Beneath Our Feet:
A Dissertation on Ecotherapy in the New Zealand Context
By Michael Apathy
Chapter Six: Analytic Idealism
While chapters four and five analysed the human-nature relationship as determined by the material, this chapter and the next will analyse the determinants in the relationship from an idealistic perspective. This includes internal subjective models of relationships, affects, and cognitions. Chapter six may comprise the most personally confronting section of the dissertation, as the spotlight is shone on the internal and personal causes of our environmental destructiveness. The chapter will review literature on relating narcissistically to nature, some other defences in the human nature relationship, and Oedipus and Oedipal dynamics.
Relating Narcissistically to Nature
Ecopsychologist O‘Connor (1995) writes that he has ―even, upon occasion, interrupted a client‘s self-absorbed soliloquy by asking "are you aware that the planet is dying?" (p 149) This confrontative approach to narcissistic self-absorbtion could be likened to the Kernbergian approach of aggressively confronting narcissistic defences. More empathic approaches that could be likened to a Kohutian approach to narcissism will be explored in the next section, empathic idealism. Ecopsychologists have used the concept of narcissism extensively to consider human relations with the environment. The concept of normative narcissism is based in a cultural critique, rather than the psychoanalytic basis for ideas of narcissism that will be discussed later in this section. There are two commonly cited culturally based causes for humans to have developed an objectifying narcissistic relationship with nature. Firstly, According to Metzner, (1999) in the West Judeo-Christian religion supplanted paganism and pantheism and attempted to transcend matter and nature in order to reach the divine. Humans were given dominion over animals and plants alike, who lacking the transcendent nature that is the soul, came to be seen as unfeeling objects. The second cited cause of the normative objectification of nature is the influence of mechanistic science. According to Metzner (1999), during the scientific revolution of the 16th century a split developed in which science came to deal with matter whilst values became the territory of religion. As religion has become further marginalised science has developed an idea of progress that is still detached from values in the form of ethics. Without embedded values and ethics to the contrary, science and scientific "progress" come to be driven by the two environmentally destructive ends of warfare and profit. Both mechanistic science and transcendent monotheism are implicated in critiques of patriarchy and the exploitation of nature, to be discussed later in this section.
Axelrod and Suedfeld (1995) are unusual in the ecopsychology literature in putting forth a more moderate and less countercultural view which argues against the two cultural critiques above. In regard to Western monotheism their arguments serve as reminders that some of the critiques are based on selective interpretations of relatively few biblical passages, and do not represent well the breadth of complex religious traditions. In regard to technology, they highlight the role of technology not only in unsustainably extracting resources, but also in regulating human activity to conserve the environment. Axelrod and Suedfeld‘s (1995) counter arguments could perhaps be best understood not as a total contradiction of more radical ecopsychological views, but as a caution against relying on sweeping generalisations and ignoring specific cases that do not fit these generalisations.
Moving on from critiques of culturally based normative narcissism, the review will now consider psychoanalytic understandings of narcissism. One of the aspects of the narcissistic personality type is a preoccupation with issues of identity (McWilliams 1994). According to Gomes and Kanner (1995), for consumers, consumption has become literally central to identity. As we consume we do not only seek to fill an empty self, but we wish to identify with the idealised consumer whom we see in advertising as physically perfect and filled up with pleasure. The emphasis on the pleasure principle is combined with a narcissistic disregard for the reality principle, as represented by the environmental constraints on consumption (Gomes & Kanner, 1995.)
Fantasies of ―endless comfort and convenience, of every wish instantly becoming the world‘s command‖ (Gomes & Kanner, 1995, p. 78) are also part of the grandiose narcissistic style, a compensation for an inner sense of lack and emptiness.
While limitless consumption has become part of individual identities through advertising, it has, according to Lasch (1980), also become part of the identities of Western cultures. President Bush (jnr) defending unbridled consumption as a non-negotiable part of the American way of life is a particularly blatant example of entitlement as part of first world cultures‘ identities and a general "culture of narcicissm."
Defence Mechanisms in the Human-Nature Relationship
While being at times related to narcissistic defences, consumption also fulfils other defensive purposes. Shopping, for instance, can be formulated as a manic defence against acknowledging the terrifying realities of the consequences of our unsustainable use of resources (Randall, 2005). Rust (2008) suggests that consumerism can act as an opiate to subdue our wild natures. Manic activity and affect can mask a more empty depressive self in an oral dynamic - drinking from the breast reassures us that the milk will never run out (Randall 2005).
Denial is perhaps the most commonly cited defence throughout the surveyed literature, and perhaps the most confronting to come to terms with. Most often the defence of denial is cited as being used to ward off acknowledgement of both present and impending danger to the individual, danger due to the consequences of degradation of the natural environment. This use of the defence of denial fits well with Freud‘s original concept of denial as a disavowal of something that would otherwise be experienced as traumatic (Randall, 2005). Formulating denial as a response to potential trauma may be significant in shifting theorists, clinicians and activists towards a more empathic and supportive stance that takes into account vulnerability to trauma (with similarities to Judith Herman‘s trauma therapy, see Jensen, 2004), as opposed to confronting denial or other defences head on. Similarly, principles of acknowledging and valuing defences may also apply here, as well as not taking away defences before a better psychological alternative (perhaps a more mature defence) is available (McWilliams, 1994).
