Great interviews

The Grace of Friendship Sparks of the Mystery
Anguish and depression, not only as pathologies, are the fruit of the indifference in which we live. But dwelling in every man is a thirst for the Infinite, for Mystery. We talked about this with the psychiatrist Eugenio Borgna. The encounter and affinities with Fr Giussani

edited by Carlo Dignola

Eugenio Borgna, one of Europe’s leading psychiatrists and a professor at the Nervous Ailments Clinic of the University of Milan, has recently published a very good book, entitled Le intermittenze del cuore [The Intermittences of the Heart] (Feltrinelli). Thumbing through it, we find titles like “In Search of the Lost Face” and “Dialogue with Dostoevskij,” comments on the music of Schubert, quotes from Romano Guardini, and reflections on the role of the affections in human life, inspired by Leopardi.
The book is a complex web, woven in order to talk about the illness of the mind from every angle, openly contesting the “technology approach” of pharmacological psychiatry (which he does not hesitate to call “barbaric”) that is so widespread today, and to defend the “space of the soul” in the midst of a practice of psychiatry that, despite its “democratic” manifestoes, reduces man more and more to a neurological machine. Conversely, Borgna, who has by now abandoned his work at the psychiatry clinic of the hospital of Novara, with his very dense and fascinating writing (as is his talk), in this book sums up all his human experiences in contact with often atrocious suffering, yet caressed, nonetheless, by a breath of unfailing hope.
“ The disturbances of the memory are tied to the intermittences of the heart,” wrote Marcel Proust in the passage that suggested the book’s title. The boundless horizons of the inner life, Borgna says, draw from the memory of the joys and sufferings experienced in order to break through the crust of a rationality understood as a purely intellectual faculty, to surface suddenly “in the wake of the sudden leaps of the heart.” But perhaps Borgna also says something more profound than Proust: those inter-mittences are not only the systolic and diastolic movements of a muscle whose beating cannot be controlled, but are actual messages: they travel through life like broken telegraph signals that the heart sends (mittere) in the direction of another heart, until they find someone capable of listening to them.

Professor Borgna, in your book you describe a growing difficulty in our society to show one’s feelings. Meetings between people have never been so easy and so frequent, and yet it seems harder to reveal one’s inner world.
A great nineteenth-century German psychiatrist, Wilhelm Griesinger, wrote that when he lived outside the insane asylum, he encountered all around him indifference, aggressiveness, the lack of an inner life and of a search for life’s meaning, and that in order to find these meanings he had to go back into the midst of his patients. Even then! Imagine what psychiatry was like a hundred and fifty years ago, without any real treatments, without medicines, without psychotherapy except the unaware but instinctive dialogue that welled up in these great doctors who knew what a life-giving word can mean. This lack of an inner life evidently comes along with the enormous development of technology, that drains of meaning both those who practice this profession and those who live immersed in a world made up today of increasingly refined instruments, but also characterized by a process of reification that spreads out, crushing and emptying our life. Only if two faces meet, only if we are connected by a dialogue–Gadamer used to say–that transforms both the one who listens and the one who speaks, can we imagine saving these fragile vessels, words, from annihilation or at least from being emptied out, but it is an undertaking that is growing harder and harder. There is a timidity, a fear of expressing feelings in a world in which these seem to be more and more marginalized or reduced to stereotypes. I manage to find great islands of recovered innerness, even if under siege, essentially in those who are ill, in those who–as Romano Guardini has already said–are touched by anxiety, restlessness, the search for an encounter, and even, if one will, by pain. Kurt Schneider, another German psychiatrist, once wrote: Woe betide those existences that are born and develop, and maybe expire, without ever being touched by the grace of melancholy and anguish. To be sure, if these start to rage, they turn into very painful illnesses, which sometimes require pharmacological treatment. But this may not be sufficient: it is necessary to recover within ourselves the meaning and value of intangible things like friendship.

Today, we have many “acquaintances” but friendship is a rare experience. In your book, there is a dramatic statement by the American poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide: “I am beyond all help,” she said in a moment when she was obsessed by abysmal thoughts. Many people experience suffering, even grave suffering, but this sensation of being totally alone, of not being able to receive any help, may be a point of no return.
One can sink so deeply into a condition of anguish and desperation that even the feelings of friendship grow dim and faint, and have to be revitalized with an ability–which, understand, some have and others don’t–to testify in silence. Because words, when we fall into these absolute, incandescent forms of depression, shrivel up immediately; only gestures still have meaning. With the dying, holding a hand–as Norbert Elias said–is the only way to transmit something. We are devoured by the indifference that characterizes, alas, our ways of living when we are at work, and also when we are at home, which means that the indifference patients feel when they are deep in a depression is the daughter of the indifference, albeit more epidermal, of those who, even without being ill, live this superficiality, this sliding over the surface of the things of life, which does not permit exchange or dialogue. Thus it is essential to recover the “grace of friendship” of which Simone Weil spoke.

