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Sedition or Sedation?: Liberalism and Neuroses

..culture is the act of “replacing what is unconscious with what is conscious.” A cult is unconscious. It simply does what it has always done. It follows instructions. Culture, on the other hand, is the bringing to awareness of the damage – the repression, irrationality, violence, ugliness, injustice and tragedy – imposed by the cult. In this sense, culture is enlightenment. In this sense, the United States is a cult.

Curtis White, Living In A World That Can’t Be Fixed: Reimagining Counterculture Today

Freud tried to cure the insufficiency of our sorrow. Robert Bly, Forgiving the Mailman

It’s not hard these days to find sociopathology making news, as the Trump presidency has brought the sociopath into new vogue. Even our Cafe in Utica NY has been affected; last week my daughter Molly, as she was opening shop, found a note at the front door addressed to “Commie Scum,” decorated with swastika and a 4-digit number that means (we’re told) Heil Hitler. The implied threat of violence aimed at ourselves and our business, is disturbing. However, my greater concern is that another psychological illness, the more “benign” category known as “neuroses,” much more prevalent than genuine sociopathology, its symptoms more conformity-inducing than aggressive, may be the real threat to society. And we’re not supposed to see it.

Direct evidence for my radical theorizing is limited to my own experience as a bona fide neurotic. Treated in the past for OCD, compulsive hand-washing type stuff, I still occasionally get those “twinges” that warn me I’m plunging into that black, isolating fear. Because these free-falls into insanity were disabling, I had to learn in therapy what they were about, as well as how to cope with them. The “trick” was and still is, to discover the repressed feeling that triggers the plunge. Even with all the practice I’ve had, this process is always difficult, the outcome never guaranteed, due both to the intensity of the feelings, and the fact that the “objects” of the intense feelings are hidden (in the Unconscious). This doesn’t mean the neurosis had no origin in human (parental) relationships. But, rather, the relationships, long ago introjected, have merged with the mythic layer in my psyche; not aberrant or exceptional, they’re universal in human experience. Someone committed to biochemical or neurological explanations for mental illness might call this nonsense. On my behalf, I can only say that commitment to a more shamanic perspective allows me, even though I’m not “cured,” to avoid the meds.

Little known fact: mental illness is potentially revolutionary in that its symptoms remove one from the permissiveness and progressive optimism that underpin white liberal bourgeois reality. Even in its “milder” forms, it is an experience of indifferent nature, a severe reality jolt, like being dropped down into a combat zone where the rules allow killing and being killed. However, mental illness being part of human nature, not of machines or machine-like men, the “new” rules that can be usefully applied here can be discovered (as Freud, in Bly’s poem, tried to teach) and healing made possible.

Little known fact II: the horrendous cost to society and our world of our not demanding our right to be healed from our neuroses. Due to the “normalization” of neuroses, this fact can conveniently be ignored. Its good, I’ll grant, that nobody, anymore, has to feel doubly oppressed by the fact of having a mental illness, on top of the already miserable condition of severe depression, or social anxiety, bi-polarity, suicidal ideation etc. Today, such diagnoses must provide almost a comfort, with treatment (but not healing!) just a few pills away. I venture to guess relatively few go through the arduous and inconvenient healing process, as I did, but rather, if the symptoms are severe enough, are taking meds to control them. Used this way, as a substitute for healing, medications are merely a container for dangerous toxicity. As with the remedial work being done to contain the enormous toxic sediments in Onondaga Lake west of here, its waters still not potable, or swimmable, the fish not safe for consumption, the toxic containment cannot be called health in any meaningful sense of the word.

For this normalization of mental illness, and failure to demand healing as our right, I blame not the individual seeking relief from pain, but the top-down society whose “top” has no interest in the health of the whole, but benefits from our illness and tendency to self-blame.

A customer at our coffeeshop, Gus, the only customer at the early hour, a little after 7, told Orin and me of his teen-aged son who suffers from severe social anxiety. The boy no longer attends school where he was (and still is, doing all his work at home) an outstanding student. Recently the boy attempted suicide. Because I know personally a number of parents facing similar crises, I have had many occasions to consider what might be done for the children other than hauling them to the psychiatrist’s office, accepting the professional diagnosis, picking up each new medicine at the drugstore as the diagnosis is refined, being patient, non-judgmental and caring. All of that is simply containment, a postponement of a reckoning.

No more than anyone else do I know what to tell parents caught in such painful situations, but I can say this: In order to regain revolutionary energy, energy for counter culture, fighting energy, people must sharpen their wits enough to see the part the normalization of neuroses plays in the ongoing corporate-driven neoliberal catastrophe. I do not – cannot – minimize the agony caused by neuroses. However, I do see them, in context, as fitting conveniently into the liberal program for shedding“inconvenience.” Normalized, alleviated with medications, they allow people to remain, though down-deep miserable, comfily so, with the familiar bourgeois illusion of being exempt from life’s real tragedies and real suffering left intact. Horrible as neuroses are, they can be hidden from others; they are private, incommunicable except in the language of the psychiatric priesthood. In contrast to feelings, which have conscious reference to other persons and are the means for empathy, neuroses repress the memory of relationships that were the source of anger, sadness, fear, leaving the neurotic the sense that he suffers causelessly. Unhealed, they underscore existential aloneness, a condition completely devastating at the level of the heart and human feeling but which still allows function and even competence in the public realm of jobs and “showing up.”

