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The Other Side of the Sky

Luke Gibbons

The Selected Writings of Maurice O’Connor Drury: On Wittgenstein, Philosophy, Religion and Psychiatry, ed by John Hayes, Bloomsbury, 446 pp, €130, ISBN: 978-1474256360

Recalling his conversations over twenty years with Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Dublin-based psychiatrist Maurice O’Connor Drury noted that for all the philosopher’s abruptness and impatience with idle talk, he was not beyond the graces of everyday life. Looking for a birthday present for a friend, Wittgenstein remarked: “You don’t need a lot of money to give a nice present but you do need a lot of time.” While walking through the streets of Dublin with Drury, Wittgenstein noticed the Irish language on street signs and commented that “one thing is achieved by putting these notices in Irish: it makes one realize that one is in a foreign country” (this might explain the DUP’s reluctance to admit even tokens of the Irish language in Northern Ireland). Wittgenstein thought the decline of Irish a tragedy but expressed doubts over existing policies to restore it: they were, in effect, equivalent to adopting state measures to revive “the love between a man and his wife”. The idea that language is not driven by rules, regulations and formal systems but must be embraced as a way of life was central to Wittgenstein’s thought, and it also informed the career of Drury, one of his most brilliant students.

O’Connor Drury was born in Exeter to Irish parents in 1907 and came to Dublin in 1936 to study medicine at Trinity College, Dublin. On qualifying, he specialised in psychiatry and worked at St Patrick’s Hospital from 1947, while subsequently lecturing in psychology at Trinity College, and at the Royal College of Surgeons. Appointed senior consultant in 1969, he had in the meantime been appointed director of a branch of St Patrick’s, St Edmondsbury in Lucan, taking up residence with his family there. Medicine was not, however, Drury’s first choice of career for he had studied philosophy at Cambridge University in the late 1920s, and was one of the first students to work with Wittgenstein on the philosopher’s return to the university in 1929. He expressed an interest in pursuing a philosophical career but Wittgenstein advised against it, encouraging him instead to practise medicine at Trinity College, Dublin. Wittgenstein also expressed an interest in applying to Trinity College Medical School but nothing came of it: given the points required for studying medicine at Trinity today, it is perhaps just as well that the bar was not set higher by some students in the 1930s.

Wittgenstein did not consider studying other fields as turning one’s back on philosophy but the opposite: philosophy was often best served by following another vocation. He himself had served in World War I, being decorated several times for bravery, and had worked as an aeronautics engineer in Manchester before the war (pioneering a design for a jet engine, as well as a helicopter propeller). After the war, he worked as a primary school teacher in rural Austria, a gardener in a monastery, an architect, and as a hospital porter at Guy’s Hospital during World War II, as well as (reverting perhaps to his Trinity College application) joining a medical team researching post-traumatic stress disorder during the war. Drury’s life also took unexpected turns: as well as his interest in philosophy, he considered ordination for the Anglican church and spent a year at a theological college, Westcott House. He enlisted during World War II, serving in the medical corps in Egypt and subsequently in Normandy and Belgium following the D-Day landings. His son, Luke, recalled his father bringing him to see the film The Longest Day (1962) and being less than impressed at its depiction of French farmers welcoming the invasion – “many farmers had being doing quite well selling produce to the Germans and did not want to be liberated”.

Talking on one occasion about Spinoza to Drury, Wittgenstein remarked: “Spinoza ground lenses; that must have been a great help to him in his thinking.” Drury’s distinguished medical career can be seen as the equivalent of Spinoza’s lens-making, and this wide-raging selection of his writings by John Hayes of the University of Limerick is a welcome and long overdue publication (the only regret is that it is not available in paperback at a more affordable price). The collection combines Drury’s much-cited recollections of Wittgenstein with his own philosophical writings, including his extensive correspondence with Rush Rhees (Wittgenstein’s main literary executor), reflections on religion, and essays on medicine, psychiatry and hypnosis. The editor concedes that were it not for Drury’s association with Wittgenstein the collection might not have found its way into print, but it is all the more valuable for this: Ray Monk, Wittgenstein’s biographer, noted of Drury’s only philosophical work published during his lifetime, The Danger of Words (1973, reprinted in this collection), that it was “the most truly Wittgensteinian work published by any of Wittgenstein’s students”.

