Wild Things


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Suppose we entertain the idea that psychology makes people mediocre; and suppose we entertain the idea that the world is in extremis, suffering an acute, perhaps fatal, disorder at the edge of extinction. Then I would claim that what the world needs most is radical and original extremes of feeling and thinking in order for its crisis to be met with equal intensity.

The supportive and tolerant understanding of psychotherapy is hardly up to the task. Instead it produces counterphobic attitudes to chaos, marginality, extremes. Therapy as sedation: benumbing, an-aesthesia so that we calm down, relieve stress, relax, find acceptance, balance, support, empathy. The middle ground. Mediocrity.

You see, for me the job of psychotherapy is to open up and deal with - no, not deal with, encourage, maybe even enflame - the rich and crazy mind, that wonderful aviary (the image is from Plato) of wild flying thoughts, the sex charged fantasies, the incredible longings, bloody wounds, and the museums of archaic shards that constitute the psyche.

I challenge psychotherapy's cool green consulting rooms, the soothing images and framed diplomas, because they are calming and cooling the valuable madness in our society so that psychology has become part of Henry Miller's Air-Conditioned Nightmare, his phrase for the U.S.A.

Psychotherapy has to take sides with the beast, walk with it, touching its shaggy fur, remembering it lives at the edge, along with Robert Bly's Wild-man, demanding a place in the mall, like the Greek Furies were given a place in Athens. This is the "relationship" on which therapy must focus, the relationship with the beast; otherwise psychotherapy's clients become Barbie and Ken "working on their relationship," plastic dolls ...

By advocating pathology I am not letting the lions loose in the streets, I am not promulgating permissiveness that breeds homelessness, poverty and despair, a Republican permissiveness called free market economics. The choice is anyway not between punitive and permissive. The choice is between repression and art, and in this choice the valences are reversed. Art requires painful discipline; it is like a punition. Repression, by packaging its denial in the mediocrity of white bread and a smiling "have a nice day," becomes a universal permit for illusory happiness.

Mediocrity us no answer to violence. To cool violence you need rhythm, humour, tempering; you need dance and rhetoric. Not therapeutic understanding.

I can think of a middle ground, but not the one therapy tries to work, because that middle ground, I believe, is mediocrity, compromising symptom and system in such a way that in the end the symptom disappears and the "successful" case reenters society. The middle ground I would propose is the arts, in which the symptom becomes the marginal informing spirit or hounding dog that never lets go, driving the psyche to the edge.

I've been straining for decades to push psychology over into art, to recognize psychology as an art form rather than a science or a medicine or an education, because the soul is inherently imaginative. The primary function of the human being is to imagine, not to stand up straight, not to make tools and fire, not to build communities or hunt and till and tame, but to imagine all these other possibilities.

And we go on imagining and imagining, irrepressibly. The repressed returns as symptoms, so our symptoms are actually the irrepressible imagination breaking through our adapted mediocrity. Hence, the pronouncement: "In your pathology is your salvation" - not salvation as adaptation, but salvation from adaptation.

As long as therapy is engaged in adaptation, it is denying the raging lust and animal appetites that claim life is worth living. And my violent rage and sullen refusals are saying again and again: "What the system offers is what I don't really want." And my addictions show this hungry suicidal demand for more, higher, faster, fuller, spacier, looser, wilder, stranger life.

And so the system is hell-bent on stamping out everything extreme, especially the extremes of pleasure, which come closest to fulfilling desire. But the psyche is extreme and the world is in extremis.

Coping simply equals compliance. Community mental health, with its pamphlets giving advice on every "dysfunction" from thumb sucking to cock sucking, actually serves to keep the people pacified and satisfied with their white bread. Maybe I am an idealist, but I still believe therapy is engaged also in raising consciousness.

I have suggested an artistic paradigm for therapy, though I don't mean literal artists and art. For the arts and artists can be just as blithely self-centered and apolitical as the Berlin Philharmonic playing for a Wehrmacht audience. I have suggested the artistic paradigm because it satisfies the three requirements discussed in this letter. First, art forms madness rather than represses it. Second, the arts often act as the sensitive antennae of social justice and moral outrage, keeping the soul awake to hypocrisy, cant, suppression, and jingoism. And third, the fundamental enemy of all art is mediocrity.

So, though I love you depth psychology, I can't stay in the same house with you. We've both changed too much.

Once you were like an artist, and now you're a homemaker. You never go out into the street; you've become content with yourself; what you say doesn't seem at all relevant. I can't bear the way you use language. No one really crazy ever comes to call. I want to be loyal to our vow, but there is more death in staying than in parting.

