David Holt: some introductory reflections to his writings by Michael Whan

Perhaps the best way of introducing David Holt’s writings is to quote fully from a letter he received from the great English poet, Ted Hughes. It expresses the profound impact of Holt’s thought on an equally inspired and inspiring man. He had sent Hughes a collection of his essays, Theatre and Behaviour: Hawkwood Papers 1979 to 1989 (privately published, 1987). These essays were brought together from talks Holt gave at a series of workshops on theatre and psychology that he (Pat Watts, Wendy Robinson, Molly Tuby, and others) had organized and developed which took place over a number of years at Hawkwood, near Stroud in Gloucester. Hughes wrote back:

Dear David Holt,

Somehow your note to me, and your ‘Theatre and Behaviour’, slipped through a crevasse in this mountain of paper on which I live. I found it only a couple of days ago. Thank you for your words and your lectures. They are so full of things-emerging from real work, insight grappling with Proteus, not riffling through the card index. Reading them is putting me through a surprising process. I am seeing all kinds of things afresh. Thank you again.

Ted Hughes.Quote close

Holt’s writing and thought are just that: ‘so full of things-emerging from real work, insight grappling with Proteus’ and when we read them we are indeed put ‘through a surprising process’.

David Holt died at dawn on Easter Sunday, 2002. At his funeral, he had prepared a ‘personal reading’ for those gathered in the church and for a wider reading. It began with a question-one that belongs not only to the occasion of his funeral, but also to the act of reading him now posthumously, and to the unfolding of his whole work: ‘What have the living and the dead to celebrate together when we meet like this at a funeral?’ Holt answered himself: ‘We meet together to keep time.’ Reading David Holt is all about that participatory engagement between author and reader with its deep responsibility of ‘keeping time’. ‘Keeping time’ through reading draws us into what Hughes called ‘a surprising process’, echoing something that Holt had written years before, that psyche is surprised by the verb to be. To read Holt, we have to ‘meet together’, author, reader, we have to share with him that feeling of urgent responsibility for ‘keeping time’, of ‘time given into our keeping’, which means also allowing for surprise, even shock. Writing of the novel Riddley Walker, Holt expressed how it ‘moves me’, pointing to the way we have now also to read Holt. For like this difficult and strange novel of Russell Hoban’s, it ‘remind[s] us constantly how surprising words are. being surprised at words is the beginning of realising what the gulf between humanity and nature is like.’ (‘Riddley Walker And Greenham Common: Further Thoughts on Alchemy, Christianity and the Work Against Nature’) Perhaps the nature of the practice we are speaking of in such a rigour of writing and reading, in terms of surprise, is essentially poetic or musical. For, as Holt himself put it in the final lines of his funeral address:

There is never enough time. There is all the time we need. Somehow (God only knows how) both are true, if only we can catch the beat.Which is why we are here. Now, Hereafter. Like it was and like it will be, it is still ‘once upon a time’. Still. A still beat. We are come together, you and I, to catch that beat.Quote close

The beat of time is about timing and rhythm, and one of the rhythms Holt is bidding us be mindful of is that of breathing. His writing always points us to the organic relationship between language and breath, and thus between language and body, the latter for Holt being both ‘personal’ and ‘social’. The notion of the ‘two bodies’, so crucial in his thinking and practice, he distinctly elaborated, drawing this notion from the work of the anthropologist, Mary Douglas. For instance, among the notes Holt made for a talk entitled ‘Breathing, How we Time our Lives, Treatment, Letting Be’, given to the Oxford Psychotherapy Society in November, 2000, he begins to weave his thoughts between these themes of breath, time, language, voice, psychotherapies, and ontology. He writes:

Take a breath
- are you an inhaler or an exhaler?
- illustrate with: voice after inhaling only-or-exhale first, then inhale, then voice
- started me asking: where does a breath begin and end?
- demonstrate the alternative: (to anchor my talk in my breathing)
- try it ourselves now

– power of this alternative
- links to meditation traditions based on breathing and also prayer
- activates a kind of alternation or beat between future/past, expectation/recollection, hope and “so that’s how it is”
- is this choice as to where we begin a breath picking up on something about how we time our lives?Quote close

