Sun and shifting sands

The Caves of the Sun - Carl Rogers - The Mind's Fate
February 20, 1998

Nearly 100 years after the publication of Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, psychoanalysis is in an embattled state. While Freud himself has come under increasingly vociferous attack from people such as Jeffrey Masson, Peter Swales and Richard Webster, the other depth psychologies are also attracting their trenchant critics, most notably Richard Noll on Jung and his "analytical psychology". A recent trio of books, however, demonstrates the vitality of the psychoanalytic tradition, provided it is construed as methodology rather than dogma.

Nowhere is the hermeneutic power of the Freud-Jung tradition better in evidence than in books whose authors purport to depreciate the founding fathers of depth psychology. Adrian Bailey, whose avowed intellectual influence is Sir James Frazer and The Golden Bough, affects to take a de haut en bas attitude to Freud and Jung and accuses them of having put back the study of mythology by 100 years. However, he seems unaware of the latest Jungian scholarship, especially by Richard Noll in The Aryan Christ. With a wealth of examples drawn from world mythologies, Bailey revives the old 19-century notion that the true key to all mythology (Casaubon, thou should'st be living at this hour) is the cult of the sun. Yet this is precisely what Jung, influenced by Friedrich Max Muller and others believed in; it will be recalled that the "solar phallus" was one of the key elements in Jung's "proof" of the existence of a collective unconscious. This is not the only area where Bailey is an unwitting Jungian: in his investigation of Maya myth, too, he shows a fascination with numerology to rival the Swiss master's. Unfortunately, Bailey's solar explanation for myth is no more convincing than Jung's; the likely truth about mythology is that no single theory will suffice to explain it, and that an "overdetermined", multi-causal, even eclectic, interpretation is the only plausible one.

Another reluctant adherent of the depth psychologies was the American psychotherapist Carl Rogers (1902-87). Just as Bailey chooses Frazer as his mentor but is an unconscious Jungian, so Rogers opted for John Dewey as his guru, hoping thereby to introduce a vein of optimism into psychotherapy to counterbalance Freudian pessimism.There was a price to pay for such transmogrification and it was a constant criticism levelled at Rogers that his therapy was Deweyan in the worst sense, designed purely to achieve adaptation between organism (the patient) and environment (the unjust society that had made the patient sick in the first place). Certainly a critique of Rogers's work as "reactionary" receives support from the findings of his biographer, as David Cohen shows that Rogers was quite prepared to collaborate with the CIA during the 1950s on sleep-deprivation and other brainwashing techniques.

Believing that Jungian and Freudian analysts "led the witness" towards pat a priori conclusions, Rogers pioneered "non-directive" or client-centred therapy. In such work empathy was not enough: the therapist had to enter into the world of the "client", accept it, with all its delusions, as real and perceive the world with the patient's eyes. Rogers achieved notable success in this work before turning in his later life to an emphasis on "encounter groups". During the second world war he proved conclusively that the reason many young men of intelligence failed to qualify as pilots was because of "blocks" arising from childhood trauma. He also showed how Piaget could be used as an alternative model to Freud in unravelling the psychic damage of the early years. But when he strayed from the field in which he was an acknowledged expert, Rogers was less successful; he was naive and simply wrongheaded in his "optimistic" analysis of the psychology of creative genius.

Those who like to identify the human frailties in alleged gurus and assert that analysts are madder than their patients will enjoy Cohen's devastating portrait of this particular psychological artist as an old man. Almost as old as the century himself, Rogers was bowled over by the sexual liberation of the 1960s and took advantage of the era to cut a swathe through the bevy of nubile young women who were his students. He compounded his womanising in his sixties by becoming a heavy drinker in his seventies. Cohen is maddeningly coy about the details of Rogers's sexual encounters but makes up for this with a sad, bizarre and ultimately pathetic tale of the non-consummation of Rogers's passion for a 50-year old coquette. This is a good biography, marred only by the occasional slip and infelicity. Pace Cohen, Isaac Newton was no virgin, but his carnal dealings were all homosexual. I wish, too, that Cohen could have avoided the awful cant word "judgemental", which is simply California speak for any assessment based on a non-relativistic morality. And I fail to see how he finds anything valuable in the very substandard 1936 satire on psychotherapy by Thurber entitled Let My Mind Alone.

