Empty Days

Tuesday, August 03, 2004



Erich Fromm.

With all this, I am still reading through "Escape from Freedom" and I am starting to like it - the historical analysis of modern conditions might not have been to my liking but the picture of "the modern individual" is pretty convincing.

Fromm offers a very clearcut definition of what is seen as normal - it can be defined from two perspectives that do not coincide: mental health and normalcy according to norms of whatever society on one hand, and healthy development according to the needs of the individual on another. He is right to point out that most psychologists tend to take the first definition for granted and judge of normality in terms of how well adjusted a person is. Meantime Fromm proposes that the one who can't adapt often simply refuses to surrender to being socially what he is not personally - with resulting mental hardships, but for a good and sound reason. I might as well quote:
But even admitted that the study of individual behavior has such significance, one might question whether the study of individuals who are commonly labeled as neurotics can be of any use in considering the problems of social psychology. Again, we believe that this question must be answered in the affirmative. The phenomena which we observe in the neurotic person are in principle not different from those we find in the normal. They are only more accentuated, clearcut, and frequently more accessible to the awareness of the neurotic person than they are in the normal who is not aware of any problem which warrants study.

In order to make this clearer, a brief discussion of the terms neurotic and normal, or healthy, seems to be useful.

The term normal or healthy can be defined in two ways. Firstly, from the standpoint of a functioning society, one can call a person normal or healthy if he is able to fulfill the social role he is to take in that given society. More concretely, this means that he is able to work in the fashion which is required in that particular society, and furthermore that he is able to participate in the reproduction of the society, that is, that he can raise a family. Secondly, from the standpoint of the individual, we look upon health or normalcy as the optimum of growth and happiness of the individual.

If the structure of a given society were such that it offered the optimum possibility for individual happiness, both viewpoints would coincide. However, this is not the case in most societies we know, including our own. Although they differ in the degree to which they promote the aims of individual growth, there is a discrepancy between the aims of the smooth functioning of society and of the full development of the individual. This fact makes it imperative to differentiate sharply between the two concepts of health. The one is governed by social necessities, the other by values and norms concerning the aim of individual existence.

Unfortunately, this differentiation is often neglected. Most psychologists takes the structure of their own society so much for granted that to them the person who is not well adapted assumes the stigma of being less valuable. On the other hand, the well-adapted person is supposed to be the more valuable person in terms of a scale of human values. If we differentiate the two concepts of normal and neurotic, we come to the following conclusion: the person who is normal in terms of being well adapted is often less healthy than the neurotic person in terms of human values. Often he is well adapted only at the expense of having given up his self in order to become more or less the person he believes he is expected to be. All genuine individuality and spontaneity may have been lost. On the other hand, the neurotic person can be characterized as somebody who was not ready to surrender completely in the battle for his self. To be sure, his attempt to save his individual self was not successful, and instead of expressing his self productively he sought salvation through neurotic symptoms and by withdrawing into a phantasy life. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of human values, he is less crippled than the kind of normal person who has lost his individuality altogether. Needless to say there are persons who are not neurotic and yet have not drowned their individuality in the process of adaptation. But the stigma attached to the neurotic persona seems to us to be unfounded and justified only if we think of neurotic in terms of social efficiency. As for a whole society, the term neurotic cannot be applied in this latter sense, since a society could not exist if its members did not function socially. From a standpoint of human values, however, a society could be called neurotic in the sense that its members are crippled in the growth of their personality. Since the term neurotic is so often used to denote lack of social functioning, we would prefer not to speak of a society in terms of its being neurotic, but in terms of its being adverse to human happiness and self-realization.

The mechanisms we shall discuss in this chapter are mechanisms of escape, which result from the insecurity of the isolated individual.

Once the primary bonds which gave security to the individual are severed, once the individual faces the world outside of himself as a completely separate entity, two courses are open to him since he has to overcome the unbearable state of powerlessness and aloneness. By one course he can progress to "positive freedom"; he can relate himself spontaneously to the world in love and work, in the genuine expression of his emotional, sensuous, and intellectual capacities; he can thus become one again with man, nature, and himself, without giving up the independence and integrity of his individual self. The other course open to him is to fall back, to give up freedom, and to try to overcome his aloneness by eliminating the gap that has arisen between his individual self and the world. This second course never reunites him with the world in the way he was related to it before he merged as an "individual", for the fact of his separateness cannot be reversed; it is an escape from an unbearable situation which would make life impossible if it were prolonged. This course of escape, therefore, is characterized by its compulsive character, like every escape from threatening panic; it is also characterized by the more or less complete surrender of individuality and the integrity of the self. Thus it is not a solution which leads to happiness and positive freedom; it is, in principle, a solution which is to be found in all neurotic phenomena. It assuages an unbearable anxiety and makes life possible by avoiding panic; yet it does not solve the underlying problem and is paid for by a kind of life that often consists only of automatic or compulsive activities.

Some of these mechanisms of escape are of relatively small social import; they are to be found in any marked degree only in individuals with severe mental and emotional disturbances. In this chapter I shall discuss only those mechanisms which are culturally significant and the understanding of which is a necessary premise for the psychological analysis of the social phenomena with which we shall deal in the following chapters: the Fascist system, on one hand, modern democracy, on the other. [1]
__________

[Note 1]. From a different viewpoint Karen Horney in her "neurotic trends" (New Ways in Psychoanalysis) has arrived at a concept which has certain similarities with my concept of the "mechanisms of escape". The main differences between the two concepts are these: the neurotic trends are the driving forces in individual neurosis while the mechanisms of escape are driving forces in normal man. Furthermore, Horney's main emphasis is on anxiety while mine is on the isolation of the individual.
One useful thing I got out of my messing with computers is speedy typing - it does not bother me to transcribe from the page. I only do it for texts that are important to me though - things that bear repeating, as they say.

There is much I don't agree with in Fromm. He is a theoretician through and through and the picture he draws looks a bit too neat to ring true. But with all that he is able to point out some things that make a lot of sense - where upon I immediately forgive him all the surrounding theorizing.





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