In other words, for maintenance of neoliberal reality, with its radically evil program of human disposability, neuroses are far more convenient than feelings. Hidden away, invisible to others, the neurotic in her innermost being, which does not go deep, is essentially alone, unconnected, unwanted. Her condition makes her a perfect fit with neoliberal reality in that she has internalized her disposability. At the same time, buoyed in her liberal goodness and ethical “correctness,” she can function competently within the range of the systems making up the neoliberal world, from which, consciously or not, she gains her identity.

Even though the horror of neuroses makes them a strange replacement for genuine feelings, that are painful-but-not-horrible, the liberal bourgeois world we know is composed of people living with their neuroses (“It is what it is.” “Get over it.”) which, conveniently keep them “qualified” for their exemption from suffering. After all, bourgeois reality offers a myriad of distractions, not to mention medications, to assist its members in remaining buoyant. Unfortunately, it can give no help to the ones – the children! – who are incapable of that kind of compartmentalized functioning.

In this way, those who cannot feel their feelings, who do not “chew” on their experience, pass the toxic package on, forwarding the suffering on to the children, as we forward them a despoiled earth. The parent buoyed in liberal reality behaves toward his child, in microcosm, like the First World in relation to the Third World, like white supremacy in relation to black people. The containment of neuroses protects the parent who cannot see her defensive indifference to the child’s “otherness.” Alternatively, to regard the child as the “other” he/she in fact is, parents would be compelled to act on the side of the child’s unique and irreplaceable otherness against the society and faux culture that deem the child replaceable. In protecting the child’s intact soul, the parent would have to ally with her own “otherness.” She’d have to commit to the painful task of feeling her feelings (honesty!). In a context the whole purpose of which is to convince us that dark feelings of hopelessness and despair are unnecessary, honesty is revolutionary! Far preferable to keep that toxic sediment in the psyche contained, the suppressed feelings unexpressed.

Up to now, the false reality of liberal exemptness has prevailed. But now the liberal thoughtworld faces the one challenge for which it is totally unprepared – the “world that can’t be fixed.” Now, all of us are up against hopelessness and despair – no exemptions! Dark as the future looks and is, its unfixableness may be the antidote needed for our unshakeable, implacable faith in our privileged reality, to hold onto which we throw everyone, even our children, under the bus.

Around me I sense people are uneasy, perhaps negotiating this new terrain, when exemptions no longer are being given for “First Worlders.” What happened to them is now going to happen to us. The nasty, foreshortened, over-burdened, pain-filled lives endured by so many on the short end of the stick of western imperialism, racism, militarism, are now our future. The reliable comfort and niceness of our lives that could expect not just the sun’s rise on the morrow, but also the bad Republican defeated, our standard of living higher – all our worries and our pleasures, pre-occupations, achievements, prides and shames, all of it now changed for ever.

This is a lot to come to grips with, but surely, some are coming to grips with it, some realizing that neither the Green New Deal nor the defeat of Trump – mere containments – will save us from the coming catastrophe, be it in the form of mass extinctions, nuclear war, or fascist terrorism. People upon whom this realization is dawning may wonder: What possible substitute can there be for that certainty of better and better, the hope of Democratic victories, the mainly smooth progression of our days that denial has helped us keep in place?

What are the people of the “First World” to do? Having expanded so far outside the limitations imposed by nature, our technological achievements used to serve the motives of empire-building and profiteering by the “captains”, using disproportionately the world’s dwindling resources, there’s just one answer: we must now gracefully go back from whence we came, shrink ourselves back inside the boundaries of the human-scale, face-to-face, in-place lives we have forsaken in order to serve the white man’s grandiose destiny.

Put another way, the task before us is to have our aliveness in the face of death, as our ancestors did in their less modulated world, living in relation to the death they knew was coming. Grim as this sounds, this attitude is one for which our psycho-spiritual underworld, with its mythic understandings, is prepared, knows the rules and can give us our “religious instruction.” Interpreted in such a way as to make it useful for us in peacetime, “facing death” is not Kirk Douglas, or Super-hero heroics. It’s a different heroism, a willing taking on of limitations – i.e., commitments, vows, “renunciation,” “voluntary poverty ” – all of which involve “shrinking” or contracting of one’s freedom and choices, behaving as if we really are all one ecological whole, interconnected, mutualistic by design. Though such old-fashioned self-disciplines too often are used to restore authoritarian fundamentalist patriarchy, dogmatic rigidity is not their real meaning: Recall, we seek not only the lost stability and strength of community and rootedness, but our revolutionary energy and our cultural aliveness.

Voluntary commitments, that drop us down onto the threshold of the very “frontier” left unexplored and undefended in liberal reality, leave us “no place to go” except into this inner wilderness where both toxic feelings and boundless spiritual energy are mingled. As such, they are the means to finding revolutionary strength and cultural aliveness.

We owe much to the writers and poets – Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, John Burroughs, Thoreau, etc – who have inspired the ecological activism defending wilderness and places against neoliberal rapacity. Drawing our strength from the same creative source as the artists, we can escape the prison of neuroses in which each individual is inmate and warden; we are freed to defend the otherness of our children, the otherness of our places, the otherness of our own disallowed sorrow, and also our anger, fear and desire. Living in a world that cannot be fixed offers those of us us bound by the shackles of privilege a precious opportunity to make a unified defense of our humanity; we dare not let it pass.