Saturday, June 12, 2010

Amazing May 3

Rollo May’s insights are interesting to take note of. As I have remarked already he was a wise and compassionate human being – the type which we need more of in this beautiful, if often sad world of ours. He regrets the modern tendency to describe man in the image of a machine. This is modern tendency, I believe only if we take modern to mean in the last 400 years. I seem to remember one of the French philosophes, a man called de  La Mettrie writing a book called “L’homme Machine.” This Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709  - 1751) was a French physician and philosopher, and one of the earliest of the French materialists of the Enlightenment. He is best known for his work L'homme machine:  Machine man, wherein he rejected the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, and proposed the metaphor of the human being as machine.   So this dehumanizing of humankind is nothing new. In this regard he quotes another great existential thinker and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers who “held that we in the western world are actually in the process of losing self-consciousness and that we may be in the last age of historical man.” (Op. Cit., p. 15) Whatever about the last part of this prediction the first is obviously true. Everywhere we look in the modern world there seems to be a blithe disregard for been aware, never mind conscious, of what we are doing to our planet and indeed to ourselves as creatures on that planet.

I also liked his quote from another psychologist William Whyte (see ibid., pp. 15-16) who argues that psychotherapy could become a social tool at worst and seek to make humankind into conformists rather than into individuals. The question of human freedom looms large here.

Once again, I value the following insight for its depth and radical nature:

I, for one, believe that we vastly overemphasize the human being’s concern with security and survival satisfactions because they so neatly fit our cause-and-effect way of thinking. I believe that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were more accurate when they described man as an organism who makes certain values – prestige, power, tenderness – more important than pleasure and even more important than survival itself (Ibid., p. 17)

He describes well the two great Freudian concepts of repression and transference. We generally explain repression as the mechanism by which the child “represses into unconsciousness certain impulses, such as sex and hostility, because the culture in the form of parental figures disapproves, and the child must protect its own security with these persons.” (ibid., p. 16)  He enters caveats with respect to the overuse of the concept of transference which could enable the therapist to hide from the reality of actually meeting or “encountering” the client. The existentialists among us will immediately and correctly anticipate the introduction of another powerful existential concept namely that of encounter. His criticisms of transference are interesting and do bear quoting in the author’s own words here:

In the first place, transference can be a handy and ever-useful defense for the therapist, as Thomas Szasz puts it; the therapist can hide behind it to protect himself from the anxiety of direct encounter. Secondly the concept of transference can undermine the whole experience and sense of reality in therapy; the two persons in the consulting room become shadows... It can erode the patient’s sense of responsibility, and can rob the therapy of much of the dynamic for the patient’s change.  (Ibid., p. 19)

In this respect, May goes on to argue that it is only within the context of genuine encounter, that is a genuine meeting of persons that transference has any meaning at all. One would have to agree thoroughly with May here. He then gives in italics what at first sight appears quite revolutionary and radical, but which within the context of real encounter is less so, the following statement: “Transference is to be understood as the distortion of encounter.” (Ibid, p. 19)

May is somewhat critical of the role of “eros” in therapy and laments the absence of an adequate understanding of “agape” and argues that the latter is not a mere sublimation of eros, but rather the transcending of it. (See ibid., p. 19)

May is very interesting on what happens during such an encounter between client and therapist or even between two human beings in a less formal setting. The client will most likely have inhibitions, and remember that inhibition was a term Freud used for the inability to reach out to another human being lest one lose one’s identity. May gives the following neat definition of inhibition as “the relation to the world of the being who has the possibility to go out but is too threatened to do so; and his fear that he will lose too much may, of course, be the case.” (ibid., p. 20)

However, in today’s world the neurotic pattern takes the opposite form – namely going out too far and dispersing one’s self “in participation and identification with others until one’s own being is emptied.” (Ibid., p. 20). That’s why ostracism and not castration is the greatest fear among moderns today.

May makes other interesting points in this rather wide-ranging and intense first chapter. He mentions the fact that any encounter will be both anxiety-creating as well as well as joy-creating. He also refers to the most interesting and indeed very important fact that in any genuine encounter, both persons are changed, however minutely. He goes on to agree with Carl G. Jung that in effective therapy a change occurs in both the therapist and the patient, and that unless the therapist is open to change the patient will not be either.

May finishes this chapter with a call to study the concept of encounter, as we have mostly up till now only perceived this reality in its distorted nature, that is, through the distorting lens of transference.

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