Friday, September 3, 2010

Depth psychology and the contemporary craft of simulation

Written for the students entering the Depth Psychology program at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Fall 2010

I want to compare and contrast two things, as a way to introduce our topic of depth psychology. Following the British psychoanalyst D.W.Winnicott, I will call them “dreaming” and “daydreaming,” or images with and without soul. We live today in an ocean of images: no other moment in the history of civilization has approached our facility in inventing, crafting, refining, and polishing pictures of things, what postmodernism calls “simulacra.” Think, for example, of what films have become in the past century, with the primitive “special effects” of the early days of motion pictures giving way to 3-D, animation, and especially to computerized digital manipulation of the images of virtually any and all creatures, times, places, worlds; even dreams, memories, and visions; and beyond the duplication of all these actualities extrapolation to what has not been and perhaps never will be. Yet, in spite of the enormous outpouring in the present day of images of our worlds and how they might develop, there seems to be less and less place for what Jung called symbols and archetypes, and Winnicott “dreams” and “imagination”; those emotionally-charged images and stories that intimate and sometimes make real a world beyond our own but also most deeply our own, a sacred realm where life can be lived creatively. Why is this?

I suggest that the plethora of images in our world is directly related to the general decline of imagination, and specifically to the devaluation of that psychology of imagination that we call depth psychology. You are entering one of the very few institutions in the world that value depth psychology. It is true that there are Jungian institutes, other schools of psychoanalysis, and a few academic programs that recognize the value of soul; but they are infinitely outweighed by the linear, literalistic, and soulless surfaces of much of what passes for culture in the contemporary world. Daydreaming fantasy, as Winnicott shows, is a dissociative and defensive activity that aims at hiding reality; it adds nothing to life, drains our energy rather than renewing it. Not that this is not recognized from time to time in our art, especially films—which after 100 years remain the premiere canvas on which psyche projects her insights. As an example, I would like to reflect on the recent film “Inception,” whose premise is that a near future technology would allow its possessor to enter and control the dreams of others. Of course these are no longer dreams, in Winnicott’s sense, but rather daydreams or fantasies without soul or depth, instruments of power and control motivated by the spirit of capitalism and self aggrandizement. “Inception” images for us the possibility of levels of dreams, dreams within dreams, and of a distortion of time such that a minute at one level equals hours in a deeper dream. The outward “spectacle” of dreams (to use Aristotle’s term) is brilliantly portrayed, but there is no sense of the mystery and depth of natural dreams. Instead, we are plunged into the tedium of being trapped in a (day)dream world where nothing new can ever happen. The protagonist of Inception, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is tempted to give in, as his wife had done, to the subtle blandishments of the spectacular—but finally banal—daydreams they had constructed in what felt to them like 50 years trapped in a third level dream. On returning to the real world she jumped to her death, thinking reality a dream. He rejected the daydream simulacrum of his wife pleading for him, too, to jump, and chose ordinary reality; paradoxically, because it was more real, deeper, than daydream. As he said to his wife’s image, recognizing that he had (re)created it, “You’re not good enough.” Real memories and authentic mourning are superior to mechanized fantasy.

This is the real issue facing depth psychology today. We are tempted by all the powers of our critical faculty to reject the imagination because we confuse it with the cheap daydreams of advertising and politics. The challenge is to show that there is something more in the imaginal world than the funhouse of the postmodern imaginary, where a bloated daydream world is dissected in irony but never transcended. Inception demonstrates again (as Jung and Hillman had shown long ago) that what passes for fantasy in much of our culture nowadays is only the old heroic ego warmed over, galvanized into a simulacrum of life like the vampires and zombies that inhabit today’s films. The good sense that rejects these phantoms of the surface—for instance in television like the Daily Show and the Colbert Report—is itself also a lingering contrail of the hero, though a much superior version of him. Cold, hard moral reason, like that shown by DiCaprio’s character in rejecting the will-o-the-wisp that pretends to be his wife is absolutely needed today, and so—in spite of a certain personal aversion to their style—I have to honor the spirit of Colbert and Stewart who aim at a purified comic intelligence capable of dueling with the bathos and chilly posturing of what Jung had already, in 1913, identified as “the spirit of these times.”

What, then, of Jung’s other force, the “spirit of the depths”? Where is it to be found in a culture where a film on dreaming never touches on Jung, or even Freud, and describes the deepest levels of the psyche as “limbo”? I hope that over the course of this quarter the answer may become a little clearer.

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