Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Indian Mystic and the Victim of Child Abuse

This post is dedicated to Sivananda Reddy.


It is striking that many mystical systems contain elaborate and central theories of memory in which the importance or the very existence of early childhood memories is denied and displaced backwards to prenatal events, or forward, to the present and future. Perhaps negated depression is the central unspoken element of mystic states of elation. The primary literature on mysticism is replete with alluring descriptions of states of mind characterized by depersonalization, derealization and deja vu -- descriptions devoid of genuine emotional content, and offering instead bland and repetitive reassurances. The impression is that of a panicked attempt to conjure up contentment through a magic, counterphobic gesture. The result is an alien state of mind, anxious and disturbing because these derealizations, etc., are screens behind which lie painful, unconscious memories. The mystic is seeking not future illumination, but protection from past dangers. Where can a traumatized small child find protection except in the arms of the one powerful enough to have originally inflicted the haunting pain? Thus the mystic, like all traumatized persons, is trapped in a compulsion to repeat, a component of which is an attempt at magical undoing.

A person who has been severely hurt emotionally early in life can reenact in manifold disguise the original traumas; but he cannot remember with full force of feeling. The screening process through the break in affective connections is evident here. Note that specific unhappy childhood memories which turn out to be false are false only in content, not in feeling. They produce a particular hurt in the hope of screening a deeper, more momentous and pervasive misery. Unpleasurable memories remain reverberating somewhere in the body and emotions.

The condition of emotional stillness, a dire symptom in human terms, is universally praised in many Indian and Western mystical texts and pursued by means of exercises and meditations. We can hypothesize that the various forms of emotional undernourishment, far more common than physical undernourishment, leave behind an insatiable craving, the search for mystical experiences, as if only the ecstatic stillness of trance-states could fill the void of a happiness never experienced. But this search is a symptom, always an unhappy substitution. Depression, rage and aggression are the obverse of the ecstasy and the inevitable hidden accompaniments of such journeys into a sad past. The apparent reliving of a lost past in terms of grasping at the illusion of ecstasy can only represent a falsification of memory for the purpose of defense. And the dry, brittle memories of an emotionally arid childhood are as fearsome as those of more openly violent abuse. The hunger that such childhood misery and emptiness leave behind often becomes "bound" in a phantom memory. Feelings of nostalgia for a lost past comprise a denial of childhood misery.

4 comments:

Gary Freedman said...

This post is drawn from a paper on mysticism by J. Moussaieff Masson.

Shiv said...

do you understand what Masson's trying to say in the paper? although i catch the general drift, i can't seem to place his arguments.

'negated depression'? what's that?

so he is saying that some people experience "nostalgia of a lost past" which comprises a "denial of childhood misery". i understand that to mean that because of an emotionally empty childhood experience, which he equates to an abusive one, some people tend to experience false images of a childhood they never had.

maybe he also says (and perhaps it is lost somewhere in the detail) that these people tend to inflict upon others a similar suffering; and by doing so they are only reenacting their experiences in a world they have known all their lives to be one in which original actions are devoid of the force of feeling and emotions. also, sometimes they create mystical and episodic images to replace the void left behind by these capacities.

if that's what Masson's saying in this paper, i am intrigued as to his methods. how does he conclude such things? how does one determine if such abstract theories are sound with the comfort of context?

Shiv said...

sorry tha tlast line should read "without the comfort of context"

Gary Freedman said...

1. do you understand what Masson's trying to say in the paper? although i catch the general drift, i can't seem to place his arguments.

Yes, I believe I do understand what Masson is saying in the paper. I find this paper to be beautiful and particularly meaningful for me. Perhaps the problem is that I excerpted a brief passage of the paper that doesn't make a lot of sense out of the context of the paper as a whole. The paper is titled "Buried Memories on the Acropolis: Freud's Response to Mysticism and Anti-Semitism." International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 59: 199-208 (1978). The paper, like many papers in the analytical literature, is anecdotal and is based on analytical hermeneutics which tends to be intuitive and based on comparison and pattern-finding and associations of ideas. The end-product of analytic interpretation is a reconstruction that is based on inference. Analytical hermeneutics is not real science, based on controlled studies. It is more similar to literary analysis than science. Even in the analysis of individual patients (which provides anecdotal evidence) the patient is frequently dealt with as if he were a literary character. To someone trained in engineering, I suspect that psychoanalysis seems like a fraud, or junk science. An engineer cannot rely solely on intuition in designing a bridge or an electrical circuit or in assessing metal fatigue. In engineering, sooner or later, intuition has to be put to the test. But psychoanalysis is largely intuitive and based on speculation and inference that is not subjected to rigorous testing. I think however, that the artistic side of your temperament might be attracted to analytic reconstructions.

