Today everything has become a spectacle, including writing. My title probably caught your eye, as it was intended. But now I would like to tell you a personal story about a man whose brilliant work foreshadowed and dissected the issues of my title before it existed. In this he was prophetic, and it is why his work is so important. He always insisted that true artists were able to uncover society’s conflicts before they emerged consciously. Though a psychologist by profession, he was in this sense an artist as well.
His name, Rollo May, has disappeared from public discourse in this era of biological psychology and psychiatry. This great American thinker and writer was the man who introduced existential psychology to the United States. And though he died twenty-one years ago, his prescient voice begs to be heard in our current conditions.
From his first important book in 1950—The Meaning of Anxiety—he examined key underlying issues that have plagued this country ever since: the worship of technology as a death cult; the loss of a genuine sense of self; sex obsessions leading to lovelessness and impotence; and violence yoked to a lack of compassion.
In book after book, he reiterated one of his central themes: that full passionate life is only possible when one refuses to block off from consciousness the frightful emotions of anxiety, guilt, and despair. In this, his life’s work ran against the grain of the emerging zeitgeist of happy pills, mood stabilizers, and the happiness industry. “After despair,” he wrote, “the one thing left is possibility.” For possibility (Latin, posse, to be able) means power, and true power only comes to those who dare to be weak and freely embrace their personal destinies and the truth of their political and cultural conditions. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that we are presently living in an era of despair, and to embrace that reality is a hard but necessary pill to swallow. May is a wonderful guide.
While topical, in many ways his message is timeless as well. But I would like to tell you about some things I learned from him years ago that speak to our current condition. And it seems fitting that I should begin these thoughts on a day when a prominent, mainstream website has published an article arguing that humans should be able to marry robots and the day of those blissful conjugal ties is in our not too distant future. So I will proceed with those lovely words ringing in my mind: “I now pronounce you robot and wife.”
It was during the closing years of the Cold War when he and I sat down for a long conversation about his thought. Cold War rhetoric and nuclear saber rattling dominated the news and a strong anti-nuclear movement was astir. I had been deeply impressed with May’s paradoxical thinking ever since I had read his award-winning Love and Will in 1969, a year in which I had been forced out of a college teaching position for “heretical” thinking and opposition to the Vietnam war. In his work, which was not openly political, I nevertheless found a voice of deep wisdom and prophetic power. He seemed to be unearthing hidden springs of the madness sweeping the country, and in so doing also addressing the future, and, of course, me. I was feeling particularly vulnerable, yet paradoxically intensely strong, as I had recently declared myself a conscientious objector from war and the Marine Corps. It was a time like today when death and destruction were in the air, and, as Yeats puts it: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
The first thing I noticed about May the day we met was that he seemed painfully vulnerable, as though he had so opened himself to existence that the slightest breeze could blow him away. Yet when he began talking I sensed a fierceness, as well, as I recalled a favorite quote of his from Beethoven: “I will seize fate by the throat.”
So I asked him, “In reading your works one of the things that strikes me is the vitality you draw from an awareness of death. Most people would call this morbid and depressing, and yet it seems to bring you joy. I wonder how this began for you?”
“Well,” he answered without hesitation but in his ruminative way, “I’ve had some long bouts with killing illnesses. I had tuberculosis for five or six years. I had malaria fever when I was in Greece. And I’ve had several other bouts with death. If most people would call the consciousness of death depressive, I think they are the ones who have the—what I would call—masochistic or neurotic viewpoint. All through human history mortality has been faced directly and out of it, and this especially true for the ancient Greeks, they got the sense of the value of life from the fact that we are mortal. Now our age is afraid of death and we repress it and we think the only wise thing is to think about living, which strikes me as itself very sick. It’s because we’ve wedded ourselves to technology, and technology is really a study of death. You say ‘vitality.’ You can’t speak of technology as having vitality. Vitality is the human beings contribution and he ought to use technology to make his life richer. But we have become identified with it.”
Presto! Back to the present/future! As if on cue, a refutation of May’s dismissal of machines having life walks in my door. I see the mailman deliver our mail, so I get up and fetch it. An invitation has arrived for a public lecture at the college where I teach—a lecture by the futurist Ray Kurzweil, the man of “Singularity” fame, the prognosticator of the day he says is coming when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence and human biology will disappear into the machine. Ray has a plan to never die, so he takes 130 plus supplements a day to keep himself alive until he is able to upload his consciousness onto a hard drive and become one with the machine for a happy immortality as bits of information. Sounds like a great hereafter. And Ray has a backup plan in case the pills don’t do the trick and keep him going until he impregnates the machine; he’ll be fresh frozen at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation where he expects to be defrosted like a frozen burrito in no more than fifty years.
May said to me, “I’m very much against the quantitative views of human life. You could live exceptionally as Pascal did and die in your middle forties. As Kierkegaard did also. The length of life I don’t think is relevant. The idea that we are going to prolong life for two hundred years seems to me to be the most misplaced goal in the whole technological, crazy scheme.”
