BOOK REVIEW: Erich Fromm: The Art of Listening

Constable, 1994 (Pbk £6.95 stg)

This book appears to be a collection of essays by Fromm on various aspects of psychoanalysis, and therefore looks promising. But be warned! It is in fact a compilation from “English-language transcripts of recordings of lectures, interviews and seminars, usually delivered without lecture notes”. The result is patchy at best. The editor seems to have taken the view that he should “preserve the character of the spoken word” to extremes, sometimes not even daring to revise Fromm’s colloquial flow into readable English sentences. It is no service to Fromm to publish the following: “If I knew this then this sense of being well and the emergency energies would work enough in many people to make them decide with a ‘no'”. I felt that the editor had seriously misunderstood and under-rated his task in producing this book. Fromm’s own writing was always clear and to the point. This unselective and woolly work is quite uncharacteristic of him.

At the same time, and despite the nightmarish quality of the text, Fromm’s ideas and insights do somehow emerge from time to time. His questioning of psychoanalysis, his view of responsibility and independence, his basic assumption that the work of the therapist is towards profound change, or even revolution and not towards trivial adjustments, are all familiar from his writings and they are interestingly explored here. The impression is of a most genial and lively speaker, in touch with his listeners. At times, one can almost feel him responding to signs from them, and directing his words to meet their (unspoken) responses.

The title of the book is misleading, however. There is actually very little about “listening” as such, which is quite understandable since Fromm is being listened to, throughout! The essay of the title is in fact two brief pages, almost like notes, at the end of the book, and covers in almost summary form a number of familiar Fromm ideas: “To understand another means to love him – not in the erotic sense, but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself”. But even here, it’s not just a question of ‘listening’, for Fromm says: “No lie must be expressed by the psycho­analyst”. And, in fact, I felt that the demand for honesty and directness in analysis was actually the over-riding theme of the lectures.

No one could be less dry and technical than Fromm in his approach to questions such as “Factors Leading to Therapeutic Effect” and “Functions and Methods of the Psychoanalytic Process”. Evidently his lectures must have been discursive in tone, even when exploring terms such as “Resist­ance” and “Transference”. In reading these transcripts, one has the sense of his knowing his audience quite well, and pitching his commentary accord­ingly. A published text, it seems to me, would have to be quite a different thing. The very fact that Fromm’s talk was probably so appropriate to his audience makes difficulties for the reader. For instance, when he comments on the presentation of a case by a student in a seminar, it is plain that his reactions are highly particular: “I would have incited her to rebellion very strongly. In any case I would have tried it. Of course, one never knows what happens when one incites people to rebellion. But that would be my first attempt because I know unless she does that, she will never get well or have a happy life …” This high-risk commentary is placed in context a little while later when he states:

“If I look back at my own therapy, then I’m usually ashamed about the way I have analysed people five years earlier because I have made this mistake and that mistake. It is a terribly complex process and I know very well that naturally from short notes one does not give half the story because many things are necessarily very lacking … I didn’t really speak too much to the material, I just used the material for my own purposes of expressing certain ideas. More I didn’t intend.”

The glowing honesty of such admissions is highly attractive, and one is left wishing that one could have attended Fromm’s seminars. But this does not really compensate for the lack of rigour throughout. Unless you are a Fromm addict, or wish to collect all his works for some other reason, I feel that this book would not really serve much purpose on your shelves. There are good things in it – Fromm was a fascinating man, a radical in many ways. But he was also a fine writer, and plainly knew the difference between writing a book and giving a seminar. I doubt if he would have let this book off the presses as it stands.

Mary Montaut