Violent Thoughts, Violent Deeds?

By Mary Montaut

“To seek to extinguish Anger utterly, is but a bravery of the Stoicks. We have better Oracles: Be Angry but Sin not.” Francis Bacon, Essays (1626)

What is the relation between psychotherapy and violence? It seems to me that there is both an intensely intimate and an intensely ambivalent relation between them. At the heart of most of the theories of psychotherapy, there is a violent paradigm, and at least part of the aim of the therapy itself would be to integrate the violent and destructive emotions which are associated with that structure.

Let me cite two different examples: first of all, there is the Freudian construct in which aggressive and destructive drives or instincts exist in the unconscious but are denied and repressed out of consciousness. There is great consistency in Freud’s works in dealing with this topic. He looks at it both from the point of view of an individual therapist working with individuals, and from the point of view of a theorist about human society. For him, the two structures (personal and social) mirror each other in regard to the way they seek to control violence.

In Totem and Taboo (1913), he imagines a primal scene from which both could derive:

“In Darwin’s primal horde,… we find there is a violent and jealous father who keeps all the females for himself and drives away his sons as they grow up. This earliest state of society has never been an object of observation… One day the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end of the patriarchal horde… The violent primal father had doubtless been the feared and envied model of each one of the company of brothers: and in the act of devouring him, they accomplished their identification with him. They hated their father… but they loved and admired him too.

“After they had got rid of him, had satisfied their hatred and had put into effect their wish to identify themselves with him, the affection which had all this time been pushed under was bound to make itself felt. It did so in the form of remorse. A sense of guilt made its appearance. The dead father became stronger than the living one had been… I cannot suggest at what point in this process of development a place is to be found for the great mother-goddesses who may perhaps in general have preceded the father-gods… ”

In this imaginary scene, the shared guilt and remorse of the brothers is the chief factor in their subsequent social co-operation. They even ritualize the ‘sacrifice’ of the father, whose idealized image is transfigured in the religious observances of the group into a supreme power that none of them could ever challenge again. The revolution is over; and the qualities which Freud cites as those of the primal (Ur) father are exactly like those they attribute to their god.   I shall come back to this passage again in a while.

In parallel with this, Freud regards the Oedipal wish to murder one parent (typically, the father) and possess the other (typically, mother) as the basic complex from which will spring the psychological development of the individual. Here similarly, the child is first of all stirred by feelings of hatred and resentment into violently destructive wishes; only to find that its feelings of affection and admiration which were momentarily forgotten, bring about the most intense internal conflict.

In resolving that conflict, Freud hypothesizes that the child lays down the major elements of an emerging personality and future neuroses. In short, in both the social and the individual structures of development, Freud postulates that violently destructive and aggressive feelings are prime movers. He views the social ‘good’ represented by religion, and the personal ‘good’ represented by conscience as parallels.

My second example is from Melanie Klein, and following her, the ideas of the Object Relations school of psychotherapy. Perhaps Klein could have constructed the primal scene with the ‘great mother-goddesses’ which eludes Freud in the passage above, for she also focuses on the act of devouring the hated/beloved object. In her work, of course, this is basically not the father but the mother’s breast.

“An element of frustration by the breast is bound, however, to enter into the infant’s earliest relation to it… The infant’s longing for an inexhaustible and always present breast cannot ever be fully satisfied. These unavoidable grievances, together with happy experiences, reinforce the innate conflict between love and hatred… and result in the feeling that a good and a bad breast exists.

“Envy contributes to the infant’s difficulties, in that he feels that the gratification he was deprived of has been kept for itself by the breast which frustrated him. A distinction should be drawn between envy, jealousy and greed. Envy is the angry feeling that the mother possesses and enjoys something desirable – the conscious impulse being to take it away or spoil it… Greed is an impetuous and insatiable craving, exceeding what the subject needs and what the object can and wishes to give. At the unconscious level, greed aims primarily at completely scooping out, sucking dry and devouring the breast, that is to say, its aim is destructive introjection; whereas envy not only aims at robbing in this way, but also at putting badness, primarily bad parts of the self, into the mother- first of all into her breast – in order to spoil and destroy her… the destructive aspect of projective identification.” (Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude, 1956)

Klein does not share Freud’s interest in social theory, but in essence she is just as clear as he that the violent and destructive feelings of the young child are fundamental to its development into a social being; her important addition to this idea, however, is that the child’s feelings towards the mother are ambivalent from the first.