One of the principles running though both Drury’s and Wittgenstein’s writing is that theory, no matter how abstract, must always be grounded in everyday life and the material world. For Wittgenstein, “how words are understood is not told by words alone”, which means that for everything said, there is always something left unsaid. Hence the need, as Hayes points out in his introduction, to draw “a distinction between what is said and what makes saying possible and coherent”. Language never speaks for itself: it is always dependent on conditions “outside” language – practices, contexts, “forms of life” (Wittgenstein) – to make it intelligible. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this: it pre-empts, for example, the whole question of artificial intelligence as a self-regulating system, if by that is meant the possibility of algorithms generating formal programs without any human or social intervention. For some it is only a matter of time before the digital world catches up with its human creators, but for Wittgenstein it was a matter of principle that computer codes could never acquire the nuances and complexity of ordinary language, let alone the resonances of literature. Alan Turing attended Wittgenstein’s seminars in Cambridge and one wonders how he might have responded to this challenge thrown down at the outset to the “imitation game” of computer language. In today’s world, in which the mass of people live lives of quiet calculation, whiling away the hours on smartphones or computer tablets, Wittgenstein’s insistence on the ineluctable social basis of communication is more timely than ever.

Wittgenstein’s strictures on conceiving of intelligence as information and calculation informs Drury’s critique of notions that confine research to data collection (“big data”) and the measureable: “research in the proper meaning of the much abused word does not mean collecting facts ... Research means new ideas; new concepts, new ways of looking at old and familiar facts. The important part of research is the thinking done before the experimental verification gets under way.” The limits of computational logic point to the deficits in what Drury terms “scientism” – the aspiration of scientific method, Richard Dawkins-fashion, to account for everything that is to be known about the world, human or otherwise. The problem with scientism is that it shifts the foundations of truth from the spiritual/religious to the physical/scientific sphere, but is no less metaphysical for that. As Stephen Dedalus puts it in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, it is no use swopping a logical absurdity for an illogical one (Drury notes in passing that on reading A Portrait, Wittgenstein considered it “a remarkable piece of writing” – as against the unconvincing dialogue in Sean O’Casey). While religion is in the business of metaphysics (however misconceived), science can lay no claim to totalising theories, still less to absolute truth.

In his “Letters to a Student of Philosophy” (imagined as exchanges with his newly-born son Luke, now an eminent professor of astronomy and astrophysics), Drury points out that the traditional Platonic/religious distinction between appearance and reality, everyday experience functioning as a “veil” obscuring deeper and more fundamental realities, has given way to a modern scientific equivalent. In this, greater levels of truth are discovered by drilling down below the surface of experience, revealing micro worlds of chemical elements, atomic particles, electrons, neutrons, quarks (another nod to Joyce), and so on. The difficulty with this, according to Drury, is that the further down one goes, breaking the familiar world into infinitesimal components, the more incomprehensible and counter-intuitive the outcome. Concepts of space and place, for one, are bent out of shape, as neutrinos give way to “neutrinos and anti-neutrinos, mesons, and pi-mesons”: “it is never clear when these particles are spoken of as particles what they are particles of; and when these particles are said to pass from one orbit to another without passing through the intervening space then my mind gives up”.

If Wittgenstein was steeped in mathematics, Drury was equally committed as a practising medical consultant to science but it is for this reason that he queries the need to look to scientific “foundations” as guarantees of truth outside scientific fields. After a certain point, observation gives way to abstraction and speculation but when this undermines ordinary language and everyday experience, the scientist is cutting off the bough he or she is sitting on. “Sight, touch, hearing, memory, language, these are the instruments of scientific investigation,” he writes, and cannot be discarded or relegated to mere appearance once a “more certain” knowledge is attained. Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is clearly an influence here: in a revealing metaphor, given his comments on the Irish language, Wittgenstein noted in his Koder Diaries (1931): “But let us talk in our mother tongue & not believe we must pull ourselves up out of the swamp by our own hair.”

In this comment, it is possible to see how much Wittgenstein had moved from the famous image of kicking away the ladder that provided the ascent to logical form in his earlier Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921): “Anyone who understands me ... must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed it.” While mathematics, logic and science may indeed have social scaffolding on this reading, they can be removed once a theoretical edifice or system is in place. Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, which informs much of Drury’s writing, contests this image, proposing that the most that can be done is to pull up the ladder after one: it will always be there, acknowledged or not. The social conditions or forms of life that make the most rarefied forms of knowledge possible can never be spirited away in a dream of pure reason: even “abstract scientific time”, writes Drury, “is a necessary practical assumption for the complex social world we live in today”.

