The unbearable ordinariness of being

I was very struck by the amount of attention that my previous post1, on whether the Denver shooter James Holmes is psychotic, has drawn.   Understandably perhaps, this subject appears to have struck a cord in a lot of people, and not only in the US.  The focus of that particular post was to criticise the seemingly popular notion that psychotic individuals are not capable of planning and executing such a crime.  My argument was that, on the contrary, psychotic individuals can actually be very good at this sort of thing.

However, there is another point about this terrible event: it was quite extraordinary.  And by this I do not mean that these things rarely happen – quite the opposite.  However, they are not happening every day in every city, small town, or village.  If they were we would probably never hear about them because of their sheer ordinariness.

And as a UK citizen I am also struck by another rather extraordinary event that is taking place not too far away from me at this very moment, i.e. the 2012 Olympics.  I was tempted to post something about collective hysteria and/or Danny Boyle’s pastiche of Britishness, i.e. the opening ceremony.  However, I think what’s far more interesting is the fact that in a few weeks time (and I’m willing to bet a small amount of money on this) the whole extravaganza will be forgotten by most people.  Just, as I fear, James Holmes will be forgotten except by those whose lives he shattered.

The point is, for most of the time and for most people, life is extremely ordinary.  Not necessarily boring , but ordinary.  And there is also an ironic twist to this: there is perhaps nothing more ordinary, and in many ways banal, than psychosis itself.  I say this from having engaged with psychotic people for a long time.  For most the time, most psychotic people are not going round shooting their fellow citizens, or having florid episodes.  Most of the time their lives are pretty ordinary and sometimes quite boring.  In fact, most of the time their lives are not too dissimilar from ‘normal’ people, i.e. those whom psychoanalysts would define as neurotic, and sometimes perverse.  Darian Leader discusses this phenomena of ‘ordinary madness’ in his excellent book What is Madness?2

But the key point I wanted to highlight here is not so much the idea of ‘ordinary’ or ‘quiet’’ madness, important though it is.  Rather, it is to highlight the idea of ‘ordinariness’ itself, and especially within the context of psychopathology.  Although there is indeed something extra-ordinary about the actions of people like James Holmes, and something which appears to verge on mass hysteria (or even psychosis?) when it comes to the Olympics, in many ways such events can help deflect from the ordinariness, the banality and the sheer boredom of everyday existence.

This is not for one minute to downplay the tragedy that unfolded in Aurora last week, or to denigrate the spectacle of the Olympics.  Rather it is to point out that these are extra-ordinary events.  Most people simply suffer slowly and quietly, in a very ‘ordinary’ way.  But in many ways it is precisely this ‘ordinariness’ that is so unbearable – and, in a perverse sort of way, is what makes extra-ordinary events such as the Denver shooting and the Olympics so ‘appealing’.  Such very public tragedies and media spectacles can easily make us forget the tragedy (and comedy) of ordinary, everyday life. But, of course, this begs a question: what is so ‘ordinary’ about ‘ordinariness’, and why would this be so unbearable?

One of Freud’s key discoveries was the fact that at the heart of everyday ordinariness, i.e. in the lives of his patients, there was something quite extra-ordinary.  However, not in the sense of some spectacular and, on occasions, tragic public event.   Rather, something operating at the level of unconscious fantasy.   And nothing much has really changed since Freud’s time.  Psychoanalysts and psychotherapist encounter this extra-ordinariness all the time in the stories their clients tell them.  Stories of lust, love found, love lost, betrayal, abuse, violence.

So perhaps we could say that ‘ordinariness’ is unbearable because, in fact, it hides an ‘extra-ordinariness’, which is normally silent.  Silent, but active.  And it is precisely this silent activity, the work of the unconscious, that can make a person’s life so unbearable – in the most ordinary of circumstances.

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  2. Leader, D. (2011) What is Madness? London, Hamsih Hamilton. []