Orlando and Orpheus: Meditations on diversity

The author meditates on the contradictions that attend epistemological hegemony and the limitations of the overly zealous, monolithic and doctrinaire

By Edward Mendelowitz, PhD

Contemplation and activity have their apparent truth; but only the activity radiated by contemplation, or rather, that which returns to it again, is truth.

Franz Kafka, "The Blue Octavo Notebooks"

Emptiness, or life at the limits

Ed MendelowitzIn "The Principles of Psychology," William James makes a startling statement: “It is, in short, the re-instatement of the vague to its proper place in our mental life which I am so anxious to press on the attention.” Given a professional climate of increasing emphasis on methodological “expertise” and the avowedly empirical, we may wonder why a man of surpassing intelligence, writing at the dawn of our discipline’s inception, makes so emphatic a point in the midst of what is, itself, a prodigious scientific study. The subject/object split of technique, too narrowly defined, leads to what James calls “the psychologist’s fallacy” — a sort of “vicious intellectualization” compromising the ‘’richness” and “intensity” of life.

We have chased the solid substance from the continuous liquid to the atom, from the atom to the electron, and there we have lost it . . . Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.

A.S.  Eddington, "The Nature of the Physical World"

We do not need to go to the atoms and stars to be baffled. The most ordinary events are beyond us . . . Who dare claim to have fathomed the mysteries of ‘the generation and affinity of events’? We may sense that all dramas are part of one drama. But why, and how, this is so, or, if it is not, why and how the illusion arises that it is, are questions we can ask but cannot answer. It is beyond the furthest stretch of our imagination to conceive conceivable answers.

R. D. Laing, "The Voice of Experience"

We are meditating here on the contradictions that attend epistemological hegemony and the limitations of the overly zealous, monolithic and doctrinaire — what the literary critic Walter Benjamin once referred to as “the limits of understanding.”

The numinous moment in Orlando occurred early on Friday morning and shortly before the main event when Eugene Taylor waxed eloquently to a small gathering of congregants on the matter of Western versus Eastern conceptions of Self (“beyond the gaseous, moribund, contradictory and deflated definitions of Self at work today”) and Buddhist notions of No-Self (anatta). It was a lecture, ultimately, on “emptiness” and the place of stillness, conceptions and states of mind about which too many self-satisfied psychologists have virtually no idea. “Buddhist emptiness interpreted from the standpoint of the phenomenology of religions,” teaches Taylor, “refers to the emptying out of consciousness, not its filling up with further rational explanations for what reality is. It is not a symbol that means something else; it is a means of release from attachment to all symbols.”

I wonder at times about the samsara (the world of suffering, rebirth and repetition compulsion) that attends the often voluble perpetuation of faulty notions concerning who and what we truly are and the insistent, even frantic, striving for recognition and acclaim. Taylor’s talk was a rare moment of wisdom teaching (echoed, in part, in the symposium of personal reflections on Heidegger hosted by division elders Belinda Khong, Scott Churchill and Eric Craig) in the midst of the busyness and stridency of the overall conference. Humility, and the silence that attends it, has, inexorably, its place.

“Do you mean that Truth is always closed to us?”

Kafka was silent. His eyes had become quite small and dark . . . For a few moments he contemplated the tips of his fingers as they lay on the desk. Then he said gently: “God, Life, Truth—they are only different names which we give to one fact.”

I pressed him further: “But can we grasp it?”

“We experience it,” said Kafka, in a slightly troubled voice. “The fact, to which we give different names, and which we try to apprehend by various processes of thought, pervades our veins, our nerves, our senses. It is within us. For that reason perhaps it’s invisible. What we can really grasp is the mystery, the darkness. God dwells in it. And this is a good thing, because without protecting the darkness, we should try to overcome even God. That is man’s nature.”

Gustav Janouch, "Conversations with Kafka"

We are meditating on the boundaries of knowledge of both self and the world—hallowed embrace of James’s “great blooming, buzzing confusion.” “Profusion, not economy,” muses the founding father of the Gnostic thread in our discipline, “may after all be reality’s key-note.” Proper homage before mystery and the integration of manifold elements. “Not system,” Benjamin’s close friend and scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Sholem once mused, “but commentary.”