[James Hillman]
We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy - And the World's Getting Worse, p.151, 152, 153, 154, 156, 157, 159


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I went in curiosity for a day. I stayed for a week, held spell-bound by the charm and ease of everything, by the middle-class paradise, without a sin, without a victim, without a blot, without a tear.

And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: "Ouf! what a relief! Now for something primordial and savage, even though it were as bad as an Armenian massacre, to set the balance straight again. This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring.

This human drama without a villain or a pang; this community so refined that ice-cream soda-water is the utmost offering it can make to the brute animal in man; this city simmering in the tepid lakeside sun; this atrocious harmlessness of all things,-I cannot abide with them.

Let me take my chances again in the big outside worldly wilderness with all its sins and sufferings. There are the heights and depths, the precipices and the steep ideals, the gleams of the awful and the infinite; and there is more hope and help a thousand times than in this dead level and quintessence of every mediocrity."

So I meditated. And, first of all, I asked myself what the thing was that was so lacking in this Sabbatical city, and the lack of which kept one forever falling short of the higher sort of contentment. And I soon recognized that it was the element that gives to the wicked outer world all its moral style, expressiveness and picturesqueness,—the element of precipitousness, so to call it, of strength and strenuousness, intensity and danger. 

What excites and interests the looker-on at life, what the romances and the statues celebrate and the grim civic monuments remind us of, is the everlasting battle of the powers of light with those of darkness; with heroism, reduced to its bare chance, yet ever and anon snatching victory from the jaws of death. But in this unspeakable Chautauqua there was no potentiality of death in sight anywhere, and no point of the compass visible from which danger might possibly appear. The ideal was so completely victorious already that no sign of any previous battle remained, the place just resting on its oars. But what our human emotions seem to require is the sight of the struggle going on.

Such absence of human nature in extremis anywhere seemed, then, a sufficient explanation for Chautauqua's flatness and lack of zest.

But was not this a paradox well calculated to fill one with dismay? It looks indeed, thought, as if the romantic idealists with their pessimism about our civilization were, after all, quite right. An irremediable flatness is coming over the world. Bourgeoisie and mediocrity, church sociables and teachers' conventions, are taking the place of the old heights and depths and romantic chiaroscuro. And, to get human life in its wild intensity, we must in future turn more and more away from the actual, and forget it, if we can, in the romancer's or the poet's pages.

Fitz-James Stephen wrote many years ago words to this effect more eloquent than any I can speak: "The 'Great Eastern,' or some of her successors," he said, "will perhaps defy the roll of the Atlantic, and cross the seas without allowing their passengers to feel that they have left the firm land. The voyage from the cradle to the grave may come to be performed with similar facility.

Progress and science may perhaps enable untold millions to live and die without a care, without a pang, without an anxiety. They will have a pleasant passage and plenty of brilliant conversation. They will wonder that men ever believed at all in clanging fights and blazing towns and sinking ships and praying bands; and, when they come to the end of their course, they will go their way, and the place thereof will know them no more.

But it seems unlikely that they will have such a knowledge of the great ocean on which they sail, with its storms and wrecks, its currents and icebergs, its huge waves and mighty winds, as those who battled with it for years together in the little craft, which, if they had few other merits, brought those who navigated them full into the presence of time and eternity, their maker and themselves, and forced them to have some definite view of their relations to them and to each other."

[William James]
'What Makes a Life Significant?', Pragmatism and Other Writings, p. 288-90, 302-3


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Centre / Periphery
Living in Hazard
Facing Reality
Being open to the new
Imagination
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe
Step toward madness
Digging Deeper
Still Waters

1 comment:

  1. In the process of tabooing emotions modern psychiatry plays an ambiguous role. On the one hand its greatest representative, Freud, has broken through the fiction of the rational, purposeful character of the human mind and opened a path which allows a view into the abyss of human passions.

    On the other hand psychiatry, enriched by these very achievements of Freud, has made itself an instrument of the general trends in the manipulation of personality.

    Many psychiatrists, including psychoanalysts, have painted the picture of a "normal" personality which is never too sad, too angry, or too excited. They use words like "infantile" or "neurotic" to denounce traits or types of personalities that do not conform with the conventional pattern of a "normal" individual.

    This kind of influence is in a way more dangerous than the older and franker forms of name-calling. Then the individual knew at least that there was some person or some doctrine which criticized him and he could fight back. But who can fight back at "science"?

    [Erich Fromm]
    The Fear of Freedom, p.212-3

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