Friendship: it seems a somewhat old word…
Worn out, uncustomary… Friendship is looking at a person from a distance (thus not from up close, as, for example, love does), but grasping his secret core of joy or of suffering. It is a feeling that lives only if there is this distance to be recovered and transfigured, because keeping this flame alive, this torch of human relationship, when we are in any case distant from each other, is infinitely difficult. These are things that seem “out of this world;” we experience them above all in the contact with those who are ill, but from the ethical standpoint, we are the ones who are even worse off.

This friendship, as you have described it, is the greatest experience a man can have, placed at the heart of love itself. I am reminded of how Fr Giussani speaks about it, and how he lives it: a possibility of radical familiarity with regard to a person who is sympathetic to your destiny, to your ultimate best interest, and not to an idea.
An image like this of Simone Weil’s “friendship as grace,” I believe, can link a dazzling thought like Giussani’s with a more feeble thought like that of someone who works with psychiatry like me. I have always thought, reading the things he writes, that perhaps, in some way, our journey is a parallel one, in which the two straight lines tend to converge at infinity. Friendship is indisputably a virtue with a Christian matrix. Within essential values in psychiatry like meeting, talking, being together in pain, these great values are reflected that are at the same time religious, spiritual, but also useful in the medical field in which I work, albeit in an autonomous form. As you see, I distinguish the levels a little because I feel that the synthesis must be made, if anything, by the (very many) people who read Giussani and the few who read my books.

Simone Weil speaks of the “grace of friendship.” What does this mean, in your opinion?
Grace as the thunderbolt of the inexpressible, the spiritual, the Mystery even, that, however, lives in us, lives in you, lives in me, and that burns up every rational, cold, icy passage to make us grasp what we feel, what we foresee as indispensable to life. Grace, then, as a psychological dimension, undoubtedly, as a biological goal, as something, however, that exists, whose effects we know without knowing their causes. If I try to define friendship as a concept, it disintegrates, slips through our fingers, risks being devoured. And it is saved only if we insert it into a groove, for example that of Fr Giussani’s great, but profoundly human, it seems to me, discussion of theology, or in Simone Weil’s, which is not a theological or psychological or philosophical discourse, but lets us glimpse some distant splinter, some spark of mystery. Without this, everything becomes darkness, obscurity, misunderstanding, and also, I believe, an inability to grasp the sense of suffering of others, which always has within it an area of obscurity that can be grasped and taken in only by those who know what a gaze is; no eye doctor can go search for it in a person’s eyes! All the theories, all these floods of words we use, try to define something that is inexpressible. Because, after all, we can break down anguish, suffering, schizophrenia into lots of symptoms, but in reality they elude any rational discussion. In Giussani’s splendid discourse, there is always a distinction between the psychological and the transcendental planes. I do not agree with certain studies of the “psychology of religion;” they seem to me to be reckless attempts because they risk making psychological–i.e., empirical–something that really belongs to the sphere of the spirit, of transcendence. Whereas, I repeat, the synthesis of the two paths happens at infinity.

But we cannot say that the infinite has nothing to do with our everyday life…
Certainly, the infinite, if it lives in us, accompanies us in every act, every gesture of our life, independently of the psychology that characterizes us. These are values that move and live inside what we are doing when we meet with others. Reducing these values to a certain psychological organization, for which some people have more suitable, more “religious,” psychologies means at bottom questioning once again this great thesis of the infinite that is working in us. No psychology can ever explain to me what grace is. It seems to me that in Fr Giussani, these planes are kept distinct, just as I have tried to do myself, in my own small way of thinking and acting, certainly leaving the door wide open to this circularity of experience because of which the infinite lives in us and–as Guardini says–melancholy itself is a foretaste of it: as though depths of meaning opened up in us so profound as to let us always catch a glimpse of the line of mystery.

You speak often of the “heart,” but not in sentimental terms, it seems to me.
The “reasons of the heart” are those that move in St Augustine and that led even Heidegger to write that the essential things of life, i.e., birth, suffering, dying, can be grasped only if we leave behind the bright light of reason, acknowledging that there exists an alternative form of knowledge, which is the one of which Paschal or Scheler speaks, but also the Christian one, I believe. Proust identifies the reasons of the heart as intuition. But what is intuition? I usually give this example: a patient comes into the office, and even before he speaks, before he expresses something of his suffering, thanks to a perception of the invisible–which comes, without doubt, through looks, faces, the smiles that are sometimes tears, the tears that are sometimes smiles–you perceive instantly the deep core that is in him. How can an abstract, rational knowledge tell me something about the feelings, the emotions that others feel? What does rational knowledge have to do with the memory that makes me suddenly relive long-ago events–here is the “intermittent heart”–that are born again in that instant because the light I see this morning outside the window of my office is associated with the light I saw years ago over Monte Rosa, on another day, a day as crystalline and sunny as this one? God is perceptible by the heart and not by abstract reason, said Paschal.

