Wednesday, June 22, 2011

From Fragmentation to Integration 10

The Weight of Words


Buskers on the Via dei Fori, Roma, Maggio 1, 2011
 As every writer and reader knows, words are the very stuff of communication and inevitably of meaning.  However, we can at times get lost in the thickets of jargon.  At other times we can get carried away by the sound of our voices, thinking that we have mastered the craft.  At other times, still, we can fail to see the wood for the trees and perish in the forest.  Enough of the sustained woodland metaphor, you gasp.  Get to the point!

With the title of his next chapter, I believe Professor Levine gets lost in the thicket of jargon, while the contents are not quite as intricate as his title would lead one to believe.  He calls this chapter Image Abuse and the Dialectic of Interpretation.   This chapter is all about the significance or meaning of images for the patient/client and also about how the therapist/counsellor might interpret the same.  This is central to all forms of psychotherapy and counselling.  One of the important things I learned over the years from being engaged in psychotherapy of one form or another, and especially in Jungian therapy, is that in the final analysis the associations and significance must be ones which the client/patient comes up with himself or herself, albeit with the help of a trained counsellor.  Having made these comments by way of introduction, I'll proceed to attempt to disentangle myself from the undergrowth of Professor Levin's forest.

Psychoanalysis as a Starting Point

Causal links, as expressed in the usual formula of cause and effect are central to science, especially medicine.  Levine argues that Sigmund Freud as a trained specialist in neurology and in psychiatry, while well aware of that point, went further to discover that symptoms could also be associated with personal meanings in the life of the patient.  Freud dealt mostly with women clients suffering from hysteria and he quickly realised that hysteria does not have a neurological cause, but rather that hysteria has a specific meaning in the life of the patient.  Turning to the words of Professor Levine we read:

Sigmund Freud, the father of Psychoanalysis

The hysterical symptom... has a significance.  It means something to the person who suffers from it.  But what it means is obscure.  The patient does not know the meaning of his or her symptom.  In fact the meaning has been systematically distorted and hidden.  The task of psychotherapy is to bring the hidden meaning to light.  (Poiesis, p. 64)
Now, Sigmund Freud developed his theory and practice of psychoanalysis, which he claimed controversially was a legitimate science, as a talking cure whose goal was the interpretation of the symptoms which the patient presented with in his consultation rooms.  Freud  also controversially contended that the hidden significance of the presenting symptoms not alone were repressed, but were essentially attributable to repressed sexual experiences, particularly incestuous ones.  However, the founder of psychoanalysis later came to believe that the incestuous claims of his early patients were in fact the products of fantasy.  The debate around these issues, I hasten to add, are controversial too - as to why Freud changed his mind on this matter etc.  However, this moot point need not detain us here.  What is at issue is that we associate all our desires, wherever they come from, with images.  What is also at issue is that all our symptoms are associated with memories which are full of images.  Practically all our emotional life is alive with images and interpreting those images is vitally important.  Once again we return to Levine's own words here:
The foundation of mental life is our capacity to represent our desires in the form of images.  Whether dream, neurotic symptom or work of art, in each case the image is a representation of a fundamental mode of desire.  We have to trace the image backwards and downwards, backwards to childhood wishes, downwards to the most primitive level of the psyche.  But when we get to the bottom of the image, to its origin, what we find is another, more primitive fantasy.  Interpretation does not eliminate fantasy; instead it leads us to our most essential fantasies, those that are universal to the human condition.  The great discovery of Freud is that the psyche is imaginal.  Interpretation makes imagination more authentic. (Ibid., p. 65)
At times in this chapter I find it very hard to extricate myself from the thickets of Professor Levine's thoughts and prose.  However, I am in agreement with him where he states that for Freud one of the tasks of psychoanalysis is the elimination of fantasy in favour of reason.  Indeed, the founder of psychoanalysis was very much a disciple of The Enlightenment.  He also saw another of the tasks of psychoanalysis  as making the unconscious conscious.  I also like Levine's quotation from Freud that "[w]here id is, there ego shall be" (Ibid., p. 66) and his interpretation of the same words as meaning not so much the bringing of my fantasies into the light as overcoming them and enabling myself to engage in a rational analysis of my situation.  For Freud, psychoanalysis was in essence a mental science which allowed the patient with the help of the analyst to cure "a disease of the imagination" and that "it is not so much that [the patient's]... fantasies are distorted but more that they suffer from an excess of fantasy." (Ibid., p. 66)

