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Since its publication in 1966, The Triumph of the Therapeutic has been hailed as a work of genuine brilliance, one of those books whose insights uncannily anticipate cultural developments and whose richness of argumentation reorients entire fields of inquiry. This special fortieth-anniversary edition of Philip Rieff’s masterpiece, the first volume in ISI Books’ new Background series, includes an introduction by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn and essays on the text by historians Eugene McCarraher and Wilfred McClay and ...
Since its publication in 1966, The Triumph of the Therapeutic has been hailed as a work of genuine brilliance, one of those books whose insights uncannily anticipate cultural developments and whose richness of argumentation reorients entire fields of inquiry. This special fortieth-anniversary edition of Philip Rieff’s masterpiece, the first volume in ISI Books’ new Background series, includes an introduction by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn and essays on the text by historians Eugene McCarraher and Wilfred McClay and philosopher Stephen Gardner.
Consolation ... at bottom this is what they are demanding ... the wildest revolutionaries no less passionately than the most virtuous believers. -Freud, Civilisation and Its Discontents
The religious question: How are we to be consoled for the misery of living? may be answered by a culture, thus self-defined, in various ways; in terms of the good, the beautiful, and the true (the wordiness of Socrates); by a reference to how and by whom we are to be saved (the terseness of Christ); by tracing a line of historical development toward justice (the ponderous irony of Marx). Because Freud as a therapist refused even to ask the religious question, or proclaim a characterological ideal, he earned the polemical hatred of the best who came after him. Jung, for example, as well as Lawrence and Reich. all of whom tried to envision the next culture. The prophet in all three of Freud's most powerful successor-critics was much stronger than the scientist. Jung could not avoid finding a theology at the end of his therapy nor Reich an ideal character at the end of his analytic theory. Later on in this volume, I shall consider various struggles by Freud's successors to frame the great question in a culturally compelling way, illustrating thereby howpowerfully psychotherapy may be tempted to go beyond the grim safety of diagnostic analysis to seek out the danger of creative doctrinal synthesis. All the post-Freudians treated in this volume were similarly tempted. Their psychologies became modes of consolation. Instead of raising Freud's lack of conviction into a doctrine, leaving the ruins of the old renunciatory culture by the wayside, mitigating merely its discomforts as was done by Freud, these post-Freudians tried to create a releasing conviction, a new culture, or, as in the case of Jung, a simulacrum of the old one.
Freud never felt tempted in this way. His genius was analytic, not prophetic. At its best, psychoanalytic therapy is devoted to the long and dubious task of rubbing a touch of that analytic genius into less powerful minds. Here is no large new cosset of an idea, within which Western men could comfort themselves for the inherent difficulties of living. Freud's was a severe and chill anti-doctrine, in which the awesome dichotomy with which culture imposes itself upon men. that between an ultimately meaningful and a meaningless life. must also be abandoned. This, then, was Freud's prescription to mankind as the patient, so that by the power of the analytic attitude a limit be set to the sway of culture over mankind.
With such an attitude, men could not change the dynamics of culture (which were unchangeable anyway), but they could change at least their own relationship to these dynamics. They could become more diplomatic in their transactions with the moral demand system: not rebels but negotiators. To maintain the analytic attitude, in the everyday conduct of life, becomes the most subtle of all efforts of the ego; it is tantamount to limiting the power of the super-ego and, therewith, of culture. The analytic attitude expresses a trained capacity for entertaining tentative opinions about the inner dictates of conscience, reserving the right even to disobey the law insofar as it originates outside the individual, in the name of a gospel of a freer impulse. Not that impulse alone is to be trusted. It is merely to be respected, and a limit recognized of the ability of any culture to transform the aggressiveness of impulse, by an alchemy of commitment, into the authority of law. Freud maintained a sober vision of man in the middle, a go-between, aware of the fact that he had little strength of his own, forever mediating between culture and instinct in an effort to gain some room for maneuver between these hostile powers. Maturity, according to Freud, lay in the trained capacity to keep the negotiations from breaking down.
Does not such a doctrine of maturity, which cannot lead beyond the difficult and unstable condition of being mature, lead instead to fresh outbursts of hope for the victory of culture or that of impulse, or, as in the case of Freud's critical successors, to the wild hope of a culture dominated by impulse? Freud's doctrine of psychological manhood has itself contributed to a resurgence of anxiety on both sides, with some accusing him of being a conservative of culture (e.g., Lawrence) and others accusing him of being a nineteenth-century radical of impulse (e.g., Jung). In time, it may become apparent that Freud and his doctrine have undergone an inexorable disciplining by the culture, and that the exemplary cast of Freud's mind and character is more enduring than the particulars of his doctrine. In culture it is always the example that survives; the person is the immortal idea. Psychoanalysis was the perfect vehicle for Freud's intellectual character. When, at last, Freud found himself, having searched systematically but in vain in various disciplines, he established a new discipline, first of all for himself.
