Touching the void?

Recently I visited Canary Wharf.  Although I’ve been there a number of times before, this time it felt different.  Perhaps part of this was due to the fact it was a cold, dull and misty November afternoon, which meant the tops of many of the buildings disappeared into the clouds.   But perhaps also it was because I had just read a rather interesting (and worrying) article in The Times by Tom Whipple on the difficult subject of mental health problems in the financial heart of the City.  This is in the wake of the CEO of Lloyds Banking Group, António Horta-Osório ‘taking a temporary leave of absence due to illness’, i.e. stress and fatigue. Although articles such as Whipple’s might suggest that things are now changing with regards to attitudes towards such problems, the general thrust of his article was that mental illness is still very much a taboo subject in this very ‘macho’ culture.

But what’s going on here?  And by this I mean not only: why are people in the City getting stressed, having to go off on sick leave, etc?  I also mean: what’s at stake in this world?  Why is it so important to succeed in this type of environment – and what happens to those who ‘fail’?  And, of course, how does all this relate to the title of this post?  What does it mean to ‘touch the void’?

Addressing this last question first.  What I’m trying to convey here is a sense of what happens when the familiar, the-taken-for-granted, starts to break down.  In the tradition that I come from – Lacanian psychoanalysis, one might also speak of touching the Real.  This has nothing to do with ‘reality’: rather it’s what lies outside of ‘reality’, i.e beyond what we take for granted, the everyday fabric of our lives.  This is not some metaphysical or supernatural dimension.  Rather it is simply that which cannot be represented, that which is impossible to put into words.

And perhaps this gives us a clue regarding what ‘failure’ means – not only in the City but in any kind of social life.  It’s the failure to maintain a position in the particular world that one is part of.  Whipple talks in his article about the importance of being in the ‘winner’s enclosure’.  Perhaps those who are outside of this ‘enclosure’ are in a wasteland, a void even…….