Needless to say, Levine is most insightful on the contribution of the founder of psychoanalysis to the interpretation of the arts in human life.  Freud was fascinated with art and artists as was shown in the fact that his collection of antiquities and statuettes was prominently displayed in his consultation rooms.  Interestingly, also the great psychoanalyst himself made far more references to artists, poets and novelists far outstrip his references to scientists.  For him, Levine contends, art is seen as an alternative to neurosis, and a better one at that I should imagine.  The artist, for Levine and Freud, is the model of the process of sublimation and he or she alone can retain the energy of the primary drives without repression.

However, Freud can be patronizing, too, about arts and artists.  For him, artists do not really grapple directly with reality per se.  In fact, they are resorters to fantasy as they are far too sensitive souls to grapple with the world as it is.  Hence they construct a more palatable and manageable world of imagination in order to escape an intolerable reality.  In other worlds Freud saw art as essentially escapist.  Their creations come relatively unmediated by the conscious mind, and they can be practically blind to the significance of their own actions.  This is where psychoanalysis and analysts come in - they can interpret their works for the artists!  Now, that's very patronizing indeed!

However, we all know that the interpretations of analysts differ and those interpretations can be equally or more fantastic than the initial ideas of the artists.  In other words psychoanalysis is not a very exact science, then.  This was probably one of the reasons why Freud was so controlling of his disciples - if it were to be called a science, it could not allow of many interpretations!  Levine goes on to stress, and I agree with him, that Freud's great discovery is that the image has depth, "that staying with the image means entering into it on a deeper level, that as we stay with it, it leads us back to its origin." (Ibid., p. 69)  I like also Professor Levine's contention that images are buried in the psyche because they carry with them pain and suffering.  In other words, the work to discover what these primal images are essentially is very hard for the therapist and very painful for the client.

Image Abuse 

Here Professor Levine is referring to the problem of psychopathology, that is,  the study of mental illness, mental distress, and abnormal/maladaptive behavior. The term is most commonly used within psychiatry where pathology refers to disease processes.  Abnormal psychology is a similar term used more frequently in the non-medical field of psychology. Psychopathology should not be confused with psychopathy, a theoretical subtype of antisocial personality disorder.  I am more familiar with the second term, abnormal psychology, from my studies and participation in psychotherapy.  Anyway, it is with psychopathology or abnormal psychology that Levine connects his theory of image abuse.  We are prone today, he contends, to pathologize every abnormal behaviour we see (we are often quite judgemental here), that is, we are prone to see sickness everywhere.  I love Levine's statement that "[t]here is a difference between seeing the imagination as pathological and seeing the image as a representation of my suffering." (Ibid., p. 69) This is very much in keeping with positive psychiatric principles as outlined by such brilliant pioneers in the field of mental health like Professor Ronnie Laing, whose work I truly love.  After all he treated his patients, especially schizophrenics, as persons, not as repositories of symptoms or as having pathological imaginations.  No, he saw them as suffering human creatures.  All good medical personnel do this! Therefore, the conclusion is simple: pathology is intrinsic to the psyche because suffering is part of the human condition. (See Hillman). 

Any seeking to eliminate an image adjudged to be pathological, rather than its analysis and exploration in depth to reach its primal image is, therefore, according to Levine what he means by image abuse.  I would call his theory of image abuse the murder of the imagination.

To be continued.

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