A Cure Through Love

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Sigmund Freud

A cure through love. Our title this month is borrowed from a phrase that Freud used in a letter to Jung written in 1906. And in the context of that letter Freud writes, “Psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love,  and that’s quoted in a book Freud and Man’s Soul by Bruno Bettelheim. But what should we understand this to mean? What does Freud mean by this distinctly un-Freudian statement?

My starting point for this relates to the word ‘cure’. One that Freud, like Jung, like Assagioli, like many other pioneers of the early years of the psychological approach, all being men of medicine, we would often deploy this word cure. Elsewhere in his writings, Freud famously describes his method as ‘the talking cure’, and actually credits his patient Anna O with coining that phrase. He states in a 1909 lecture that he gave in Clark University in Massachusetts, I quote, “the patient herself, who, strange to say, could at this time only speak and understand English, christened this novel kind of treatment ‘the talking cure’ or as she used to refer to it jokingly, ‘chimney-sweeping’”.

What is a cure?

So, what is a cure? And what does the word itself convey to us of its own meaning? In English ‘cure’ is attested in the 1300s – that’s a period of a lot of linguistic innovation and change, and borrowing, most singularly expressed in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, the father of English letters, and writer of The Canterbury Tales and so forth. The word ‘cure’ in that period meant ‘to heed’ or ‘care’, and this derives directly along the Norman-French evolution of Latin, all the way back to the word ‘cura’. And that word also meant ‘care’ in a very literal sense, but took on a host of other associated meanings and uses, such as ‘trouble’ or concern’. And over time, the meaning sort of extends away from that, from the sublime – as in curate, the word that’s used for priest, or curator, as we might say today, to mean one ‘caring for the soul’. All the way from the sublime to the bawdy – so it could also mean ‘mistress’, the one who meets the cares of my desires, my body. So in the midst of this, the most concrete meanings, ‘cura’ and ‘cure’ came to be associated with medical treatment, so cures and curatives. And along with that, the business of preserving food, curing of meat and fish usually through salting or the drying process.

Cure, the word, was also originally deployed to describe the one being treated, the patient, we might say today, but over time, it also came to apply to the disease or the ailment in question. And cure, as I’m suggesting here, is a very freighted word, a complex and multidimensional notion, neither simple nor straightforward, much more Freud-friendly and available to the psychoanalytic process.

Now, in the Roman republican period, the poet Virgil (who was born around about 70 BC) uses this phrase, the “vengeful Cares” (ultrices Curae). He personifies them and places them at the entrance to the underworld in one of his poems. So there’s another sense emerging; vengeful cares. And in contrast, a little later, the philosopher Seneca (stoic philosopher who was born around about four BC) characterises care not as this negative burdensome force that calls humanity down to the underworld, but rather as the power that lifts them up. And so in his psycho-topography (sort of typography of the soul and the mythic unconscious), he locates care as the buoyancy drive, you might say, that lifts the human form onto a level with divinity itself. And this is because to Seneca, both humans and divinity have the power of reasoning to achieve the good. So in divinity, the good is perfected by virtue of its own nature, just is good. But in humans, and here’s a quote from Seneca, “the good is perfected by care (by cura)”. So in the stoic view, care is the key to the process of becoming truly human.

The Myth of Cura

So keep that thought in mind as we delve a bit further and deeper into this notion. And there’s more too, of course. So Cura or more particularly, Aera Cura was a Roman goddess, little remembered today, but involved in the rather significant primary act of creation, again a very Freudian origin-dynamic. And in this case, it was Cura, according to mythology, who created the very first human being.

Saturn, from the Capitoline Museum, Rome

So the story involved a river crossing and some mud or clay, and Cura’s kind of engrossed play, moulding the form into a being. Then the scene is intruded upon by Jupiter, foremost of the gods, and Cura asks the Jovian one to give breath to her freshly made thing. He freely does, investing it with spiritus, the animating force, life, whereupon a dispute immediately breaks out over what this new being should be called. So Cura wants to name it after herself ‘Care’, but Jupiter insists that it should carry his name. And as this squabble grows louder, a third claimant on the naming arises and this time it’s made by Tellus or the Earth, the deity of the Earth, the goddess of the earth. And she argues that since this new being is made of earth, is made of matter (clay, mud), it should actually be named for her.

And as in all good dispute resolution among immortals, what is required is wise judgement, and who better to bring that than Saturn? So the final verdict uttered by Saturn eventually goes that the spirit shall return to Jupiter at the creature’s death, the clay of the body should return to Tellus, the earth goddess who gave it, and the creature should belong for the duration of its life to Cura. And its name, the nameless creature should be known by ‘homo’, from ‘humus’, the stuff of the Earth, the rotted Earth, the matrix out of which things arise, the black mud of the occult, as Freud will characterise it somewhere else in his writings. The black mud of the tide of the occult, this kind of Nile flooded mud, prima materia if we want to be alchemical about it.