Later, as psychoanalysis became more adaptable, the bidden force of Freud's character began to be effective through the discipline, detached from his person. Psychoanalysis became a transferable art, and therefore a cultural force, which, dealing as it does in moral suasion, does not distinguish between science and art. In sociological terms, psychoanalysis became what we shall call the symbolic mode of a "negative community." It is held together by the analytic attitude, as most moderns are who think too much about themselves. Psychoanalysis is yet another method of learning bow to endure the loneliness produced by culture. Psychoanalysis is its representative therapy, in contrast to classical therapies of commitment. It is characteristic of our culture that there is no longer an effective sense of communion, driving the individual out of himself, rendering the inner life serviceable to the outer. This has led to cultural artifacts like psychoanalysis, devised primarily to protect the outer life against further encroachments by the inner and to minimize the damage caused by disorders among the parts inside. When so little can be taken for granted, and when the meaningfulness of social existence no longer grants an inner life at peace with itself, every man must become something of a genius about himself. But the imagination boggles at a culture made up mainly of virtuosi of the self. It is precisely the authority of culture that limits the need for such virtuosi.
Just this threat to the authority of culture is the reason why psychoanalysis appealed so immediately to the modern intellectual, who prides himself first of all on his independence of mind and conduct. Now, there is a curious resemblance between the futility felt by the analyst and the modern intellectual: both have the analytic attitude as the very basis and limit of their vocations. Precisely for this reason both, analyst and modern intellectual, feel the futility built into their vocations. They are charter members of the negative community, in which membership carries precious few obligations and the corporate effort is devoted mainly to objecting to the rules. Yet, despite growing regret among its critics, the civilization of authority continues to fade into history; more accurately, it has become dysfunctional. Freud was acutely aware of this. Seen from the vantage point of membership in the negative community, all positive ones appear either fraudulent or stupid; despite a massive effort by professional psychoanalysts to remain clinical therapists rather than culture critics, there is nothing in psychoanalysis that makes them any the less so.
Since a less negative sense of vocation can be instilled only in a community blessed with both a rank order of vocations and some objective means of assigning vocations, as in a civilization of authority, the patient, when he is sent out "cured," can only make himself his own vocation. To the extent of his intellectual and emotional capacity, he joins the negative community; he settles down to limit more or less capably the power of the culture in which he lives to sink deeper into his self. A certain autonomy from the penetrative thrust of culture: this is the characteristic of the new individuality. Freud himself realized this. When Freud rejected the notion of psychoanalysis as a propaedeutic to accepting one or another religious community, he imagined an ideal patient, one so strengthened that he could tolerate a return to nothing more compelling than an environment in which the ego could fight more capably for itself in the subtle and universal war of all against all.
I have summed up, elsewhere, Freud's attack on the moralizing function of modern culture. It was not always the case; but nowadays, in the circumstances of modernity, to be religious is, he thought, to be sick: it is an effort to find a cure where no one can possibly survive. For Freud, religious questions induce the very symptoms they seek to cure. "The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life," Freud wrote (in a letter to Marie Bonaparte), "he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence." The analyst, proudly, needs no synthesis. But, in scorning a synthesis, he is opposing the dynamics of culture. It is precisely as the culture fails that "not only the patient's analysis but that of the analyst himself has ceased to be terminable and become an interminable task." The exercise of reason is transformed into a parody of that contemplative way of life which characterizes most religious representatives of the old culture. Faith develops a simulacrum in analysis; the churches break up into warring sects. Here is the first step toward trying to explain the "psychoanalytic movement," which is a subtle contradiction in terms.
To be analytical is to be a realist. It is not required of a realist to be hopeful or hopeless, but only truthful. Among Freud's first and most important followers there were those who considered his realism therapeutically limiting; nor did they find that the dynamics of the transference supplied an adequate substitute. They refused to approach reality in Freud's neutralist terms. Faith reappeared, understood in terms of therapy. This was done rather easily, for religion has always had a therapeutic aspect, in one of two ways which it is important to review.
It is essential to the understanding of the function of religion that it presents jointly and in fusion two analytically discernible alternatives: either a therapeutic control of everyday life or a therapeutic respite from that very control. On the one hand, faith is doctrinal, and that doctrine is internalized thus becoming functionally anti-instinctual. On the other hand, faith is ecstatic, or erotic; there is a relative absence of doctrinal internalization, and the religious mood covertly provides an opportunity for the instincts to express themselves more directly, for example, in orgiastic behavior, or in mystical states of mind which release the subject from traditional authority.
