Monday, October 15, 2018

Psychoanalysis to the Rescue

Apparently, psychotherapist Gary Greenberg believes that Freud can teach us something about Donald Trump. Thus, we wade through a long, though well-written screed, about psychotherapy and Trump. By the time we get to the end, we discover the barely hidden motive: Greenberg is drumming up business. He is claiming that psychotherapy can offer insight into the Trump phenomena. And thus, that if you are suffering through the Trump presidency you should repair to his couch.

Greenberg begins his essay on an encouraging note. He points out, quite correctly, that therapists are more the problem than the solution to the suffering they are supposed to be treating.

In his words:

At such intervals, honest therapists realise that they are not only incapable of doing much about the suffering they are witnessing; they are part of the problem.

One problem is that therapists have no sense of reality. Their bailiwick is dreams, fantasies, wishes and feelings. Nothing real there. Check it yourself. They want their patients to search their souls, to scour their past  history, to recall trauma after trauma and to discover what they really, really want. When something undeniably real happens, they are struck dumb.

So, when on that Wednesday, no matter how much they (and I) might have wanted to get back to their intimate dramas, if only as a refuge, we found ourselves unable to speak of anything else but the ascension of Trump. It seemed remarkable – an inversion of business as usual. The political had become personal in the most literal fashion.

We feel their pain. They had studied for years and years… only to discover that they had nothing in their quivers to address the advent of Donald Trump:

The stoics and the obsessives, the anxious and the depressed, the dissolute and the uptight: they all seemed stunned and downcast and, since many of them had awakened in the wee hours to check the news, exhausted. It was as if overnight each person had experienced an unexpected death in the family and had come to me in the early stages of mourning.

Better yet, Greenberg felt their pain. He felt their feelings; he did not even need to empathize. After all, therapists are selling emotional lability, so they are obliged to express their feelings:

At the time, it seemed beyond question, self-evident, which is what happens when a therapist is feeling the same thing as a client – a less than reliable way to judge what is beyond question, I admit. It wasn’t until the intensity subsided over the following weeks, and its muted version took up residency in the post-election world, that the oddness of the reaction struck me. Why were we all so sad?

Naturally, Greenberg presents himself as an expert, an arbiter, someone who knows what happened to America on November 8, 2016. He sustains no doubt. He asks no questions. He is dead certain, as certain as any of his delusional patients, that he knows exactly what happened:

But if that happens, I am ready with an answer: there is nothing to make you feel helpless like watching 63 million of your neighbours converge upon something so foolish and dangerous as to elect a carny barker, and not a very good one at that, to the presidency. The election ends, and, good democrats that we are, we must accept its outcome just as surely as we must accept a death. There are no do-overs. Flail about all you like – when the cause is lost, it is lost. You watch a loved one decline and expire, your dog gets hit by a car, your lover leaves you for the last time, and there is nothing you can do about it. Helplessness is the gateway to grief, and to grieve – at a wake, during shivah, in a chance encounter at the store – is to talk, to bear witness to the loss until you have absorbed it.

Of course, Greenberg commits an egregious error in that paragraph. Perhaps you noticed it. When your candidate loses an election it is NOT, despite what he says, the same as when you mother dies, or when anyone dies. If you have half a functioning brain you can distinguish between losing an election and losing your grandmother. You will not get trapped into thinking that you should feel grief when you lose an election. You will not go into mourning.

Certainly not for the ambitions of Hillary Clinton, among the least likable humans in the country. You have to be kidding.

Your team loses the Super Bowl. It happens. Do you think it’s like when your dog got run over by a truck? I hope you can make this elementary distinction.

Greenberg cannot. That is why he is having trouble helping his patients. His theoretical tools have nothing to say about losing an election. Besides, how many people went into mourning after Hillary Clinton’s election defeat. Hillary supporters got angry. They refused to accept the election results. They thought they had been cheated and that the game had been rigged. Where was Greenberg when all of this was happening?

