The Danger of Asking the Wrong Questions

We live in an age of experts. From the ‘refrigeration engineer’ who gasses up the air-con, to the garden guy who is now a ‘landscape designer’ skills close to home tend to be specialised. Some may haunt hardware aisles, dreaming of a new drill, but that has more to do with cool tools than getting the job done. TV ratings suggest that most of us imagine outside work being done by Jamie Durie and the ‘Backyard Blitz’ posse.

It is even truer indoors, where everything from tax to dog grooming is in the hands of a professional. This has some benefits. Apart from freeing up time, certain necessary skills – dentistry comes to mind – are better left to experts. But what happens when we move from the procedural to the very personal, and think about our inner lives in the hands of so many specialists that we are, in effect, letting others feel for us?

I am not talking about genuine therapy, which, as Freud made clear, avoids taking over a person’s emotions. The work in analysis, Freud emphasised, was done by the person on the couch, not the dude sitting in the chair; and it demanded real courage.

No, the sub-letting of our personal space is occurring elsewhere. Phoney therapy, which claims to have a universal answer, is one example; slabs of the art world are another. As the writer, Tom Wolfe, showed in his 1975 book ‘The Painted Word’, canvasses are bought according to what is said about them by the savvy, not what the buyer feels. This is not just giving up on personal responses, it is a shift. Taste used to be something to be acquired, not hired. True, few could afford experts in the past, but even among those who could, there was a reverence for discovery. When it came to the big question of how to live, many sided with Florentine philosopher, Pico della Mirandola, who felt it was “ignoble to give birth to nothing from ourselves.” A giant of the past, such as Samuel Johnson – who gave us our first dictionary – would have understood paying someone to tidy up a home, but not an inner life. Johnson was not one for domestic chores but he put a lot of effort into organising the shelves Salvador Dali would centuries later paint falling open inside the chest cavities of human beings.

Dali’s obsession with what lies within has long been the interest of writers, painters and philosophers who have made a difference. Baruch Spinoza, for instance, the 17th century Dutch lens crafter who laid the basis for 18th century Enlightenment, devoted his short (45 year) life to it. He was not, however, trying to in elucidate or even observe, rules of conduct, which may have been why he was excommunicated by his Jewish peers. Like Freud, Spinoza wanted to work out the mystery himself, and felt that others should do the same; what’s more he believed it could be done rationally.

Rationalism in the 17th century, though, meant something different than it does now. It did not, for instance, have anything to do with alibis for exploitation – economic or otherwise; nor did it sanction cutting yourself off from the chaos of the inner world. In fact, pure reason embraced the kind of curiosity clear in the work of the novelist; that is, being able to vividly imagine another life, often one’s own. This is, or should be, a skill of the therapist and as American writer Rebecca Goldstein recounts in her book ‘Betraying Spinoza’, the philosopher of reason was a brilliant psychologist.

Goldstein, author of ‘The Mind-Body Problem,’ recalls how her favourite teacher at school, Mrs Schonfeld, told the girls the story of Spinoza as a “cautionary tale of unbridled human intelligence seeking its own doom” He was a brilliant student, Mrs Schonfeld told them, but instead of using his “superior mind” for something useful, such as increasing knowledge of the holy Torah, he was reviled for rebelling. It was, Mrs Schonfeld insisted, a warning against the danger of “asking the wrong questions.”

Spinoza was a rationalist, but his most important work is called, ‘Ethics’, and deals, as does Aristotle’s work of the same name, with the question that is at the heart of being human: How to live. Ethics then, unlike now, had a lot to do with rationality. Indeed to be unethical was to be irrational. This was not a theological or moral matter. One was not ethical to please God or appear good, but to stay creative and sane. A similar point was made recently by poet and former Czech president, Vaclav Havel, when he noted that we become ill because we say that which we do not believe. As therapists realise, words matter, and it is essential we find the words to fashion our own stories.

This thread from Spinoza has been essential, not just in the Enlightenment, which has been the basis for Western civilization, but in understanding mental health. While the trend now is to see depression as a disease with a biological basis, Spinoza saw it as a failure to ask the right question. For him, mood state disorders were a matter for inquiry, not medication. “An emotion,” he said, comes more under our control, and the mind is less passive in respect to it, in proportion as it is more known to us.” For him desire was the real antidote to depression, not drugs. Freud’s French interpreter, Jacques Lacan, agreed, and drew on Spinoza to argue that the only thing of which one can be guilty (in therapy) is taking a backward step from desire.

Artists and writers have taken a similar view, suggesting that a possible response to the question: How to Live lies in pondering the equally elusive: What do you want? This is an insight of Freud, and the basis on which most effective therapy functions. Patients will seldom, if ever, be able to say why they are in analysis at the outset, just as readers hardly ever really know why they are drawn to a particular book. Could this be because desire is not just unconscious, but something of which we are wary? Why: Because, unlike appetite, it holds our secrets, not just from others, but from ourselves. Wrestling with desire is, therefore, playing with the lock to our lives.