I work as a literature teacher and a psychotherapist--and I think the two worlds talk to each other in great ways. 

 

Therapists and novelists both tend to focus on language.  Novelists work with what phrases say between the words, or in their silences.  In the same spirit, therapists listen hard for what their patients say indirectly, rather than explicitly, when those patients are speaking from anger, helplessness, or joy.  Therapists have to develop their own language-use, too.  A therapist learns how to phrase things in a way that's helpful or eye-opening rather than insulting.  In addition, both therapists and literary minds have the principle job of observing human character in its rich complexity--the multiple motivations and desires that are always at play in people's behavior.

 

With all this in mind, I love a recent article in The Atlantic, (click here), about George Vaillant.  While modern psychology is, as a field, rapidly moving toward a behaviorist approach (i.e. name the problem and "fix" the problem; find "happiness" ), Vaillant is a psychiatrist who represents the old guard, or who holds tightly to the nuance that's best recorded in great literature. 

 

Apparently, Vaillant's medical residents have a tradition of warning the incoming class to look out for his references to Tennessee Williams, Dosotevsky, Tolstoy and Ibsen in his lectures.  Vaillant sees tragedy--rather than behaviorist's fix--as the sign of a rich human life.

 

He currently focuses his research on the negative feelings necessary for so-called successes.  For example, he's written about the inherent pain in honestly accepting a compliment.  Insults can be easier to stomach.  If someone insults you, after all, there's not much ambivalence: You can name a bad guy, enter defense mode, and protect yourself, finding the cleanest way in and out of confrontation. 

 

But if someone gives you a compliment, you enter a position of vulnerability which extends further into the future: Will this person continue to like you?  What will you need to do to maintain the bond?  Relationships are our most reliable source of happiness, but intimacy also generates anxiety.  In this sense, to make friends or to fall in love, we need to welcome some daily pain (vulnerability and embarrassment, at least).  That's why Vaillant calls a dream of unadulterated joy the idealist's escape.  The fantasy of pure happiness is an avoidance of the tension that makes any good moment "good."

 

The Atlantic article gives one great snapshot of Vaillant's sense of the tragedy or ambivalence at the heart of human life.  Vaillant used to read a certain poem to his kids when they were growing up.  In that poem, a family of joyous bears starts out in a sort of paradise.  One day, a clan of smarter, harder-edged bears comes around and enslaves them.  Vaillant repeatedly read the poem to his daughter, even though it made her weep.  In adulthood, the daughter claimed that her dad was proud of her sense of the truth behind the poem--that "this is how life is."

 

Vaillant was essentially teaching his kids Freudian theory in poem form.  Freud said there is no pure bliss for any human being.  At some point, we each grow up, which means we do the socially necessary work of enslaving our joyous, teddy-bear selves to the "smart" and harder-edged part of us that sets the rules (super-ego or conscience).  Freud said that the "good life" doesn't mean ridding ourselves of that parenting super-ego; instead, it means intermittently re-encountering the childish joy inside the castle walls.

 

In this sense, Vaillant is a great example of a psychologist with a novelist's sensibility.  He is not the fix-it man.  He is the man who, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, gets us to sit with the tension that makes life as good as it can get.

Message Edited by IlanaSimons on 05-21-2009 09:59 AM
Message Edited by IlanaSimons on 05-21-2009 09:59 AM
Comments
by Blogger Michelle_Buonfiglio on ‎05-21-2009 01:07 PM
Thank you for presenting this thoughtful piece, Ilana.  I'm a woman who reads and writes about romance novels, the ultimate 'fix-it' genre fiction.  Yet I'm very comfortable assessing life as relatively painful with periods of happiness attained through varying measures of serendipity, honest, often professionally-facilitated introspection and hard-won self actualization.  I find fascinating the idea that for some, 'sitting with' uncomfortable emotions stirred up while reading novels depicting unrelieved conflict is empowering, yet for others, the fix-it/facile ending construct helps them put into perspective the pain in life with which they're already dealing.  I guess the comfort level of the reader has much to do with whomever read her her bedtime stories, and whether as  she grew older she decided for herself how either to protect herself from pain, or embrace vulnerability. 
by Blogger IlanaSimons on ‎05-21-2009 02:00 PM
Thanks, Michelle.  I like your comment that our comfort level in adulthood has a lot to do with "whoever read [us our] bedtime stories."  So true.
by on ‎05-25-2009 02:21 AM