To give you some feeling for analytical interpretation (hermeneutics) and for the gist of this particular paper, let me reproduce the first two paragraphs of the paper:

"In thinking about the meaning of Freud's (1936) title to his paper, 'A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis,' we have been led to reconstruct the significance of this work in a way which throws light on Freud's response to two themes, not previously discussed in this context: mysticism and anti-Semitism. We see a deep structural and dynamic similarity in these two disturbances of affect.

The initial feeling of Freud's experience on the Acropolis is a loss of control, a feeling of being moved by some power outside himself. This is followed by a depression which gives way to an alien state of mind, the derealization. Although in the Acropolis paper Freud does not describe this experience as ending with feelings of pleasure, his analysis is in terms of oedipal victory which would entail feelings of triumph. Later Freud (1927) writes of this experience: 'I was already a man of mature years when I stood for the first time on the hill of the Acropolis in Athens, between the temple ruins, looking out over the blue sea. A feeling of astonishment mingled with my joy.' In the Acropolis paper Freud analyzes the derealization as a defensive split of the ego, involving a falsification of memory. In the course of the discussion, he offers, by analogy, two 'free associations;' the story of king Boabdil and the story of Napoleon's coronation, the latter involving parapraxes [errors] on Freud's part -- parapraxes which corroborate the assumption that these analogies were, indeed, free associations, fantasies serving the purpose of gratification and discharge. Freud knew well the history of Napoleon: the parapraxes, then, are also falsifications of memory as is Boabdil's violent attempt to eradicate the past. There is an even more curious distortion of memory. In the sentence just preceding the story of Napoleon's coronation, Freud speaks of strolling to school with his travelling-companion brother, talking and sharing experiences. But his brother Alexander is ten years his junior and was barely entering school when Freud went to the university. Thus his nostalgic memory cannot be. But it does bring to mind an autobiographical account of another walk: [discussing a walk by Freud and his father when Freud was a boy. The walk concerned an anti-Semitic incident involving a third party.]"

Masson proceeds from speculation to speculation. The erroneous memory of the walk with the brother screens another affectively charged walk (the walk with the father involving the anti-Semitic incident) -- which screens a speculated sexual seduction in early childhood involving his nanny (Masson notes that both anti-Semitism and sexual seduction involve humiliation -- a similarity that Masson assumes to have meaning). "Freud, seduced, humiliated and sadistically depreciated," Masson writes, [speaks of his nanny in nostalgic terms]. "This nostalgia replaces the painful affects originally associated with these memories -- it acts as the patch over the affective break that occurred because of the repression of the original feelings. . . . This connection between affects and memory is central to our thesis and requires clarification." Masson proceeds to discuss the importance of affects and memories in Freud's work.

So already you see what analytic interpretation involves: scrutiny of affective states (feelings), falsifications of memory, or errors (parapraxes). The analyst would say that these factors show the workings of the unconscious in that the conscious feelings and errors are not appropriate to the manifest situation. Why did Freud experience these falsifications of memory about his past, and why the particular feelings on viewing the Acropolis for the first time? Masson's reconstruction or conclusion is that Freud himself was a victim of sexual abuse by his nanny when he was a small child, but that he blocked out any conscious recollection of the events. So much for psychoanalytic proof! There is no evidence that Freud was ever seduced. But the seduction is assumed by Masson because it explains particular errors of memory and particular affects in the adult Freud.

2. 'negated depression'? what's that?

