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Book ReviewsFull Access

Descent Into Darkness, the Psychodynamics of Mental Illness

Richard D. Chessick: Descent Into Darkness, the Psychodynamics of Mental Illness, XLIBRIS, Bloomington, IN, 2011, 261 pp. $9.99 (in e-Pub format), ISBN: 978-1-45353-049-8

Descent Into Darkness, the Psychodynamics of Mental Illness, is a Greek Tragedy in a contemporary setting. The trip to Turkey by Martin, a bereaved psychoanalyst suffering the loss of his wife and the unrequited love of J, a former patient, is a metaphor for the tragedy of his life as well as the decay of Western Civilization—a journey into the Abyss of Nietzsche.

This is a didactic novel, the purpose of which is to teach psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy, utilizing relationships common to human everyday experience, to interested persons. Thus, this book represents a new contribution in psychoanalysis. The author presents discussions among proponents of differing theoretical orientation using the “voices” of the participants in his travel group. The richness of the material is supplemented by substantially cogent discussions of philosophy, such as Spinoza’s perspective of psychodynamic issues as discussed in his work Ethics. This is the underlying idea of Descent Into Darkness, the human lack of power in moderating and checking the emotions. The material is representative of how human beings function as a reflection of unconscious intrapsychicphenomena. This is accomplished both didactically and illustratively in the context of the behavior of the individual group members. The issues are of universal human significance with regard to a humanistic perspective as well as the very survival of civilization. The various philosophical viewpoints are conveyed through discussion and the dramatic interaction of the protagonists.

Martin, the tragic hero of this novel, leads a group consisting of mostly psychoanalysts on a tour of Turkey. He obtains a travel grant and muses “… as middle age waned and old age loomed up, that we are not to be distinguished from animals by any capacity for rational insight into nature” (p. 17). We differ from animals only in degree and not in kind.

The idea of an intellectual tour of Turkey arose because it cradles the remains of civilizations from the very beginning of human history that we have information about, to the present time. This might lend itself to a comparison of the development of the psychic apparatus and its archaic origins. Martin wished to discuss the various stages of civilization and by introducing archaeology to demonstrate Freud’s concept of the unconscious as a buried city. In Turkey a number of civilizations from the most archaic to the most modern are mixed together and must live together with compromises, thus an illustration of Freud’s conception.

Arnold Modell, in his book Object Love and Reality (1968), discusses the analogy between the historical development of society’s gradual acceptance of an inanimate, unmoved world, and the developmental process in the individual that permits the acceptance of “reality.” In Totem and Taboo (1918), Freud showed magical thinking to be common to both the inner world of modern man and the social institutions of prehistoric man. Magical thinking serves analogous functions in neurotic symptoms and primitive social institutions. Magical thinking is a basic model of the ego’s relationship to the human and inanimate environment and the earliest period of man’s intellectual history is referred to as the period of animism or “preanimism,” as primitive man does not distinguish between the animate and the inanimate. The desired goal is to attempt a reconstruction of the early stages of our society and the evolution of our psyche. Dr. Chessick, through Martin, wanted to demonstrate how the remains of one civilization are piled upon another and whatever is experienced in the present is pervaded throughout by the past, how completely the past pervades the present, and how the remains of the past can be found in every aspect of the present. He writes: “In no other country in my international travels had I seen such a sharp and ferocious cultural pull between the influence of the past and the influence of the modern world, and I hoped to use this to demonstrate to the group how in the individual human being there is also this constant struggle” (p. 17) influencing every person’s perception and response to their current situation. It follows that “… it is impossible to understand the present without a thorough knowledge of a person’s childhood and those fantasies which were formed in childhood as a combination of actual experiences and the child’s imagined perception and response to them” (p. 17). This, of course, includes “archaic transferences” in the course of psychoanalysis, and the crucial significance of infantile and childhood experiences and the dynamic unconscious. The author uses a method of keeping conflicting psychoanalytic models in his mind (the five channels or models approach), a method that requires considerable tolerance, maturity and flexibility by the therapist in not being a rigid adherent to a particular theoretical orientation. This also becomes apparent as the various characters in the book present their individual viewpoints and theoretical stance. The text is woven with rich philosophical material, thus allowing the reader an opportunity to apply these ideas in combination with psychoanalytic conceptualizations to the characters in this novel and to the dramatic events of this unfolding story. Multiple layers and approaches to this narrative are open to individual interpretation and discussion. Beyond these intellectual insights, however, there are examples of pure human goodness, resonating with a deep sense of love (as in Plato’s formulation) for others, i.e., the bus driver in Turkey kissing Martin’s hand in gratitude after receiving a large tip. “From the heart of a simple bus driver in Turkey I briefly experienced pure human goodness and genuine feeling: the memory of it stays with me, oddly almost haunts me, to this day.”

I highly recommend this book, especially for students and skeptics of psychoanalysis. It opens a new dimension of thinking and is thus an original work.

This novel is open to personal interpretation. Mine may be “wrong” for some other readers, but ”right” for me. In considering the totality of the material, I conclude that this book is a metaphor for the decay of Western civilization.

Portland, OR