Martin Heidegger

The upshot here is that whilst the creature is alive, it belongs to Cura – it is guided by Care. And so we can see from this, as famously Martin Heidegger, the philosopher, saw in the same tale, a representation of the human condition. We’re animated by Divine breath, our bodies are formed from the base materials of the earth and form, and whilst we live, we are entirely wrapped in care. We belong to Cura. So care then, is a condition of ‘dasein’, to use Heidegger’s word. ‘Dasein’ is a German word that he coined, meaning thrown into being. So it’s expressive; care is expressive of our very ‘being-in-the-world’. The double sense of cura refers to care for something as concern, absorption in the world, but also care in the sense of devotion.” as Heidegger says.

Care and Consciousness

So there’s a lot going on here already, but let’s add another layer, another nuance. And this time our source will be the existentialist philosopher Rollo May (American philosopher), writing in 1969 and clearly thinking deeply of Heidegger and of Freud, and of the human condition. And he says, and again I quote:

Care makes possible the exercise of will and love; and it is also the source of conscience: “Conscience is the call of Care”.

May, Love and Will, 1969, p. 290, quoting Heidegger

So that’s from Rollo May’s book, Love and Will. And again, he’s a riff on what we just heard from Heidegger, but Rollo May goes on: 

Care is a state composed of the recognition of a fellow human being, of the identification of one’s self with the pain or joy of the other . . . and of “the awareness that we all stand on the base of a common humanity from which we all stem.” Care of self psychologically precedes care of the other, for care gains its power from the sense of pain; but pain begins with one’s own experience of it. “If we do not care for ourselves, we are hurt, burned, injured.” And this is the source of identification with the pain of the other.

May, Love and Will, 1969, p. 289
Rollo May

What in many Buddhist traditions would be identified as the compassionate position, that the means by which we dissolve the separate self, that the apparent illusion of being a skin encapsulated ego different from and separate from everyone else. Also implicated in the very notion of burnout because the method or the mechanism by which burnout occurs, is usually said to be empathy. In other words, if one is not empathic, you don’t burn out because you don’t care. Literally, you don’t care. Care doesn’t enter into the equation. But in Rollo May’s stating of it, care is the very process by which we come to experience our own pain and then empathise with that, as it is experienced by others.

So Rollo May also invokes another radical/heretical philosopher, this time the 17th century, sort of right on the cusp of the Enlightenment period, Jewish Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. And he relates his notion of care to the destruction of freedom in the name of necessity. So I am of course condensing Spinoza’s complexity into a couple of sentences here. So this is a very broad brush. But Spinoza’s formulation asserts that freedom derives from the necessity of one’s own nature and causal power. So only that which exists and acts from the necessity of its own nature alone is free. And Rollo May uses that notion of necessity in a developmental frame – the child of necessity loses, what Freud would have called the merged state, the bliss of union, and in so doing, mobilises a new will to be and that being is necessarily adult. So the will to freedom extends out of the relationship of self to other. It’s a separation from usually mother and other into adult self, simply put. 

So this same dynamic, the relationship of freedom to necessity, care, empathy, and so forth, the same dynamic will go on to preoccupy yet another heretical philosopher, a century or so later, and I’m talking here about Friedrich Nietzsche. His reworking of Spinoza’s point will fundamentally locate that will to freedom in the individual, rather than in the relationship between the individual and the other. So this gives rise to Nietzsche’s ‘Overman’, or ‘Superman’ as it’s sometimes called or translated, and everything that ensues from that. We won’t get into that here. That’s a topic all of its own. But just to note that Nietzsche too finds this point to be vital, central, fascinating and necessary.

Assagioli’s Unpublished Opinions

Roberto Assagioli

So across this polarising between say Nietzsche and Spinoza, between seeing care and freedom as emerging from the relationship with the other or fundamentally the relationship with the self, there’s another perspective possible. This one comes from a source we’re much more familiar with in these blogs, namely Roberto Assagioli, founder of Psychosynthesis, pupil of Freud. And any time spent reading Assagioli’s notes and papers, and all of his marginal notes and scribbles in the corners of books in his library, all of the papers in his archive immediately show a very clear interest in tracking the development of philosophical and psychological thought in general, particularly in a Western sense, and the apprehension of love and will in particular. So if one was to go and search the archives, either in person in Florence or the online digitised material which is available now, you will find copious entries relating to the work of Freud, and a great many more relating to Nietzsche.

