for this too and face it with a full heart, a clear mind and an illuminated spirit. I realise these are lofty aspirations and I risk the error of conscious one-sidedness Jung warns against,
As long as that split exists, everyone is going to do his best to identify with heaven, but as we know psychologically, whenever such a one-sided identification exists, it generates its opposite in the unconsciousSooner or later, a swing over to the opposite takes place. That leads Jung to say, “The coming of the Antichrist is not just a prophetic predictionit is an inexorable psychological law” ( CW9.2: par. 77 )
nevertheless I set this as my North Star going into the future. What life in fact has in store will no doubt be a surprise, and inshallah -to quote the Muslims from Lamu, whatever it is will be more spectacular than my modest imagination.
I wish you well over the holiday season and hope the new year will be filed with grace and enchantment, even when it may, on occasion and from a certain perspective, appear otherwise.
One of the best series I watched this year was from the creative genius of Mike White, the series, Enlightened. The central protagonist of the series Amy Jellicoe, brilliantly acted by Laura Dern, was someone whose book we might usefully take a leaf from. If you haven’t already watched the series, do. I don’t want to spoil if for you so will keep my comments here very brief. In short, Amy Jellicoe is a heroine to rival and, in my view, outdo any machismo from her masculine counterparts. She displays in the face of often extreme adversity and seemingly inexorable fate, the spirit of hope. This is what inspires me and what I wish for you. Let us never stop hoping for a brighter tomorrow or believing in the value of life and the indomitable human spirt and standing up for what is most precious. Friends – albeit at the risk of sounding like an evangelical minister, I urge you to resit the atrophy of your spirit, hope, and love. To go into this new year committed to yourself and that which you most care about, that which you most believe in. Never give up the fight, don’t let the bastards grind you down, and don’t go silently into the night. 
Until we speak again,
Magnum Opus 2023 is now open for registration. For more information follow this link.
 Notwithstanding this comment written before my trip to Kenya, I find myself now, on my return from the subtropical climate and being off my laptop for almost a month (!), remarkably, although by no means completely, improved.
 “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” (German: Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker) is part of aphorism number 8 from the “Maxims and Arrows” section of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols (1888). – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_does_not_kill_me_makes_me_stronger . I first saw this line at the opening of the film ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (1982). The other memorable line from that film being Conan’s response to the question from the Mongol General: Conan, “What is best in life?” To which Conan replies, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.”
 My eyes were rudely opened to the horror of factory farming after watching the film ‘Dominion: We will rise together’ (2018) at Alexia’s (herself, a long time vegetarian) insistance.
 The ODC in question was in some ways an embodiment of the Dude, from the Cohen Brother’s classic film, ‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998). The Dude along with his antithesis in The Cohen Brother’s other classic, ‘A Serious Man’ (2009) which came out just over a decade later and which I reference later in this post, constitute a fascinating cinematic discourse by the Cohen Brother’s into the human condition and alternate ways of orienting oneself toward the existential dilemma.
 As already mentioned in footnote 1, I have just returned from a three-week tour of Kenya, a much needed rest and balm for the soul.
 Reportedly there are around 3000 donkeys in Lamu.
 To qualify, naturally you may do as you will, but such is my council.