Friday, January 08, 2010

Sometimes the Centre Cannot Hold 2

We need our artists, whether of the print or visual, musical or dramatic media to care for our "soul" as a people, to cater for our spiritual needs in the broadest sense of this term. Our artists are the carriers of the cultural genes if I may be so bold as to weave a rather clumsy metaphor. They literally are the thermometer of how our societies are faring. Creativity is the very soul of culture.

Let me return now to Rollo May. What are the tenor of the contentions of this great psychoanalyst's book? Briefly, his argument in his book Man's Search For Himself, which was first published in the early 1950s, is that the dilemma of modern man is centered on on his sheer loneliness and anxiety - in other words his alienation. In short, May, was one of the first existentialist psychoanalysts. That probably goes without saying.

Emptiness: May likes the term "emptiness" to describe the predicament of modern humanity. Remember he was writing in the early 50s and following decades in the wake of the Nazi terror wrought on the Jewish nation and on other minorities. He was all too conscious of that horror as well as the universal realisation of humankind's dislocation and confusion of identity as a result. The fall out of two world wars was just that - an alienation of humankind from their previously more roundly formed identities. Suddenly, it was not too clear at all who this modern person is or what his or her destiny is.

Other characteristics of this emptiness is that people not only don't know what they need or want; they, in fact, do not even know how they really feel. In this regard, they fail to make any authentic commitments in their lives. Other ways of putting this is that they feel lost. Their sense of identity is fluid or fluctuating, to say the least. I love the example May gives of this sense of fluidity of identity by quoting an anonymous client: "I'm just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of me." (Man's Search For Himself, p. 4)

In speaking of this sense of lostness, of boring routine, of what May calls emptiness and which he later describes as a sense of powerlessness, he tells a wonderful story about a quintessentially "hollow man" or angst-ridden worker:
A bus driver in the Bronx simply drove away in his empty bus one day and was picked up by the police several days later in Florida. He explained that, having gotten tired with driving the same route every day, he had decided to go away on a trip... When it was announced that the company had decided not to turn him over for legal punishment but to give him his job back again if he would promise to make no more jaunts, there was literal as well as figurative cheering in the Bronx. (Ibid., 9)
Too often, May argues that "meaningless boredom" results in "futility and despair" which brings those who can afford it and are open to it, to psychotherapy. For others, there is some release to be found in a legion of addictions and other fearful and illegal pursuits. Here is a particularly incisive short paragraph on the modern dilemma:

The human being cannot live in a condition of emptiness for very long: if he is not growing toward something, he does not merely stagnate; the pent-up potentialities turn into morbidity and despair; and eventually into destructive activities. (Ibid., p. 11)

Essentially, or rather existentially, the experience of emptiness results from a feeling of powerlessness. There is nothing as disempowering as powerlessness, if you forgive the clumsiness of the language here. I have experienced this horrible sense of powerlessness and/or emptiness when I suffered from a deep bout of depression some twelve years ago now. Apathy and lack of feeling, May suggests, often result from this sense of despair and futility, and that sense of apathy and lack of feeling are also defences against anxiety. Anxiety or angst is at the heart of modern living, and it is also the quintessential heart of existentialism per se. In short, May argues that emptiness (vacuity) and powerlessness lead to painful anxiety and despair.

Such anxiety is basically experienced as a threat to personal identity, a threat to the very self. To call the present age an "age of anxiety" is nothing short of a truism on the verge of becoming almost a cliché, but for all that, a very real experience indeed. However, it is also quite chilling to realise that an age of emptiness or vacuity is ripe for the exploitation of totalitarianism, and, needless to say, May quotes the rise of Nazi Fascism as an example of what dangers can fill this black hole of despair. Today, let's ponder what could fill the emptiness and vacuity left in the wake of the demise of the Celtic Tiger.

May's insight into the lostness of the fifties of the last century is as relevant today as ever:

We are anxious because we do not know what roles to pursue, what principles for action to believe in. Our individual anxiety, somewhat like that of the nation, is a basic confusion and bewilderment about where we are going.
People go to psychoanalysts when they experience some conflicts in their lives, whether neurotic or psychotic. Most of us fall into the former category and we experience neurotic anxiety, that is anxiety that is totally disproportionate to the real danger, and which existentially arises "from an unconscious conflict" unresolved within us. Here is where Freud's great strategy of making the unconscious conscious - in short, this is the essential definition of his therapy, namely, psychoanalysis.

However, May is illuminating here as he informs his readers that "anxiety like fever is a sign that an inner struggle is in progress." (Ibid., 27) Then he finishes, to my mind, with the clincher argument that it is awareness of ourselves that is the cure for anxiety. (see ibid., p. 27)

Above bare-limbed winter trees in the Phoenix Park

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