As we hear in this piece, his talks and writings give voice to a complex and often difficult intuitive and feeling intellect, holding together in a sometimes almost too subtle way a wealth of phenomena and modes of experience. What is Holt trying to catch with these ‘notes’? Is it not the same as that which an Eskimo poet, Orpingalik, told to an ethnologist: ‘songs are thoughts sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces’? Then there is Rilke: ‘Real singing is a different breath/A breath for nothing. A wafting in the god/A wind.’ Or Heidegger writing of ‘non-objectifying thinking and saying’: ‘Breath stands for the breathing-in-and-out, for the letting-be-said which answers, or cor-responds, to that which is accepted.’ Holt, as are Orpingalik, Rilke, and Heidegger, is trying to reach something that connects saying and listening to the body and the world, a way of thought which is beyond what normally passes for ‘thinking’, an awareness of being which moves and sounds in breathing. Holt’s deeply compassionate, and unique sensibility of heart and mind, was marked also by a certain fighting spirit, vulnerable yet tough. He was and is a singular example of that rare species-despite many pretenders to the title-an authentic psychologist. And so his writings too are that rarity- authentically psychological.

I don’t feel we have yet comprehended Holt’s originality and its seminal role in relation to Jung’s psychology. His apprehension of it was radical and extremely individual, such that his writing is not easy of access. Acknowledging the help he gained from reading Jung, Holt wrote, with a certain ironic self-appreciation, of building ‘the rather leaky boat to which I have come to trust myself’ (’45 Years In and Out of Jung’s Psychology’, Bulletin of the Oxford Psychotherapy Society, March 1993). It is a vessel that many of us have also learned to trust, carrying us to the psychological edge of things, because as a truely edgy thinker, his work emerges from deeply personal concerns, events, and experiences. For instance, Holt’s long-standing interest and curiosity about time and timing served him well, when, returning from his Jungian analytic training in Switzerland to Britain, his application for membership of the Society of Analytical Psychology was refused, as the Society did not recognize the validity of its Swiss counterpart, the Zurich qualification. He wrote, in a paper which arose from his meditation on ‘frequency’,’[m]y training analysis…had been tuned to twice a week…[and]…to once a week’ (in David Holt, The Psychology Of Carl Jung: Essays in Application and Deconstruction. Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1976/1992). Typically, he drew upon such adversity to reflect on time and timing. Matters, he felt, that were ‘worth dividing on’. ‘substantial differences as to the value of psyche itself’. Such matters and their implications for the ‘inner divide’ of the Jungian community are still very much with us. Nevertheless, I know of no one who has given such thought to these questions with his many writings on time and history: for instance, ‘Sex and the Wound of Time’ (1983), ‘The Timing of Analysis’ (1971), ‘The Cost of Health: Payment, Treatment, Time’ (1974), ‘Alchemy and Psychosis: Curiosity and the Metaphysics of Time’ (1988). It would help us much in our differences and the way we tackle them, I feel, if Holt’s writings were more widely read and shared. To the extent that they are not, or are simply ignored, I suspect it is because we are not up to facing the challenges and rigours of feeling and thought that they pose to us.

Jung wrote in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, that ‘without history there can be no psychology’ (C.G.Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffe. New York: Random House, 1963, p.205). That sense of the historical was absolutely central to Holt’s thought and work. Jung made his remark in the context of discovering the alchemical roots of his psychology. Jung’s audacious alchemical studies were also foundational for Holt; and in his work, he wrote of alchemy in a way central to the concerns of our time. Holt’s alchemical papers went beyond a certain style of Jungian writing that artificially embellishes ‘the clinical’ with rhetorical wrapping drawn from alchemical language, but adding little more than a sense of ‘mystique’ or mystificationary jargon. Holt was able to relate these two historical forms of life and practice-the psychological and the alchemical-because he did not collapse historical time. Holt was acutely aware, as was Jung, of the difference between the psychological and the alchemical mind. Reviewing a number of articles in the Journal, Ambix (the Journal of the Society for the Study of Alchemy and Early Chemistry), he concluded:

