Sunday, August 10, 2014

Failure, Inc.

Now that psychotherapy has presumably overcome the dark, negative psychology of Freud, it has been offering pathways to happiness.

Where psychoanalysis took pride in helping people think the worst of themselves, cognitive treatments balance the bad with the good. Apparently, a mind in balance is more likely to be contented. It can do so without being overly pessimistic or overly optimistic.

Dare we call it happiness?

In any event, all the happiness-talk has apparently taken a toll. If people believe that happiness is attainable they feel guilty about being unhappy. They feel that they have been derelict.

If they insist on clinging to their misery when the culture offers them a pathway to happiness, they have no right to their feelings.

If it’s not the work in cognitive psychology that is doing them ill, it must be the advent of Prozac and the other SSRIs. If depression is so easily cured, no one has the right to wallow in despair any more.

So says Cambridge lecturer Andy Martin. He calls for a philosophy of failure, as though we did not have our pick of such theories. At the least he demonstrates the resilience of negative psychology. Positive psychology has not taken over yet.

Martin rises to an interesting challenge. He wants to show that all f this happiness talk is making us miserable?

He explains:

But the spread of depression is partly a side-effect of our addiction to happiness. Conversely, understanding why we are so miserable should liberate us from being too miserable about it. We can feel good about feeling bad. In other words, we need a decent philosophy of failure to save everyone from thinking what failures they are.

At the risk of sounding churlish, I point out that Martin has taken a rather large leap of faith by asserting that we are addicted to happiness. Most of those who take Prozac and do cognitive exercises to overcome depression are not addicted to happiness.

And then, he becomes too cute. Who suggested that if we understand the bases for our misery we will be freed from misery?

That, dare I say, was Freud’s gamble, and we know that it did not work out. Among other reasons: Freudians decided that those who understood the truth fully were bound to be miserable. If you are faced with the task of showing the world that you grasp the truth about human misery you will be forced to sport a dour appearance. Being bright-eyed and cheerful would mean that you have clearly missed out on the Freudian truth.

Finally, a philosophy of failure will not save us from anything whatever. The more you think that failure is the norm, the more you will disbelieve in your success. The more you disbelieve in success the less motivated you will be to pursue it.

Martin calls for a philosophy of failure, but he knows well that such philosophies exist. He knows that Freud’s psychoanalysis was, for all intents and purposes, a clinical failure. What is the Freudian movement but an attempt to deal with failure? The Austrian neurologist’s tragic vision of human destiny leaves offers no path to happiness.

And if you want a philosophy of futility, why not try Sartre’s existentialism? Surely, it will nourish your pessimism, while telling you to keep fighting the good fight.

Of course, it all depends on what you mean by happiness? Surely, when Aristotle philosophized about it around two-and-a-half millennia ago he was not thinking of Dionysian revelry and Aphroditic debauchery.

And yet, when modern authors, appealing to callow youth, define happiness in terms of pagan idolatry and endless orgies they are offering a rather restricted notion.

Freud would himself have been much happier if he had not gotten caught up in a theory that identified happiness with the expression of forbidden libidinal longings and infantile polymorphous perversity.

Had these writers studied Aristotle they would have arrived at a more sober, more sensible, more adult and more attainable view of human happiness, one that embraced and did not abrogate responsibility.


Anonymous said...

But Martin's is a NEW theory, which makes it very exciting, because sophisticated people can go to wine parties or coffee houses or sip on organic free range tea from exotic lands, while claiming they have this new thing to share about failure. This is a cathartic attempt to justify their own miserable lives as a consequence of taking the high road that uber-educated persons are destined to take. It's a very important thing, you know. They're not attached to the old. They're hip. They know something others don't. Isn't that what being sophisticated is all about? It's like a form of freemasonry and/or Gnosticism tied to how many academic theories you can recall from memory.

"... psychoanalysis took pride in helping people think the worst of themselves..." Of course. Isn't that what keeps them in psychoanalytic process in the first place? Freudians disparage concepts like sin and repressive religion because it's superstitious ritual led by repressed priests. Then they replace it with a newly ginned-up pseudoscientific concept that hauntingly resembles sin. This all takes place within a repressive, unyielding construct created by one man's vision -- Freud's -- with correct psychoanalysis taking place in his image. This is all propagated by a band of high priests who are Freud's apostles, all priding themselves on their link to the master in some ludicrous apostolic succession. Hilarious.

And what was Freud replacing?

The whole pessimism thing is funny. I wonder if there is some anthropological study of "sophisticated" society. You're only real and intelligent if you're miserable. Isn't that it? Happiness is for simpletons, right? How can you laugh or enjoy yourself when there's so much suffering in the world? And the worst suffering is your own, so it comes down to a contest of who can be the most lugubrious at any gathering. Fun!


Anonymous said...

Sigmund Freud. "If only Americans knew, we are bringing them the plague!"


Ares Olympus said...

Maybe Freudians got their dour perspective from the Jews or Christians? At least believing in the doctrine of original sin will make many people into pessimists.

I always took story of the fall from garden of Eden as a myth pretty simply - the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, eating from the tree meant we were no longer innocent animals of the garden, but self aware, and able to see ourselves and our transgressions from the outside.

My dad however took it more literally with a harsher teacher than me and and hated his firehell&brimstone Christian preacher who told him he was born a sinner, because of his ancestors decisions, and he rebelled against this thought, and later fell into New Age positivism as a reaction.

It seems paradoxical that "truth" (awareness our own ability to do wrong) can both allow us to raise our standards of behavior, and surrender them in reaction of a too stern superego, or whatever perfectionism we feel we ought to achieve while knowing we'll always fall short.

So anyway, I guess I don't want to blame the Freudians. Fallen humanity is a very old myth, and a useful one when its put in a proper context.