January 15, 2021•1,046 words
Imagine you are tasked on a journey across the waters, for which you must build a boat. You are faced then with the decision: which sort of boat shall I build? Innumerable concerns appear before you: what designs should I trust, and how will I get my hands on them? How much will it cost, and how much effort will it take to construct? What length of journey might any particular vessel accomplish: do I need to cruise across a lake, or traverse a vast ocean? And what capacities does any particular design possess? Will I have the tools I need to navigate a storm?
All of these choices lead you in particular directions. Perhaps you use a simple and common boat given to you by your parents. Perhaps you select a high tech cruise ship, or a vintage galleon. Perhaps you're content with a mere raft, or desire a motorboat to feel the wind in your hair. Or perhaps a classic sailboat appeals most, with its tenure and technique. All this you must take into consideration.
But ultimately all boats must float. The form of a ship is defined by this constraint alone. And so too with the psyche, that dark mass lapping at our crystalline image of self. What boat will you use to navigate the vicissitudes of life? Upon which tools will you rely to guide and support your journey?
If we take Freud seriously--not Freud the shipbuilder, but Freud the physicist, the Darwinian--the life of an organism involves a never-ending increase of tension, derived from needs within the organism itself. It is not so much that "one must eat to live," but that hunger gnaws upon the soul and demands satisfaction. Yet between the insistence of hunger and the pleasure of eating lies a great gulf, where the hunger must be traversed, understood, transformed into action.
So too with "the emotions". Just as a child must learn to speak, to express the demand "I am hungry", we of our culture also teach them a few other basic terms--"I am sad", "I am angry", "I am happy"--that provide some basic knowledge with which to navigate their inner life. If the journey is easy and these terms are up to the task, then so be it. But for many, if not most, the complexity of life demands more support.
It is in the recognition of this need for support that a certain sort of language began to permeate the schools, the television shows, the counselor's rooms and the courtrooms. I am referring to the language of "mental illness", which elaborates upon the mind as described in a sort of sacred text, the DSM, whose principles are taken to be true and are used throughout the life of many men and within the institutions they engage with. One might find oneself "depressed", "anxious", "manic", terms whose expression demands a corresponding response from the other. Curiously, this approach limits itself to the language of pathology, the deviation. Where within the DSM might one find joy, contentment, satisfaction?
But I digress. The point is, within at least American culture, culture being our set of common symbols, there exists a sort of blueprint for navigating the mind. It is justified through all sorts of arbiters of truth: the school counselor, the scientists, the state. And it is with this strange sort of vessel that millions sail the waters of the psyche in all its terror and splendor.
These ideas become most important when we turn against the ever-flowing stream of temporal experience, bracing ourselves against the oncoming waters, and attempt to travel upstream, backtracking so that we might reflect upon what has transpired. It is this act of "turning against the stream" that we might call "introspection", and its purpose is to provide us with knowledge that may prove of use throughout the rest of our voyage.
It is also in this act of introspection that we discover the strengths and the weaknesses of our chosen or inherited system. We might discover that our boat was not what we thought, that it lacks what we need to accomplish our journey. To put the situation more precisely, if the psyche begins as a relatively undifferentiated space, it is through symbols, language, that we begin to notice patterns and make distinctions regarding our mental status. These distinctions serve as the foundation of self-knowledge; they guide us to act against harm and maintain our direction, aiming at the satisfaction of our desire. And perhaps another system might serve us just as well, or better.
But the construction of a new vessel means breaking from the common wisdom, relying on distinctions and tools that may be viewed by others as illegitimate, false, or even illegal. And this is the price of learning: the dusty tome in the ancient bookstore may guide one better than the official sacred texts, but one runs the risk of becoming a heretic, impious before those who deign to judge the lives of men.
Despite this, some choose to cast their lot with psychoanalysis, with Kabbalah, with astrology and other esoteric systems, which provide a new space of differences and delimitations within which one can perform the introspective act. Even the ancient religious systems, such as that of the Greeks, abide by this logic. Although each system depends on a different set of supports--psychology on the observation of others, psychoanalysis on an individual genealogy, Kabbalah on the virtues of the angels, astrology on the powers of the planetary bodies, religion upon the whims of the Gods--each ultimately is of the same form, that of internal distinctions through which one might introspect and gain knowledge of the self. All else aside, any system must still ground itself in those Freudian, biological drives; a boat must float.
Whether these systems perform better or worse is for each particular individual to decide; I alone cannot convince you. And yet, some say self-knowledge is the ultimate goal of philosophy, and the knowledge you create always depends on your frame of reference. So if you find yourself trapped within the endless spiral of mental illness, identifying and pathologizing about pieces of yourself that deviate from the norm, then perhaps gaining a new perspective is the first step toward change.