“I am cracking,” he said. “You must see that. You’re a psychiatrist. Don’t you see that I’m going to pieces? Aliens from outer space attacking Earth! Look: if you ask me to dream again, what will you get? Maybe a totally insane world, the product of an insane mind. Monsters, ghosts, witches, dragons, transformations—all the stuff we carry around in us, all the horrors of childhood, the night fears, the nightmares. How can you keep all that from getting loose? I can’t stop it. I’m not in control!”
“Don’t worry about control! Freedom is what you’re working toward,” Haber said gustily. “Freedom! Your unconscious mind is not a sink of horror and depravity. That’s a Victorian notion, and a terrifically destructive one. It crippled most of the best minds of the nineteenth century, and hamstrung psychology all through the first half of the twentieth. Don’t be afraid of your unconscious mind! It’s not a black pit of nightmares. Nothing of the kind! It is the wellspring of health, imagination, creativity. What we call ‘evil’ is produced by civilization, its constraints and repressions, deforming the spontaneous, free self-expression of the personality. The aim of psychotherapy is precisely this, to remove those groundless fears and nightmares, to bring up what’s unconscious into the light of rational consciousness, examine it objectively, and find that there is nothing to fear.”
“But there is,” Orr said very softly.
From Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven.
On Kindness seeks to answer why “It is now generally assumed that people are basically selfish and that fellow feeling is either a weakness or a luxury or a more sophisticated form of selfishness.” Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor quickly demonstrate that up until the “so-called dawn of modernity” in the Enlightenment, people simply believed themselves to be naturally kind. The advent of the ideals of self-reliance and independence (along with the appeals of aggressive mercantile capitalism) led to a zeitgeist–one that still exists–in which kindness is a form or weakness, or a type of duty, like philanthropy, that negates its own purity. In short, Phillips and Taylor point to a general feeling that real kindness might not exist–and then argue, quite convincingly, against this general feeling.
The book’s second chapter, “A Short History of Kindness” outlines the philosophy and social practice of kindness from the time of Seneca through to Freud. Phillips and Taylor choose Jean-Jacques Rousseau as their champion, with Thomas Hobbes (and his famous dictum of bellum omnium contra omnes) as a recurring villain. But it’s Freud who dramatically problematizes modern attitudes toward kindness, with the radical idea that “aggression itself can be a form of kindness; that when aggression isn’t envious rage or the revenge born of humiliation, it contains the wish for a more intimate exchange, a profounder, more unsettling kindness between people. In short, psychoanalysis makes sentimentality and nostalgia, not hatred, the enemies of kindness.” This complicates the relationships between children and parents; psychoanalysis renders kindness unnatural. The resulting confusion leaves us open to the idea that acts of kindness might leave us radically exposed or otherwise in harm’s way. Even worse, modern society elevates and idealizes kindness into “a virtue so difficult to sustain that only the magically good can manage it” — this “destroys people’s faith in real or ordinary kindness.” But, Phillips and Taylor want to assure us, real and ordinary kindness does exist. “We depend on each other not just for our survival but for our very being,” they argue in their final chapter. “The self without sympathetic attachments is either a fiction or a lunatic.” So, what are the solutions? Philips and Taylor clearly argue that the pleasures of kindness they advocate cannot stem from “moral superiority or domineering beneficence or the protection racket of good feelings. Nor are acts of kindness to be seen as acts of will or effort or moral resolution.” Instead, our authors argue for “a revived awareness of something that is already felt and known.”
On Kindness is a compact, tightly-wound tract of 114 pages that can be read quickly by a general audience, but nevertheless takes some time to digest. Picador’s trade paperback edition (new this month) is handsome and small enough to fit into a cargo pocket, purse, or beach bag. It seems of a piece with Picador’s Big Ideas/Small Books series, erudite works that consider big subjects without ever falling into traps of academic solipsism. Recommended.
In Bodies, feminist psychoanalyst Susie Orbach explores contemporary body issues within a global culture, arguing that bodies are “not in any sense matter of fact, the simple outcome of DNA,” but rather are the products of social and cultural construction. Orbach writes that her work aims “to bolster our resilience in the face of unprecedented attack and to bring sustainability to our bodies so that we can live with and from them more peaceably.” This goal is, of course, no simple task, as the course of Bodies demonstrates.
As a psychoanalyst, Orbach of course takes many cues from Freud, but in her introduction she clearly states the need to move beyond Freud’s theories (it’s all in your head) to an understanding of “the impact of contemporary social practices” — predominantly, in her book, the influence of a media-saturated, image-fueled Western culture on the rest of the world. At stake, Orbach claims, “is a transgenerational transmission of anxious embodiment.” In layman’s terms: we imprint our own desires and fears and hangups about the body–feelings generated in large part from our culture–onto our children.
To explore these problems, Orbach–like Freud–presents a series of fascinating case studies, including a man who elects to have his legs amputated in order to paradoxically feel “whole,” transgendered persons, and abused and neglected children. Orbach is particularly concerned with the drive toward “choice” — the concept that one might actively “choose” how one’s body is shaped, and, as such, she repeatedly engages the discourses of elective plastic surgery, modern weight-loss dieting, and eating disorders. Orbach confronts the reality that many of our “choices” are actually the products of “the new visual grammar” of mass media, the iteration of Photoshopped and airbrushed bodies that bombard our senses hundreds, thousands of times daily. She extends this problem beyond the West, to show the ways in which mass culture affects the psyche of the rest of the world’s denizens.
For Orbach, a future of genetic alteration toward the perfecting of a culturally-constructed ideal is a horrible nightmare. Instead, she argues, our “sturggle is to recorporalise our bodies so that they become a place we live from rather than an aspiration always needing to be achieved.” In order to achieve this, Orbach avers that we “urgently need to curtail the commercial exploitation of the body and the diminution of body variety, so that we and our children can enjoy our bodies, our appetites, our physicality and our sexuality.” Orbach’s solution returns to her concept of “transgenerational transmission” — namely, parents need to understand their children’s needs for caring adult responses, and the myriad ways in which these responses will inform the child’s attitude about his or her own body.
In the U.S., Bodies has been published as part of Picador’s BIG IDEAS // small books series and it’s a perfect fit for the series: an engaging and relevant philosophical text rooted in a central academic argument, but written in a style that will appeal to a popular audience without dumbing down anything. Like the two books of the series we reviewed last year, Steven Lukes’s Moral Relativismand Slavoj Žižek’s Violence, we might not agree with everything the author has written here, but we cannot deny that this is an enthralling and important discussion. Highly recommended.