But Rollo May also attracts his fair share of comment and attention from Assagioli, and it ranges from almost paternal, because of course, Assagioli was old enough to have been May’s father. So I quote an Assagiolini (a little kind of post it note scribbled to himself) where essentially says: 

Will and Love. “Man’s task is to unite love and will. They are not united by automatic biological growth, but must be part of our conscious development”.

Rollo May, Love and Will. See “Psychology Today”, Aug. 1969, p. 57

So that’s one end, the paternal, and we also see Assagioli display another side of himself in thinking about these things. So he sometimes comes across as piqued or frustrated or energised towards criticism. And an example of that would be, again another Assagiolini, actually responding to the same article in Psychology Today, August 1969, but in a different reference. The first page reference was 57, and this one is 14 to 16. And his note to himself is:

Rollo May is obsessed by the daimonic! An overemphasis
Lack of distinction
Dangerous

See “Psychology Today” Aug 1969 pp 14-16

So you can see and you can hear in the way I’m reading that that there’s an animation going on. Assagioli’s objections mainly relate to what he sees as an imprecise conflation of terms and a sort of premature conclusion in May’s work. And he argues that one must always disaggregate intention from action. So he’s not dismissive of the category of anxiety in May’s work. Again, a quote from an Assagiolini, he says, The man who is or who feels potent is not anxious!” Rollo May in another work, writes a great deal about anxiety and this clearly frustrates Assagioli who particularly insists on the will being seen in stages. So according to Assagioli, Rollo May’s work applies mainly to the good will, and not at all to the selfish will, and nor has it much to offer the fully realised ‘will of the Self’, in which all the polarities are reabsorbed and recontextualized.

So, it’s really very interesting to catch Assagioli in yang mode, as I would think of it, scribbling notes to himself, being indignant at a mistaken view or missed opportunity. It brings out his scholarly side once again. It’s a glimpse of the polymath, the young man that he’d so brilliantly been in his early life and in contrast to the rather dull and reified all-too-familiar image of St. Roberto, the gentle wise old sage. So I think that’s really useful. And Rollo May’s work and perhaps character ignites a passionate reaction in Assagioli and that is interesting in itself. It’s as though the work is worth his response and his refinement even, and the quality of mind that it gives rise to has an energy and a preciseness of articulation that is sometimes conspicuous by its absence. In Assagioli’s other writing, I think he should have gotten pissed off more often, gotten more angry more often in his writing in that energising and laser focus.

The ‘Right Relationship’

So at one point considering the place of the body in Rollo May’s conception of care and freedom, Assagioli writes on another one of these Assagiolini post it notes simply, “No!” and underlines it in red, and then proceeds to return to his own original name for his own method. And that was Biopsychosynthesis, with the key notion of disidentification from the limitation of attachment to the physical form. So the formulation is, “I have a body. I am not my body.” or “I have a body. I am more than my body”. So, in place of what Rollo May is offering, Assagioli offers a key phrase, what he calls a ‘right relationship’ to the body, right relationship between the parts within the body and the body to emotional field, the mental body and so forth. And the implication of this is what equals in Italian, equilibrio, usually translated into English as balance or could be equilibrium. And basically what that gets at is the creative tension of opposing polarities mediated through a higher perspective or a greater awareness. So imagine a triangle with the polarities at the bottom two corners, and rather than the midpoint of those polarities, there’s a higher point which is the point of the triangle upwards. And that’s the mediating higher perspective or the greater awareness that allows right relationship. So being seen from a more complete place. 

It is at this point, as Assagioli late in life (remember Assagioli died in 1974 and a lot of this has been written in 1969, 1970 and 1971), reading the popular and best selling-Rollo May, who is clearly something of a star at this point, with whom he is becoming associated by the world at large. So there’s an image in this piece if you look at the text of the blog that I’ve reproduced, an image of a letter that essentially was sent from the Esalen Institute in California relating the news of a review by the philosopher and academic and scholar of religion, Huston Smith, who we met in last month’s blog. Huston Smith had reviewed Assagioli’s book The Act of Will, and in his review, he likens it to and compares it to Rollo May’s Love and Will, and another book by someone called Leslie Farber called Ways of the Will. And he points out that:

“The ‘psychedelic sixties’ having shown us that experience alone is not enough, we may be ready in these seventies to listen as Farber, Rollo May, and now Roberto Assagioli in The Act of Will direct us tot he center of our selfhood and instruct us in sewing the karma that creates the noble or ignoble men we are, the worlds we live in and the very fates, our bright or muddy star.”

Esalen Institute in California

So that’s what is sent to Assagioli in May of 1973. So just over a year before his death, he’s receiving those kind of likeliness. And you could imagine him being both delighted in a sense that people are paying attention to his book and that it’s been well received, that it’s being read by the right people, you might say thought leaders or influencers as we call them today, but you could also imagine a little pique of irritation that he’s being likened to in particular Rollo May, who he’s having his own private arguments within the privacy of his own notes and library. So that’s an interesting little aside.

