Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Schopenhauer Cure 1

Review: The Schopenhauer Cure 1

One of the delights of being on holiday is the time spent relaxing doing little or nothing except being. Another delight, of course, is the time one has at one’s disposal to reflect on where life is taking one. Irvin Yalom has long been a favourite therapist and psychiatrist. He belongs to that school of psychotherapy called existential therapy which takes the patients/clients exactly where they are, and then progresses from there to greater self-awareness literally through being in a healing relationship with the therapist. I have discussed existential therapy many times in these pages by reviewing two books by the late great Rollo May and another book by Irvin Yalom. The book I have just finished reading is the one named in the title of this piece, namely The Schopenhauer Cure.

Creativity and Psychotherapy:

Another one of my hobbyhorses is creativity, that is, the use of the imagination for self-development and for the nourishment of the soul. I have long been a creative writer of poems and stories in Irish and English. Some few pieces of both have been published, though not a huge amount. Mind you, the publication of the same is not necessarily the main objective, though the delight in seeing what one has written meet the light of day in a magazine or journal is a marvellous confidence booster and soul-affirming achievement. However, as someone once remarked, it is in the very act of writing, painting, sculpting or whatever that we are healed, not necessarily in the public acclamation of that act. That there are more poems and stories written than ever see the light of day is in itself very true, but the point lies in the writing of them, in the very healing act of the writing itself. I have drawers and files upon files of unpublished poems and stories – and a lot of it of little or no literary merit - but, so what, they witness to, what John Keats called the great effort of “soul-making.”

Novels that illustrate Academic Texts

Irvin Yalom, as a psychiatrist and therapist has two major separate but parallel interests, viz., group therapy and existential therapy. Indeed he has written learned texts on these twin interests, texts which he has continued to revise and which are widely used with student therapists and psychiatrists. He calls these “heavy textbooks.” Indeed, having studied this subject for the last twenty years or so, I would agree that much of the writing on psychotherapy and psychiatry can be heavy, even if geared to students, and often even when supposedly written for the lay reader. However, Yalom realised that such texts can only go so far in explaining his theories, and he finds the creative medium of the novel to be ideal for conveying how such theories work out in practice. He felt that his two major and widely used textbooks left something undone: “They failed to present the human side of what really happened in therapy. Professional prose did not permit me to convey what was truly the critical part of the therapy experience – the deep, intimate, human, risky, caring (even loving) texture of the therapist-client relationship.” (The Schopenhauer Cure, Post Script, p. 10) Hence, he turned to the novel to illustrate in story form what he was getting at in his more academic texts. In this he follows in a marvellous literary/philosophical/psychological tradition, e.g., Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, two great philosophers he mentions who turned to the novel form to give life to their theories. I wholeheartedly agree with Yalom here. While the great Russian writers Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were neither academic philosophers nor psychologists they were indeed great explorers of both these subjects in story form. Indeed, we often find great and deep thoughts in both philosophy and psychology, as well as many other subjects, in the creative works of literature, and this should surprise no reasonably well educated reader.

In The Schopenhauer Cure Yalom seeks to do the following:

(i) illustrate how group therapy actually works, (ii) how philosophy in general, and the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer in particular, might influence the practice of psychotherapy, (iii) how Schopenhauer’s strange life history along with his obviously tortured pathology influenced his philosophical conclusions and finally how (iv) the awareness of death can be used productively and positively to live one’s life more fully.

Now, anyone familiar with Buddhism will know that reflection on the reality of death is an essential aspect of Buddhist practice. Knowing that my life is mortal, that the very seed of my death is somehow inextricably interwoven in the very fabric of the seed of my life, that somehow the seed of all life contains within it the seed of death, that the seed of all death also contains within it paradoxically the seed of all life. Here the reading of such classics as The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, anything by the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh or any other Buddhist writer is nothing short of illuminating and life-enhancing or indeed soul-making. That Schopenhauer was the first Western thinker to take Eastern and Buddhist thought seriously comes as no surprise to anyone who has read his work either in the original or even in philosophical compendia.

To be continued.

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