Wild Things

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

Related posts:-
Facing Reality
Being open to the new
Imagination
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe
Step toward madness
Digging Deeper