If I hadn’t taken up this ‘impossible’ profession, I sometimes wonder what I would have become? Or what would have become of me? Did Freud really think it was doomed to interminable failure or was he just getting a bit depressed in his old age? People sometimes ask me if it isn’t boring, having to listen to all the mundane narcissistic preoccupations of people’s lives. Or all that mental baggage, doesn’t it weigh you down? Others just think I get off, talking to women about sex. You must hear a lot of things, they say. Think about it. Two people. Meeting together regularly and alone for fifty minutes, in an unparalleled bizarre kind of intimacy. It’s a kind of theatre of the absurd, where anything can be said or sometimes nothing. And there’s no other task to be accomplished… just self-examination. Can anyone stop deceiving themselves? Can I? It’s not a confessional, not in the religious sense, it’s supposed to be non-judgmental, outside the moral register. And it’s not like husband and wife. There’s no household to run. No cooking to be done. No children to interrupt. I mean, who talks to their spouse? Who can be bothered to listen? If you want conversation don’t you go to a reading group or a friend?
People think that, as a mental health professional, I have to steel myself, learn how to insulate myself from other’s emotions, be unaffected so that I don’t take them home. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I had to learn was the opposite, how to be more affected, increase my sensitivity; how to tolerate the emotional field generated right here in this room. Evenly suspended attention, friendly neutrality, don’t begin to describe it. “Just tell me what’s running through your head,” I say, “no matter how irrelevant it may seem.”
It’s funny how easily that can put a stop to things. Nobody actually free associates, it’s impossible.
“That’s not what I came to talk about,” they say.
Then I shock them. “What you want to talk about is irrelevant. It’s what you don’t want to talk about, what’s actually going on, that counts. OK, imagine you’re on a train looking through the window as you journey into a foreign country… yes, your own unexplored inner space. Tell me about the landscape. I don’t want to hear ‘telegraph pole, telegraph pole, telegraph pole’, but what you see beyond… the hills and the valleys, what you feel, the rivers and lakes, the inhabitants… what they mean to you.”
And then I have to open myself up to the impressions I receive. Hone my own experience into a kind of MRI machine, not a brain scanner… a mind scanner, a meaning resonance scanner, an emotional intelligence scanner… I suppose I’m a bit of an anachronism really, the kind of psychiatrist that people talk to.
You tell me how you will purchase the material – Harris Tweed from hand-spun yarn – you will make a journey to Savile Row and buy only the best. Although it isn’t your job, it’s more than a hobby, and you’re proud to obtain the discount for tailors. You tell me how the Countess of Dunmore, owner of the Isle of Harris, first recognised the unique characteristics of the tweed. How the blackface sheep acclimatised itself to the hostile conditions of the Hebrides, producing a wool for the weather, a wool you could live inside like a house, like a comfortable carapace you could carry on your back, a soft-sculptured snail smelling of moss and smoke when damp. How carefully the woven strands combine to form a textile fit for princes and poets, for kings.
You will bespeak it for yourself. Day after day I receive progress reports: the cutting of the chest canvas fashioned from 100 per cent horse hair and strategically stitched with silk thread, not glued or fused. The conjunction of the interlinings and the outer fabric that will never perish. The high gorge with its single-breasted notch, the absence of puckering along the lapels, the garment’s lips to remain chaste since the stitches will be forged at optimal tension. The thirty measurements of figuration and posture determining a correct fit. The scye, the arm’s eye, and how it holds the shoulder and collar in place so the back doesn’t rise. The pitch of the sleeve to the sleeve-head to match the natural hang of your arm.
Yes, I get the hang of it. And what runs through my mind is Nagg’s joke in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. The tailor who takes so long to make a pair of trousers and his frustrated client.
Last week you mentioned the lining, the silk lining smooth as a sarong, as a woman’s slip, as the skin of her inside thigh; and the trimmings, the shiny leather buttons and shanks that look like miniature terrapins. And I have to confess I noticed, for the first time, a transient outline of those famous lineaments… of unfulfilled desire. I have no need of a jacket, I told myself, sufficient unto the day, dismissing the unwanted intrusion as if Beckett were slyly trying to recruit me to the cast of his play.
Yesterday you remarked on the pity of the project. To sew a jacket and give it to yourself was like some lonely kind of masturbation, you said. There was no one else, so it seemed, who would appreciate such a gift. Neither your father, son nor brothers would thank you for it. Your skill was wasted. Then you told me about its first outing. Worn on a crisp April morning to walk the dog. The spontaneous compliment that combusted from a dried-up spinster you passed every day, usually without passing the time of day. And I felt that little ache go through me again – clearly a gift was out of the question, but suppose I were to remit my fee? Would payment in kind be professionally acceptable? Would that kind of payment be professionally acceptable?
Last night I dreamt that I was Prince Charles and you were my tailor. I offered to swap one of my watercolours for a tweed kilt jacket and you refused indignantly. Getting up on your high horse, you asked if I really understood the time and the craft involved, the long hours of apprenticeship necessary for your trade. Then, unexpectedly, you offered to make me a gift of the garment. And I felt as if a deep longing for love had finally been satisfied. I woke up in a sweat.
This morning you arrived slightly early for your session. Your footsteps on the stair were inflected with an unusual jauntiness, as if overnight some great weight had mysteriously been lifted. And you grinned as you came through the door, slightly shamefaced, like a husband coming out of the changing room in Marks & Spencer. And you sat back in your chair with the air of a man who believes his wife is beautiful, saying, “Well, I just thought you might like to see it.”
© 2020 Stephen Wilson
Stephen Wilson is a psychiatrist turned critic and writer, who has lived and worked in Oxford, UK, for many years.