And for Winnicott (my last example of the vital importance of violent and destructive feelings within psychotherapeutic theory), substantive humanity can only be established when the person can tolerate and manage his or her own feelings of aggression:

“In passing I would like to say that it seems to me that it is comparatively easy for us to get at the destructiveness that is in ourselves when this is linked with anger at frustration or hate of something we disapprove of or when it is a reaction to fear. The difficult thing is for each individual to take full responsibility for the destructiveness that is personal, and that inherently belongs to a relationship to an object that is felt to be good – in other words, that is related to loving…” (‘Aggression, Guilt and Reparation’ in Home is Where We Come From 1960)

If then, it is precisely the conflict between the ‘good’ affectionate feelings and the ‘bad’ aggressive feelings within ourselves which enables us to develop any form of social awareness and responsibility – say, ‘conscience’ – it would follow that psychotherapy must essentially deal with destructive aggression and violence. Indeed, most therapies relish this task, in theory at least: I am thinking of the incredibly “violent” exchanges which can take place in Encounter Groups – the merciless cushion-beating of Gestalt work – the vigorous shaking of Bio-Energetics – the screams of primal work, whether it is Janovian or more fashionably follows Grof.

The releasing of violent, angry emotions in all these kinds of work is the essential tool towards integration. Janov hits the nail on the head:

“The Primal Scream is not a scream for its own sake. Nor is it used as a tension release. When it results from deep, wracking feelings, I believe it is a curative process, rather than simply a release of tension. It is not the scream that is curative, in any case – it is the Pain.” (Arthur Janov, The Primal Scream, 1970)

Often, as in Janov, the incitement to explore and awaken these painful feelings is couched in terms of retaliation – “He screams for the hundreds of shushes, ridicules, humiliations and beatings…”; or again, as in Grof, the necessity to connect with your own (unconscious) pain is expressed as if it were a realistic assessment of the physical dangerousness of birth experiences.

“In psychoanalytic literature the unconscious representation of the vagina as a dangerous organ that can damage, castrate, or kill is discussed as if it were an absurd and irrational fantasy of the naive child. Once the possibility is accepted that the memory of birth is recorded in the unconscious, this simply becomes a realistic evaluation. The delivery is a serious and potentially dangerous event, and during birth female genitals have killed or almost killed a number of children.” (Stanislav Grof, Beyond the Brain, 1985)

In fact, it would seem that the area under dispute among the modern therapies is really whether the violence to which the client is assumed to be responding with violent feelings is fact of his or her past, or a figment of the psychological imagination. Therefore, I would suggest that it is not just in theory, but also in practice, that the cathartic methods of modem psychotherapies are on an intimate footing with violence. In the passage I quoted from Totem and Taboo, it will be noticed that Freud clearly regards the construct he is offering as a hypothesis, and not as a fact. The hypothesis covers murderous yet very complex feelings, to do with love and admiration as much as fear and hate. In fact, it is striking in reading Freud’s accounts of the contents of the Unconscious that he makes plain that he is proposing hypotheses, not claiming actual knowledge.

For example, we find the same precision in another essay on a violent topic, A Child is Being Beaten (1919) where he openly invents a ‘scene’ to complete the hypothesis, which attempts to account for the erotic arousal connected with the fantasy reported by his patients that “a child is being beaten”. The fantasy includes images of ‘father’ beating the patient, and later of other figures (not necessarily male) beating other children; Freud postulates a stepping-stone scene in which “I am being beaten by my father.” He continues: “This second phase is the most important and the most momentous of all. But we may say of it in a certain sense that it has never had a real existence. It is never remembered, it has never succeeded in becoming conscious. It is a construction of analysis, but it is no less a necessity on that account.” How frequently, I feel, this aspect of Freud’s writing is incautiously ignored.

Here, in parenthesis, is an example of the kind of gross misreading/misinterpretation to which his ideas have often been subjected. It comes from D.H. Lawrence’s Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1923).

