Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Where is the Soul 25?

Io a lungomare Caulonia, Aprile, 2011
 Hillman traces the history of psychotherapy thus: At the beginning of the twentieth century Freud dealt with patients (mostly women) who presented with hysteria while Jung dealt with patients who suffered from schizophrenia. In trying to understand these strange manifestations of the psyche, depth psychology was initiated by these two founding fathers.

Today, when modern psychologists try to follow the presenting symptoms they are faced with new unknowns. In the modern world we are assailed by pollutants of all types. – mercury in our fish; preservatives in our hot dogs; cigarette smoke in the diner, not to mention the dangerous rays from the microwave. In a sense we are all slowly being poisoned.

Then, Hillman introduces us to his aesthetic theory which is based on Plato and Plotinus. In short, the bad magic, as it were, in all those things I have enumerated above and in many more polluted things as well comes both from their material as well as their formal causes. This is pure Aristotle, for example a piece of sculpture has two causes (i) the material cause (stone or wood or marble etc) and (ii) the formal cause – the idea or design in the sculptor’s mind. The form of things is essentially their aesthetic quality. In other words we can be harmed by the ugly forms of things, e.g., Styrofoam cups, fluorescent lights, unpleasant chairs or bad doorknobs. The soul, which has classically been defined as the form of living bodies, could be affected by the form of other bodies (design, shape, colour, innate idea or image in the same way as the matter in our bodies is affected by the matter of other bodies (pesticides, additives, preservatives).

Hillman argues that we are literally assaulted by the ugly. We are assaulted by pretentious buildings, noisy ventilation, oppressive meeting rooms, irritating lighting and vast un-detailed parking spaces. He links his aesthetic thinking here back to Plato and Plotinus. We are consequently bent out of shape by the world in its sheer ugliness. According to Plotinus “a thing is ugly when it is not mastered by some shape.” (form, morphe) (Op. cit., p 125) According to Hillman the ugly makes us neurotic.

The sheer ugliness of our modern cities, with little attention to architectural design, their noisy ventilation, the lack of amenities of one kind or another, their few green spaces and literally their masses of concrete structures which are purely functional are causing our various illnesses. No wonder our soul is sick, because the world is sick.

Graffiti, Caulonia, April 2011
If we are people of the soul we require that design of our living spaces should surely take cognizance of the psyche and its needs. Depth Psychology and design must be linked intimately if we are to live healthy lives.
And depth means a lot more than just profound things of the spirit. Depth brings a lot of strain and pain and toil with it. If we are to mine for coal (even gold, come to think of it) we must get our hands dirty. Anything good requires blood, tears and sweat. Nothing comes without some price. After all there can never be any free meals in this world. Returning to Hillman’s expressive prose we read:

Depth means death and demons and dirt and darkness and disorder and a lot of other industrial strength d-words familiar to therapy, like dysfunctional, disease, defence, distortion, drives, drugs and despair. So design that invites depth will indeed focus on form, but this focus will not exclude the pathological. The problem for the designer, like that for the therapist, is to co-ordinate the pathological within the design, so that psyche’s d’s are neither excluded like in a Disneyland mall nor running around loose like an urban sprawl. Therapy has to be sublime. Terror has to be included in its beauty. So too in design. It seems only our war equipment so far shows this sense of the sublime in design.

If we revision therapy as an aesthetic activity there will be interesting consequences for us. For one the hierarchical model that we in the West have inherited with the psychiatrist on the top of the pyramid, next in order the psychologists with Ph.D.s in various expert areas, then the psychiatric nurses, social workers, psychotherapists and so on down until we meet the expressive arts people with such therapies as those of art, music and drama would all, yes all, be turned on its head. Therapy would become an aesthetic or artistic enterprise with those at the bottom going to the top and vice versa. Revolutionary, dear readers, to imagine this. Once again, that’s what makes reading Hillman so provocative – he comes up with good questions, questions with an edge and suggests interesting ideas, ideas that cut to the root – in short, radical ideas. We need such idealists, or could I coin the word “ideationists.” I don’t suppose that word exists but it does sound good, does it not?

The turn to the aesthetic or artistic in therapy would de-anaesthetize the populace, or at least those who come in search of therapy. In a certain sense what Hillman and Ventura are at is questioning the ground rules, questioning the motives and motivations, indeed questioning the presuppositions of the whole psychiatric profession. In questioning the very foundations, or roots of psychiatry (to use two different metaphors for the same thing), they are also questioning its very axioms. Hillman argues that this attempt to aestheticize (another of my coining here, dear reader!) therapy will be a way of deanaestheticizing , a way of awakening the client/patient, a method of lifting the “psychic numbing” that Robert Jay Lifton claims to be the disease of our times. (See ibid., pp. 128-129)

Hillman interestingly traces the opposition to beauty in the U.S. A (and in the Western World indeed I should imagine) back to the Puritanism of the founding fathers. It is worth quoting a brilliant sentence from our archetype psychologist here: “But for me the greatest moral choice we can make today, if we are truly concerned with the oppressed and stressed lives of our clients’ souls, is to sharpen their sense of beauty.” (Ibid., pp. 129-130) He then quotes what I believe is a wonderful definition of beauty, one that captures the antipathy of the USA to that very beauty: “Beauty is pleasure objectified. Beauty is pleasure perceived as the quality of an object.” One can see easily from this definition why Puritans would have a problem with beauty. By the way this quotation is one from the philosopher George Santayana.

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