Willing it

The ways of the will.
by Leslie H. Farber.
Basic Books. 226 pp. $5.95.

I cannot recall when I last had the pleasure of reviewing a book which seemed to me to succeed perfectly in achieving its author's purpose; and, moreover, did so with such modesty and ease as to run a certain risk of concealing from the reader the importance and complexity of that purpose. We have all become so accustomed to stridency in communication that we are unlikely to believe that an author has undertaken and completed anything important unless he and his publisher repeatedly tell us so. Dr. Farber's technique is suited to a different kind of theater. Though he is an analyst, his work is surgical both in its precision and in the fact that he leaves no mess and very little surface indication of the sensitive depths at which he has been working. In his underlying attitudes, Dr. Farber is anything but surgical. His central concern is with the evil consequences of treating people as if they were passive objects—and with the virtual impossibility, in our society with its scientific and linguistic conventions, of treating them in any other way, even on the psychoanalytic couch. But perhaps good surgeons, too, are assisted by their awareness of their patients' humanity even while refusing to become sentimental about their disorders.

The integrity of this book is attested to by the fact that it hangs together like a well-constructed mobile even though it is a collection of ten essays published over the past decade, all but one of them in technical journals. Taken together, they demonstrate their author's consistent concern with the same moral issues. But there is no repetition at all. A psychiatrist whose fundamental interest is in the relationships of ethics to personal style and authenticity could surely ask no richer or more diverse opportunity for participant-observation than that afforded by an established practice in Washington, D.C. Dr. Farber's genius loci is also responsible, I suspect, for his selection of the phenomenon of despair—of which Washington has become the unrivaled world source—as the topic for three of the most original of his essays.

Even though most of these essays were originally published in scholarly journals, they are of great general interest, and as clearly and economically written as their subject matter permits. Dr. Farber was trained by the late Harry Stack Sullivan, and has served as chairman of the Washington School of Psychiatry and as vice president of the William Alanson White Psychiatric Foundation, which forms the institutional base of the Sullivanian school. Sullivan's ideas have always been especially difficult to express in systematic written form—he, himself, never wrote a book, though his associates have assembled from his notes and papers some of the most provocative work in modern psychiatry, and published several volumes posthumously in Sullivan's name. The problem is not that Sullivan's thought is turgid, but that the role of language in psychodynamics is central to it, so that he was constantly in the position of trying to explain phenomena in terms that were themselves at the heart of the mystery. Farber shares this difficulty, which is compounded by his existentialism.

Farber's use of existential thought is subtle and intricate, though often vivid as well. As the title indicates, he is concerned with the human will and the fate of its bearer. He starts by discussing what he means by will, distinguishing his position clearly from that of the Nietzschean, Otto Rank, who called his most familiar work Will Therapy. The two men have nothing in common; Rank, as Farber points out, was concerned with reestablishing in his patients a more masterful posture by freeing them from neurotic guilt. Farber is concerned with the currently familiar problem of authenticity. While Rank likewise sought this end, he perceived the will as an instrument that might be rather artificially strengthened to further it. Farber sees the will as the essence of human being; dynamic, but ineffable and treacherous if pressed too hard to define itself.

In his conception of the will and the existential plight of man, Farber seems to have been strongly influenced by T. S. Eliot. He quotes Eliot twice in The Ways Of The Will; but both quotations are from “East Coker.” It is in The Cocktail Party, however, that Eliot defines the will precisely in the sense that Farber thinks of it:

I see that my life was determined
    long ago
And that the struggle to escape
    from it
Is only a make-believe, a pretense That what is, is not, or could be
The self that can say “I want this
    —or want that”—
The self that wills—he is a feeble
He has to come to terms in the
With the obstinate, the tougher
    self; who does not speak
Who never talks, who cannot

* * *

The willing self can contrive the
Of this unwilling partnership—
    but only flourish
In submission to the rule of the
    stronger partner.