“Long ago we watched in frightened anticipation when Freud set out on his adventure into the hinterland of human consciousness… Imagine the unspeakable horror of the repressions Freud brought home to us. Gagged, bound, maniacal repressions, sexual complexes, faecal inhibitions, dream monsters. We tried to repudiate them. But no, they were there, demonstrable… We had felt that perhaps we were wrong inside, but we had never imagined it so bad…”

When Lawrence read these hypotheses in Freud’s work, he quickly grasped the wrong end of the stick: he assumed that what Freud was really saying was that the Truth of human nature was violently sexual and that all forms of repression were a Bad Thing; the honest, above-board thing would be to let all those violent and anti-social feelings have full play. In Fantasia of the Unconscious (1923), he recommends: “The same with wives and husbands. If a woman’s husband gets on her nerves, she should fly at him… But fight for your life, men. Fight your wife out of her own self-conscious preoccupation with herself. Batter her out of it till she’s stunned. Drive her back into her own true mode. Rip all her nice superimposed modern-woman and wonderful-creature garb off her… Make her yield to her own real unconscious self, and absolutely stamp on the self that she’s got into her head. Drive her forcibly back, back into her own true unconscious…”

In this memorably naive reading of psychoanalytical ideas, Lawrence concluded that it was wrong of Freud to approve of repressions and inhibitions and seek to integrate them by ‘curing’ the neuroses, but that the truly moral stance would be for humans to give free rein to all the ‘horrors’ lurking within their unconscious minds and become their ‘true’ selves. This response may seem somewhat comical to us now, but it has descendants in the therapies which seek primarily to control, rather than to integrate, the dark, violent and anti-social fantasies of unconsciousness.

Under the intense pressure of the ambivalence with which we regard our violent (fantasy) selves, Freud argues that we take refuge in neurotic structures which are meant to protect us from our own internal conflict. At a social level, too, he argues that we struggle with ambivalence, neither able to relinquish violence (we have armies, after all) nor to allow it free rein. In a very late work, Civilization and its Discontents (1930), he describes the process as he sees it:

“Human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes together which is stronger than any separate individual and which remains united against all separate individuals. The power of this community is then set up as ‘right’ in opposition to the power of the individual, which is then condemned as ‘brute force’. This replacement of the power of the individual by the power of the community constitutes the decisive step of civilization. The essence of it lies in the fact that members of the community restrict themselves in the possibilities of their satisfaction… The first requisite of civilization, therefore, is that of justice – that is, the assurance that a law once made will not be broken in favour of an individual. This implies nothing as to the ethical value of such a law… The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization.” (Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 1930)

The arrogation of ‘right’ (law) to the social structure in this hypothesis implies, as Freud points out, an eternally parental system; yet there is more to it, it seems to me. There is (as in his supposed primal horde in Totem and Taboo) a real emphasis on masculine forms in this hypothesis – perhaps I am led to think this by his use of the phrase “brute force”, which would rarely be applied to women. But if I follow this through for a moment, and recall the specifically patriarchal nature of the ‘primal horde’ idea, there seems to me to be a most interesting confluence of qualities which Freud himself analyses later in Civilization and its Discontents, specifically the confluence of social and personal structures of morality. He compares, as if they were parallel, the structures of social and personal morality (law and conscience, so to speak); and then, in a striking passage, destroys the parallelism by allowing the two to flow into each other:

“I adopt the standpoint that the inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man… What means does civilization employ in order to inhibit the aggressiveness which opposes it, to make it harmless, to get rid of it, perhaps? This we can study in the development of the individual… his aggressiveness is introjected, internalized; it is, in point of fact, sent back to where it came from – that is, it is directed towards his own ego. There… in the form of ‘conscience’, it is ready to put into action the same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other, extraneous individuals. The tension between the harsh super-ego and the ego that is subjected to it, is called by us the sense of guilt.  It expresses itself as a need for punishment.

“Civilization, therefore, obtains mastery over the individual’s dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within to watch over it… It almost seems as if the creation of a great human community would be most successful if no attention had to be paid to the happiness of the individual…”

I inferred earlier that it might be possible to see in the Kleinian position (focused on the breast) a feminine or even matriarchal version of this same fusion. Although Klein does not overtly analyse ideas about society, she always remains active within the familiar structures of society: and indeed, at one point, she goes so far as to suggest that the payment of social benefits may be experienced with gratitude by an individual, precisely as an echo of the gratitude felt towards the good breast. It is striking that in both the masculine and feminine versions of this hypothesis about human aggression, there is an underlying acceptance of the need to express, experience and ultimately integrate the violent impulses into the healthy or un-neurotic structure of personality.