Diagnostics and the third force
The final selection in Richard Yates’s collection of stories "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness" is entitled “Builders.” It concerns, in a sense, the enterprise of construction. Construction of a life, perhaps, but also a vision or movement and, especially, a work of literature. In the early pages of Yates’s story, a taxi cab driver counsels the narrator and aspiring writer on how it is done, likening the process to the construction of a house:

I mean a house has got to have a roof, but you’re going to be in trouble if you build your roof first, right? Before you build your roof you got to build your walls. Before you build your walls you got to lay your foundation—and I mean all the way down the line. Before you lay your foundation you got to bulldoze and dig yourself the right kind of hole in the ground. Am I right?

Most important of all, the cabbie suggests, are the windows, portals—depending on one’s vantage point—to both self and the world:

“Where are the windows?” he demanded, spreading his hands. “That’s the question. Where does the light come in? Because do you see what I mean about the light coming in? I mean the—the philosophy of your story; the truth of it; the—“

“The illumination of it, sort of,” I said, and he quit groping for his third noun with a profound and happy snap of the fingers.

“That’s it. That’s it, Bob. You’ve got it.”

And where are the windows? Where does the light come in? The philosophy of a thing, the truth of it. In building a movement or initiative of substance and grandeur, Yates’s cabbie is pointing to something important, even profound—inwardly, to the margins of consciousness and, outwardly, toward the beyond.

David Elkins, in his presidential address in Orlando, quoted these lines from the pen of a holocaust survivor:

I beg you
do something
learn a dance step
something to justify your existence
something that gives you the right
to be dressed in your skin in your body hair
learn to walk and to laugh
because it would be too senseless
after all
for so many to have died
while you live
doing nothing with your life.

Charlotte Delbo, "Prayer to the Living, to Forgive Them for Being Alive"

I grew up in a home in which Holocaust stories and literature were ever-present and it is, indeed, moving that our president should have been so moved, in turn, by such words. Delbo had suffered in a way that left her, like some of our most severely wounded clients, with an understanding of things that many of us only glimpse vaguely if, indeed, we see them at all. In an untitled poem, she writes about the place where my great grandparents once died:

Today people know
have known for several years
that this dot on the map
is Auschwitz.
This much they know
as for the rest
they think they know.

It is noteworthy that the poetess urges “a dance step” or two and counsels, like her compatriot Camus, against presumption. She does not condescend into finger-pointing or self-righteousness or separating the world into stick-figure categories of either/or. She seems, rather, insistent in pointing to a spirit of playfulness, imagination, even rhythm, thereby fashioning something that might validate one’s life. “I would only believe in a god,” exhorts Nietzsche, “who could dance.” I have argued for some years for a similar infusion of attributes (the integration of manifold elements) into our own work as humanistic psychologists.

It seems, in the end, wholly appropriate that humanistic psychologists should take on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual currently in the process of revision by the American Psychiatric Association. Standardized nosologies tend to be tendentious and tenaciously overdone. Still, we are hardly pushing boundaries in our present discussions and err ourselves, oftentimes, in the reductive and exclusionary. There is little in the discussion on the DSM5 that is unforeseen or moves us significantly beyond insights and caveats that we have heard numerous times before. Certainly, there is no reason to put faith in profit-centered pharmaceutical companies (mercantile and large-scale versions, really, of our own more local wills to power and notoriety) or the power structures of the other APA. And the politics of diagnosis of the very young and elderly, in particular, are, likewise, an obvious concern. Still, more nuanced dialogues on these intricate themes are slow in arriving and what has been recently learned along the scientific fronts (the place of biology) is largely overlooked. It is not enough to attack the habitual shibboleths of psychiatry/psychopharmacology while championing the purportedly humane ideal of biopsychosocial egalitarianism, a model already quite long in the tooth typified by a long history of controversy and less-than-stellar outcomes and results. The BPS model has, in fact, its inception in the work of Adolph Meyer and Roy Grinker and, more formally, George Engel—influential psychiatrists each and every one. Nassir Ghaemi’s "The Rise and Fall of the Biopsychosocial Model: Reconciling Art & Science in Psychiatry" is an exceptionally intelligent discussion that takes place on significantly higher ground than the essentially populist pieces we ourselves are putting out. Ghaemi, a psychiatrist with a penetrating interest in existential-humanistic psychology, points in his book beyond eclecticism to an embrace of pluralism (what he calls a “method-based” approach) in the manner of Karl Jaspers and William James—each perspective rigorously in its place to be incorporated at the appropriate time. Our discussion, too, can become more variegated and refined, engendering more than head counts in an audience and attaining a level of sophistication befitting an integration of manifold elements that genuinely points beyond.

