Here Now Next
Paul Goodman and the Origins of Gestalt Therapy
Published in Social Anarchism #22, 1996
The libertarian impetus in modern times has often taken somewhat peculiar ways of resisting and countering domination and exploitation. Psychotherapies provide some interesting examples, often with striking parallels to earlier heresies within mainstream religious contexts. Among the dominant psychologies in mid-twentieth century America were various behavior controls, usually of reductive positivist cast and medical dressing, in which authority figures psychomedically defined and manipulatively treated "abnormalities" and other deviations which included much primarily tabooed and dissident. Leaving aside therapists as associate jailers for psychiatric wards and military and other totalitarian institutions, and "crisis" coping and more overt psychopathologies which therapists mostly tried to restrain, they were, in the language of half a century ago, insistently enforcing "conformity" by inculcating "adjustment." Therapy was often lessons in subordination.
The issues of freedom and equality and difference were somewhat more complicated in the concurrent spread of postFreud psychoanalysis. Early on, dissidence had developed within the Freudian medical model, ornately controlled mentalverbal historical reconstruction, and social conservatism. Revisionist Freudians (such as Eric Fromm and Karen Horney) liberally emphasized some repressive social context but rather less questioned therapeutic regressions and authority. In contrast, Wilhelm Reich provided a crucial radical view. In considerably breaking with Freud, early Reich (and such libertarian schooling followers as A. S. Neill) insisted on more immediate physical responsiveness, including that of the sexual body in defiance of social controls, as with those of submissive work and of chastity for the young. Radical therapy was often lessons in sexual revolution.
Later, others took the psychological revolution in other directions (such as the apocalyptic culture Freudianism of Norman O. Brown and the attempted MarxFreud dialectical fusion of Herbert Marcuse, but these were not therapies). Even Reich went away from socially responsive biotherapy and sexualsocial liberation to a mad scientism of maximizing cosmic "orgones" to cure everything from impotency to cancer. The libertarian impetus went elsewhere.
Part of my sense of the history here arises from the personal. While I was never in any psychotherapy (unless one would include marital decades with a perennial Freudian analyst and devotee), I studied a number of Reicheans. The late anarchopacifist sociologist Donald Calhoun served as an early mentor. Until he returned home after a stay with Reich I had been house sitting for the Calhouns for the summer with a halfsize telephone booth strapped to the roof of his car. While I didn't argue about my girlfriend sitting naked in the "orgone box" to enhance sexual vitality, I found both the therapy and the theory dubious. (A current friend, the acute Reichean commentator Arthur Efron, writes me that I still do not properly understand "sexual body" theory.)
This may suggest a bit of context for my sense of Taylor Stoehr's study, subtitled "Paul Goodman and the Origins of Gestalt Therapy." Goodman, a marginal New York literary intellectual, had become an avowed anarchist in the 1940s (partly the influence of wartime anarchopacifists, his readings in the Kropotkinesque and other directdemocracy traditions, and perhaps some oneupping of culturally dominant New York Freudian leftists). Intellectually, Goodman sought to combine anarchist ideas with partly Reicheanized Freud. Personally, Goodman was in trouble, including firings from teaching jobs for compulsive, and often semipublic, sexual pursuit of boys and girls. He went into therapy with a Reichean (Alexander Lowen), then with a therapist (Lore Perls) from a European combination of Freudian analysis and gestalt psychology of perception. Goodman turned his obsessive selftherapy into an earnest career, including payment to write up emigre psychoanalyst Frederick Perls' ideas. Goodman expansively took them over in coauthoring Gestalt Therapy (1951), then himself became a more or less paid nonmedical therapist for about a decade, until taking on in the 1960s a notable public role as a libertarian social critictherapist and popular writer. Goodman became the best known anarchism advocate of his generation.
Stoehr, Goodman's literary executor, authorized biographer, and editor of many volumes of his writings, shows a near total devotion to his subject, whom he treats as "genius" and "sage." Goodman's biways went beyond pedophilia to include pedantic humanism and bohemian defiance, highart philosophizing and jargonish and trite writing, farout anarchism and antique moralism. Stoehr claims that they cohered in a mutual aid mission of psychosocial therapeutics. For "Goodman's life was full of contradictions and unlikely mixtures which, from the right distance, can seem whole and of a piece." But the whole, really an endless selftherapy and desperate search for public success, can also be viewed, as later famous therapeutic guru and sometime colleague Fritz Perls said, as "pathetic." To my eye, Goodmanism serves as a suggestive libertarianism amidst an anxious historical and personal mess.
