Sunday, January 17, 2010

Revisiting Yalom 1





Circles not Lines:
Something appeals to me about circles and curves, they are somehow more alive for me, more potent, more full of possibility than straight lines. Yet, I have to admit that one must first grasp the geometry of the line before the that of the circle, that one must first comprehend the equation of line before that of a circle and other more complex curves like parabolas etc., though, I'm told pure mathematicians see the line as a curve itself, one that does not fold back on itself at all but points in two exactly opposite directions.

Having a lowly pass degree in Mathematics, I am acquainted with some of the niceties of mathematical thinking like the fact that algebraic curves are essentially polynomials in x and y and are lines (if of 1st degree), conic (2nd), cubic (3rd), quartic (4th), quintic (5th) sextic (6th), and octic (8th). I forget what those to the seventh and ninth power are called. Then there are those wonderful transcendental curves (exponential and trigonometric are the only two in this category I know, though there are many more which I neither know the name of nor could ever possibly understand).

Be that as it may, what I am getting at here in a round about way is that sometimes the "linear can be a lie, while the circular is more connected to living as we experience it. I have long being convinced that history has never been linear, that humankind has not "progressed linearly" but rather by fits and starts, doubling back on itself, retreating, repeating its mistakes, almost going the full circle as it were. I remember years ago reading about the myth of progress which the thinkers of the Enlightenment Movement firmly believed in, namely that science would herald a linearity of progress, and that this scientific progress would be mirrored in economics, well being, the improved lot of all of mankind, the very herald of universal prosperity and equality. But then, the myth of linear progress was and is just that, a myth, and a very poor myth at that. It was disproved quintessentially by the First World War, that "war to end all wars" which was yet the beginning of another. It would seem that the naked greed and hate of humankind for others of its species is an instinct unaccounted for in the rationalism of the Enlightenment thinkers.

It took the likes of Nietzsche and later Freud to disabuse the rationalists of their simplistic rationalism which heralded reason as the equally false god to replace the false one of religion. Humankind has many gods: instinctual - power and sex mainly; emotional - love and hate mainly; religious; rational - thinking, science; irrational - destructive drives to obliterate others and the world. These gods which humankind make in their own image give the lie to linearity or to unstopable progress. I am quite taken with the arguments made by Irvin D. Yalom in 90% of his wonderful book: Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Fear of Death. While I found his approach as an atheistic/humanistic existential therapist excellent for the most part, and even his treatment of believers as being nothing short of edifying insofar as he sought to strengthen their belief structures, rather than to pull such structures out from under them, nevertheless he does go on to proclaim that the atheistic approach is the best. I found his appealing to the authority of Richard Dawkins (Op.cit., p. 197) somewhat disconcerting because I believe the latter to be an evangelical atheist, that is, he is right at all costs, you and I are wrong etc. Now, I'm not saying Yalom is as evangelical or as proselytizing as Dawkins, yet I discern a certain intellectual "know-it-all-ness" here. He also seems to accept rather uncritically Dawkins' appeal to the linearity of progress, which flies in the face of the outlined evidence above. (Ibid., p. 197ff.) I'll put my own cards on the table here: I describe myself as being agnostic and open and an objective Buddhist, that is one who does not accept all the palaver about reincarnation etc. For me atheist is too strident in se or in itself in that it is denying something someone else is saying. In like manner, I always felt that the Presbyterians of the Northern Ireland variety who always said "no to something" as defining their beliefs in a very negative sense e.g., "we are anti-pope" etc. I often wondered how you can have any positive beliefs if the only thing you can say you believe in is what the opponents don't believe in. This is really a small quibble that I have with Yalom, and still feel he is a wonderful therapist and a very good writer.

I love Yalom's use of one of my favourite philosophers, viz., Nietzsche in practically all of his writings - unsurprising indeed, given that he terms himself an existential psychiatrist/therapist. To my mind, he gives a neat definition of existential therapy and in so doing existentialism itself:
In clinical work, however, I use the word "existential" in a straightforward manner simply to refer to existence. Although existential thinkers emphasize different perspectives, they share the same basic premise: we humans are the only creatures for whom our existence is a problem. So existence is my key concept. I could just as well use such terms as "existence therapy" or "existence-focused therapy." it is only because those seemed cumbersome that I use the sleeker term "existential psychotherapy." (Ibid., 200)
To be continued.

Above the sunset in the Phoenix Park, Summer 2008.