Ilana wrote:   In addition, both therapists and literary minds have the principle job of observing human character in its rich complexity--the multiple motivations and desires that are always at play in people's behavior

 

Good point - So true, Ilana. 

You also said:

 

But if someone gives you a compliment, you enter a position of vulnerability which extends further into the future: Will this person continue to like you?  What will you need to do to maintain the bond?

 

I think, here, the vulnerability depends of how sensative that person is to knowing what that word  [compliment] means.  And, again, a compliment from whom?  How much is that compliment needed?   Is it worth something, or is is worthless?...Some may shrug a compliment off - short term.  Some may look at it as something more, as you've stated, anticipating what  leads to 'obligations', commitments.  Some may just say thank you, and go on with their life- Another compliment to add to their stash.

 

Michelle wrote:  I guess the comfort level of the reader has much to do with whomever read her her bedtime stories, and whether as  she grew older she decided for herself how either to protect herself from pain, or embrace vulnerability.

 

Would this have to do with whether this was the mother, father, or "whomever", that read these stories?  Or, the stories themselves that were chosen by these readers?

 

There will always be pain, no matter what we choose to see in life, the longer the life, the more pain....but I don't agree that we need to subject children to it any sooner than necessary.  It will come, no matter what.

by on ‎05-25-2009 03:19 AM

I'm feeling blabby tonight...thinking more on this subject...
Last month I was on the Fiction Board, a discussion of the book, Very Valentine...for the most part, a funny book...but there were times that this 'author' really made me think...pertaining to life,  pertaining art, and pertaining to pain.  Literature reflects things we don't always want to see.....I'd like to post, here, the excerpt that I posted to this subject:

 

Gianluca and Valentine go fabric shopping - they do a lot of talking... more than she and Roman have done, in fact.  The conversation ends with Valentine saying, "I used to believe my art had to be about the things that brought me joy and gave me hope. But I learned that art can be found in all of life, even in pain" (p. 267).   What do you think of this idea? 

 

This quote is on one of the pages in this book that I marked.  I find it very interesting that this author takes this subject so deeply, and felt by this character of Valentine.

 

Valentine describes a scene on the Hudson River, where seagulls had caught a fish, and gored it.  The contrast of colors, and design "the palette of the black river, the silver ice, and the maroon blood of the fish.  It was horrible, and yet beautiful.  I couldn't take my eyes off it."

 

This is not easy to explain.

 

Art is simply a mirror, a reflection of what life is.  I think Valentine realized this.  She could see the "design" in what life, at that moment, was saying to her.  No matter what happens, good, bad, ugly, beautiful, it transfers feelings into the one who sees this - it becomes a contrast, a balance of feelings - and if you think about it, nothing happens in nature, without these things acting one upon the other.  Life and death is what we see.

 

Art is design, it's color, it's shadow, it's mass, it's volume, it's texture...it all comes to life:  I may look out of my window and see a multicolored sunset, and you may see a day ending.  I go to the beach, and see designs in the sand as the waves recede -you may see the tide simply flowing back out to sea.  Life begins, and it ends.  It's an artful approach in seeing what's real.

 

I think most people think of art as something logical, always satisfying, always pleasant to the eye, but the tragedies and the pain of art can be seen in the poetry of life.  I've never painted or sculpted any of these painful visions, other than writing about them.  It's a perspective on how to appreciate life.  There is no true perspective, unless you've witnessed pain.

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