OBITUARY : Dr Alan McGlashan

Robert Hinshaw
Tuesday 20 May 1997 23:02

Alan McGlashan was a prominent psychiatrist and eclectic psychoanalyst, who continued to practise in his Sloane Street office until just days before his death in his 99th year.

Though an eclectic in terms of the tools of his trade, he was particularly taken by the ideas of Carl Gustav Jung and he travelled to Zurich for consultations with him on several occasions in the late 1930s, and in 1984 edited an abridged version of Jung's published correspondence with Sigmund Freud.

In the preface to that book, McGlashan typically adopts a new and unusual attitude toward the dispute that ended the relationship between the two great pioneers of depth psychology. As so often, his view is fresh, dynamic and unexpected:

Apart from its intrinsic interest, the story as it unfolds in the letters has also the structure of a paradigm: a classic instance of the love-hate relationship acted out in countless homes between gifted sons and gifted fathers. The Freud-Jung split has been usually regarded as a great tragedy. But the point is arguable. It is possible to see it as a painful but highly fortunate event.

This type of "father-son" clash is one which is apt to call out the negative side of both contestants, alternating with exhausting efforts to reach mutual understanding. It was precisely their breaking with each other that put a stop to all this, and gave room for the eventual full flowering of personality and achievement in both men. If the break had not occurred, the continual adjustments each was constrained to make in order to accommodate to the other and so preserve the relationship, might have resulted in a still greater tragedy. It might have robbed the world of two magnificent and highly individualistic contributions to the understanding of the human psyche.

McGlashan was the son of a general practitioner of Scottish origin who had a passion for the sea; he was drowned during the Second World War when the Domala, on which he was serving as ship's surgeon - after lying about his age - was bombed. Alan was educated at Epsom College before entering the RFC (later the RAF) at a tender age during the First World War, and flying many perilous missions, including two aerial encounters with the "Red Baron", the German ace Baron von Richthofen. McGlashan was awarded the MC and the Croix de Guerre avec Palmes, and was frequently mentioned in dispatches.

After the war he attended Clare College, Cambridge, then followed his father into the medical profession, training at St George's Hospital in London, and taking his psychiatric and analytic training at the Maudsley Hospital and the Tavistock Clinic respectively. He served as a country doctor in Surrey until 1937, switching to psychiatry only in 1939, which he continued to practise for another 58 years.

While still studying to be a doctor he had stints as a dramatic critic on the Observer and News Chronicle (in 1923-24), and was a ship's surgeon on a tramp steamer (1924-25). During the Second World War he served as a consulting psychiatrist on the War Office Selection Board.

Alan McGlashan was a serious philosopher, and exchanged ideas - and friendships - with some of the leading thinkers of his day, among them Arthur Koestler and J.B. Priestley. He was close friends with the writer-explorer Sir Laurens van der Post and his wife Ingaret Giffard, and wrote his last essay, "How to be Haveable", for a forthcoming Festschrift for van der Post, entitled The Rock Rabbit and the Rainbow: Laurens van der Post among friends (1997).

McGlashan's best-known book is The Savage and Beautiful Country: the secret life of the mind (1966). In it he gives own speculative philosophy of life, beautifully crafted - jargon was anathema to him. It was a so- called "underground classic", particularly in the United States, and was revised and republished in 1988. A new and expanded edition of Gravity and Levity: the philosophy of paradox (1976) appeared in 1994.

But McGlashan's greatest fascination was with the phenomenon of time, and in this regard he was a full-fledged philosopher. The subject was addressed at length in both of his last books, and it continued to be at the centre of his interest to the end. In The Savage and Beautiful Country he writes:

The quality in Time which most deeply of all offends man's impatient spirit is not its swiftness but the maddening uniformity of its progress, moment following moment, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, while man looks helplessly on, unable to hasten or hinder. No other single fact in all existence is so crushing to human ambition, so openly contemptuous of human values.

In a nutshell, he saw our usual understanding of time as being either linear, cyclical or eternal, the latter being what he referred to as the "pure present".

It is no surprise that this deep and lifelong concern of his, relentlessly researched, experienced and reflected, led to another original McGlashan attitude:

It would seem reasonable to consider the impertinent suggestion that time itself has a fourth dimension, hitherto disregarded, whose task it is to decide what quality of attention we should give to each of these three accepted dimensions of time . . .

Though he lived his last years, with the help of his wife Sasha, in what might be called creative introversion, seemingly in this fourth dimension, McGlashan was anything but a sage in his ivory tower. He loved and was passionately concerned with the state of the world, and where it is heading; this was the driving force in his analytic work and his writing. He gives an account of his approach to the world in his foreword to The Savage and Beautiful Country:

This book is concerned with attempting to reawaken the pristine human power of regarding the phenomena of the external world in a certain way: in such a way that they begin to grow translucent and to reveal something of the mystery that sustains them.

In illo tempore, once upon a time, we were able to do this. The earliest myths and legends, which express man's first magnificent leap towards meaning, are all alight with this quality of translucency. Now alas, we know better. But although the archaic vision of life has been driven out of contemporary consciousness into the shadows, into a cobwebbed corner of the human mind, it lives on there with spiderish tenacity. For the archaic vision embodies, despite all its limitations and absurdities, a valid aspect of life's meaning which may be devalued or simply forgotten, but can never be completely cancelled.

McGlashan had written poetry since his boyhood and in 1931 published St George and the Dragon, a book of early poems. In the course of his long life he was a prolific writer of articles (many on the dreaming mind) for the Lancet, the Observer, the Times (presciently, on "the personal factor in healing"), the Listener, Parabola and others (he contributed an essay, "Le sex et nous" to Suicide of a Nation, 1963, edited by Arthur Koestler), and giver of lectures in the UK and United States. In the Sixties he wrote a popular series of booklets on such subjects as "Stress" and "Dreams and Dreamers". He was an avid glider pilot (holding certificate no 28, issued in 1930) and hot-air balloonist, and enjoyed playing tennis until well into his eighties. He was passionate about mythology and delivered a number of BBC broadcasts on the subjects of mythology and psychology.

He took meticulous care in preparing himself for every analytic session - like a sacred ritual - so as to be open, receptive and alert for whatever might arise. This always struck me as being not unlike the purification rites that were practised in the ancient Greek Aesclepian?? temples of healing at Epidauros: before the possibility of healing could even be considered, one had first to prepare oneself totally to receive it: no shortcuts, no preconceptions.

His practice was known for drawing a wide range of clientele from the rich and famous to the very ordinary: all of them, facing life's vicissitudes with varying degrees of success, were fortunate to have had in Alan McGlashan a true ally of the soul.

Robert Hinshaw

Alan Fleming McGlashan, psychiatrist and writer: born Bedworth, Nottinghamshire 20 October 1898; married 1st 1934 Robin Cameron-Smith (died 1975), 2nd 1979 Sasha Baldi; died London 6 May 1997.

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