Posted by: thealienist | September 18, 2014

Interpretations: In Psychotherapy and in Art, Is “Interesting” Enough?

Last summer (after I vanished for a while from the blogosphere), I read several books on literary criticism.  Several books focused on Dostoyevsky (a particular favorite of mine) and one by  Terry Eagleton  addressed literature in general.  I enjoyed the books greatly and may choose to write some posts about them in the future.  In the mean time, I have been thinking about one of the statements I repeatedly encountered in my reading.  It seemed to me that literary criticism was frequently judged on how “interesting” it was.  To tell you the truth, this bothered me.  My initial impulse is to judge academic works as to their “truth.”  I wanted to know how valid and reliable the data was.  How logical were the conclusions, and what kinds of assumptions were made?  In short, my more obsessive-compulsive traits took the lead in evaluating the work.

This is very different from how I deal with information from my patients.  Sure, I want to know how their communications about their life stories match the objective truth of the events in their lives.  I want to evaluate how closely their perceptions of their world and themselves match reality.  Still, I don’t usually become a stickler for the “Truth” in psychotherapy sessions.  I seem to take a more balanced view in evaluating my patients.  In addition to logical scrutiny, I want us to find the patient’s experience interesting.  I don’t want to ruin a compelling and informative narrative by nit-picking the details.  And when I make an interpretation, I want it to be both “true” and “interesting.”

This leads me to some thoughts on a blog post by a very intelligent and interesting colleague of mine.  I was recently browsing his excellent blog (Experimental Theology — see my links) and came across some posts examining one of my favorite comic strips, Calvin and Hobbes.  In one particular post, Salvation by Calvinball, my colleague made a statement that I found interesting but that did not ring true to me.  I started thinking…

In his post, Richard makes a statement that Rosalyn (Calvin’s babysitter) is “evil” and is a Satanic figure.  You can read it.  He explains his reasons well.  But, I was shocked!  Rosalyn, evil?  Rosalyn as a figure of Satan?  No doubt, this was an interesting take on this character.  It put me in mind of another phrase I often encountered in literary criticism.  Harold Bloom was often quoted as speaking admiringly of literary figures who gave a “strong misreading” to the works of their predecessors.  I had had problems getting my mind around this phrase, but could I now be dealing with Richard’s “strong misreading” of Calvin and Hobbes?  What could possibly be good about a misreading?  If it was indeed “in error” (as seems implied by the term “misreading”), how could making it strong be an improvement?  Finally, I came up with an answer.  I wonder what you think about it?

I humbly (truly and abjectly humbly and willing to be corrected if needed) my definition of “art” and “literature.”  “Art” is the creation of objects fit for mental play.  “Literature” consists of verbal works of “art.”  As such, the value of art is not in its “truth” or in its utility, but in its ability to arouse interest, provoke stimulating thoughts, and evoke moving emotions.  Great “art” does this in ways that persist, and even deepen, with prolonged contemplation.  The reason that “truth” does not play a major role in my conception of “art” is that “art” takes place in the transitional space of play.  In transitional spaces, one makes his own “truth” and others only enter the space by agreeing that certain things are “true.”  As a child, Calvin lives much of his life in a transitional space.  For him, Hobbes is a real tiger, and we join him in his transitional space by agreeing to behave like Hobbes is real.  For him, a cardboard box is a “transmogrifier,” and we will agree with him.  His teacher is a monster; we agree.  Girls have cooties; we agree.  In this space between the relative impotence of harsh reality and the imaged omnipotence of fantasy, we meet Calvin — and we meet “art.”

It seems to me that Richard and I both like to play with Calvin and Hobbes.  For us, it is fun, interesting, provocative.  It is an intellectual and emotional toy.  We just don’t play with it the same.  Richard, who has an immense load of theological knowledge in addition to psychology, finds the strip suited to playing with ideas of power and control.  I (perhaps with a comparative lack of imagination and creativity) find it more suited for playing with issues of development, individuation, fantasy, and the persistent need for play throughout the lifespan.  Both, I think, are interesting.  Mine feels more “true” to me.

Finally, this led me to thoughts about work in the therapeutic setting.  As I mentioned in my last post (Foundations of Mental Health:  The Truth) I see psychotherapy as occurring in the transitional space and as a kind of serious play.  As such, it is not enough that my interpretations of my patient’s material be “true.”  To insist that my statements be completely and objectively true is to do violence to the therapeutic setting.  Nor is this an excuse to admit falsehood into psychotherapy.  It is a call to pay attention to the “art” of psychotherapy.  It must be both true and interesting.

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