It looks like Rollo had a point: the worship of technology as a death cult. He could see it then, and today it is carrying us to our doom unless we change course. “More and more,” he wrote, “the question is being asked whether society as a whole is psychotic, and the pause after the question is a sign that the answer could be yes as well as no.” There was, he then felt, a fear of psychosis on a very broad scale, and at the heart of this fear is a loss of faith in the reality of the self, as well as a widespread feeling that one can never be sure anything is real. This sense of unreality has increased exponentially since then, and the issue of self-identity has become a hall of mirrors in our reality-media funhouse. “As in a Kafka novel, everything is waiting for us, but we ourselves do not appear.” But what does appear today, as then, but in a slightly different guise, and grows larger and larger as people’s faith in themselves grows smaller and smaller and their sense of impotence increases, is the possibility of nuclear warfare and world destruction—a new cold war started by the United States by encircling Russia and setting Ukraine ablaze. The ultimate technological death cult is, of course, nuclear weapons .
May made the connections. Like the great sociologist C. Wright Mills, he knew that our destinies are personal and social, and to deny one is to deny the other. By being existential he meant understanding the individual, not as an atomized self, but as a person-in-the world. Mills called it the sociological imagination; May preferred the term paradoxical. But they were on the same page. One’s sense of self—self-identity—is rooted social and historical conditions.
Starting with Man’s Search for Himself in the 1950s and continuing until his death in 1994, May repeatedly explored the reasons why there was an increasing loss of a genuine sense of self resulting in widespread identity confusion and a growing apathy linked to a lack of compassion. He clearly described the anxiety and loneliness that ate at so many people who “not only do not know what they want; they often do not have any clear idea of what they feel.” Feeling only empty and bored and lacking a real sense of self, they conform to hollow cultural values and mores while consuming the goods and services that a consumer culture offers to fill them up. Consuming, they are consumed. This powerless dependency, rooted in a lack of self-identity and the need to be liked, leads to painful anxiety, despair, and powerlessness resulting in acquiescence to social ills. This is today’s selfie/media culture in a nutshell, what Christopher Lasch once called the culture of narcissism.
I obviously couldn’t ask him when we talked, but I can imagine his response to today’s trends of people marrying robots, selfie photos, Facebook, avatars and second lives in cyberspace, the growth of pornography, sex with machines, the sexual saturation of culture, electronic warfare, drone killings, etc.—a bemused laugh and a comment suggesting the tragedy of it all. In Love and Will he wrote that “the contemporary paradoxes in sex and love have one thing in common, namely the banalization of sex and love. By anesthetizing feeling in order to perform better, by employing sex as a tool to prove prowess and identity, by using sensuality to hide sensitivity, we have emasculated sex and left it vapid and empty. The banalization of sex is well-aided and abetted by our mass communication. . . . They oversimplify love and sex, treating the topic like a combination and learning to play tennis and buying life insurance. In this process, we have robbed sex of its power by sidestepping eros (the creative life force); and we have ended by dehumanizing both.” He predicted that this technical approach to sex would lead to sex obsessions, lovelessness, and increased sexual impotence. And here we are—Viagra, big butts, enhanced this and enhanced that—all in the service of sexual satisfaction produced by the cult of technique and devoid of passion.
“Shooting” yourself with a phone camera, sex with a robot or a machine, and killing with drones—this is life today. We have become separated from our humanity by our machines. We worship our images and in so doing can’t grasp the death and destruction caused by our drones and foreign wars. Others don’t exist in this solipsistic culture. May saw it coming and explained why. He saw that violence was yoked to a lack of compassion and that this lack of compassion (to suffer with others) was connected to our flight from death and emotions we consider negative. He saw this form of thinking as an effort to control life that was self-defeating and could only lead to more violence.
“Paradoxical thinking,” he told me, “seems to me to be the only kind that gets to the root of human existence. I don’t think analytical thinking does. It leaves out too much. You remember Heraclitus. I think he’s quite right that we always think in terms of positive/negative. We think like electricity, thus both the negative and positive pole and the oscillation back and forth, and human thinking is a play with opposites.”
Since he has written so much about the breakdown of our traditional myths and symbols, I asked him if there was any one word or symbol that he thought encompassed the body of his work.
After a long pause, he said, “No, I think that’s impossible for any person who writes to say. I think you could say it much better than I could because we’re so much in it. All I know is that I think paradoxically.” And without pause or any word from me, he continued. “Well, if you wanted to push me, I would say that what I think is the basic, well, the basic symbol of my life, I would say that it is compassion. That’s what matters most to me. I grew up in a rather difficult family, quite difficult. I did not have a good childhood. I was quite lonely as a child. And I did suffer a good deal.”
Out of this childhood pain, he learned early to be a therapist for his family, and felt that these experiences gave him an acute sensitivity to others’ feelings. In his memoir Paulus, about his friend, Paul Tillich, the great Protestant theologian, he wrote words that could equally apply to himself: “Someone has to mediate, to make a connection through his own life between opposites.” For out of his wounds, May has created a powerful body of writings, and out of a torn self, a paradox of wholeness.
For us today, in the era of apathy, depression, and indifference to the suffering and deaths of “others” everywhere, May’s work begs to be resurrected. He urges us to care again, and to let our care and compassion lead us to act to stop the violence that we are taught to ignore. Don’t look away, I can hear him say, face fully all dimensions of the human experience, the negative and positive; remember that despair and joy are linked to the possibility of freedom; reject the cult of death that hides within technological obsessiveness; and remember that love brings the intimation of our mortality but also our greatest joys and passions.
And if he were still sitting across from me—and you—today, he’d probably also say with a grin, “Above all, don’t marry a robot.”
Edward Curtin is a sociologist and writer who teaches at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and has published widely.