At the close of Yates’s story, the narrator muses on the literary thing he has built. “Where are the windows?” he ponders; “Where does the light come in?”

. . . I haven’t got the answer to that one. I’m not even sure if there are any windows in this particular house. Maybe the light is just going to have to come in as best it can, through whatever chinks and cracks have been left in the builder’s faulty craftsmanship, and if that’s the case you can be sure that nobody feels worse about it than I do . . . God knows there certainly ought to be a window around here somewhere, for all of us.

Increasingly, the authentically innovative voices at work in our discipline are those most likely to be eclipsed in favor of expediencies and reiterations of what has often already come and gone. Brahms's music gets to infinitely more places than Bruckner's, which is why so many of the faithful passed him by in favor of the stolidly predictable and rote. (Interestingly, Bruckner was associated with an incipient fin de siecle anti-Semitism — Hitler, for example, was a big fan — while Brahms, also Christian, had little truck with those so ill at ease with ethno-religious diversity. "I can scarcely speak of it," he said about the ominously fateful trend; "it seems so despicable to me.") Veteran humanistic psychologists among us may well feel at times like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, waking up each day, as Whitman puts it, "only to be told what [we] knew before." The light, the philosophy, the truth of a thing. James Beshai's poster and accompanying paper on life review, Freud and Ricoeur were impressive in terms of the unusualness and quality of the reverie and the gracefulness of the interactions that transpired. What's it going to be going forward for the house that humanistic psychology has built or is building?

A quiet death

I have found strength where one does not look for it: in simple, mild, and pleasant people, without the least desire to rule—and, conversely, the desire to rule has often appeared to me as a sign of inner weakness: they fear their own slave soul and shroud it in a royal cloak . . . The powerful natures dominate, it is a necessity, they need not lift one finger. Even if, during their lifetime, they bury themselves in a garden house.

Friedrich Nietzsche, "Notebooks"

As the multitudes converged conspicuously upon Orlando, a longtime friend and colleague, Margaret Yonemura, lay silently on her deathbed. Originally from Wales, it was Dr. Yonemura — along with her Japanese-American husband George — who provided an early glimpse of what psychology, at its most humbly sublime, might be. The Yonemuras said precious little yet practiced what they believed but never preached. They were the ones who first turned me on to the magnanimity of John Dewey and Robert Coles (with a passion for “creative expression” and whose work is “unashamedly moral”) and Rollo May. It is difficult for me to think of anyone currently on the scene whose humility and quiet dignity might equal that of Margaret. She haled, like her husband, from other orbits and another time. Yonemura devoted her professional life, like Coles, to serving young children and their families, in particular, the vulnerable and dispossessed. I would urge those who are interested to spend some time with her exemplary qualitative study "A Teacher at Work," written in the late 1990s. In this book, we are thrust, as one reviewer put it at the time, “into the intellectual and ethical heart of classroom life,” entering a space at once “mysterious and maddening, exhilarating and exhausting, idiosyncratic and complex” — a “three-dimensional portrait of a thinking, caring teacher at work.”

Margaret’s death at eighty-three two days following my return from the Florida fanfare was marked in solemn attendance by her husband, daughter, and grandchildren. She wanted no display of remembrance or public acknowledgement. Her passing was marked, rather, in “quiet solitude,” her ashes spread privately in her beloved garden in Binghamton, NY. Margaret knew, like van Gogh, “what a simple thing death is, just as simple as the falling of an autumn leaf.” Even Reb Taylor’s lecture on Buddhist “emptiness” would by this point have been too much. Far removed from the clamoring for attention that appears to be our inescapably modern lot, Margaret quietly embodied the essential spirit of our domain. Could there be a greater expanse than the inexorable divide between being and non-being and the infinite resultant manifestations of arrival and return? Margaret Yonemura was a modest and graceful exemplar of what we all might more nearly be.

