Psychic Profiteering

Psychobabble by R.D. Rosen Atheneum Press, 230 pp., $8.95

SKEPTICISM, LIKE PENICILLIN, is in trouble these days. Certainty grows apace. A man in Detroit may momentarily capture national attention by telling the President that Panama, Taiwan, or loans to Eastern Europe mean nothing to him by comparison with getting a job. But the incident, while potentially photogenic, is soon forgotten, as civil rights are championed abroad and the gospel according to Jimmy is spooned out at home like so much codeine. Guaranteed to make you feel better.

And feelings, ain't they what it's all about? After all, by the time the opinion polls diagnosed the concept of alienation, some people were already cocktail-party-familiar with a selfish version of it, trotting out their justification for narcissism and political apathy with the self-righteousness of that fox in Aesop's fable who gets his tail sliced off in a trap and spends ages trying to convince his fellows that, really, it is exceedingly convenient to be rid of such an appendage.

Nowhere is this kind of puerile proselytizing more in evidence than in discussions of the human psyche, individual or collective. Nowhere is there such a subject about which everyone "knows" himself to be an authority. It doesn't take a great deal of political or intellectual sophistication to guage how you're feeling or to theorize about others' emotions.

R.D. Rosen's new book, Psychobabble, is an attempt to interpret some of the therapeutic trends outside traditional psychoanalysis that he has observed here in the '70s. The book is not a survey and the issues he addresses ("the relationship between language and psychology and the subversion of that relationship by the jargon of today") are "beyond considerations of who can find what kind of happiness when..." His approach is highly intellectualized rather than that of a "How-to" type guide. It is rarely pedantic, though, barbed as it is by a wit akin to stainless steel wire, brilliant and deadly. His delineation of the organizations and charlatans that have cashed in on a society's introspection is cruelly exact.

Art critic Harold Rosenberg once proposed an intellectual version of the "what a drag it is getting old" cry of the Rolling Stones. "Psychoanalysis Americanized" made explicit a point implied in Rosen's later book, declaring in 1965 that:

The consensus is, plainly, that philosophic and religious Angst is in, the pursuit of happiness, out...the revised psychoanalysis abandons to the clinics and drugs the task of patching up emotional casualties and seeks to lead men to values based upon the truth of the human condition.

Rosenberg was right in labelling this view austere. While it is easy to admire the manner in which Rosen explores the simplistic view of humanity inherent to what he calls "fast talk and quick cure in the era of feeling," the book would nevertheless disappoint anyone seeking alternative avenues towards some brand of contentment. This, Rosen is quick to declare, was emphatically not his objective. Indeed, a fairly persistent theme of Psychobabble (one derived from Rosenberg) is that the intellectual turns answers into questions.

The book chronicles the careers of the people who've made millions by performing the reverse operation, whereby the questions are transformed into certainties, and the know-it-all into the most popular kid on the therapeutic block.

Rosen quotes a local psychoanalyst who defines psychobabble as "just a way of using candor in order not to be candid" or, in other words, a vocabulary of terms lifted from psycho-analytic theory and popularized into meaninglessness. Think, for example, how often you use the words paranoid, fixation, neurotic, depressed, or manic when describing acquaintances. Such catch-phrases should be seen as "the expression not of a victory of de-humanization but as its latest and very subtlest victory over us."

Given: psychobabble represents more than the loss of words along; language is understanding and jargon limits the freedom of comprehension. Despite all that, you will still be left wondering if those "emotional casualties" have been sufficiently considered in terms of the very real, very unhappy human individuals they are.

ROSEN DESCRIBES in what is frequently excruciating detail the failures of the quacks to resolve the fears and anxieties of the seriously ill. He doesn't stress sufficiently, though, how many failures legitimate" psycho-analysts have had for similar reasons--perhaps because of a too-rigid theory of personality, perhaps an arbitrary and superficial diagnosis; the list is infinite.

Imagine for a while the situation of a fellow student suddenly cracking up. After reading Rosen you'll be uncomfortably aware of how psychobabble neutralizes some of your vocabulary. Nevertheless, imagine the person (maybe under academic pressure, maybe losing a lover) sleepless, getting awful stomach-aches, or turning unaccustomedly anti-social. He or she traipses to UHS where the M.D.'s initial response might simply be "Go play some tennis, relax..."

If such well-meaning advice doesn't work, even the least pill-happy physician usually writes out prescriptions for chemical Band-aids; after all, time is limited. Supposing even that doesn't work, the student will be advised to talk to a UHS psychiatrist. He or she will not be exposed to the humiliation integral to many of the quack therapies (such as EST's day-long sessions with two rest periods, no cigarettes or alcohol, just a barrage of ideology that costs $300.) But the message, in the end, will most likely be bald in the extreme: "Bite the bullet, kid."

Rosen condemns the move away from stoic, traditional analysis:

Many people express the view that this new psychobabble is a constructive retreat from obfuscating clinical terms but, if so, it is only a retreat into a sweet banality, a sort of syrup poured over conversations in order to make them go down smoother.

He makes a case against the tender but cruel optimism purveyed by the "Barry the Rebirthers" of this world.

This reduction of ideas to platitudes, this perpetual emotional filibuster relying on psychic sensationalism and insights as adaptable and obvious as children's blocks that are numbered and lettered, is depicted, on the whole, with wryness. The warning lies beneath the mockery.

"True psychobabble has all the intimacy of two PDP-8 computer terminals conversing in an Artificial Intelligence lab, and all in the name of interpersonal relations," is a typical remark.

This book is a somewhat patronizing but generally fair examination of a topic that notably agitates otherwise calm people. It would certainly help the popular reputation of traditional therapists if they presented their findings in such a lucid fashion as the author of Psychobabble. Rosen quotes Gore Vidal that "most of our writers tend to be recorders," yet he himself could never be mistaken for one of that dreary band. Unlike the psychobabblers he decries, he doesn't practice what Jacoby called (and Rosen recalled) "the monotonous discovery of common sense." Instead, he reminds us, skeptically but never petuiantly, that real sense is far from common.