It’s coming to America first,
The cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Contemplating a painting he had purchased by the Swiss modern artist Paul Klee, the esteemed German-Jewish literary critic Walter Benjamin once wrote down these words:
“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
Some years before Benjamin set down his dystopic vision, the Czech genius Kafka wrote, resonantly, in his diary: “I have been forty years wandering from Canaan . . . It is indeed a kind of wandering in the Wilderness in reverse.” This sort of “wandering in reverse”—emblematic, broadly, of modernist experience and art (“losing one place without gaining another,” as Zadie Smith puts it, perceptively, in her essay on Kafka)—is of a piece with Klee’s evocative painting no less than Benjamin’s unsettling epiphany. Benjamin, during the course of his foreshortened life, would come, increasingly, to an understanding of Kafka as the modernist prophet who had, above all others, “mapped out the spiritual territory of the modern condition.” Benjamin sensed in Klee’s painting the essence of what Kafka, too, had spent his life contemplating: a longing for paradise/revelation/Canaan and the gathering storm we mistake for progress. Benjamin used the painting as a mandala of sorts, an object for focus and reverie. Following his suicide (after being turned back at the Spanish border while attempting to flee the Nazi occupation of France), the painting joined Benjamin’s friend Gershom Scholem, scholar of Jewish mysticism, in Jerusalem where it remained until Scholem’s own death many years hence.
For Benjamin, revelation, both personal and collective, is to be found in a numinous, yet dimly perceived and ambiguous, past. I have observed over the course of many years that humanistic psychology sets it sights more emphatically on possibility (oftentimes overly optimistic conceptions of what lies ahead and our own place in the narrative) than on destiny (frequently disarming news remaining hidden from consciousness and everyday view). Not unlike our political candidates, we look more determinedly forward and without than backward or earnestly within. It is interesting to note that both major presidential candidates in the recent election spent very nearly all their time in respective campaigns pointing at what was wrong with their opponent; remarks about original points of departure, not to mention overarching visions, were both fleeting and appallingly trite. By way of significant contrast, Bernie Sanders spoke forthrightly the morning after the election of Trump’s ability to speak, however disingenuously, to many about glaring socio-economic and political disparities perpetrated by both major parties over several decades: the election was about more than racism, sexism, and xenophobia, though it was no doubt, troublingly, about these phenomena as well.
We humanistic psychologists who embraced Barack Obama so enthusiastically have still not come to terms with the manner in which he immediately lined his economic team with Wall Street insiders; eight years later, not a single one of the perpetrators of the 2008 financial crisis has been prosecuted. An administration that promised a jaded electorate greater transparency than ever before has been typified, it would seem, by the most aggressive pursuit of avowed whistleblowers in American history. Hillary Clinton, whatever else she may be, has been a longstanding champion and, indeed, benefactor of these unsavory alliances and policies. Operating, in our recent Nobel laureate’s words, “on a whole other level,”, Benjamin obeisantly follows those texts that most call out to him, intuiting that such a pursuit has the power to reveal—albeit only to the most reverent readers—“new aspects of the inner self.” One assimilates, so to speak, the text of one’s own life and those more literal texts that both inform and illumine it. Such painstaking work, expressed religiously, is the work of the scribe.
Inexorably, all things are “managed” these days—health care services, journalism, elections, and, increasingly, even psychology. As much as humanistic psychology prides itself on a recovery of largesse and awe, the more penetrating truth, arguably, is be found in the dwindling imagination and sheer redundancy typifying much of our work in recent times—repetition underwritten in large measure by a refusal to look more earnestly within. Eugene Taylor, I recall, offended many by suggesting that we had created nothing especially noteworthy or new in the past fifty years, and Rollo May, in his last major work, laments (with a wisdom and grace that continues to elude us) the entropy that inheres, ominously, in a world shorn of proportion and overarching mythological imperatives and forms. Eventually, even existential-humanistic psychology will be stamped and approved by self-proclaimed “masters” (whereas May hesitated even to call himself “expert”) serving as gatekeepers in a brave, new world of tendentious reduction. It is not the medical doctors that ought concern us so much as a self-indulgent mediocrity being perpetrated on both sides of our respective APA divide.
We are going to have to enlist the guidance of our most visionary artists and minds (native psychologists whose talents handily surpass our own) if there is going to be any hope of moving inward, backward, and—only then—cautiously forward. (“Attentiveness,” observes Benjamin, “the natural prayer of the soul.”) Otherwise, it is going to be more of the same and the storm we are quite likely mistaking for progress.
Benjamin, W. (1969). Illuminations: Essays and reflections (H. Arendt, Ed.; H. Zohn, Trans.). New York, NY: Schocken Books.
Cohen, L. (1992). The future [CD]. New York, NY: Columbia.
Dylan, B. (1963). The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll. On The times they are a-changin’ [CD]. New York, NY: Columbia.
Kafka, F. (1988). The diaries of Franz Kafka. New York, NY: Schoken Books.
Klee, P. (1920) Angelus novus.
May, R. (1981). Freedom and destiny. New York, NY: Norton and Company.
May, R. (1992). The cry for myth. New York, NY: Norton and Company.
Smith, Z. (2008). “F. Kafka, everyman.” In New York Review of Books, LV:12, 14-17.
Dedicated to Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)
Humanitas, Society for Humanistic Psychology Newsletter, 12/2016. http://www.apadivisions.org/division-32/publications/newsletters/humanistic/2016/12/seeing-possiblity.aspx