Paper Topic on Plath and Lowell and the

Triumph of the Therapeutic

Click here for an excerpt from Philip Rieff's Freud: The Mind of the Moralist.

The "triumph of the therapeutic" (a phrase used by Philip Rieff in a book of that title) refers to two related assumptions, common in the twentieth century, and nearly overwhelming in the post-World War II period: first that...

talking about your problems, or writing about them, is therapeutic, is a way of dealing (or beginning to deal) with them...
and second that...
people who are maladjusted are so because of personal/individual neuroses that can be treated by understanding and dealing with individual psychologies, and that such maladjustment is generally *not* the plausible result of a intense political dissidence.
(Think about your paper topic in relation to Ginsberg's "America"--and Ginsberg's own public sense of his craziness in that poem; and think perhaps, too, of Corso's "The Mad Yak", assuming that the word "mad" here means "angry" but also "insane; and especially think of the first line of "Howl" and its sense of "hysterical.")

Thus the paper topic question might be restated: to what degree, if any, do Lowell and Plath in their poems resist or fight against or criticize the two assumptions above? What evidence do you find in the poems for your view on this matter?

Philip Rieff wrote, summarizing the second assumption (while criticizing it): "No politics can be very ardent once the psychologial man discovers how symptomatically he is acting." Rieff also writes that 20th-century psychology tends to "reduce the political [by] its treament of revolutionary enthusiasms as belonging to a neurotic character structure.... Psychoanalysis sees the revolutionary simply as a special type of neurotic who displaces his aggressions on the public level."
(Think, then, of Plath and Lowell, publishing confessional, personal poems, bearing their souls through poetry, as possibly "displac[ing] [their] aggressions on the public level.")
There were generally two poetic movements of the mid-1950s that arose in reaction against the conformity of the "new formalists"--the Beats and the so-called "confessional poets," of which Lowell and Plath are generally considered to be chief examples. To break the neo-formalist conformity and ironic distance (and objectivity), it might be said, these poets went totally subjective--deliberately off the deep end, as it were, in order to show the stupidity of the assumption that their problems were *only* *their* problems. To what extent do you think that's true of their poetry? And again, a question relevant here is: are their poems to be seen as a therapeutic response to neurosis? Do the poems themselves bear any signs that indicate whether they stand for Lowell or Plath as therapeutic?

One more apt quotation from Rieff (again note that he's summarizing something he's quite critical of):

Any modification of the social order becomes in this way assimilable within the natural mode of government, the family. Thus the sentiment of patriotism may be exposed as a resolution of sibling rivalry, the aims of revolution parodied as regressive disobedience. Nothing could have a great appeal to educated classes in the West, tired as they are of the taxing sincerities involved in political engagement. Analogues with the personal...serve to debunk all public pieties... The political personality becomes an escape artist. His cravings are merely 'displaced' upon the body politic.... Revolutionary ideologies-- left and right--may be treated as rationales for Oedipal conflicts. What is definitive for the social is psychological. The public and social is only the 'manifest content.'
You might very productively think about to degree to which Plath's two poems about authority (poetic authority in "Colossus" and parental authority in "Daddy") befit Rieff's position against the triumph of the therapeutic.


Document URL:
Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:29:10 EDT