Wednesday, August 30, 2006

"Each Individual...Has His Holy of Holies"

A follow-up to my preview post about Philip Rieff:

It’s important to note that Rieff’s early work focused on the ways in which Freudian psychology had altered our society’s sense of self, and his generally negative opinion of Freud is quite consistent with the critique of modern culture presented in Deathworks. Freud’s central assertion was that man’s psyche could be laid bare by the tools of rational science (i.e., psychotherapy). Whereas people were previously thought to be “separate beings, with each of us different from every other in his identity, his incommunicability, his inwardness”, Freud sought to breakthrough the barriers that had always prevented individuals from truly knowing one another. Thus, the psychoanalyst was urged to roam through the deep recesses of his patients’ psyches and, if successful, to understand them better than they understood themselves. And patients were (and still are) encouraged to share their darkest secrets and raw emotions, in the hope that this surrender of privacy will gain them a modicum of “enlightenment” and, perhaps, happiness.

The result of all this was the emergence of “psychological man”, a term Rieff coined in 1959. Lasch-Quinn provides an excellent description of this creature:

“Forever anxious and insecure, psychological man eschews political and religious commitments, and even economic calculation, for an obsession with self that is unprecedented in human history. He is ‘anti-heroic, shrewd, carefully counting his satisfactions and dissatisfactions, studying unprofitable commitments as the sins most to be avoided.’ Driven by the ‘ideal of insight’ and ‘self-contemplative manipulation,’ his interest resides only in himself.”

One doesn’t need to look too far in our “therapeutic” culture in order to realize that we are now all, to varying degrees, “psychological people”. And if anyone doubts, I recommend that they watch a few episodes of Oprah or Dr. Phil.

As Rieff sees it, the problem with the rise of this psychological culture is that it discourages any love that is not, in some sense, self-love. That is, other people are viewed by "psychological man" as simply objects by which he can fulfill his desires and enhance his pleasure in life. Indeed, he even becomes an object to himself (albeit his favorite object), since he is perpetually seeking more data about himself in a never-ending quest of self-understanding.

Kierkegaard once remarked that there is “something great in the fact that the other person, and thus every individual, is a world unto himself, and has his holy of holies into which no alien hand can reach.” In Rieff’s opinion, Freud and his followers have violated this “holy of holies” by treating the human psyche as knowable, objectifiable, and capable of manipulation. And, sadly, modern neuroscience is trying even harder than old-fashioned psychology to beat down the walls to the “heart of hearts.” The cocky neuroscientist, with his trusty MRI machine, assures us that he will soon be able to tell us exactly why we love, hope, and believe in God. If this should ever come to pass (and I shudder at the thought), then Kierkegaard’s “holy of holies” will have been desecrated forever, and the notion that a human life is sacred will probably become untenable. We will be seen as merely glorified computers, in desperate need of reprogramming by the experts.

This is where Rieff’s thoughts about Freud link-up with his arguments in Deathworks. To retain our collective humanity, we must acknowledge that a chasm exists between all individuals, which is the “space in which all humanity live.” This distance cannot be transversed without destroying the otherness of the other, who is sacred and inviolable. Each is an infinite universe unto themselves.

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