Sunday, June 13, 2010

Amazing May 5

In chapters one and two of The Discovery of Being we have dealt with what Rollo May calls the principles of psychotherapy. Now he moves on to discuss the cultural background of existentialism and psychoanalysis in part two of the book. Chapter three called “Origins and Significance of Existential Psychology” is the first chapter of this section. What follows is not quite a summary, but rather my assimilation of what I believe Rollo May to be saying in this chapter. You will also find here my own ideas on the subject.

Sheer Reality of Suffering Humanity

The above is my title and my terms, yet it sums up, if you like, the starting point for both existentialism and psychoanalysis. What is unquestionable is that much reality (in the sense of suffering in virtue of the human condition in itself and what T.S Eliot was decades later to describe as being that which humanity cannot bear too much of) was repressed, swept under the Victorian carpet as it were, denied, ignored, choose whatever appropriate word you will here. The nineteenth century seemed on the surface to be a century of definites and certainties and of linear advancement in all areas – that is, it was the quintessential century of the myth of indefinite progress. The shallower cultural commentators applied the apparent and obvious progress in the technical areas of life to all other areas and they swallowed whole the myth of indefinite progress, rather like the way we Irish swallowed whole the myth of the Celtic Tiger. Yes indeed, we had a few wise “prophets of doom” like Eddie Hobbs and  David MacWilliams who cried halt. Likewise in the nineteenth century there were also prophets who could see the shallowness of the prevailing myth of indefinite progress in all areas of life. The two major “prophets of doom,” if you like, were the philosophers Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche who prophesied the end of the then all too tidy culture of shallow optimism and second-rate and superficial values. It was an era when manners were more important than morals. For Kierkegaard and Nietzsche this could never be the case if humanity was to be true to itself, or authentic, because to be so demanded a new and deeper morality that went far beyond superficial manners and etiquette.

The Growth of Existentialism and Existential Psychotherapy

Against the backdrop of the opening paragraph we witness the growth of these two phenomena in the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, events or happenings like wars were to interrupt humankind’s relaxed and conceited slumbers, most notably World War 1 which once and for all put paid to the idea or myth of indefinite progress when soldiers in their millions were sacrificed on the altars of various nationalisms, where technology was used to kill and slaughter and tear asunder, rather than to build up or help or cure. Human beings were not just automatons who could willingly and unconsciously be used as cogs in great machines or as pawns before an insatiable god of war. History through the inevitability of events has taught humankind that he is more than an automaton. Pass a number of years and the growing professions of psychiatry and psychotherapy (which had to pick up the pieces of humankind’s repression of its own frailties and feelings) had to meet in their consulting rooms “the sheer reality of persons in crisis whose anxieties will not be quieted by theoretical formulas.” (Op. cit., p. 38).

Hence the big drive in existentialism and in the type of psychotherapy to which it lent many of its insights is to see the client/patient as he really is, striving to get to know him in his own reality as a thinking, feeling and willing unity (my terms). Also part of this inward drive, if I may call it that, is to avoid seeing the patient merely as a projection of our own theories about him. Also, to take two words from the above short quotation from May, that is, “crisis” and “anxiety” we get two very central words in the existentialist vocabulary. People are in crisis and anxious in virtue of their own reality and in virtue of their own being as humans. Again, we must point out that both these words, too, “reality” and “being” belong to the existentialist lexicon, and have a well merited place there.

The existential psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger has underscored this point where he states that

(Quoted ibid., p. 38)
“Psychology and psychotherapy as sciences are admittedly concerned with ‘man,’ but not at all primarily with mentally ill man, but with man as such. The new analysis of man which we owe to Heidegger’s analysis of existence, has its basis in the new conception that man is no longer to be understood in terms of some theory – be it mechanistic, a biologic or a psychological one.”

To complete this short post I will repeat that the therapist must take seriously the crisis, the anxiety, the reality and the being of the person who sits before him/her in the consulting room. In short he/she must take the whole human condition of the client or patient into account. This whole movement became known Daseinsanalyse or existential-analytic movement in Europe from the 1940s onward.

To be continued.

Above on the right a picture of Ludwig Binswanger (April 13, 1881 – February 5, 1966)  who was a Swiss psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of existential psychology, and often quoted by Rollo May

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