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Feelings of Resignation and Hope

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Our seemingly established right to freedom of expression may be seen as caught between two different trends of disenchanted modernity. The first trend relies upon the demands of an extremely pragmatic form of rationalization, leading to the framing of our thoughts as legitimate only when subordinated to the dictates of scientistic objectivism and the dominant governmental ideology.

At perhaps an even more personal level, it can lead one to become subjugated to an increasingly impaired quality of thought processes (often a rapidly progressing, narrow focus upon issues related to the draconian pursuit of power) characterizing whatever institution to which one has been devoted.

The second trend is to anchor feelings of confidence upon introspective self-inquiry, which offers one the opportunity for a sense of freedom from the dictates of orthodoxy, inequality, and authority.

However, the reaction against the first trend of submission to external domination may tend to produce, in its emphasis upon introspective subjectivity, a vulnerability to reifying counter-ideals of not knowing and mutuality, which must also be carefully deconstructed. Differences in meanings achieved by others who also choose to rely ever more upon the liberating capacity of subjectivity suggest pluralism will make new knowledge demands upon us. The development of new critical abilities will be needed to help form a way of knowing that is based upon collaborative, democratic processes, where knowledge itself can be used homeopathically as an antidote to the old ideal of the knowing authority.

In the history of psychoanalysis, there is hardly a more striking anecdote than a comment made by Freud in a letter to Oskar Pfister in 1910:

Discretion is incompatible with a good presentation of psychoanalysis. One must become a bad character, disregard the rules, sacrifice oneself, betray, behave like an artist who buys paints with the household money belonging to his wife or bums the furniture to heat the studio for his model. Without such a bit of criminality there is no real achievement.

This statement, notably to a non-analyst, reminds us how, despite its present appearance of orthodoxy and reverence for the founder, psychoanalysis began as a marginal, radical enterprise. From its inception, psychoanalysis took up a quietly critical stance toward authority, bourgeois conventional norms and what were then the certainties of conscious knowledge.

In contemporary life, the renewed sense of enrichment provided by a turn to self-inquiry, as opposed to living as a servant to external powers, is accompanied by sometimes distressing feelings of disenchantment, an awareness that the modern condition no longer allows us to call upon religious, mysterious, and awe-inspiring forms of truth, upon authority founded in such revealed truth. One of the consequences of this disenchantment is that the ultimate and most sublime values have retired from public life, at best into the brotherliness of immediate personal relationships.

At the same time, we are required either to suffer a great deal more uncertainty or, more constructively, learn how to embrace it. Those who find this condition too difficult to bear will retreat vociferously in a manner that obscures the uncertainty of life, into the arms of churches which promise them a renewed sense of entitlement and power over others, often over the unfortunate and disadvantaged.

My concluding remarks are perhaps the most difficult to formulate clearly. In contemporary psychotherapeutic and “self-help” thinking, feelings of resignation are unanimously associated with feelings of depression, inadequacy, and a sense of low self-worth. There are, however, important incidents in the history of psychoanalysis that point out an entirely different dimension of “feelings of resignation.”

One striking example involved the psychoanalyst Edith Jacobsen in the 1930s, who, at that time was a member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute. Jacobson was arrested by the Gestapo for participating in a resistance group in 1934 and was sentenced and held for more than two years in a Gestapo prison; she was finally released due to illness and managed to escape.

It has subsequently been revealed that Anna Freud responded to the Nazi persecution of Jacobson solely in terms of her deep worry that Jacobsen had jeopardized the psychoanalytic movement in Berlin, which had hoped to preserve the Institute and continue treating patients without interference, by complying with the authorities, accepting (demanding) the resignation of its Jewish members, and generally being on best behavior.

For Anna Freud, then, resignation was in fact both an oppressive demand and a despicable compliance with the Nazi domination and persecution of the Jews. Jacobson committed herself to an entirely different, firm sense of resignation to refuse the vulgar type of resignation demanded by Anna Freud, displaying a noble, moral, and life-enriching form of resignation.

In the United States, the history of psychoanalysis presents other practical instances where the sense and enactment of feelings of resignation were pioneering and moral acts of justice. One of the more significant of these events took place in the 1930s, with the simultaneous resignations of Karen Horney and Clara Thompson from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in protest against the degrading understanding of women that it expounded, viewing women as innately inferior and damaged humans.

The subsequent body of writings about women created by Karen Horney can quite justifiably be understood as a major cornerstone for the feminist movement that emerged. Clara Thompson went on to become a founder of the William Allison White Institute in New York City, which from its very beginnings has served as a fountainhead for contemporary relational thinking.

Feelings of resignation, then, need not necessarily be understood to reflect underlying depression, lack of self-confidence, and feelings of incompetence and inadequacy. Instead, feelings and acts of resignation may serve as a firm commitment to the affirmation of justice, the defiance of authoritarian domination, the refusal to be ruled by primitive forms of reason, and the pursuit of humanitarian achievements. In this manner, the sense of resignation can stand proudly as a beacon of hope for all mankind.

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