Defined as control of conduct in everyday life, faith tends to be methodical and systematic. Defined as remission of that control, faith tends to be anti-methodical and unsystematic. To the extent that a system of faith spreads, the line between usual and unusual religious experience grows fuzzy. In effect, religious experience becomes less unusual as it becomes functionally more influential on the conduct of everyday life. this will apply not to all elements, of course, but precisely to those which give some assurance of being saved, whatever that may mean in a particular religious system. This assurance is then taken as a basis of good, because efficacious, behavior.
In order to assure a continuity of mood, there must be limits to its expression. Religious emotionalism may lead to psychic collapse, to that desolate feeling Christians once experienced as "abandonment by God." Historically, various methods are known to exist for keeping up a sense of assurance, which may have had its origin in a state of ecstasy. These methods may be fairly called "ascetic:" for example, various forms of abstinence, control of breathing, and even semi-starvation. Such ascetic devices, if they are functional, prolong, even regularize, the subjective feeling of security. To preserve this sense of ultimate security is thus the first function of all asceticism and of the classical disciplines of thought-training, now called "brainwashing." To perpetuate themselves, religious doctrines ordinarily develop modes of psychological retraining; conversely, all psychological retraining develops some of the characteristics of religious doctrine. History supplies enough examples of that deliberate emptying of consciousness, which may be the essential characteristic of all systems of therapy.
If successful, these therapeutic controls tend to spread out into the culture as a whole. Everyone, in every activity of life should have the correct attitude; and, moreover, every activity of life should be brought to terms with the system of control. Any type of action that seems to subvert these controls must either be ruled as incorrect and dangerous, or else sanctioned and brought within the system of control. For example, in the Chinese arts, the pentatonic scale was decreed as correct by Confucian doctrine.
All such systems of therapeutic control, limiting as they do the area of spontaneity, are anti-instinctual; what we mean, ordinarily, by cultures, are just these systems. We call these systems "therapeutic" because these controls are intended to preserve a certain established level of adequacy in the social functioning of the individual, as well as forestall the danger of his psychological collapse. Needless to say, such systems of control, whether Christian, Buddhist, or any other are authoritarian. The classical modes of anti-authoritarianism revolve around therapeutic respites from control; anti-authoritarianism, therefore, has always been vulnerable to the charge of being culturally (i.e. morally) subversive.
In Freud's conception, therapy is indeed a mechanism for establishing self-control. But this therapy is morally neutral. Faith, however, even one that accents the remission of control, is never neutral. The analytic attitude is an alternative to all religious ones.
Yet, being alternatives, psychoanalytic and religious therapies bear curious resemblances. Both demand complete honesty in performance; only thus can both become ways of finding out what is wrong with one-self. The process of receiving help in finding out what is inwardly wrong presupposes establishment of that inner attitude whereby the patient, or the worshiper, may become more receptive to the sources of help. Finally, psychoanalysis and faith converge as ways in which character can be transformed. Being interested in the transformation of character, both are essentially cultural in nature. If psychoanalysis to be a science, it must be a moral science no less than a science of morals, as Freud tried to have it. After Freud, all the figures discussed in the following chapters have tried, in their disparate ways, to go so far beyond psychologizing that it would become a way of life, that culture would be destroyed as a system of controlling consolations and reconstructed as a system of more immediate releases of impulse. Freud was mistaken in his judgment of "the wildest revolutionaries." They did not so much seek some new consolation as that culture of release which would render the many consolations of high culture unnecessary. However, what they achieved was new consolations, locked forever in a struggle against defensive cultural ideologies. In this light, Freud appears as the critical defender of high culture, attacked in different ways by Jung, Reich and Lawrence.
Arguments are ineffectual unless supported by events. The Freudian argument, orthodox and schismatic, had been persuasive among certain sectors of the educated classes in combination with historical circumstances. It has been adapted to the American scene, in ways Freud would not approve, for purposes Freud would have approved, so that those who must rid themselves of the burden of their atavistic self-identities, can now do so.
In other parts of the world, an identical process of cultural disemburdenment is taking place under bureaucratic auspices, forcing cultural change through the political apparatus. Entire societies are being pruned, of dead literature, of withering attachments. The weight of the past has suddenly been felt on entire continents. The urge to cast off the yoke has spread very far. it can be called "progressive" in a subtle and misleading sense only. Hider destroyed the German past as thoroughly as the Asian Communists are destroying theirs. But the revolution of our time has gone beyond politics; it is being waged as fiercely in the Asias of the mind. Freud, not Marx, is the dominant figure here. Freud's legacy is still a vitally growing thing, particularly in its misuse as a modality of faith.
Excerpted from THE TRIUMPH OF THE THERAPEUTIC by Philip Rieff Copyright © 2006 by ISI Books. Excerpted by permission.
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