One important strand linking alchemy with modern technology is woven out of the human ability to speed up the time of mineral change. What does this imply for our responsibility for history, and in particular for the history of the scientific revolution…the ‘invention of the method of invention’ (‘Alchemy, Jung and the Historians of Science’. In The Psychology Of Carl Jung, p.408).Quote close

He goes on to link this with ‘our responsibility for the opus contra naturam’, the ‘work against nature’. Holt’s observation on speed demonstrates to the thoughtful reader just how relevant the psychological study of alchemy can be, for he connects this ‘occult science’ with the very essence of modernity: its valorization of speed. Yet, we can go further with his insight, since it also opens up those differences among analytic therapies concerning time and timing, to which alchemy can contribute, in order to deepen our awareness of what is going on.

Holt’s thought moves between many differing domains, as in his ‘Jung and Marx: Alchemy, Christianity and the Work Against Nature’ (1974), ‘Alchemy, Marx and the Christian Imagination’ (1977), and ‘Riddley Walker and Greenham Common: Further Thoughts on Alchemy, Christianity and the Work Against Nature’ (1983), all collected together in The Psychology Of Carl Jung (though better titled, as one reviewer said, perhaps affirming the Holt’s originality, The Psychology Of David Holt). This is an astonishing list of titles. Who else could go to the heart of the matter, so that we begin to read Jung and Marx off against each other in a way that transfigures both? For instance this passage from ‘Jung And Marx: Alchemy, Christianity and the Work Against Nature’, in which he draws attention to the radical changes coming about with the emergence of money:

Money has its origin in the market place where we go to exchange what we have but don’t need, for what we need but don’t have. Money is the medium which facilitates this exchange, but in so doing it converts the immaterial process of exchange into a thing which can itself be exchanged for other things. It is as if when things are exchanged in the market place a new power is born, a power that breaks out of the circle of man’s intercourse with nature. This power has no existence in nature, yet manages to establish itself in its own right as existing over against man and nature.Quote close

In such passages, we can also realize the importance Holt attached to the notion of the ‘two bodies’, social and personal, and how this idea of the ‘broken circle’ between man and nature, or even between nature and itself, can provide us not only analytic insights into those deep estrangements called ‘psychopathology’, but connect these with the economy of social and ecological alienation. And how does all of this bear upon the question of ‘payment’ in psychotherapy and analysis, and on the relationship between payment and frequency, that is, between time and money? It was Holt’s deeply informed feeling for psychology, history, and metaphysics that enabled him, and through him ourselves, to move between such seemingly different thinkers.This phrase encompassed the many critical issues that his writings engaged with: sexuality, psychosis, time, economy, nature, theatre, body, science, and so on. Through such engagements, he made relevant and timely the notion of ‘our responsibility for the opus contra naturam’.

Through his own funeral address, David Holt found a way to continue his dialogue with us, family, relatives, friends, and strangers, reminding us of the discourse that needs to go on between the living and the dead. Time matters to both, as does the matter of language, remembering, and forgetting. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung speaks of the nature of his psychology in terms of the relationship between the living and dead, characterizing his work as ‘attempts, ever renewed, to give an answer to the question of the interplay between the “here” and the “hereafter”‘ (p.299). Psychology-or at least Jung’s-comprises a mediumistic reply, for, says Jung, the dead are ‘waiting to hear what answer we will give to them, and what answer to destiny.’ David Holt wrote in his final address that we must take ‘this and every funeral with us into the world’. In these word’s we can catch the trace of his life and death, a memorial line from a gifted and generous man, calling us to a responsibility for past, present, and future time.

At my last meeting with David Holt, we left the possibility open that we might meet a further time. David took me to the front door, and, when I turned around for a final glimpse of him, I saw that he had gone inside but left the front door wide open. It felt like a deliberate gesture, signifying for me that there is no final closure between life and death, the door remains open. That door is the mortal moment between our breathing in and breathing out: breath, a threshold between life and death. Or, as David Holt put it, speaking of ‘letting be’, which, he said, ‘is how we manage without therapy…It knows about staying power, and it knows about breaking points…It breathes in, and it breathes out, and in doing so enables us to take things as they come and as they go’.

Michael Whan