It has often been observed that psychiatrists, like Emerson's librarians, are no wiser than other men, and it is an abiding fantasy of patients that their therapist or analyst should be a benign, wise, father-figure like the Claude Rains character in the movie Now Voyager. For much of his volume of essays Robert Coles, Pulitzer-prizewinning child psychiatrist and disciple of Anna Freud, seems to fit that bill. He is not bedazzled by Freud but appreciates his continuing value and inspiration. He dismisses fashionable anti-Freudianism as "the shifting sands of chic" and uses Erik Erikson's phrase to describe Jeffrey Masson and the other apostate Freudians as "disenchanted lovers". He has no time for the cliche picture of Freud as dogmatist or infallible Pope and writes that Freud "was anything but the possessive theorist or ideologue, anxious to enforce the compliance of unquestioning faith from his followers".

After poking gentle fun at trendy "syndromes" such as dyslexia and "attention deficit" - and especially the howling American cliche "borderline", as in "borderline hyperactive" - Coles warns against the complacent orthodoxy that drugs will eventually cure all psychological problems; not so, he claims, there will always be a place for the "talking cure". He is also a vigorous opponent of the arrogant and widespread assumption in mainstream psychoanalysis that the social world can be ignored since the only important realm is mental. Thus nuclear missiles function solely as phallic symbols, death becomes not actual death in war but Thanatos and everyday realities are, bizarrely, seen as metaphors for some inner dynamic or "complex". He traces this to a certain solipsistic tendency implicit in the Freudian map of the mind, which is why he is so keen on the "object-related" theorists like Harry Stack Sullivan.

A man of wide-ranging sympathies and polymathic interests, Coles includes in this collection many essays on the figures who have influenced him most: Carlos Williams, Anna Freud, Erik Erikson, William James, Simone Weil, Bruno Bettelheim and R. D. Laing (who here appears minus the dark side that once led him to cheat Carl Rogers out of $2,000). He is also an expert on the southern novelists Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy and treats all these subjects with insight, originality and compassion. Only in his essay on "Psychohistory" does Coles fall from his high standards, for there he indulges in some of the cheap cracks and wilful misunderstandings habitually employed by critics of psychoanalysis. Perhaps this outburst, triggered by the book on Woodrow Wilson co-authored by Freud and William Bullitt, is the point where Coles the American patriot simply cannot stomach Freud's notorious anti-Americanism.

Two remarks seem in order. One is that Wilson has always provoked violent emotions, for and against. Keynes loathed him while Frank Harris, usually a pussycat in his remarks on the great and the good, virtually exploded with rage when the subject of Wilson came up. The other is that Coles misses the point in his general remarks about psychohistory. Of course sadomasochism is a trait shared by millions of people but it becomes significant only when a world leader is in the unique position of being able to act out sadomasochistic fantasies rather than displacing or dissolving them. Coles's animadversions on "psychohistory" come dangerously close to the arrogant positivism and philistinism of a complacent Anglo-Saxon empiricism. Indeed, the unkind critic could point to several remarks, particularly those relating to the Kennedys, where Coles reveals the inadequate grasp of history of which he accuses the psychohistorian.

Coles seems to regret that Freud wrote on Woodrow Wilson, or Erikson on Luther or Kurt Eissler on Leonardo. I regret that such a brilliant and humane man, most of whose essays are so inspiring and convincing, should have allowed himself to write so sceptically about the heroic efforts of a band of writers who have unquestionably enriched our understanding of Gandhi, Trotsky, Hitler, Nixon, Kennedy and a host of others. Coles approves of the dictum that only the wounded healer cures, so presumably would accept with a good grace the judgement that historical studies are his Achilles heel.

Frank McLynn is visiting professor, department of literature, University of Strathclyde.

The Caves of the Sun: The Origin of Mythology

Author - Adrian Bailey
ISBN - 0 224 03063 9
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Price - £17.99
Pages - 312

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