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Love and its Disappointment by David Brazier

Mary Midgley writes of love and therapy.

This book aims to bring art and therapy together, something surely worth doing in an age that claims to take them both so seriously. David Brazier finds the key to both activities in the concept of love. Outgoing love, both of people and of things, seems to him to be the central drive of all our motivation, something which has been strangely neglected by the in-turned individualism of much recent Western thinking. This love, he says, is constantly doomed to disappointment, yet that disappointment itself generates some of our best achievements, as well as our crimes and miseries. Brazier, himself an experienced psychotherapist, runs against much analytic and therapeutic doctrine by suggesting that life is not primarily inward-looking – not essentially an exercise in self-actualization. It is something communal, a joint activity, more like “a negotiation or, better, a dance.” He is not hostile towards the therapeutic tradition generally; he takes pains to point out the things it has actually got right, and in particular, he notes much that is admirable in the work of the eminent psychologist Carl Rogers (1902-87). But the point on which he differs from Rogers is the core of the book’s argument.

Rogers, as is well known, claimed that the one real essential for therapy was the practitioner’s ‘unconditional positive regard’ for the client. Clients receiving this would, he said, be able to generate everything they needed from within themselves, so therapists must be non-directive, introducing nothing alien into the self-actualizing activity. Yet, says Brazier, if their roles are really separated in this way – if clients are supposed to be wholly self-obsessed while therapists are wholly altruistic – it seems impossible for the client ever to gain anything from the therapist’s example. Perhaps, in that case,

“therapy is more consistently good for therapists than it is for clients… If one is, as a client, in receipt of the benign conditions imagined by Rogers… one might regress and receive the care directed towards one in a narcissistic fashion, or one might internalize what is being directed towards one and oneself start to adopt some of the behaviour being so precisely modelled.”

Clients would then cease to aim only at their own self-actualization and become more interested in connecting again with the outside world. This, Brazier suggests, is what actually happens in effective practice, and rightly so. Personal growth – self-actualization – may indeed be a consequence of learning to esteem others, but it cannot, for either party, be the central aim of the exercise. The current idea that we cannot love others until we have first learnt to love ourselves is, he says, simply mistaken. Human beings are naturally other-oriented. We are not billiard-balls but social creatures.

Art is relevant here because therapy itself is an art. It is, he says, “a kind of poetry, and it certainly addresses tragedies.” Very often art is “an attempt to re-esteem an uncooperative world” – a way of restructuring life when love has been frustrated, as it so frequently is, and has led us to frustration and disillusion. The reason why art often deals with painful and difficult material is that this has been the focus of bitter disappointment, and art is an attempt to find a way past this. Thus The Waste Land is a way of dealing with the trauma of the First World War, even though it does not explicitly mention that war. In this way art “commonly offers new ways for love to function… It not only teaches us new dimensions of love and reveals the artist as lovable; it also gives evidence that we ourselves, despite our many failures, may still be lovable, and therefore still able to love.”

There is much more in this book than I can deal with here. The point about egoistic bias in therapy is surely important in itself. But it is only one side of the general increase in that bias, the overgrowth of individualism since Hobbes first launched it at the start of the Enlightenment, three and a half centuries ago. Reformers have always been rightly anxious to liberate individuals from irksome constraints, but their uncontrolled efforts in that direction can end by isolating us from contexts which we vitally need for our lives. This book outlines a really useful new position on centrally important points in psychology.

© Dr Mary Midgley 2009

Mary Midgley lectured at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne until 1980. Among her best known books are Beast and Man; Wickedness; The Ethical Primate; Science and Poetry and a memoir, The Owl of Minerva.

Love and its Disappointment: The Meaning of Life, Therapy and Art by David Brazier. 240pp. Published by O Books.

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