Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Going beyond Fragmentation 3 - The Rationalist Presumption

My 93 year old demented mother.
Questioning our Presumptions

The sure sign of good philosophy is a questioning spirit, and a universal questioning spirit at that.  In this regard, philosophy is more a method of questioning than a sequence of views on any particular subject.  A good philosopher will question his or her own presuppositions.  Arguably, philosophy could be seen more as a method of questioning than as a subject with millions of books with written content.  To this extent, one does philosophy as well as studying it.  To my mind, then, this is the single most important aspect of philosophy -  it seeks to identify and get beyond even its own biases.

An Old Presumption

One of the presumptions we had in the West for many hundreds of years is the pre-eminence of the rational, and its pride of place over the non-rational, that is the spiritual and emotional in the human make-up.  This preoccupation with the rational has been with us for hundreds of years and it was strengthened considerably by the Enlightenment.  Years ago psychology's essential presumption, then, was that the human mind was primarily rational.  Reason was, therefore, characterised by its liking for order, clarity, coherence of thought and its capacity to see reality as it is, that is reality in itself (whatever that may be, you might quip!) without being shrouded by delusions. Nietzsche has called this the Apollonian element (Apollo was the god of Reason and Order amongst other things) in the human make-up.

As far as I recall Nietzsche made his famous distinction between the Apollonian element  (the rational)and the Dionysian element (The Non-rational) in humankind's make-up in his famous classical book The Birth of Tragedy.  Now the opposite to reasoning would be the disordered mind which would be chaotic, obscure, subject to fantasies and wild imaginings of all types.  This is the Dionysian element in the human psyche, that element which is primarily non-rational and has to do with our desires, our passions and our lusts. 

Needless to say, this element is easily given to intoxication.  Indeed, that's where this part of our psyche gets its name - Dionysus or Dionysos was the ancient Greek god of the grape harvest, of winemaking and wine, of ritual madness and ecstasy, and was also the driving force behind the ancient Greek theatre. He was the god who inspired joyful worship and ecstasy and was essentially at the heart of all festivals and partying.  Celebration is a major figure of Greek mythology and the religion of ancient Greece. Dionysus was also known as Bacchus, the name adopted by the Romans and the frenzy he induces is known as bakkheia.

Now I would like to make a clear distinction between the the non-rational and the irrational in humankind.  There is an essential non-rational side to all of us and this is our emotional, affective and creative side to our personalities.  However, the irrational, to my mind, refers to more unacceptable or "off the wall" behaviours. Irrational behaviors of individuals include taking offense or becoming angry about a situation that has not yet occurred, expressing emotions exaggeratedly (such as crying hysterically), maintaining unrealistic expectations, engaging in irresponsible conduct such as problem intoxication, disorganization, or extravagance, and falling victim to confidence tricks. People with a mental illness like schizophrenia may exhibit irrational paranoia. These more contemporary 'normative' conceptions of what constitutes a manifestation of irrationality are difficult to demonstrate empirically because it is not clear by whose standards we are to judge the behavior rational or irrational.  However, undoubtedly, Dionysus could also be argued to be god of the irrational as well as the non-rational.  But, it is crucially important to be aware of the distinction between non-rational and irrational.

Looking at the Irrational Mind - The Mind touched with Madness:


Old Pillar, Rush Pier, October 2010
 Levine sees this concept of mind as being the disordered mind, one that would be distinguished by being "chaotic, obscure, subject to fantasies which prevent the person from being in touch with or being able to 'test' reality." (Poiesis, Stephen K. Levine, p. 9)  Now Levine does not make any distinction between the non-rational and irrational as I have done here, and I find this a major flaw in an otherwise quite good and very thought-provoking little book.  However, he does eventually highlight the Apollonian/Dionysian distinction made by Nietzsche.