The concommittant view of the social structure is less optimistic: although society has succeeded in establishing its “agency” within individuals, there is no obvious mechanism by which individual conflict and violence is to be met with anything but punishment from society. The work of psychotherapy, from this (originally Freudian) perspective, therefore brings us to a very distressing juncture. On the one hand, in this paradigm, the work of psychotherapy in enabling the individual to live less unhappily in society would seem to be serving the ends of that society above those of the individual. This is what made D.H. Lawrence so hysterical, I believe – the bare notion that his innate violence and aggression could be ‘cured’ and brought into harmony with “the voices of my accursed human education”, as he calls it in his poem, “Snake”. And this is certainly a point on which much pressure is presently being brought to bear upon psychotherapists, with questions about whether it should be “mandatory'” (by law) that therapists report sexual abuse which is reported to them by their clients.

Plainly, there exists a view that, since psychotherapy exists within the social context, it must be held socially accountable. The newly-formed structures of professional respectability for psychotherapists bear witness to the same sort of social requirement. But can the relation of psychotherapy and aggression/violence be contained in this way? Later in the same book (Civilization and its Discontents), Freud goes on to say, “In our research into, and therapy of, a neurosis, we are led to make two reproaches against the super-ego of the individual. In the severity of its commands and prohibitions, it troubles itself too little about the happiness of the ego… Consequently, we are very often obliged, for therapeutic reasons, to oppose the super-ego and we endeavour to lower its demands. Exactly the same objections can be made against the ethical demands of the cultural super-ego. It, too, does not trouble itself enough about the facts of the mental constitution of human beings. It issues a command and does not ask whether it is possible for people to obey it. On the contrary, it assumes that man’s ego is psychologically capable of anything that is required of it, that his ego has unlimited mastery over his id.

“This is a mistake; and even in what are known as normal people the id cannot be controlled beyond certain limits. If more is demanded of a man, a revolt will be produced in him or a neurosis, or he will be made unhappy…”

If the similarities which seem to be theoretically present between the social and the personal structures hold good here too, it would seem that Freud is not only expecting individual people to become increasingly unhappy as civilization progresses, but possibly that his own profession would increasingly give up its liberty in favour of social acceptance.

He observes: “For a wide variety of reasons, it is very far from my intention to express an opinion upon the value of human civilization. I have endeavoured to guard myself against the enthusiastic prejudice which holds that our civilization is the most precious thing that we possess or could acquire and that its path will necessarily lead to heights of unimagined perfection. I can at least listen without indignation to the critic who is of the opinion that when one surveys the aims of cultural endeavour and the means it employs, one is bound to come to the conclusion that the whole effort is not worth the trouble… I have not the courage to rise up before my fellow-men as a prophet, and I bow to their reproach that I can offer them no consolation…”

But perhaps this is not the end of it – that psychotherapy should turn out to be another form of social conscience or religion; it seems to me that in being so very clear that the structures he imagines to exist in the unconscious are hypotheses, Freud has allowed us room for other solutions. If we resist the inclination to invest our fantasies of violence with realistic interpretations and imagery (that is, essentially to criminalize them), we are left with our own processes of conflict. It is almost impossible, of course, to work just with processes – language, even thought, seems to drive us towards concrete representations for the purposes of expression and discussion. Even Janov, who believes that only the Scream will free his clients, still resorts to images of “shushing” and “beating” to elicit the pain. But does it matter, that violent and aggressive, horrific and repellent imagery may be the expressive forms of the unconscious struggles inside ourselves? The answer is probably that it only matters if those violent and aggressive fantasies are acted out in real life. But I would dispute this: that is true for the Law which must be seen to be fair – but it seems to me that psychotherapy does not properly assume any legal or authoritarian function. Whether the fantasies have given rise to violent or just mean and spiteful actions is not the concern of psychotherapy. It is the conflicted processes of feelings such as guilt, remorse and depression which are its territory; in bringing those processes into conscious life, its catharsis is performed, its work is done.