Lying, Despair, Jealousy, Envy, Sex, Suicide, Drugs, and the Good Life.
by Leslie H. Farber.
Basic Books. 232 pp. $10.00.
The practice of psychotherapy seems to be in dreadful disarray. Cults proliferate, each of them helping some patients, harming others, but leaving most about where they were when they started—miserable. Claims and promises escalate, but not the gross national product of happiness. And if one turns from practice to theory, the situation is more depressing still. Classical Freudian psychoanalysis comes on as weary, its successors as worse. Some schools find their hope in chemicals; others lean toward mysticism. Mostly there is acrimony, with the only common ground appearing to be a predilection for mugging Freud. In some respects the old man had it coming to him, to be sure, but today he is being attacked primarily not for his weakness but for his strength: the brooding comprehensiveness of his vision and the unflinching resolve to be a healer in the face of gloom.
Leslie H. Farber, himself a practicing psychoanalyst, is the author of a previous and unjustly neglected work, The. Ways of the Will, some chapters of which are reprinted in the present volume. Farber’s own stance toward Freud is by no means uncritical. Thus, he finds Freud’s studies of hysteria wanting, and Freud’s approach to jealousy somewhat off target; he holds that psychoanalytic theory in general has neglected some of the most common and significant aspects of human behavior—next to nothing is known, for example, about the pervasive phenomenon of lying; and he has always fought the prevalent tendency of psychoanalysis toward reductionism, toward understanding the human in the light of the less than human. But unlike so many of the attacks being made against Freud and Freudianism today, Farber’s criticisms cannot be faulted, because they are forthright, uncondescending, and above all disinterested—perpetrated in the service of developing a more nearly adequate view of the human soul, a psychology of the will.
That psychology is as intriguing as it is difficult to summarize. Farber distrusts systematic thinking, and at times seems wary of theory itself. Instead, he chooses to couch his ideas in the form of elegant, polished essays of a high literary order on specific topics—the mordantly funny title conveys a sense of the book’s range—and these ventures are as often as not so dazzling that their effect is to conceal his viewpoint as much as to reveal it. That viewpoint appears to go something like this: in seeking to understand man, modern psychology has failed to give the will its due, and for this negligence it has paid a fearful price. This is not only because the will is a kind of prime mover of men, but also because it hats itself run amok of late. Farber characterizes our times as the “Age of the Disordered Will,” and he contends that our propensity for “willing what cannot be willed”—a phrase that runs like a refrain through the book—is at the root of many of our troubles.
It follows that helping people means enabling them to deal with the megalomania of their wills, a controlling insight which in these essays Farber proceeds to apply as well as test in discussing a number of specific afflictions. For instance, he defines anxiety as “that range of distress which attends willing what cannot be willed”; hysteria as “a particular disorder of the will whose principal expression is willfulness”; and suicide as the ultimate, hideous desire of the will to master not only the way we live our life but also the way we die our death.
Nor does the disordered will confine its work to neurotics and psychotics. All of us, in Farber’s view, tend to erect illusory bridges between our will and its objects, often by becoming addicted to one thing or another (not necessarily drugs). Seeking to dominate more and more, we enjoy less and less. Sex becomes less and less viable as the will to the perfect orgasm makes it more of a test than a pleasure. And our need to control makes us increasingly unable to enjoy the real benefits available to us: good talk, the consolations of family life, and the saving dignity of things like work and friendship.
How has it come to this? Farber, a serious thinker, knows that the questions posed by psychology point beyond psychology; he realizes the futility of psychiatry’s efforts, as he puts it, “to rid itself of metaphysical concern.” His own philosophical position is obviously influenced—too much at times, in my opinion—by existentialism, though his tough-minded common sense saves him from that movement’s incurable propensity for equating the true with the terrible. Farber has learned a great deal from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and from Buber. He knows that the reputed death of God and the triumphs of modern technology have freed the will from its more obvious fetters, but he also knows that human sovereignty has made men neither happy nor good. His search is for a view both true and consoling of a universe in which human beings can lead a good life. Recognizing our common human plight, and rejecting all facile answers, he confronts even the grimmest aspects of life in order, as he says, “to look both at and through the darkness”; for this he deserves great credit.
If Farber’s thought almost always commands admiration, it is necessary to add that it does not always command assent, and is not immune from criticism. For one thing, I wish Farber had taken greater pains to define exactly what he means by the will—considering that it is, so to speak, the main character in the book. Though its disorders are made abundantly clear, the will itself remains a rather murky idea. What exactly is it? What is its relation to reason? At one point Farber writes of it as being usually the adversary of reason, but is rational willing all that unusual? And what are the limits of the will? Even if one agrees with Farber about the dangers of trying to will what cannot be willed, how are the necessary distinctions to be made? Courage and heroism, for example, often seem to consist precisely in willing—and achieving—what is allegedly impossible of accomplishment. One wonders what Farber would answer to the charge that in his strictures against willing-what-cannot-be-willed he may be counseling a kind of relaxation that is indistinguishable from sloth.
Finally, the book is subject to a more tenuous kind of criticism. Some of the essays offer genuine ground for argument; thus, I would contend that the essay on suicide is marred by a failure fully to consider that taking one’s life may under certain circumstances partake of the noble. Others, however, seem to permit of no other evaluation or response than that of checking them against one’s own feeling, which does not always accord with Farber’s. Though most of the essays—especially those on the relations between men and women—entail continuous shocks of recognition, at times what Farber says simply fails to convince subjectively. Is it really easier to will lust than love, for example? My own experience has shown more nearly the opposite.
But it is not the least of the book’s virtues that it prompts evaluation through introspection and self-examination, and in this regard the reader can do no better than to follow the author’s example. Graced by what Goethe called “courtesy of the heart,” Farber does not urge honesty on the reader until he has bared his own foibles, and he is never quite so harsh in judging others as he is in judging himself. As a healer, Farber is moral precisely because he does not moralize, showing us instead that our vices do not make us glamorous or interesting but only diminish us, just as insanity is almost never divine madness and almost always pure wretchedness. Indeed, in this book Farber praises sanity so sanely that he succeeds in giving it back its good name, and, especially these days, that is no mean achievement.