Denial can be considered a first response, initially useful to avoid being overwhelmed by traumatic material that can only be assimilated gradually. If conditions are not supportive enough for this assimilation to occur the splitting off of the truth can become permanent, and can be followed by further splits in order to contain anxiety. Splitting is a commonly cited defence in the literature and is considered in global forms (for instance that of a psychological split between humans and nature, Buzzel & Chalquist, 2009) and in more specific forms (for instance splitting mother nature into a ―good breast‖ and ―bad breast‖, rather than having an integrated experience of nature as being at times indifferent and other times nurturing (Randall, 2005).
Oedipus and the Oedipal Complex
Like defences, the Oedipal complex is a key concept of classical psychoanalysis. Oedipal dynamics in the human-nature relationship occur when the government or environmentalists come to be seen as the repressive father who is trying to deny access to the desired mother-earth. Infantile competitive dynamics also come into play when we feel that we are being treated unfairly, that others (sibling figures) are being given more access to the resources of mother-earth. The infantile impulse is then to resist, spoil her plans, or find a way to outwit mother. (Randall, 2005)
Though novel in its application to environmental issues, the above use of the Oedipal complex is orthodox compared to Katzenbach‘s (2002) reinterpretation of the story of Oedipus that originally inspired Freud.
"The seed we plant determines what will grow, including the seed of a discipline. We can graft the original plant to another, we can transplant, we can trim and shape, but we cannot change the seed itself. But it can happen that we discover the seed is not what we thought it was." (Katzenbach, 2002. p. 1.)
This quotation relates to a central tension present in the psychotherapeutic literature about the human-nature relationship. It is a tension between radically nature centred theorists and writers (eco-psychologists) on the one hand, and more mainstream theorists and practitioners. At what point does the tension reach breaking point, resulting in ecopsychologists losing conceptual coherence with the psychoanalytic psychotherapy tradition, and perhaps no longer being considered psychotherapeutic or psychoanalytic by either themselves or more mainstream practitioners?
Katzenbach attempts to resolve this tension through the radical act of re-reading and reinterpreting the story of Oedipus that was the seed for Freud‘s pivotal Oedipal complex. Her claiming of one of the seeds of the psychoanalytic tradition as an eco-psychological fable is reflective of a wider trend within the ecopsychology literature. This trend is that of ecopsychology both recognizing itself as a radical new turn in the development of psychotherapy, and also making claim to being a continuation of an original or natural profession, state of consciousness, or knowledge. An example of this use of older or original knowledge is ecopsychology‘s interest in and utilisation of indigenous knowledge and techniques, and identification of similarities between the role of the shaman and psychotherapist.
Katzenbach explores Sophocles‘ ancient play Oedipus Rex as a fable about the nature of humans, and our place in creation. Through the play the main character, Oedipus, uncovers his past as a client does in therapy. Interestingly, the incentive for him to embark on this uncovering is not his own personal suffering, but the ecological catastrophe that has engulfed Thebes as "buds turn to rust… Stillbirths, no births, and miscarriages afflict animals and humans alike. Rashes appear on human and animal skin, and the air itself is poison. Crops wither in a constant, scorching, mad heat, as if Sophocles were predicting global warming, eco-systemic estrogen mayhem, acid rain, pollution and toxic waste 2500 years ago." (Katzenbach, 2002, p. 1)
According to Katzenbach the cause of this ecological catastrophe is Oedipus‘s fundamental misunderstanding of his parentage – his place in creation. This leads him to a mindset of cleverness, competitiveness, hyper-individualism, and ultimately the perversion of his creative powers (this is paralleled with our use of technology) in the act of incest.
Like a good therapist, Sophocles does not leave his readers alone with the tragedy of Oedipus Rex as an endpoint. His later play Oedipus at Colonus (in Katzenbach, 2003) contains many of the important elements of ecopsychology that are addressed throughout the dissertation: Oedipus‘ twenty years exile in nature can be understood as an attachment experience with nature, his close relationship with his daughter (rather than his sons) reflects critiques of patriachy, the struggle for territory and terrorism in the play reflecting struggles for resources and the concern for social-justice embodied in ecopsychology, and the dangers of cultural appropriation or green-washing are reflected in Oedipus‘s needing to prove himself trustworthy in order to enter into the sacred grove in which healing rituals can be performed. In summary, Katzenbach‘s re-interpretation of Oedipus serves as a metanarrative to understand human function and dysfunction in a cultural context, and also in an ecological context.
The literature reviewed placed a strong emphasis on humans relating narcissistically towards nature. This includes the narcissistic tendency towards objectification, amorality, pre-occupation with issues of identity (as consumers), and sense of entitlement. Nonnarcissistic defences are also addressed in the literature, including mania, denial, and splitting.
Particular attention is given in this chapter to the work of Katzenbach, who interprets the story of Oedipus in a different way than Freud did with his Oedipal complex. According to Katzenbach, Oedipus‘s incest represents his misunderstanding of his parentage – his place in creation. This re-reading of Oedipus serves as a meta-narrative that encompasses many eco-psychological concepts, and also serves to lays claim to the writer Sophocles as an influential Western eco-psychological "ancestor."
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