Thursday, 17 November 2011

Imagine No Possesions

To Have Or To Be
Erich Fromm
Jonathan Cape, Great Britain, 1978
We've Had 100 Years Of Psychotherapy - And The World's Getting Worse
James Hillman & Michael Ventura
HarperCollins, USA, 1992

As the global situation deteriorates in the face of resource depletion, climate change and ecological destruction it is becoming increasingly apparent that the roots of our problems may not be primarily scientific, political or economic but rather psychological and spiritual. Change toward a sustainable and equitable society will require a paradigm shift in our conception of the world and an expansion in our sense of self if our actions on other levels are to be truly effective. These two books by eminent therapists provide psychological approaches that offer a diagnosis of the global situation, reading back from the symptoms and the “presenting issues” to find the underlying causes and a process that offers a means of healing. To differing degrees they advise how we might think differently so that psychological and spiritual inquiry might be fed back as engaged action into the scientific, political and economic spheres.

Erich Fromm's book is an academically rigorous, referenced work aimed at a wide popular audience, and is written in such a way as to communicate easily. His theme in To Have Or To Be is set out concisely by his title, that humanity faces a choice between two modes of existence: that of having (ownership, possession, domination, an experience of the world as a collection of objects) and that of being (belonging, reciprocity, becoming, a relation to the world as a communion of subjects). Human society has been pursuing the first mode up to the point of our current crises; Fromm considers the second mode to be the necessary base for our salvation from them.

Crucially, however, Fromm also believes that switching modes alone is not enough to produce effective action. Social change results from a transformation in what he calls the ‘social character’, a blending of the individual psychical sphere and the socio-economic structure of which the individual is part. To alter that socio-economic structure we require new social forms ‘that begin to bridge the gap between what is necessary and what is possible’. Sadly the more detail Fromm provides as regards action, the more apparent the historical distance between the period of authorship and the present becomes. The existing socio-economic structures he discusses have already gone thorough a series of changes. While the ‘fake socialism’ of the USSR he decries has fallen with that state, the capitalism he bemoans has proceeded, as he feared, to even greater triumph in dictating the direction of the world. Also, when he espouses the ‘energizing attraction of a new vision’ he states it with the caveat that the chances of a change in the mode of existence of the global population ‘remain slim’. Three decades on from its initial publication I found it difficult not to assume the disempowering stance that those slim chances will have attenuated to extreme emaciation, if not impossibility across the intervening years.

James Hillman and Michael Ventura's book We've Had 100 Years Of Psychotherapy - And The World's Getting Worse plays off the interaction of two voices - the learned sagacity of Hillman and the New Journalism of Ventura. The resulting tone is populist, informal, conversational and determinedly in your face, an instant contrast to the structured prose of Fromm. The statement late in Fromm's book that ‘[p]urely psychological change... has been completely ineffective’ is however at the core of the Hillman/Ventura dialogues. In fact, as their title reveals, their book exhibits anxiety about the solipsism of the current therapeutic mode, of a psychological inquiry that only looks inward not outward at a worsening world. The authors counsel that we have become a little too obsessed, possessed even, by “our” problems. Hillman pointedly notes that ‘[p]ersonal growth doesn't automatically lead to political results’. He also poses a question to Ventura: ‘could analysis have new fantasies of itself, so that the consulting room is a cell in which revolution is prepared?’
Ventura relates an exchange with his son about agency in the world in the face of ‘ecological disaster’ and the authors offer him and us a look at the worst and a challenge in how to act. The purpose of concerned souls, they propose, is found in ‘trying to be a wide-awake human during a Dark Age and keeping alive what you think is beautiful and important’. They suggest these might be ‘ideas, art, knowledge, skills, or just plain old fragile love, how we treat people, how we help people’. This is a call to build resilience in what we cherish, to maintain what is valuable in being human, and to support hope. Hillman and Ventura’s choice to share authorship and to present their ideas in this discursive form provides a literal example of dialogic relating and a conversation I certainly felt we were invited to join.
What both books propose is an expansion of our sense of self, of soul - beyond the skin of the individual to include the flesh of the world, the world soul, anima mundi. This transpersonal sense of self would end divisions, dualisms such as man/nature or world/self and extend our essential concerns across the entire ecosphere. Hillman writes ‘I would rather define self as the interiorization of community’ that is: include within the sense of self that which has previously been considered outside self. This is where the psychological gains a spiritual dimension, as this expanded non-dual conception is akin to the ‘you are that’ of Vedanta or Martin Buber’s call for the boundless relationship of an I-Thou rather than an I-It attitude towards the world. But the authors of both books stress the necessity of turning insights outwards; the psychical and the spiritual must drive action in and with the world. Effecting global change cannot be programmatic, domineering - the problems we face cannot be solved at the same level we were at when we created them. Our solutions must be creative, participatory and dialogic. In facing the challenges ahead it is clear that our heads and hearts must share the task of our hands, we need a praxis bold as love.

[Originally published on the Yourmindfire blog:]

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