To complete his later work, Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein moved to Ireland in 1948 at Drury’s suggestion, living for a time at Red Cross, Co Wicklow, but then, in pursuit of greater seclusion, in a coastal cottage owned by Drury’s brother Miles at Rosroe, Killary Harbour, in Connemara (which Wittgenstein had visited earlier in 1934). Living there in the summer of 1948, the isolation proved too much even for Wittgenstein’s lonely spirit, and he moved to Dublin, taking a room in Ross’s Hotel (now the Aisling Hotel), close to St Patrick’s Hospital, where he could come under his former pupil’s care. Wittgenstein was afraid of a nervous breakdown but his neighbours at Rosroe, the Mortimers, thought he was already mad, wandering through the fields and taming birds to eat off his hands. This illusion of safety proved the birds’ undoing for when Wittgenstein left, they fell prey to local cats – the origins of Richard Murphy’s poem “The Philosopher and the Birds” (Murphy had bought the cottage at Rosroe without realising who its previous resident was). The proximity of Ross’s Hotel to Dublin Zoo meant that Wittgenstein often visited there, a testing ground, perhaps, for one of his famous remarks: “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” The point here is that even if the same sounds are emitted, or are formally indistinguishable, a capacity to understand their meaning requires a shared way of life. (Wittgenstein did not appreciate, perhaps, that the Dublin lion was already a Hollywood star, featuring in the opening credits of every MGM movie.)

In his conversations with Drury on Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, recorded in this volume, Wittgenstein took issue with Frazer’s belief, as an armchair anthropologist, that the magic and ritual of “primitive” societies were “bad” science, failed attempts to understand the environment that had now been put right by superior knowledge in the West. As Drury notes, these are the same “savages” who discovered fire, devised language, invented ploughing, pioneered architecture: Frazer “speaks of the Australian aborigines as the rudest savages as to whom we possess information. But could Frazer ever have made and used, let alone invent, a boomerang? Take Professor Frazer out of his college rooms and strand him in the Nullabor desert, and [to] these rude savages he would seem a veritable ignoramus.”

In the chapter “Madness and Religion” in The Danger of Words, Drury seeks to exempt the primitive mind from another charge: that it is not only in error but is mentally unsound in investing the world with supernatural solicitings: “In his books Totem and Taboo, The Future of an Illusion, and Moses and Monotheism, Freud argues that it is obvious to anyone trained in psychoanalysis that religious beliefs and practices are a racial neurosis.” For Freud, the problem of religious belief is pathological rather than philosophical in nature. On these terms, Drury wonders, when Joan of Arc hears voices and seeks to deliver France from the English, might not a “stiff dose of phenothiazine” have sent her back “in peace to the sheep herding at Domeray?” More to the point, if Joan could be shown to be delusional, does this discredit her visions? Drury thinks not: “it is a common prejudice that … if Joan of Arc was a schizophrenic she could not at the same time be a saint” – or, one is inclined to add, William Blake a poet or Antonin Artaud a genius of theatre. Wittgenstein was particularly concerned that what is considered normal might be imbued with an unwarranted scientific authority in dealing with mental disorders: “The thing I dread most, if I became mentally ill,” he remarked to Drury while under his care in Dublin, “would be your adopting a common sense attitude, that you would take it for granted that I was deluded.” Perhaps with such troubled cases in mind, Drury seeks to counter the prejudice that “mental illness is a degradation of the total personality; that it renders the sufferer to some degree subhuman”. This leads him to conclude (in the words of Ilham Dilman’s lengthy review of Drury’s The Danger of Words, helpfully included in the present volume) that no more than in establishing what is “normal”, “the question of whether a man is mentally ill or not is not a scientific question”.

Drury kept abreast of scientific advances in psychiatric treatment, including electro-convulsive therapy, and outlines how in his daily practice they yielded impressive results: “When I was a medical student there was no known form of treatment for what are often called the major psychoses: melancholia, manias, schizophrenia, paranoia. Now for each of these diseases we have a specific form of therapy: restraint and seclusion are things of the past, and duration of stay in hospital is measured in weeks rather than in months or years.” Yet he adds: “To most people’s surprise these treatments have turned out to be physical and chemical in nature and have not arisen from any deeper understanding of the psychological processes causing the symptoms manifested.” The treatment might be chemical but it is not clear that the reasons requiring the treatment are. Tolstoy may have lapsed into melancholia and depression but this cannot be attributed solely to a chemical imbalance (a “serotonin deficiency”, as modern pharmacology would have it): it was also due to a profound existential crisis and loss of faith, “an expression of a man’s having lost his way spiritually” (Ilham Dilman). Perhaps with the myth of Dr Jeykll and Mr Hyde in mind, Drury points out that much human breakdown does not come from biology or the animal side of nature but from excesses of the psyche, “precisely from those qualities which distinguish” us from “brute creation”: “intelligence and efficiency. Pride, self-sufficiency, smugness.”