He goes on to suggest that this death in the family made it difficult to venture love. Huh? Perhaps he ought to step outside of his own bubble. When you lose an election you do not whine about it, as though your best friend had just died from cancer. You graciously accept defeat and  you regroup. You prepare for the next game or season:

And besides, if you suffer (or witness) enough loss, you will likely come to doubt, to distrust, and finally to discard this confidence, and to recognise that the capacity to soldier on in the face of the inevitable, let alone to venture love, is inexplicable. You will then perhaps see that bereavement is infinitely more complicated than any other wound, and that healing from it, whatever that may mean, is a miracle.

Of course, Hillary Clinton’s loss was not only like a death in the family. It felt like a repudiation of everything that liberal America held sacred. For people who had very little sense of the reality of politics, it was a crisis of faith. Liberal America had thought that their Messiah, Barack Obama had saved them. They woke up on the morning of November 9, 2016 to discover that the nation was filled with what they used to call the unconverted, with people who had not accepted Obama as their Messiah.

The crisis of faith extended to modern liberalism, which apparently had failed. Yet, rather than imagine that liberalism had failed, or that Obama had feet of clay, they chose to believe that something had gone wrong, that they had been cheated.

Greenberg then quotes Freud’s view of the meaning of World War I. Freud understood that the Great War had pronounced a verdict against the lofty optimism and idealism that had accompanied the Enlightenment. Europe had thought that it had overcome religious dogma and had set out on a brave new path toward liberality… only to discover that the demons it thought it had overcome were still alive. Of course, the enlightened intelligentsia did not think that perhaps it had made a mistake… that the Great War had shown them to have been mistaken. They would double down.

Greenberg summarizes Freud’s remarks:

The outbreak of war, he wrote in 1915, shattered our pride at the accomplishments of our civilisation, our respect for so many thinkers and artists, our hopes of finally overcoming the differences among peoples and races. It unleashed within us the evil spirits that we thought had been tamed by centuries of education on the part of our most noble men. It made our fatherland small again. In this way, it robbed us of so much that we had loved and showed us the fragility of so much that we had considered stable.

Freud maintained a certain quantity of optimism, eventually shown to have been mistaken:

The rosy forecast that ends the paper – “once mourning is overcome ... we will once again build up everything that the war has destroyed, perhaps on firmer foundations and more lastingly than before” – would be virtually his last word on the subject until the much darker Civilization and its Discontents, written as the Nazis were gaining power in Germany.

Greenberg concludes that psychotherapy has worked to shield people from reality. This makes sense, because therapists do not know how to deal with reality. Therapy provides a cocoon, a refuge, a respite from the horrors of the real world. It does not prepare patients to function within the world. It prepares them to feel assaulted by reality and to feel aggrieved when it doesn’t do what they hoped it would do.

No one ever said it out loud, and I didn’t realise it until much later, but the purpose of psychotherapy had become finding what it is in ourselves that we need to protect from the world. The safe space of the therapy office was not only a refuge but a model, a foretaste of the way the world ought to be: full of interlocutors whose job was to love us unconditionally and to help us to love ourselves the same way, so that we could be all that we can be.

He adds an existential reflection:

… now that God is dead and priests are just men spouting superstition, now that we have taken matters into our own hands, just how are we supposed to live with one another? Now that everything is permitted, now that rules are whatever we make them to be, how can we tame those evil spirits ourselves? Implicit in the therapeutic answer is a bet, the same bet that lies behind science and democracy and free-market capitalism: that we are self-limiting creatures, that given freedom and self-knowledge and the opportunity to express them, we will be able to ride the long arc of history toward progress.

If you take the word of a slightly deranged German philosopher, you accept unthinkingly that God is dead. And that priests are merely, as Enlightenment philosophers insisted, spouting superstition. Greenberg is correct to suggest that in a world where we recognize no external authority, the rules are what we make them to be. Thus, we are lost… and not in the sense that we have lost a parent or have lost a game.