However, he spoke of “reasons of the heart”–that is to say, the heart is not the opposite of reason. Certainly, this is not a case of its reduction as in the Enlightenment, but it is still something that enables us to know.
Certainly. The heart, too, makes us consider, see, look at, touch (this is perhaps the important point) the Mystery. It is another horizon of knowledge, an integrative one. I do not say that only this one must exist, but it is like the shadow that accompanies the light of reason, making us grasp also the things we do not say, that we do not even feel… Even a rationalist like Robert Musil has written that the area of the inexpressible is very vast, and if we are dazzled by the search for an absolute rationality, we shall never grasp it.

How did you get to know Fr Giussani?
Our first meeting took place here in Novara, one evening at dinner, fifteen years ago. I was struck by the dazzling immediacy of his argument, which never showed those coldly theological cracks that, I’m afraid, make dialogue with anyone difficult. His was an argument filled with the spiritual transparence that characterizes the great Christian teachers. I saw in him theology absorbed and transfigured, I would say, into a core of absolute faith, but never detached from the psychological perception of the person next to him. In Giussani, the grand spiritual discourse is accompanied by an extraordinary capacity to grasp the adaptations that each person makes of the things he says. Then, I was impressed by the breadth of his approach: Leopardi, Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, as dimensions that expand the spiritual evangelical core, widening thus the air, the space of listening also to those who maybe do not have a common confidence in the journey of faith. His spirituality seemed to me very modern because it is embodied in everyday life. In some of his texts, I have seen that he quoted things I have said, but here, too, capturing fully the diversity of the course we are following. At the same time, I perceived the search, and thus the appreciation, which is always also acknowledgment, of the values that each of us puts into practice, albeit in different fields, which it seems to me are much more beautiful and useful when we view them as mirrors reflecting their images. To be sure, however, some values end up binding the two journeys together. The essential values that Fr Giussani proposes to everyone, if they live also in us, enable us to enlarge our knowledge of Mystery, which is essential also in psychiatry; the inexpressibility, the unknowability remain nonetheless, and sometimes are insurmountable–no books, no experiences can break through their boundaries. If we live life as Fr Giussani presents it, even inside what is a simple, empirical, but human experience like mine, there is no doubt that we are helped. Because the period of weakness, of restlessness, lives in each one of us, but above all in those who see a patient in front of them and intuit that the risk of death is in him, and maybe a week later that person commits suicide. To accept this risk, which is in some way immanent in psychiatry, to know how to fit it into this boundless area of the search for meaning that we find in Fr Giussani, being able to do it in one’s own concrete way of working means receiving help, even without being a part of the Movement of Communion and Liberation. Thus, the debt one owes him reading his texts, listening to him, is a very great one.

by Benedetta Villani
Eugenio Borgna was born on July 22, 1930, in Borgomanero, Italy. He received his medical degree in 1954 from the University of Turin, and his specialization in nervous and mental illness in 1957. He has been a professor at the Nervous and Mental Illness Clinic of the University of Milan since 1962. From 1970 to 1978, he was Director of the Psychiatric Hospital of Novara; since 1978 he has headed the Psychiatry Service of the Ospedale Maggiore of Novara.
He has studied, in particular, the psychopathology of depression and schizophrenia in numerous works. In his own words, published in the journal Studi di psichiatria [Studies in Psychiatry], he explains that the passion for “the subjectivity, the inner life of patients” led him to concentrate on psychiatry, abandoning his initial interest in neurology. “It seems to me that I can say, focusing on psychiatry, that I have been able to recognize and, at least in part, seek to fulfill my destiny… which is to follow the mysterious path that leads inwards and that is the premise for approaching the innerness, the subjectivity of the other-than-us, for the purpose of understanding and alleviating their suffering.”

by C. D.
Eugenio Borgna is the author of numerous essays, among which L’arcipelago delle emozioni [The Archipelago of the Emotions] (2001) was particularly successful, not only among specialists in mental illness. He alternates a more technical production, aimed at his psychiatrist colleagues, with more popular works, in which he analyzes emotions and feelings that can be signs of psychic disturbance or more serious pathologies. Contesting the naturalistic interpretation now in vogue, which sees the cause of psychic illness in a malfunctioning of the brain mechanisms and uses drugs and electroshock as treatments, Borgna, while considering the aid of medicines indispensable in the case of psychoses, defends the need for relating to the patient and getting to know his inner world in order to treat him. Among his works are: I conflitti del conoscere [The Conflicts of Knowing] (1988), Malinconia [Melancholy] (1992), Come se finisse il mondo [As Though the World Were Ending] (1995), Le figure dell’ansia [The Figures of Anxiety] (1997), Noi siamo un colloquio [We Are a Conversation] (1999), Le intermittenze del cuore [The Intermittences of the Heart] (2003).