The ways of the will is devoted to a complex and occasionally delightfully epigrammatic examination of the ways in which the disaster of this unwilling partnership occurs, and can sometimes be averted. Farber, to be sure, is more cheerful than Eliot in this passage; for Eliot is here depicting a character, Edward Chamberlayne, who dramatizes his despair to the point of parody. In the essay “Despair and the Life of Suicide,” Farber discusses in general terms the condition of which Chamberlayne is an acutely conceived case-study. But Chamberlayne's trouble, with its attendant syndrome of pompous self-pity and sense of lost identity, is, as the psychoanalyst in The Cocktail Party later observes, “. . . serious. A very common malady. Very prevalent, indeed.” Or, as Farber puts it:

Much as I dislike the game of labels, my preference, which could be anticipated, would be to call this the “Age of the Disordered Will.” It takes only a glance to see a few of the myriad varieties of willing what cannot be willed that enslave us; we will to sleep, will to read fast, will to have simultaneous orgasm, will to be creative and spontaneous, will to enjoy our old age, and most urgently, will to will. If anxiety is more prominent in our time, such anxiety is the product of our particular modern disability of the will. To this disability, rather than to anxiety, I would attribute the ever-increasing dependence on drugs affecting all levels of our society. While drugs do offer relief from anxiety, their more important task is to offer the illusion of healing the split between the will and its refractory object. . . . This is the reason, I believe, that the addictive possibilities of our age are so enormous.

Enormous, indeed. In Vietnam, escalation has become a special form of addiction, as the Presidential will becomes exacerbated by frustration. “Consideration of the historical origins of our present situation lies outside my purpose and competence,” Dr. Farber observes toward the end of the passage from which I took the excerpt I have quoted. This is a pity, for it leaves the most important questions unasked, let alone answered. But there is wealth enough in this book without them. Since subtle discourse loses much by being condensed and paraphrased, I believe I can indicate the scope and quality of Farber's work best simply by quoting several brief observations that particularly struck me. Other readers will doubtless notice quite different jewels scattered along their path, whose cut is better suited to reflect their experience as these reflect and focus on mine:

What Freud may have achieved was a change from the method of concealment to that of disclosure, without necessarily altering the motivation.

The therapist's disadvantage, moreover, is increased by his habit—encouraged by psychoanalytic theory—of isolating the sexual function: whether his language is clinical or vernacular, he works on the brink of pornography.

To a great extent, the emotionality of hysteria, ranging from rage to tears, can be understood as the fictitious alternative to real conflict.

There is some irony in the circumstance that we have an advertising industry deliberately exploiting envy-qua-greed by asserting the proposition that man is what he owns. The irony is compounded when we remember that we have a sociology of class dedicated to precisely the same proposition. So long as I believe that you are your possessions and my [envious] motive is greed, I can avoid any acknowledgment of the essential inequality between us.

The schizophrenic exiles himself from both earth and heaven and, with a surprising dignity, takes up his residence in limbo.

When man believes in his perfectibility, he experiences his own real being almost as a disease, a fatal sickness whose cure—perfection—seems unattainable for himself, and whose tormenting symptoms can only partially be eased by the exchange of seeming for being. When he measures himself, not by his acts, which may reveal what he is, but by his actions, his image of himself becomes external, objective, and turns for its definition to a psychology of behavior. And, we hardly notice that we have almost ceased to wonder what maturity, say, might subjectively feel like or be to the individual, since we now know so very much what it looks like or does. . . . Thus does the noble dream of perfection make cynics of us all, destroying our infinite variety, reducing us to our facility for imitation, and rendering us despicable to ourselves.

In both its language and its point of view, this last passage suggests the influence of Martin Buber, whom Farber acknowledges in a perceptive and admiring essay, “Martin Buber and Psychoanalysis.” The debt is explicit, particularly in Farber's treatment of the highly contemporary curse of “bohemians and romantics—misguided poets or religionists of all kinds—who make the opposite mistake, pursuing the Thou at the expense of the It.” Like Buber, though Farber prefers these to the prudent administrators who oppose them, he is suspicious of the ruthless claims of sensibility “which, while charting their ecstatic course, evade the concrete details of existence.” In our society this problem becomes doubly complex; for the roles in the psychodrama tend to be ambiguously cast. Farber's strictures sound as if they would apply particularly strongly to the more pretentious and demonstrative young radicals claiming moral authority for whatever happened to turn them on politically or pharmaceutically. Yet, I am sure, there are more dangerously misguided romantics in the Pentagon and the CIA than in the boskiest hills of Berkeley. Conventional as they appear, it is precisely our policymakers rather than our poets, who “evade the concrete details of existence.” Quite often, the New York Times catches them in the very act of evasion.

The implications of Farber's work remain, indeed, ambiguous to the end; he does not seek to give final answers, or even to raise the kinds of questions which yield such answers. His contribution is of quite another kind; to remind us of the humane possibilities of psychoanalytic discipline. These, as he makes clear, have been consistently sacrificed in the effort, on the one hand, to simulate the objectivity of the physical sciences and, on the other, to simulate spontaneity, relatedness, and sexual exuberance that mask any real feelings the patient and his analyst might actually have to work with.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link