The Ways of the Will

I like doing book reviews, because they give me a chance to reflect on my reading and keep my observations around for my own future viewing. However, I think they are often off putting to many readers who have not read the book and have no intention of reading the book.

So, I’m going to try and be even more broad about this book, which is a collection of essays by psychoanalyst Leslie Farber titled The Ways of the Will.

The book is mainly about psychoanalysis, but in a very accessible style. What the hell is psyhoanalysis about? Well it used to be about dreams and sex, but now I get the sense that the discipline is mainly just about psychology from the perspective not of controlled experiments but an analysis of individual cases (i.e. patients), pop-culture, literature and other “soft” types of analysis.

This book has some interesting essays, one of which is Farber’s long excoriation of Harry Stack Sullivan, an American psychologist who served as Farber’s mentor. He’s just pretty brutal toward this guy, and as a portrait of academia, it sounds dead on to me.

But to get to the more interesting stuff, most of the essays focus on “the will” which Farber points out, must be present in all psychological theory as a motive force even though every theory gives it a different name: anxiety (sullivan), sexual desire (Freud), aggression, and on and on. So, Farber, wisely I think, decides to call a spade a spade, and suggest that we should just accept that will is what drives us and then go on to theorize about how it operates and what it responds to rather than playing games about what to call it.

So he looks at a lot of emotions (jealously, suicidal drive, envy, greed) and psychological states (schizophrenia, anxiety, hysteria) and tries to clarify our thinking about them.

There are two big themes here. One is the interesting point that we can’t will certain things. We can’t will ourselves to act naturally, because it is a contradiction (when we walk into a party and say nervously to ourselves “act naturally,” we’ve already sealed our fate of awkwardness). There’s a story that illustrates this point well I think. A zen master is talking with his students and then walks into his house and lights it on fire. He yells to them that he will only come out when they “say the right thing” in response to his plight. His students stand around trying to think of what to say when another student comes along and is told that the master has locked himself in his burning house. The newcomer says “O my god!” and the master comes out. Get it? The right thing to say is just what one would naturally try to say, and trying to “plan out” the right thing to say in such circumstances is SELF DEFEATING. Just like TRYING to fall asleep. Farber thinks that psychological maladies of all varieties come from trying to will things that cannot be willed. For instance we try to will someone to be in love with us, but such a thing cannot be willed but only allowed for. You can only be open to someone loving you; you cannot force it.

His other point is about the tendency of people (and mainly academics and psychoanalysts) to invest too much meaning in certain states. My favorite essay in this regard is about death. He talks about how some people invest too much meaning in death or make it too important to human life. Some psychologists of his time made out the fear of death to be the all controlling impulse behind human psychology and found this fear everywhere, even in minor setbacks and pains which supposedly were prefigurations of the ultimate powerlessness we have at our respective ends. These psychologists advocate a society and psychological interventions designed to make us resistant and unafraid of death. This has some appeal, and there is some powerful rhetoric discussing how we could live with supreme meaning only in the face of acknowledgment of its end. Think of people who, on the verge of death, achieve a kind of cosmic serenity and find joy in all things. So, to these psychologists, we must live in the face of death. This removes fear and introduces meaning to our day to day struggles.

I think Farber rightly mocks this naive treatment of death as a kind of melodramatic reaction to the fact that human life is limited. Death, as I’ve argued before on this blog, is not entirely bad or to be feared, but neither should it be treated as a mere psychological hitch that humans can cast off. Death is fearful master, and it should be treated as such, and with reverence, and yes, fear as well. But as Farber puts it, we cannot live our whole life in the shadow of death because though this elevates all experience, it also levels it all out and makes us incapable of celebrating life. In fact, Hannah Arendt has a wonderful point about this when she notes that we need not focus on death to elevate life since we could achieve the same effect by focusing on the poignancy of BIRTH. Heidegger celebrated mortality and Arendt natality.

Farber’s nuanced treatment of death is just great, and I think his whole essay can be nicely summed up in his closing paragraph. This also gives a feel for Farber as a writer, and I must confess, I think his style often very rich, though he repeats some phrases and can fly off into a rhetorical frenzy at some points.

For myself, I don’t think death has been brought down from the mountain. I can hear it howling up there on some dark nights, just as all men everywhere have head it. And as for this cartoon creature we presumably now have tethered in back of the house, where we tend it and talk to it and let it into the parlor on special occasions, it is just a dummy, a death-dummy; and if that sound you hear from the mountain top is not howling, it is laughter. For what would know better than death that the way to deal with man’s presumptuous challenges is to reduce him not to silence but to silliness.


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