It may have been for this reason that Drury was drawn to hypnosis, having been originally sceptical as to its existence, let alone efficacy in therapeutic practice. In its first hundred years, explanations of hypnosis were grounded in physical properties as in Franz Mesmer’s “animal magnetism”, and Drury notes how residues of this have survived in the use of the term “induction” (“inducing a coma”). But it became clear in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that mind, language, and gesture were the conduits of hypnotic trances, often of sufficient depth to act as a general anaesthetic for dental or surgical operations. Anaesthetics are once again physical or chemical in nature (for which we can only be thankful), but this still does not explain how pain can be suspended by hypnotic suggestions, not to mention the treatment of phobias, anxieties and other disorders.

Drury’s concern here is with the tendency to treat the mind as purely a physical substance, as if everything in consciousness (or the unconscious) could be reduced to activity of the brain: “Why should there not be some areas of behaviour which have no neurological counterpart?” At times Drury seems to fall back on a Cartesian split between mind and body to keep the encroachments of physical science at bay: “It is hidden inwardness that is the rock over which a scientific and objective psychology will always come to grief.” There is a strange reluctance to admit the materiality of the self, as in the ascetic statement that the body is the “tomb” of the soul: Socrates is quoted approvingly to the effect “that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body”. Otherwise, as he puts it in his own words, we have to face the prospect of “The mind prevented by the body from perceiving the truly real in all its wonder and beauty.”

For the most part, however, he rejects this mind/body dualism, drawing on Wittgenstein’s critique of a Cartesian private world to question the “unreflective use of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’”: “an outer world revealed by sight and an inner world of feeling, hearing, memory, etc”. This distinction compels us “to picture a boundary which had to be crossed and yet somehow we were to be conscious of both sides of the boundary”. But to speak of the external world “entering” consciousness through bodily sensations is misleading: “in this sense, the common everyday sense of ‘entering,’ you cannot speak of anything entering consciousness. For consciousness has no boundary, no threshold which can be observed.” Wittgenstein’s argument that even the most private experiences only make sense in terms of a public or socially shared language governs Drury’s thinking here: “For if we really begin by being shut up in our private perceptual world, how do we ever come to know that there are other observers? How could we have ever come to talk to them and to share a common language?”

Common language, on these terms, is less bedrock and more in keeping with the friction applied to the smooth functioning of systems in Wittgenstein’s phrase: “Back to the rough ground!” In the eyes of many contemporary psychologists and neurologists – Pavlov, JC Eccles and HJ Eysenck are among those cited by Drury – it is only a matter of time before ways of describing states of consciousness in common (“non-scientific”) language – understanding, willing, choosing, desiring, loving, hoping – become redundant, and share the fate of astrology with the emergence of modern astronomy. For Drury, however, no amount of information about the brain will explain the everyday “miracle” (his term) whereby sound waves “impinging on my eardrum, moving the ossicles of the middle ear, and transmitting nerve impulses to the auditory cortex via the eighth cranial nerve” come across as a musical symphony. There is no reason in principle why a deaf person could not become an ear specialist, but this knowledge is of a different order than the experience of sound: “imagine one born stone deaf: he could carry out a complete dissection of the outer, inner, and middle ear, and could become a master in the cytology of the auditory cortex, and nothing in all this would ever explain to him what hearing was like”. It is in this sense that the true mystery of life is the ordinary rather than the extraordinary: “however much the realm of what is explained is extended, the realm of the inexplicable is not reduced by one iota ... perception, memory, language remain for ever in the realm of the inexplicable”.

This is not to say that ordinary language or everyday experience remain static at the level of common sense. One of Wittgenstein’s key concerns, shared by Drury, is to contest precisely common-sense views of the world, as in uncritical notions of how we acquire language (by naming), how we see the world (through the windows of our eyes), how we conceive of the mind (as an interior space), or how we construe knowledge (as a mirror of nature). “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it,” Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Investigations, and thus the role of philosophy, shifting to another much-quoted metaphor, is “to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle”, to escape glass cages of our own making. Wittgenstein had no illusions that all was right in a “common-sense” world convulsed by two world wars, and expressed the hope, in the Preface to Philosophical Investigations, that in an atomic age, it might “fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, is to bring light into one brain or another – but of course it is not likely”. Though philosophy, like all ideas, is of its own time, Wittgenstein saw it as falling to the revolutionary or avant-garde thinker to help create conditions for new ideas to take hold in the future: “My type of thinking is not wanted in the present age. I have to swim so strongly against the tide. Perhaps in a hundred years people will really want what I am writing.”