He continues to show how little he understands politics. His reflections are boilerplate leftism… which we have been hearing ceaselessly since Trump was elected. He has no capacity to reflect on what might be right or wrong about Trump or about Trump’s legions of detractors. His primary purpose, let’s be clear about this, is to show that he belongs to the class of bien pensant elites, the intelligentsia that can still not accept that the nation has rejected its vision of the world and has refused to accept it as a guardian class of philosopher kings.

He writes:

Like all nostalgia, the yearning to make America great again is a yearning for the never-was, and it tells us more about what is missing from the present than what was present in the past….

Trump promises more than the restoration of white men to their rightful place at the top of the org chart. He promises to make the world comprehensible again without the intercession of pointy-headed elites and the nagging of social justice warriors. He urges us all to shake loose the surly bonds of civilised conduct: to make science irrelevant and rationality optional, to render truth obsolete, to set power free to roam the world, to lift all the core conditions written into the social contract – fealty to reason, scepticism about instincts, aspirations to justice. We then, at last, will be restored to the primordial American state of nature – free to consume, to pillage, to destroy, to wall out our neighbours and to hate people for living in shitholes.

What value would Greenberg’s whining have if he did not try to indict Trump and to reassert Enlightenment values… the ones that helped give us world wars and pogroms and Communism. Do you understand that the greatest human attempt to construct an atheist society was Communism... and that if failed catastrophically:

Trump indeed does more than promise: with his profligate lies, his proud immorality, his sneering disdain for fairness, his disregard for consistency or any other kind of integrity, he embodies those promises. He is the anti-Aufklärer, and his deepest appeal lies in an unspoken promise that lies behind the others: to undo the Enlightenment, to free us from the burdens of living rationally in a world where nothing is settled and where everything – economic well-being, national borders, gender identities, domestic arrangements – is up for grabs, let the strongest prevail.

And, of course, he showers Trump voters with bilious contempt:

Without a single shot, with hardly any sort of sustained violent break at all, in a collective ejaculation of rage and resentment, a near-majority of the electorate went with its gut and rejected not a candidate or a party but an ethos shaped over five centuries, of which Freud was an acolyte and the odd profession he spawned an apotheosis. They rose up against the demand imposed by modernity – that we use reason to figure things out for ourselves – and replaced it not with the old rules, but with impulse itself, with the vengeance and cruelty and rage that Trump so brilliantly embodies. Freud’s answer, that we find our limits only when we recognise just how badly we need them, was insufficient, and its transvalued version even more so. As John Adams recognised in noting the way that democracy “wastes, exhausts and murders itself”, individuals may conquer themselves but “nations and large bodies of men, never”.

Obviously, Greenberg has read Steven Pinker on the Enlightenment. He does not know enough about intellectual history to judge it, to evaluate its premises. So he offers a sustained rant. He does not seem to understand what Freud was on the verge of understanding, that this great social experiment has not been the great success that its adherents propose, that there is a flaw in the mechanism … and that we have been paying the price ever since.

He ends with a call to authentic individuality, the kind of social anomie and social dislocation that Enlightened philosophers never took the blame for:

For we have only just begun to grieve the passing of this great experiment, of the idea that we will find in ourselves the ability to run our own show, and as we watch ourselves decline, we will have to get very good at mourning. My colleagues and I stand ready to assist.

As I said, it’s all a sales pitch.


Sam L. said...

The man's deluded. Self-deluded. Bummer for him.

Ares Olympus said...

I agree, losing an election is closer to losing a football game than the grief of a mother dying. It's the death of a tribal dream that convinces one that all virtue is on your side while all vice on the other.

In this case George W Bush's speechwriters have better wisdom when he said "Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples - while judging ourselves by our best intentions." even if he also happened to start a multitrillion dollar war on the rationalization "After all, this is the guy who tried to kill my dad."

Whatever virtues that Trump could have, it must be in being a mirror to show all of us our dark (unenlightened) thoughts, and getting Trump out of power by hook or by crook won't get rid of those.