Book review by Rob Couteau
The terror of psychosis–and the terrifying treatments to which the “mental patient” is subjected–remains a source of bafflement to the outsider and a source of frustration to many practitioners in the mental health field. Although the literature is fraught with descriptions of symptoms, diagnoses, theories, and methods of treatment, few researchers address the patient as an equal. Rare, indeed, is the practitioner who has come to view psychosis as a strange sign of health: as an attempt to heal, or as a stage in a developmental process that transports the subject beyond “illness” or “normalcy” into a positive transformation of the self.
Such an exception is John Weir Perry. His Far Side of Madness remains a classic in the field for all these reasons. Working in the lonely tradition of Carl Jung and R. D. Laing, who each viewed psychosis as potentially purposive and telic in nature, Perry describes the goals–and the terrible dangers–that are typically encountered in the psychotic journey.
Perry’s work in traditional psychiatric settings led him to conclude that those in the thrall of an acute psychotic episode are rarely listened to or met on the level of their visionary state of consciousness. Instead, every conceivable way to silence them–to ignore or disapprove of their nonrational language and experience–was called into play, thereby increasing their sense of isolation, alienation, and so-called madness. (Although this book was first published in 1974, things have not substantially changed in state mental hospitals or in community residence settings. To explore the strange imagery of psychosis with a client in a counseling session is viewed as “feeding into their delusional system,” and it is discouraged by psychiatrists and social workers.)
Perry’s work with those in acute stages of psychosis revealed that their pre-psychotic personalities were the true source of “sickness.” Forced to live an emotionally impoverished life, the psyche had reacted by provoking a transformation in the form of a “compensating” psychosis, during which a drama in depth was enacted, forcing the initiate to undergo certain developmental processes.
Such experiences, which are accompanied by rich emotional imagery, offer amazing parallels to classical myths and to obscure rituals of antiquity:
Although the imagery is of a general, archetypal nature (“imagery that pertains to all men and all times”), it also symbolizes the key issues of the individual undergoing a crisis. Therefore, once lived through on this mythic plane, and once the process of withdrawal nears its end, the imagery must be linked to specific problems of daily life. Thus, the archetypal affect-images await a reconnection to their natural context: to the personal psychological complexes (which tend to be externally projected).
The notion of a “reorganization of the Self” is central to Perry’s approach to the psychotic journey. Extreme damage to the self-image (usually, through a mother’s withholding of love) was a typical problem in the cases he studied. The injury to the self-image is so severe that, during a crisis, psychic energy leaves the higher levels of consciousness and is attracted to the psychic depths, where an archetypal process of renewal commences. The goal is not only to restore self-esteem but also to engender a “capacity to love and be loved.”
For this to occur, there must be a connecting link with another human being (and not necessarily a link with a “professional”): one that instills warmth and trust. This encourages a forward progression of the inner-imagery (reminiscent of Jung’s statement that a schizophrenic is no longer schizophrenic when he feels understood by someone else). Therefore, at this stage, “analysis” seems secondary to basic human kindness. In place of an omniscient psychotherapist, Perry posits the autonomous psychic process as a crucial factor.
Perry searched for and finally discovered a regular pattern of imagery and ideation in the psychotic process. The negative self-image is typically compensated by an “overblown” archetypal one, the latter manifesting in imagery such as that of the hero, clown, saint, ghost, or sovereign leader. In addition, there’s a sense of “participating in some form of drama or ritual performance.” Most significantly, ten sets of motifs emerged: symbols of the center; death; return to beginnings; cosmic conflict; the threat of the opposite sex; apotheosis; sacred marriage; new birth; new society; and the quadratic world.
Following the Jungian school of thought (from which Perry emerged), comparative symbolism and cross-cultural studies were used to uncover a holistic context, in order to view the motifs from a broader perspective. Further research led to the discovery of the same sequence of images in archaic religions and in other cultural phenomena. Most remarkable to the author is that “the myth and ritual form that resembles it is the principal and central rite of the civilizations of remote antiquity, and parallels the image sequence step for step.” That is, the “ceremonial pattern of sacral kingship,” found in the ancient Near East, the Mediterranean, Europe, and the Far East, which involves an annual renewal of the cosmos during the New Year.
Perry devotes an entire chapter to the psychic significance of kingship, and he refers to its importance throughout this work. Indeed, the correspondence is striking. In New Year festivals, we find “a creation rite also emphasizing the center, the beginnings, death and renewal, the sacred combat and sacred marriage, and the other elements of the process.” The divine rites of kingship represent a projection of “man’s spiritual potential as an individual.”
Once such functions were integrated in the collective psyche, the era of the sacred king gave way to a new era: one ushered in by “great prophets” and “founders of the great religions,” and characterized by a revaluation of the individual and the Eros principle. Thus, kingship reflects an archetypal pattern of growth: one progressing through dismemberment, reconstitution, and the rebirth of the psyche, paralleling “outer” historical processes (which themselves were probably based on inner archetypal correlates), and culminating in the Eros principle (the return to love).
He places the advent of this era of exalting Eros at around “the middle of the first millennium B.C.” and he refers to it as the “revolution of democratization.” The prophets and mystics proceeding from that time–founders of culture and “heroes with a vision”–underwent eerie, turbulent psychic experiences. Afterward, they communicated a vision that reflected not only their own transformation but also that of the broader society. The genuine depth experience, however, is never supported by the collective when in its “acute” stage. As has been noted by Perry and by others before him, the prophets of old would have been locked up in psychiatric wards by today’s practitioners of “health.”
The point of Perry’s inquiry, and of those in that lonely tradition I alluded to earlier (it might be called the Romantic tradition in psychology), is not to “diagnose” artists, prophets, and mystics–not to label or denigrate the highest human values and aspirations–but to reexamine such rich transformation processes and to value the cultural elements that enrich human life. Thus, “Rather than what is pathological in mysticism, we ask what is mystical in its intent in psychosis?” Perry concludes:
The schizophrenic’s obsession with “social reform” is viewed as more than merely a “complaint against the faulty parental world.” For Perry, the ideation of a “new society” is a legitimate psychic concern that affects us all: a collective problem seeking a collective solution, and one that especially manifests in psychotic and visionary states of consciousness. He asks:
Society’s rebirth is dependent upon continual psychic upheaval: a renewal of the social archetype rooted in each individual psyche. It is there that we find the true matrix of history. And when social institutions become too rigid, it is there that we uncover a creative means of transforming them.
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Updated: 3 July 2011 | All text Copyright © 2012 | Rob Couteau