Sunday, June 19, 2011

From Fragmentation to Integration 9

Finding a Form in which to Contain one's Suffering

Buskers, Via dei Fori, Roma, Maggio 1, 2011
If anything Poiesis is a very exacting, thoughtful and philosophical treatment of the use of the arts in therapy.  Levine argues cogently and indeed pragmatically that the arts have an important part to play in healing the human soul.  Most modern psychiatric hospitals offer a range of therapies from drug-based ones at the most severe end, to the middle ground ones of music therapy, drama therapy, art therapy, writing therapy, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and eclectic psychotherapy and counselling which draw on many various theories and practices which are helpful to healing the human soul.  Professor Levine, a sociologist by basic training, and also the founder of Expressive/Creative Arts Therapy is, according to Paulo Knill in the Foreword to the book "one of the few contemporary expressive arts therapists to have the courage to develop an understanding of the multiplicity in the theoretical foundations of a domain as wide and complex as the arts and psychotherapy." (Op. cit., p. xiii)

The above heading refers to a far more abstract and philosophical take on arts therapy than we are used to, to my mind, and this is indeed heartening.  It is hard to get one's mind around what Levine is at here, but I feel anyone who has a background in theology or religion/faith would be better able to get a handle on it than those with no background in such areas.  Be that as it may, our scholar argues thus:  (i) As he has pointed out the presentation is essentially a gift to the listeners or an exchange of gifts as the audience give back to the presenter good vibes as they are listening to the presenter's painful story. (ii) This gift that the presenter offers is presented in an art form, namely the gift of suffering is contained in the presentation or enactment.  The presenter must find a form or shape or container in which they present their pain to the group of listeners.  Now this is deeply philosophical, even Platonic.  But let us persevere by listening to Levine as he explains his theory to us.  He informs us that the presenters must "actively confront their suffering and enter that "gifted state" of which Hyde speaks.  The suffering is not thereby diminished or eliminated; instead the containment allows they to bear it more willingly." (ibid., p. 57)

Un poliziotto amichevole, Roma, Maggio 1, 2011
(iii) This argumentation allows Levine to conclude that art provides the container in which suffering, pain or evil can be "borne."  He goes on to aver that without such a container offered by art our puny psyche (my description of the human mind) cannot hold the weight of our human suffering.  So here, Levine is offering us an aesthetic theory of pain/suffering.  In other words art transforms our suffering by helping us to hold it or contain it as it were, and to contain it publicly, too, as well as privately I should imagine.  Here I am letting my elaboration of Levine's theory come to the fore.  I suppose a study of art history would then throw up some amazing works created in and from the very cauldron or more correctly crucible of pain.  Now the following words from the pen of our learned professor, I feel, are a little too Platonic and a little too flowery or "airy-fairy" for this reader, though I do get his drift.  I feel that he is here losing his readers as he is reducing suffering, dare I say it, to Platonic Ideas.  As a writer and reader with an existential and/or existentialist bent, this sticks somewhat in my craw!  However, listen to his words, but don't swallow them whole as you will be liable to choke, or at least vomit:

Art creates the form in which intensity of feeling can be contained.  This form does not decrease or eliminate the pain; rather it permits intolerable sorrow to be accepted and "owned."  Containment increases intensity.  By making art out of suffering, the presenter acquires an "increase" over the mere undergoing of his or her fate; presentations often end with presenters experiencing a renewed sense of power and aliveness.  Their "problems" are not "solved"; but the mystery which they are acquires a tragic beauty and grandeur. (Ibid., pp 57-8)
(iv) A sense of community or what our author call "communitas" is created between presenter and group.  Here we have a direct link with liturgy and with the theology of such liturgy.  Speaking in theological words, Levine tells us that in such a context where communitas is created and a bond of fellowship built up with the sufferer "feedback is no longer an obligation" and the participants in the group join in "a form of thanksgiving" or "a spontaneous act of gratitude."  There is much religious and theological language here.  He does not use the word "prayer," but one gets the feeling it's not too far from his lips.  However, he does make a slightly sexual hint, too, to add to the mystery he is trying to explain.  He avoids like the plague the idea of the "Christian love-feast" which is essentially the Mass of Jesus Christ.  In other words he avoids the theological and scriptural term "agape" or "love" and instead speaks about  the group becoming "an erotic nexus of gifted souls, a community of artist/healers."  The word "erotic" is a little too "hot and heavy" here to my liking as I'm associating Bacchanalian revelries and all types of sexual orgies or ceremonies of fertility with the word "eros," but I suppose that tells you too much about me.  Still it is a loaded word in this context I believe.

This chapter I have been discussing for the last five or six posts is entitled "Bearing Gifts to the Feast," which does have a Judaeo-Christian ring about it, and Levine admits this in his final words in the chapter, and points out, should we need reminding that it is pain and suffering of all kinds that his notion of gifts in this context refers to.  However, he also informs us that we must make sure always that the presenter of gifts must always be welcomed again and re-incorporated fully into the group as a result of their strenuous gift-bearing-and-sharing (my formulation, not Levine's).  The artist in our learned professor's context here can never ever be an outsider as many artists have to be and are in both the history of art and in contemporary society.

Indeed, Levine becomes frighteningly religious and theological in his concluding remarks which read more like a theological rather than a philosophical underpinning of his theory and practice of Expressive Arts Therapy.  One would think he was a theologian, giving the following words from his pen:

A gift must be consumed in order to stay alive; it must be continually given away or it will die...It may be the earliest form of human solidarity was the communion meal or feast.  Certainly eating together has become a metaphor for many of our most powerful rituals.  The Passover Seder of the Jews and the Last Supper of the Christians, itself a passover feast, are "root metaphors" for these spiritual communities.  The Sabbath bread and wine in Judaism, transmuted into the Christian communion offering are symbolic media througvh which communitas is formed. (Ibid, 59-60)
Then, should we need reminding, our learned professor reminds us that gifts are meant to be consumed like food because quite simply they nourish us.  As food, which is quite obviously a material thing, nourishes the body, in like manner art, a thing of of the spirit, nourishes the soul.  In short, the gift of Expressive Arts Therapy must be given away if it is to stay alive.  And we all must be givers (and receivers) of gifts if the human family is to grow in communitas.  Hence we get to the heart of Professor Levine's philosophy/theology of Expressive Arts Therapy, viz., only by being consumed or "eaten" does the gift generate an increase in vitality.  Indeed our professor finishes with nothing short of a mystical flourish more suited to a book on contemplation or meditation or on mysticism:

We must continue to bear our gifts to the feast if we wish to share in the communion of renewed life which they bring.  It is in this spirit that I offer this essay: as a gift for all that I have received and as a sign of my will.ingness to join with others in a community greater than its parts.  I hope that readers will give me their feedback and that, when we have "eaten" together, we will find that there is more than when we began. (Ibid., 60-61)

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