At the time of his first visit to Connemara in 1934, Wittgenstein was contemplating moving to the Soviet Union, and applied for a visa at the Soviet embassy in London, where he was interviewed by the ambassador, Ivan Maisky. On being asked did he speak Russian, Wittgenstein replied: “Well, try me.” “After they had been talking for some time, Maisky had said, ‘Not bad at all’ – Russian, said Wittgenstein, was a most beautiful language to listen to.” Wittgenstein travelled to Russia in 1935 but turned down offers of appointments in philosophy: one at Moscow University, the other a chair at the University of Kazan. At the time, his student Rush Rhees’s left-wing commitments led him to consider joining the (Trotskyist) Revolutionary Communist Party, and indeed to link philosophy with everyday life: applying for one academic post in philosophy, Rhees wrote, “my latest employment has been as a shop assistant in Messrs Deighton, Bell and Co’s book shop”, and before his eventual appointment to a lectureship at the University of Swansea, Rhees was working as a welder in a factory.

Wittgenstein was sympathetic to Rhees’s political leanings but the aspirations of Marxism to science as a worldview, and the equation of progress with industrial and technological development, left him cold. When the Irish Marxist historian of science, Benjamin Farrington, gave a lecture on industrial progress at Swansea, and pointed to the Welsh coalfields as evidence, Wittgenstein asked him about the slagheaps disfiguring the Welsh valleys. Farrington responded: “With all the ugly sides of our civilization, I am sure you would rather live as we do now than have to live as the caveman did.” To which Wittgenstein replied: “Yes of course you would. But would the caveman?”

Wittgenstein established a close friendship with another Marxist thinker and classical scholar, George Thomson, who learned Irish on moving to Kerry in the 1920s, and who encouraged the Blasket Islander Muiris Ó Súilleabháin to write his classic memoir, Fiche Blian ag Fás (1933), co-translating it as Twenty Years A-Growing for Oxford University Press. One of the most helpful aspects of this volume of Drury’s selected writings is the lengthy section “Biographical and Historical Notes”, which includes entries on Thomson, Rush Rhees and others, as well as the Drury family. The most poignant entry is for Drury’s second son, the well-known and highly respected journalist Paul Drury, who was originally co-editor with John Hayes of the volume but who died tragically in 2015. George Thomson’s example comes to mind in a letter Drury wrote to Rush Rhees in 1974, stating that Paul, still at secondary school, “loathed the idea of going to Trinity or any other university! I think his experiences in Kerry where he made friends with the native Irish speaking peasantry changed his outlook a lot.” As well as editing several newspapers, including Ireland on Sunday and The Irish Daily Mail, Paul Drury also worked on Irish language programmes on television and edited the Irish language weekly Amárach. The volume is dedicated to him, a fitting tribute for his “deepening understanding and enabling action”.

It is the experience of grief and tragedy that tests the boundaries between normality and pathology in the end, for faced with profound loss, nothing is ever the same again. As if in mind of TS Eliot’s query, “what happens to the soul of man under psychoanalysis?”, Drury writes: “None of us are able to ‘heal the soul’ as the word psychiatrist implies”. An understated but deep religious current runs through Drury’s essays, letters and talks in this book, informed by his Christian beliefs and, it must be said, by the writings of Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, Von Hügel and Tolstoy as well as Wittgenstein. Yet one statement of Wittgenstein in a conversation with Drury strikes a chord throughout: “I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.” For Wittgenstein, religion need not posit another world: the mysteries of this world are a source of wonder in their own right. Drury suggests as much in his insistence that despite all the advances of science, “the leap from the physical to the mental will remain always in the realm of the inexplicable. Concerning this may I not once again use the word ‘miracle’?” At one point, Drury cites in passing “Plato’s beautiful expression, ‘the other side of the sky’”: his own writings convey a sense that the other side of the sky has been down here all along.

Luke Gibbons taught as professor of Irish Studies at Maynooth University and is the author of Joyce’s Ghosts: Ireland, Modernism and Memory (2015).

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