Clinical narrative and dream (what was significantly missing in Orlando)

Their story, yours, mine—it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.

William Carlos Williams to Robert Coles

What has been lacking is a concept of encounter.

Rollo May, "The Discovery of Being"

Many of the psychologists currently focusing attention on the DSM-5 referendum would seem, though they tend not to say so explicitly, to downplay the place of biology and diagnosis. There seems an unspoken assumption that labels are necessarily superfluous and ultimately wrong. There are numerous psychiatrists (many of them, admittedly, are not in the States) who are sophisticated students of what Ghaemi calls, aptly, the “biological existentialism” of Karl Jaspers: Heidegger is not  the only German philosopher in town. We do well to recall the story of Jacob who wrestles all night with God’s angel to earn a new appellation and is, himself, maimed in the process: authentic advance does not generally come cheap. There is no inherent reason to conclude that diagnosis is universally pejorative or judgmental. It may, rather, be rendered with keen sensitivity and, like Jacob’s angel, ultimately salutary, even healing, in its effect.

In "Ethics and Lao-Tzu," I have written at length about a young dissociative woman, Kristina, a bona fide multiple personality whose story remains, for some, a hauntingly moving narrative of suffering, endurance, awareness and art. I was the one to first confirm the suspected diagnosis, something that upset Kristina at the time and yet engendered her trust as well. I continue to see her as one the most spiritual, creative, ethical, tragic and decent human beings I have ever known. Also one of the funniest. Rollo May sometimes chided his students for their failure in considering the dreams of their clients. And it would seem generally these days that rich clinical narratives, oneiric or otherwise, are increasingly difficult to find. Kristina’s composite mind, like the book, is replete with dream narrative and imagery. Here, then, in memory of my beloved mentor, is the briefest example of the kind of poignancy and literature I feel strongly we are overlooking yet desperately need:

One day Kristina sends me the following dream:

Sharon dreamed that she died. God allowed her, from heaven, to look into the home of her mother. They had the funeral there. She could see herself lying in the coffin. People were eating food and talking low among themselves. Her mother had a painting of Kristina commissioned. It was as large as her hands outstretched and perfectly square. It hung on the wall. Sharon seemed to be viewing things from inside of the painting. People kept going over to it and straightening it out. Then they would, after staring at it for some time, eventually take a pair of scissors and cut away at the edges, then remount it on the wall and walk away in satisfaction. NOW it was JUST right. Almost everyone who looked at the painting did this. Finally the painting was so small that only an eye appeared on the wall. But eventually someone walked by and exclaimed how odd it was for an eye to be hung on the wall and, as they removed this final piece, Sharon’s vision darkened and she was returned to heaven.

Sharon, a playful and exquisitely sensitive child within Kristina’s mind, circumscribes in her dream what is left of the multifaceted self when we are manipulated grotesquely by external parties and forces. Eventually, one’s very core may be forfeited to the ravenous world. (“Chip, chip, crack,” Fellini once quipped, in reflecting on his refusal to bow to pressure from producers or audience. Do you see the stuff from which genius is comprised?) Take note of the poetry and meter (the stunning economy in Kristina’s recounting of her dream) and its grave profundity as well. Kristina’s dream eloquently evokes the wistful aspect of things as we betray ourselves for the sake of the crowd. Here is the same theme, essentially, rendered in prose:

“Green Aliens in Uncomfortable Human Suits” (Kristina’s reverie and lament):

Then I keep thinking, “Why do we even care. Why do we try so hard to keep these relationships?” It’s not who we are. We’re not like these people, these single entities. It’s like we’re aliens in people suits trying to pass ourselves off as human. And sometimes our green tentacles come popping through and people recoil. And we say, “Oh, sorry. The truth is I’m an alien—please accept me.” Then the shared world says, “Oh, we accept you, but, here, let’s cut off those ugly green tentacles so that we feel more comfortable with you living in our neighborhood.”