Negated depression (unconscious depression) is depression that is defended against by another, conscious affect. The depression is not manifest in the conscious mind. Various mental states are assumed to defend against depression: manic states, aggression, addiction (substance abuse or sexual addiction, for example -- even asceticism can be seen as an addiction that can defend against depression), and as Masson talks about in this paper, states of mystic elation can defend against depression.

3. so he is saying that some people experience "nostalgia of a lost past" which comprises a "denial of childhood misery". i understand that to mean that because of an emotionally empty childhood experience, which he equates to an abusive one, some people tend to experience false images of a childhood they never had.

That's EXACTLY what Masson is saying. Masson would say that Freud had feelings of nostalgia for his nanny as a defense against the painful affects of humiliation and victimization by his nanny. (Although there is no evidence that the nanny abused Freud sexually, she was in fact a thief who stole money from the Freud family and was fired from her position. Also, the nanny was Catholic and the Freud family was Jewish. The nanny tried to indoctrinate the boy Freud in Catholicism -- that much is known. And yes, there is a cryptic comment in Freud's autobiography: "My nanny was my first teacher in sexual matters.")


4. maybe he also says (and perhaps it is lost somewhere in the detail) that these people tend to inflict upon others a similar suffering; and by doing so they are only reenacting their experiences in a world they have known all their lives to be one in which original actions are devoid of the force of feeling and emotions. also, sometimes they create mystical and episodic images to replace the void left behind by these capacities.

The first part of what you say is a reasonable reading and is supported by the literature on child abuse. Abused children tend to be abusers in adulthood. But that phenomenon, in a technical psychoanalytic sense, would be termed "identification with the aggressor." The victim acts like the aggressor did in the past.

What Masson had in mind here is a concept from psychoanalysis called the "repetition compulsion." Some people repeat or reenact painful situations from childhood in an attempt to master a situation over which they had no control as children. Here, the victim places himself in a situation in which he will reexperience the same kind of abuse he experienced earlier in life. Thus, the victim of child abuse engineers or seeks out social situations in adulthood in which he will be abused as he was as a child. For example, an abused female child may seek out abusive men in adulthood.

The second part of your statement is a correct representation of Masson's thesis. Mystical states of elation, in Masson's view, replace the void of an emotionally empty childhood or the pain of an overtly abusive childhood.


5. if that's what Masson's saying in this paper, i am intrigued as to his methods. how does he conclude such things? how does one determine if such abstract theories are sound with the comfort of context? --

Masson is a trained psychoanalyst and therefore underwent a training analysis himself. As such he has read extensively in the literature and was able to see in himself (during his training analysis) the emergence of phenomena described in the literature. He was also a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Toronto, so his knowledge of mysticism is based on his extensive readings in the field of Asian studies. Also, Masson's parents were wealthy and had a "guru" living with the family, so Masson had the life experience of growing up with a mystic. One of Masson's books is titled "My Father's Guru." As for Masson's psychoanalytic methods, I tried to give you some idea of how analysts think in my discussion above. Again, it's based on inference and comparison and anecdotal evidence -- trying to make sense of phenomena that on their face make no sense, such as errors of memory and affective states that don't seem to fit the manifest situation but might plausibly fit an earlier experience in childhood that is blocked out in the adult's memory. Psychoanalysis itself is a kind of "mystical" field that is based a lot on faith rather than on hard evidence. You either accept its methods or you don't. You can't prove the validity of analytic ideas since analysis is based so much on intuition and inference. There are different schools of analytic thought that can diverge widely in terms of what they accept as true, just as there are schools of religious thought in the major religions or in fields of mysticism.

The reason I directed this blog post to you, Shiv, is that I was curious about what someone of your cultural background would make of Masson's ideas. Masson is himself a renegade, both in psychoanalysis and Asian studies. He was thrown out of the International Psychoanalytic Association for publicly questioning certain basic tenets of Freud. And as for mysticism, he thinks mystics are sadistic impostors, who are simply compensating for their own sad past.

Are you in any way attracted to psychoanalytical thinking? To close, there is an old joke about psychoanalysts that encapsulates analytic methods and their seeming folly. "There is an old injunction among analysts -- don't generalize from a single case, generalize from two cases!" That's basically what analysts do. They generalize based on single cases or a handful of cases.