While Stoehr has considerably researched his material, and attempts an even handed distance on Perls and others, he primarily produces a supportive biography of Goodman and not a ranging analysis of gestalt therapy or even of the text of Gestalt Therapy (Part Two was largely Goodman's). To the more distanced reader, Goodman's psychological writings often seem crude and an awkwardly written jumble but with interesting libertarian arguments for physical responsiveness and immediacy against the "neurosis of normalcy" and a damaging social order. Stoehr discusses all sorts of other Goodman writings, which often unintentionally confirm the lack of psychological subtlety. He also but poignantly narrates Goodman's responses to the illness of his daughter and the mortal accident to his son, though physical disease and death remain pretty much outside the therapy and theory of gestalt. Perhaps they can more distantly be seen as of a piece with Goodman's final emphasis on psychotherapy as his religion, with its exercises as "little prayers." Probably less cultishly damaging than some other minor heresies.
Still, Stoehr raises some interesting points about Goodman's fusion of anarchist ideas with psychotherapy. The goal was neither conformist adjustment nor labyrinthine etiology of neurosis nor exaggerated curative claims, but change toward "healthy selfregulation," assuming a positive natural order. The therapist was not to be medical authority or enigmatic magician but responsive friend, an equal, candid unto conflict. The contradictions between being a paid professional and an honest friend do not get considered by the sage or his disciple. In his lateSixties ideologizing as a "conservative anarchist," Goodman incoherently exalted "professionals" and other antiegalitarian institutions. This was not only a nearcomical selfaggrandizement for one essentially an inspired amateur in several fields, including psychotherapy, but also an anxiously desperate attempt to find an ethical class free and distinct from the inhumanly dominating system. He ignored his own intermittent awareness that specialist whoring can rarely be all that autonomous.
But Goodman was apt on some of the other "opposed claims of the social order and the individual organism." These included freeing up sex and anger and range of possibilities, recognizing conflicts as real and immediatethe Here Now Next of Stoehr's title. He wanted to support efforts at radically different ways of the individual relating to his social environment. (Mostly male since all through fatherless Goodman, lifelong much indulged by women, runs a denigrating view of the female.) Therapy should physically and expressively unblock, pointing towards greater autonomy, yet also immediate community.
It is hard to know the quality of Goodman as practicing therapist (the reports of sessions I heard emphasize, rather more than Stoehr's, the therapist's patronizing egotism and aggressive homosexuality, though I have no way of knowing how representative they were). Certainly much was anxiously rebellious in its arbitrary time and place. From other sources than Stoehr's (including an evening of attempted talk with each eccentric egotist) I suspect that the theatrical Perls was the more persuasive, Goodman the more positively libertarian. Perhaps that is not a crucial matter, except for the East/West coteries in the therapy movementsome blandly charted by Stoehrsince more generally manipulative authority considerably dissolved in the increasing emphasis on the communal interactions of group therapy. Which may displace the issues to where the groups were coming from Goodman's were mostly bohemian friends and disciplesand the lack of other social purpose. Therapy as the selfdefining totality, as itself "a way of life," may be a vitiating circle and group entrapment. Even when not just another American marketing strategy, therapeutic community must be artificial, transitory, and controlling.
Goodman, of course, rather fortuitously went on to something else in his role as dissident social critic and prolific published writer until his death in 1972. He probably contributed an historically good emphasis upon a libertarian attitude towards therapy, including some autonomy from authority, selfregulation, sexual responsiveness, and facetoface community. An anarchist among the doctoring controllers.
I have some reluctance about making a wholesale judgement on a half century of psychotherapies, now professionally and culticly diverse, and perhaps in disenchanted decline. No doubt therapies have provided solace to many, and perhaps the more libertarian oriented have sometimes done something more freeing. Still, it seems widely evident that even the better ones amongst a lot of manipulative fraud poorly substitute for good friends and lovers, responsive and free social activities, and more realistic and appropriate communities. That certainly was part of Goodman's emphasis, almost in spite of the context of humorless personal messiness, syncretistic psychologies, and insufficient social radicalism. In the perspective of one and two generations, Goodman's social psychology hardly seems sufficient response to the pervasive anxieties of a viciously competitive and alienating order and the horrendous dominations of an overpopulated and overdeveloped technocracy. But Goodman's gestaltism may retain some value as provocation toward socially critical therapies.
Generally, I suggest, with Goodman as rather mixed illustration, psychotherapies as institutions should be resisted, their practices and prayers undercut with skeptical mockery, their professionalization scorned, their ideologies treated as often still part of a system of domination and subordination. If there are libertarian therapies, this is what countering they are essentially doing. Therapy should then be antitherapy.
Here Now Next, Paul Goodman and the Origins of Gestalt Therapy by Taylor Stoehr. 334 pp. San Francisco: JosseyBass, 1994.
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