Pope John Paul II’s reaction to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is well known. Immediately after seeing it, he murmured, “It is as it was!”—a statement that was then quickly withdrawn by Vatican officials. A glimpse into the Pope’s spontaneous reaction was thus replaced by the “official,” neutral stance, corrected so as not to hurt anyone. This withdrawal, and its nod toward liberal sensibility, betrayed what was best in the late pope, his intractable ethical stance.
Today, in our era of over-sensitivity regarding “harassment” by the Other, it’s increasingly common to hear complaints about “ethical violence,” those ethical injunctions that “terrorize” us with their brutal impositions. In its place, these critics would prefer to see an “ethics without violence,” a sort of permanent (re)negotiation of ethical norms. It is here where the highest cultural critique unexpectedly meets the lowest pop psychology.
The example par excellence is John Gray, author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, who, in a series of “Oprah” shows, brought this stance to its extreme logical terminus. Since we ultimately “are” the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, Gray argues, the solution to our psychic deadlock resides in creatively “rewriting” the narratives of our past with a positive twist. What Gray has in mind is not only standard cognitive therapy—that is, changing negative “false beliefs” about oneself into a more positive attitude of the assurance that one is loved by others and capable of creative achievements. He advocates a more “radical,” pseudo-Freudian notion of regressing back to the scene of the primordial traumatic wound.
Gray accepts the psychoanalytic notion of an early childhood trauma that forever marks its subject’s further development, giving that development a pathological spin. He proposes that, after regressing to this primal traumatic scene and directly confronting it, the subject should, under the guidance of a therapist, “rewrite” that experience in a more “positive,” benign and productive narrative. For example, if the traumatic scene that persists in your unconscious, deforming and inhibiting your creative attitude, is that of your father shouting at you, “You are worthless! I hate you! Nothing good will ever come out of you!,” one should simply rewrite it into a scenario where a smiling, benevolent father encouragingly tells you, “You’re OK! I trust you fully!” To play this game to its end, in Freud’s famous case of “Wolfman”—whose primal, traumatic scene was witnessing his parents’ coitus a tergo—Gray’s ostensible solution would be for Wolfman to rewrite the scene, so that what he effectively saw was merely his parents lying in bed, his father reading a newspaper and mother a sentimental novel.
The problem is that such a satirical exaggeration is actually taking place.
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on April 8th, 2005. (full text).]