Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology




My former thesis advisor, Russian literature scholar Gary Saul Morson, never tired of repeating one of Tolstoy?s favorite phrases: "Not everything in life has a sufficient reason"; sometimes things happen just "for some reason." Morson (2007) writes, "If an event happens in Dickens, we know it must lead to something or it would not be there, but in Tolstoy, as in life, events sometimes lead nowhere.  With unparalleled power, Tolstoy argues that sheer contingency exists.  He finds ways to make the unfitting fit our experience of life? (p. 11).  With these views deeply engrained in my mind, I picked up Adam Phillips' On Flirtation and began reading "Contingency for Beginners."    

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri (paraphrasing the 19th century French physiologist Claude Bernard)advances the notion that human behavior is determined by neurons with tails; Phillips, it seems, would argue (along with Dostoevsky) that Dmitri's belief serves a protective function borne from an attempt to defend against what is unknowable, uncertain, unpredictable, and simply accidental.  Indeed, Phillips (1994) suggests a much more radical perspective, ?that the preoccupation in developmental theory with recognition of the object can be a defence against the full acknowledgment of contingency? (p. 8).  Reading this, I wondered how anyone could truly sustain a full acknowledgment of contingency without going mad. I wanted a narrative with its accompanying power to transform a series of contingent happenings into an ordered progression of meaningful events and decided to watch a documentary on Marcus Garvey.     

During a discussion of Garvey's childhood, a historian recounted a traumatic incident in Garvey?s early life when his father, a mason who built tombs, had young Marcus climb down a ladder into a grave they had dug together. He then removed the ladder and left his son in the grave overnight in an attempt to teach him a lesson. The narrator stated, "Alone in the grave, young Marcus Garvey learned that he could rely on no one but himself. It was a lesson he would carry for the rest of his life." I wondered about the role of contingency: what if, by chance, Garvey's father had taught him a different lesson or the same lesson in a different way? Who would Marcus Garvey have become? To what extent was this incident alone responsible for Garvey's deep distrust of others, a characteristic that ultimately contributed to his downfall?     

As I found myself formulating a construction of Garvey's childhood - the bad father, the good mother - which indeed contributes to the ability to piece together the puzzle of his life, I continued to wonder about all the pieces that were left out, unacknowledged, ignored, dismissed, conveniently overlooked, or simply unknown, as well as the ways in which the pieces had to be given particular shapes in order to fit together.  Yet again, contingency reared its exhilarating and terrifying head.  I gave up on my quest for something certain and surrendered myself to sleep and dreams, the only state of mind in which contingency is entirely accepted rather than a source of fear.     

Shlomit Gorin, M.A.
Impulse Managing Editor    

Morson, G. S. (2007). Anna Karenina in our time: Seeing more wisely. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Nelson, Stanley (Producer/Director). (2000). Marcus Garvey: Look for me in the whirlwind (2000). US: Firelight Media.

Phillips, A. (1994). On flirtation. Boston: Harvard University Press.