Now I am arguing here for the therapeutic effects of the imagination, of the creative more non-rational side of the mind.  Because Levine lumps non-rational and irrational together without making any distiction, the imagination and all modes of creativity are singularly suspect in his very limited definition.  We have to bear this important criticism in mind when we read the following in Poiesis:

In  this conception of the mind's functioning [mind as chaotic and disordered], the imagination is seen as suspect, an enemy to clear thinking and accurate perception.  Madness and psychological suffering are, then, diseases of the imagination.  The cure would be the replacement of fantasy by reality, of imagination by reason.  In this treatment of mental illness, therefore, it is thought to be essential to calm the patient's disordered mind, not to encourage his or her fantasy life, but to modify their behaviour to enable them to live in the world as it really is.  The treatment of choice would be psychotropic medication to calm the patient and verbal counseling (sic) to eliminate his or her unrealistic fantasies. (Levine, op.cit., p. 10)
Levine maintains, and there is no little truth in his contention, that such an approach to mental illness leaves patients like mere shells of their former selves.  He goes on to quote another hero of this present writer, the famous Jungian and archetype psychologist James Hillman, who underlines the fact that an overly rationalistic model of psychiatry is itself an "imaginal construction," a fantasy based on "the image of  a heroic ego whose task it is to conquer a resistant reality." (ibidem,  p. 10)

The argument, therefore, is that the rational in humankind, with ego being its foremost metaphor, reigns supreme.  Levine argues that this is the dominant fantasy of our culture, and that since psychiatry is part of that culture, it, too, shares this fantasy.  Once again, I agree that there is no little truth in this contention.

The Turn to the Imagination for Therapy

I must say I do not share Levine's belief that society/culture has shown great disdain for the arts.  Once again, I feel a main cause of his wrong belief here is his confounding the irrational with the non-rational, or at least his failure to make the clear distinction between both.  The irrational, for sure, was and is always treated with contempt and, indeed, fear, but such has never been the case with imagination and with all forms of creativity which are the very fruits of that imagination.  Levine maintains that psychiatrists and psychotherapists are now turning to the arts for therapeutic purposes because we have somehow reached the limits of "scientific psychology."  I cannot agree with this contention either, but I do believe he is right about the turn to the imaginative/creative arts in psychotherapeutic circles.

Levine argues that a good artist must be rooted in a living community, and that it is only in this connection with the community that his/her art can be healing.  The whole idea of the Dionysian festivals was indeed the feeling or rather state of unity of the reveller/party-goer/priest/celebrant/devotee with a sense of community or oneness with the community, that is, the revellers would experience the power of communitas and lose a sense of being a separate self.  Levine, then, bemoans, just as Nietzsche had done in the second half of the nineteenth century, that modern men and women have lost their connection with the Dionysian element in their make-up and consequently connection with their community.

Levine argues strongly for a rediscovery of the Dionysian, coupled with, and transformed by Apollonian clarity.  He also subscribes to the Nietzschean belief that when the "chaos" of the former is tempered, nay transformed, by the "cosmos" (order) of the latter, the "dancing star" of the imagination, with its various forms of creativity, is then released in a healing way.  Levine, like Nietzsche, subscribes to the healing power of all art, especially the healing power of drama, especially that of ancient Greek tragedy.  Let us listen to Levine before ending this short post:

Greek tragedy is merely one instance of the healing power of art based on its communal origins.  When Oedipus suffers, the community suffers through him.  He undertakes the painful journey into self-knowledge alone, but he does so for the relief of the city which is suffering from the pollution caused by the transgression of human limits, a pollution he himself is ultimately responsible for.  He is both wounded and healer; and in the end the tragic wisdom which his suffering has brought him confers a blessing on the land.  Freud was right to see the sin of Oedipus as present in all of us, but what he did not see was the healing ritual of the drama, which expiates the sin through suffering supported by the community.  It is ultimately the Athenian community that suffers and is healed through the catharsis that Oedipus undergoes.  (Ibid., p. 15)
Levine argues that the contemporary use of the arts in psychotherapy - drama therapy, art therapy, music therapy and others - are essentially a re-affirmation of the vision of Nietzsche.  The task of therapy can never be the elimination of suffering, because such a goal is humanly impossible, but rather to give voice to it, to express it in its many different shapes and forms.  Levine succinctly affirms that fact which I should like to underscore here that expression of suffering is in itself transformation, and that this is essentially the message that the arts bring to therapy: "The therapist, then, would be an artist of the soul, working with sufferers to enable them to find the proper container for their pain, the form in which ot would be embodied." (Ibid., p.15)

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