Friday 2 October 2009

Darwin on the couch

Creation, directed by Jon Amiel (2009)

Creation joins a growing number of films where beautiful photography and costumes and a stilted way of talking are supposed to convey historical authenticity yet belie a thoroughly modern sensibility. Instead of insights into Darwin’s revolutionary ideas, or the historical context in which they were generated, we learn about contemporary assumptions and therapeutic rituals through which to interpret and sort out our ‘emotional issues’.

Perhaps I’ve been studying therapy culture too long, but during the film I checked off no less than eight therapeutic orthodoxies, beliefs about how we should deal with our own and others’ emotions if we are to cope with life. Sad really: experts in film genres or directors like to watch for subtle in-the-know references and there am I picking out the language, rituals and assumptions of therapy.

So, Darwin cannot come to terms with the death of his eldest daughter, producing post-traumatic stress disorder, with accompanying psychosomatic illness, which ‘blocks’ his writing, creates a huge unspoken emotional rift with his wife and makes him unable to communicate with his other three children. Through clichéd wounded looks, his children, especially the younger daughter, signal their rejection and its potential for lasting emotional legacies where, according to contemporary therapeutic sensibility, they will find it hard to relate to their own children.

The pressing problem for the family is not the challenge Darwin’s ideas will present to their religious beliefs, or the notoriety publishing them will bring into their settled life, but to their emotional welfare. We wish he could just talk, that his wife could enable him to, that his hurt children could tell him how they feel. If only those Victorians had our emotional literacy, implies the film, he wouldn’t need all that hocus pocus hydrotherapy. In another thoroughly modern scene, his male friend, the vicar, tries to ‘bond’ with him about his emotional baggage, to no avail.

We pity Darwin, not because of the political, academic and religious challenges he faces in trying to get his ideas out, but because of his overwhelming need to gain emotional ‘closure’. His emotions inhibit his intellectual work. He declines physically and mentally because he is ‘in denial’ of his grief and we pity the way those Victorians repressed their emotions. In our enlightened contemporary world, he could have bereavement counselling or, if he was a child, emotional literacy classes. Even better, his children could express their feelings in circle time.

But all is well. His doctor forces him to talk, and they have a thoroughly modern, very authentic bereavement counselling session, complete with a clichéd dialogue about denial, closure and the negative effects on communication and sex with his wife, straight out of a CRUISE handbook. Although Darwin seems to resist the doctor’s insights and storms out, he revisits the room where his daughter dies and finally achieves closure. And in an even more incongruous co-counselling session with his wife that would have had therapists from Relate and emotional literacy trainers weeping in the aisles (whilst also worrying that films like this will soon make them redundant), he and his wife reconnect, complete with reignited sex, and scenes of post-coital emotional communication that are even more clichéd than the rest of the ridiculous script.

Surprise, surprise - closure enables Darwin to write The Origin of the Species while the renewed emotional connection leads his wife to suspend her religious objections and encourage him to publish it. Its effects and impact on public debate? We know not. The substance of his ideas? We know even less. Much more important is that he finally re-bonds with his children, particularly the daughter, and that all-important unconditional love is reinstated.

Anyone looking forward to even a modicum of intelligent treatment of a very contemporary debate about creation will have to wade through two hours of therapeutic rubbish that is presumably designed to make the fleeting references to Darwin’s scientific ideas palatable to an audience steeped in therapy culture.

Creation demonstrates the subtle but powerful grip of certain beliefs about how to express emotion ‘appropriately’, about explanations of human action and about problems in the ways we relate to each other. It is the latest example of historical revisionism in biographies and film that reinterpret people’s motives and behaviours through therapeutic diagnosis. The film cannot get a licence to show in the United States because it provokes the wrath of the powerful Creationist lobby. Perhaps the film’s producers are barking up the wrong marketing tree and should promote it as self-help, do–it-yourself therapy instead.

Kathryn Ecclestone is Professor of Education and Social Inclusion at the University of Birmingham, co-author of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education and director of an ESRC-funded seminar series on ‘emotional well-being and social justice’. She is producing ‘Therapy Culture Re-Visited’ at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival, on Saturday 31 October

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