The Spiritual Side of Care

Anyway, Assagioli insists that the necessity of what he calls the esoteric dimensions – this is a little paradoxical because as he’s writing this necessity of the esoteric dimension on a post it note to himself, he is of course, enforcing his slightly infamous wall of silence. So he’s not speaking by very clear intention about that dimension in a public setting. He’s keeping that unplugged from Psychosynthesis as its represented in the world, which is interesting. I oscillate between viewing that as something like an act of self sabotage or self harm at the level of the method, or a very reasonable and understandable thing to do in a world that could just dive off into the sort of hippie-dippie end of things and lose the point of what’s being said.

But however we might understand it, that was Assagioli’s choice, and that’s what he stood by. But the correct understanding of care he’s suggesting requires the necessity of the esoteric dimension. And then he’s making that dimension more remote for people. It’s not being spoon-fed to them, it’s not being presented to them in plain sight. So, the correct understanding of care requires an esoteric dimension, and therefore, of will, of necessity, and ultimately of love, which brings us all the way back to our title, a cure through love.

So through that Old English, Germanic word, describing ‘from one end to another’ or ‘from the beginning to the end’, itself emerges from much older roots, one of these Proto-Indo-European sort of deep roots of many European languages, and that root is said to be -tere, a kind of stem root. And that, it is presumed, would have meant ‘to pass over’ or ‘to overcome’. And later, it would develop the sense of ‘I’m through’ as in unfinished, I’m done with this, this is done.

So, how might we rephrase Freud’s sentence, “a cure through love”? What might Freud have meant in that deceptively straightforward sentence. Ours is a cure or care from the beginning to the end, overcoming or passing over by means of love, and requiring freedom in order to do so, whilst recognising the necessity of what is and what must be, perhaps.

Because words are our cure…

So I’ve not attempted a discussion of love here. That’s deserving of a blog all of its own, as you might well imagine. But let’s wrap this blog up with a concluding thought on freedom. One that I personally think Assagioli would recognise and largely assent to. And just because we can, and because words are our cure, let’s also finish with a couple of poems too. So first of all, quotes on freedom from a book called The Alchemy of Freedom by A.H. Almaas, again we’ve met before in these pages. The quote goes like this:

“We see that freedom is the never-ending unfoldment of reality to reveal true nature in all its possible faces, in all its manifestations. This means that the life of realization is a life of discovery, a never-ending growth and unfoldment and evolution. And evolution is not simply the evolution of the mind or the evolution of the heart; it is the evolution of enlightenment, the development of realization. But evolution and development are not actually adequate notions at this juncture, because they imply that each further revelation is an advance on the one that preceded it. It is more that enlightenment and realization cannot help but unfold in ways that demonstrate their further implications and illuminations. And reality unfolds in this way without any value judgment about what particular face it might be manifesting in the moment. This is the kind of freedom that is made possible by essential activation: Our being, or reality in our location, is activated to the extent that its unfoldment is unstoppable.”

The Alchemy of Freedom, pg.33, A.H. Almaas

So that’s A.H. Almaas, and let’s end with these two poems. So, first, a poem by one of my favourite poets, R.S. Thomas. This is a very short poem, and of course, it’s called The Cure. And you’ll recognise many of the themes we’ve been exploring together in this very short verse. So this is The Cure by R.S. Thomas:

But what to do? Doctors in verse
Being scarce now, most poets
Are their own patients, compelled to treat
Themselves first; their complaint being
Peculiar always. Consider, you,
Whose rough hands manipulate
The fine bones of a sick culture,
What area of that infirm body
Depend solely on a poet’s cure. 

The Cure by R.S. Thomas

And finally to finish a poem from a poet very local to me, here in Newport in South Wales, often known by one of his aliases as ‘Supertramp’. He was a hobo, travelled in the States and lost a leg on the railway tracks. W.H. Davies, William Henry Davies born and bred near the docks here in Newport, and famously returned and lived out the rest of his days here. But in the Depression era, he travelled a lot and lived in the States and as I say, lived the life of a hobo or a kind of travelling poet writer. He was very successful actually in his publications – sold a lot of copies of a number of books and was very well known in literary circles, although forever being an outsider to them. So this is his most famous poem, which you’ll probably recognise at least one of the couplets from, a poem called Leisure. So this is Leisure by W.H. Davies:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Leisure by W.H. Davies

So until next month and our next blog, go well. Please continue to check out my website, look out for newsletters with updates of forthcoming courses, activities and other things that might be forthcoming soon. And I look forward to seeing you all again next month. Thanks very much for your attention. Bye bye.

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