The truth is that people can’t accept what they don’t understand. They’ll sometimes go through some measured steps to make it easier to believe that they understand. For instance, “If I don’t see the tentacles, then it will LOOK human. And if it LOOKS human I can more easily demand that it act human. If it acts human than I can accept it as human.”  And all the while the alien knows what it is and knows that the thing which the single entities accept is only a human suit with amputated green tentacles. The single entities do not accept the authentic being underneath. And it seems to me that if the single entities cannot accept the actuality of this alien being, then their caring for it is not genuine care.

So, the alien being has to decide what it will do. It can either continue living in the human suit and nurse its bleeding appendages, or wrongly believe that the acceptance doesn’t stop at the uncomfortable human suit but goes deeper. Or the alien can learn how to dissociate from the need to be accepted and shed its human suit and know it will scare everyone away. The authorities might even drag it to some prison to run tests and to keep it away from the general population, since it’s much easier to lock up an alien being for being misunderstood than to lock up a thousand people for misunderstanding.

And, finally, this dream elliptically transcribed by Kristina’s inner guide, Cara Peale:

Basically the dream was about a robot that looked human and took my place in the world. I don’t remember the plot, just that it took over for me. No one could tell I was gone.

Each of these passages elegantly articulates the imperative of an inner diversity, underscoring, thereby, an overarching theme of this essay.

Toward an embrace of the diversity within

Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves . . . In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.

Fernando Pessoa, "The Book of Disquiet"                                        

To look now out of this window, now out of that, I have guarded against settling down.

Friedrich Nietzsche, "Notebooks"

Pascal: Error comes from exclusion.

Albert Camus, "Notebooks II"

Orpheus, according to legend, was a musician, poet and even prophet in the ancient world. He was said to have possessed the ability to charm all living things, even the stones, with his music. Mythology records his descent into the underworld in an attempt to return his wife, Eurydice, to the upper realms and his death at the hands of those who could not fathom his sound. Orpheus, the “father of songs,” archetype of the inspired singer and portal to mystery. His songs had power over the nether regions, softening the hearts even of the deities of hell. The musical element brings to mind the words of Heraclitus: “They do not understand how that which differs with itself is in agreement: harmony consists of opposing tension, like that of the bow and the lyre.” There may be heartrending beauty in the dissonances of contradictory elements and themes.

Our division’s program theme next year will be epistemological and cultural "diversity."  I am thinking about the split-off aspects (intrapsychic diversity) that remain unattended within. It should not be lost upon us that humanistic psychology is by no means beyond parochialism and prejudice. When Jim Bugental sent his book "The Search for Authenticity" to Rollo May, May responded by suggesting that he change the first word of the subtitle from “The” Existential-Analytic Approach to “An”; May was speaking to diversity, a point conceded and taken to heart by the younger man.

Recently, I had the experience, upon creating a syllabus for a course I am well qualified to teach, of being told by an instructor of one of the other sections that the intent was to teach a uniform course incorporating a singular reading list (one, unsurprisingly, showcasing books of her or his own). Another faculty member or two quickly joined in support of the attempted hegemony. Chagrined yet no longer shocked at this sort of thing, I quietly stuck to my original agenda in teaching a more imaginative/literary course, one incorporating manifold elements not premised, especially, upon my own work. It is noteworthy that the gatekeepers in this instance were committed, energetic spokespersons for humanistic psychology and the largess of spirit that such an identification would seem to imply. It dawns on us in moments like these that saying the right thing is by no means always the thing in itself or enough.

If we are going to talk diversity, we are going to have to start very close (and, yet, also quite far) from home. We are going to have to dig deep within ourselves, never an easy thing for those among us who like to think of ourselves as “do-gooders.” (“Righteousness,” as Coles gently admonishes, “not self-righteousness.”) We will find ourselves on this inward journey in the company of Nietzsche and Jung and May and other native psychological conquistadors as we contend with the gaping contradictions within. (“From the broken fragments of my heart,” beseeches on old Jewish prayer, “I will build an altar.”) Truth, rather than self-satisfaction, will be our goal. Where are the windows? Where does the light come in? The truth, philosophy, illumination of things? This, after all, is what awareness is all about. Like Orpheus, we are going to have to descend to the underworld in order to proceed more resolutely upward and outward, one day charming, we may hope, even the stones.


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