Friday, December 14, 2018

Arno Gruen—psychologist and psychoanalyst—on the struggle for individuation and personal autonomy

Whereas Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm locate human destructiveness either in an a priori death instinct or in necrophilic tendencies stemming from stunted development at the anal or oedipal stage, I believe I have found many indications that destructiveness and murderous behavior is rooted in the betrayal human beings commit against themselves in order to share in a hallucinated sense of power. Since there is nohigher fateinvolved here but rather individuals who have cooperated more or less consciously in their own submission, a lifelong self-hatred ensues. The sad result is that only destructiveness imparts the feeling of aliveness. — From the Preface to Arno Gruen’s The Insanity of Normality—Realism as Sickness: Toward Understanding Human Destructiveness (1992; first published in German, 1987)

After the brief biography below, I have pasted a snippet from a brilliant and clearly composed talk by Arno Gruen (May 26, 1923 – October 20, 2015) titled “War or Peace? We cannot survive with Real-Politik.” It’s an enlarged version of his acceptance speech for the Finnish “Loviisa Peace Prize 2010.” (Translated from the German by Hildegarde Hannum and Hunter Hannum) The full text is here.

“[Arno] Gruen was born in Berlin in 1923, and emigrated [from Germany] to the United States as a child in 1936 when his parents, James and Rosa Gruen, fled Germany to save their lives. During the journey, Gruen celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, on June 6, 1936. He studied at the City College of New York. Then, after completing his graduate studies in psychology at New York University, he trained in psychoanalysis under Theodor Reik at one of the first psychoanalytic training centers for psychologists, the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis in New York City. Gruen held many teaching posts, including seventeen years as professor of psychology at Rutgers University. From 1979 on, he lived and practiced in Switzerland. Widely published in German, his groundbreaking first book to be released in English, The Betrayal of the Self, was published by Grove Press in 1988.

[….] Gruen [argued] … that at the root of evil lies self-hatred, a rage originating in a self-betrayal that begins in childhood, when autonomy is surrendered in exchange for the ‘love’ of those who wield power over us. To share in that subjugating power, people create a false self, a pleasing-to-others image of themselves that springs from a powerful, deep-seated fear of being hurt, humiliated or abandoned. Gruen traced this pattern of over-adaptation, and the fate of those who resist the pressure to conform, through a number of case studies, sociological phenomena … and literary works. The insanity of rage and numbness that this hyper-conformity produces, unfortunately, goes widely unrecognized precisely because it has become the cold, tough ‘realism’ that modern society inculcates into its members and even admires.

Gruen warned, however, that escape from these patterns lies not simply in rebellion, for rebels often remain emotionally tied to the objects of their rebellion, but in the development of a personal autonomy and a relinquishing of all forms of self-numbing and self-deception. His elegant and far-reaching conclusion … is that while autonomy and authenticity are not easily attained, their absence proves catastrophic to both the individual and society as embittered conformists seek new victims on whom to wreak violence and avenge their psychic wounds.”

    *   *   *

“We live in cultures that are characterized by competition and insecurity and that make it difficult for people to develop the self-esteem that comes from a sense of one’s inner worth, which can evolve only if people learn to accept and share their suffering, pain, and adversity. This is what enables an inner strength to emerge—informed by an attitude of equanimity in spite of insecurity and of self-confidence in spite of helplessness. Only such a development forms a person’s genuine substance. In cultures that mistake strength for invulnerability, this kind of development is hardly possible because suffering, pain, and helplessness are stigmatized as weakness. This is why parents need their child in order to maintain a self-image of competence and self-assurance without self-doubt. In a culture in which one is constantly faced with the threat of failure, children are needed to enable their parents to maintain a fictitious sense of worth, with the result that parents do not see their children as they are but only in relation to themselves. In spite of their love and hopes for their children, they do not see what their children are really like but view them only in terms of providing approbation of the parental role. The child becomes the means to the end of sustaining the pose of mother and father as authority figures who are decisive and assured in their relationship with their child. What are children to do who experience weakness, helplessness, pain, and rage? Apathetic and exhausted, they will, with time, submit to the expectations of their parents. But their submission distorts reality, and thus a rational solution later in life to crucial problems such as the question of war and peace is made impossible, for if we have learned from an early age to experience the pose of strength and self-assurance as reality, then ‘realistic’ behavior is not based on reality at all but on our need to cling to this pose as a remedy for our fears and insecurity. [….]

… Proust recognized something of fundamental significance, namely, the longing in our obedience-oriented cultures to be saved by those who have caused our suffering, together with the inability to recognize them as responsible for this suffering. Being forced to be obedient while growing up leads to the inability to perceive our own empathic potential because of our anxiety and fear, which must not be acknowledged, since fear and uncertainty are labeled as weakness. Although we are driven by our fear, it must be denied and repressed. Here we can see the vicious circle of our development, which is influenced by a culture that causes parents to experience their infants’ aliveness and high spirits as disturbing or even threatening. As they get older, these children will soon be filled with anxiety and worry and will learn at an early age that their original, authentic self imperils their relationship with their parents and for this reason is bad. As a result, their innermost nature turns into something strange and foreign. And it is this alienated part of one’s self that must be fought against from now on. The accompanying anxieties grow stronger in times of existential stress—caused, for example, by unemployment, loss of status and personal importance, insecurity inherent in a society based on competition that humiliates and isolates people. These ever-present anxieties are held in check in economic good times owing to the fact that people feel they are part of society. Nowadays people feel secure in their identity, thanks to all the possibilities offered by a consumer society. Possessing things gives them a sense of well-being and thus a kind of identity and the feeling of belonging. But as soon as possessions and consumption are threatened, this false identity breaks down and the ever-menacing anxieties again come to the fore.” [….] 

Two books by Gruen:
  • The Betrayal of the Self: The Fear of Autonomy in Men and Women (Grove Press, 1988)
  • The Insanity of Normality—Realism as Sickness: Toward Understanding Human Destructiveness (Grove Weidenfeld, 1992)
Related Bibliographies:


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