Monday, 6 September 2010

Should We Put Countries on the Couch?

Will the Palestinians be saved through therapy?  This is the suggestion of two Frenchmen who, in the contemporary fashion, turn their particular specialism into a metaphysical idea which becomes the way, or so they believe, to understand and save the world (Trauma (I) It Will Save Us).

Reality is a little more mundane:

[Gideon Levy writing about the film Waltz with Bashir, and its depiction of the Sabra and Chatila massacre]…  What’s left is hallucination, a sea of fears, the hero confesses on the way to his therapist, who is quick to calm him down and explain that the hero’s interest in the massacre at the camps derives from a different massacre: at the camps from which his parents came.  Bingo!  How could we have missed it?  It’s not us at all, it’s the Nazis, may their name and memory be obliterated.  It’s because of them that we are the way we are.  “You have been in cast in the role of the Nazi against your will,” a different therapist tells the hero reassuringly… The therapist says that we shone the lights, but “did not perpetrate the massacre.”  What a relief!  Our clean hands are not part of the dirty work, no way.

For what the authors seem to forget, even assuming the psychoanalytic theories, on which the idea of repression and reconciliation are based, are correct, is that therapy is essentially a selfish pursuit – it is to make you well, not your enemy.  It also tends towards the self-reflective and self-obsessed; not the best traits to understand or sympathise with the other. 

In a book of somewhat different quality, Sylvain Cypel’s Walled, there is also a large concern with the psychological – both sides, but particularly the Israelis, are in denial.  This is an important book, which has real insight into the conflict; but its tendency see and interpret events through collective psychology is very risky.  For it can downplay the role of politics and the real agents of change.  In a battle where there is an imbalance of power there will be a tendency to dominate and control on the part of the powerful.  A situation that can only be redressed by creating a balance of forces; power has to be fought by power (see Jean Bricmont in Waiting for Leaders).  Also, such an approach can also misinterpret events.  Is Israel hoovering up the West Bank because its population and elites are trapped within a myth; or because they can, the resistance being too weak to stop them? Is it a mistake or is it intentional; a political and military choice based on a clear assessment of the realities?

This is not to say culture and historical myths do not play a significant role in politics; but we must be aware of getting the balance wrong, of putting too much weight on metaphysical ideas, when it is the current economic and political situation which tend to be the main drivers of policy.  This kind of analysis, however, is the current fashion, stressing the role of language and historical narratives, as if these have lives of their own (Bad Names).  Sometimes they do, but usually myths are moulded by the current needs of a political class, and the force of events.  Witness the role the Shoah has played in Israel, from being ignored as an embarrassment to become, in Tom Segev’s words:

…an essential element in Israeli identity, culture and politics. (Sylvain Cypel)

Interestingly Cypel quotes another scholar (Jean-Michel Chamont) to show how the changes in the interpretation of the Shoah have followed a similar trajectory in other Western countries; as if this was a natural process, like a victim and their family recovering from an illness.  But to understand these cultural changes we need to look at the history, and how they actually came about.  Tom Segev again:

[writing about the trail of Adolf Eichmann and Ben Gurion’s aim] to unite Israeli society in a national catharsis, gripping, purifying, and patriotic.

Even where the myth is very powerful it cannot be separated out from the ongoing material concerns, of history – here the Shoah’s meaning changed because of a political need, and resultant action.  Although there are powerful trends in Western life which are pushing in just this direction; this isolating of big ideas from the reality around it.  There are many reasons for this, one is a turning away from politics and collective action, to individual solipsism; which is then reflected in the commentary.  We live within various myths, individualism being one of the most compelling; and like all myths we use it to explain the world around us.  And the myth of individualism has become as powerful as fundamental Christianity or orthodox Marxist-Leninism.  Thus the metaphors of psychology and personal illness – a limited ideology which in trying to understand the world is like looking at a country estate through a drainage ditch.

The solution?   Get rid of Jung and Freud and get down with the New Historians: Morris, Shlaim, Pappe…. That is, to understand a political event, or historical process, on its own terms, independent of grand theory or, and this can often amount to the same thing, our own narrow concerns.

No comments:

Post a Comment