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Divided Existence and Complex Society: An Historical Approach Reviews
"Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast,And each will wrestle for the mastery there,The one has passion's craving crude for love,And hugs a world where sweet the senses rage;The other longs for pastures fair above,Leaving the murk for lofty heritage."-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in Faust“Faust complained about having two souls in his breast, but I harbor a whole crowd of them and they quarrel. It is like being in a republic.”― Otto von Bismarck"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." -- Walt WhitmanIt can be exhilarating to have a book dislodge one's conceptions about human being. This fascinating, erudite and idiosyncratic work of "historical psychology," published in Dutch in 1963 and in English in 1974, does just that. In Divided Existence and Complex Society: An Historical Approach, J. H. van den Berg (1914-2012) examines the historical emergence of inner multiplicity or dividedness, of separate selves within the psyche in conflict among themselves. Confronting the conventional wisdom, van den Berg contends that inner dividedness is not an inherent structural feature of a timeless psyche, but an historically situated condition of human psychological life which first came into being in eighteenth-century Europe.Of particular brilliancy is the author's method of adducing extensive historical evidence before advancing a thesis, so that the thesis seems to emerge from the evidence. This method enables him to ask questions or advance theses that would seem absurd or preposterous had they been asked or asserted without preparing the reader; but because the historical material has already been laid out, one is forced to take the questions or theses thus advanced seriously, and in so doing, to notice and examine implicit, deeply held assumptions about human psychology.A basic thread running through the book is the proposition, first advanced in van den Berg's 1961 book The Changing Nature of Man, that there exists a hidden history of profound changes in the human psyche, in the inner lives of human beings. This history, in van den Berg's view, can be teased out through a very detailed and thorough type of interdisciplinary, cross-cultural historical examination, an examination which pays attention not only to affirmative evidence, but also to absences and silences. Divided Existence and Complex Society demonstrates a particular instance of this broader thesis in its focus on inner multiplicity as emergent and historically situated, rather than as inherent and timeless.The essential claim is that inner multiplicity ("divided existence"), which we may take for granted as an immutable feature of psychological life, is actually a sequela of historical processes, especially the changes wrought by (or, indeed, those causing) the French and industrial revolutions. Applying concepts articulated by Harry Stack Sullivan, van den Berg asserts that the historical events which created modern life as we live it caused an immense multiplication of social contacts among otherwise unrelated strangers in complex society. These social contacts are superficial and are not embedded within a larger structure of social meaning (Sullivan's term is "parataxic"); each parataxic contact calls forth a different social self, a different person within us.This brings to mind William James's famous 1890 observation that "a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind,"or Sullivan's similar 1950 comment that “for all I know every human being has as many personalities as he has interpersonal relations.” Inasmuch as we may simultaneously belong to multiple social groups whose values may conflict, the social identities called forth by our relationships with others create a circumstance in which we experience ourselves to have functionally autonomous, discrete identities which conflict with one another. Thus, we experience a "divided existence" which, according to the evidence van den Berg discusses, did not exist in the experience of those who lived before the eighteenth century. The writings of Montaigne, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, and Hegel, Goethe's "Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust," Diderot's Le Rêve d'Alembert, Jean Paul's Romantic novel Siebenkäs, and various examples of the Doppelgänger literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, are all examined seriatim and adduced in service of the argument that divided existence is not an endogenous structural feature of a decontextualized psyche, but rather a phenomenon which emerged in response to specific social and cultural conditions, and which is inherently bound up with and sustained by those conditions.A history of Mesmeric and somnambulistic phenomena in eighteenth-century France (including a very interesting account of the Marquis of Puységur's magnetized tree, which appeared to induce trance of its own accord after being duly "magnetized" by Puységur) informs van den Berg's argument and makes for a fascinating read. Writing about Freud, Janet, and the discovery of the unconscious (as Henri Ellenberger was to do later in the decade), van den Berg avers that the unconscious was not "discovered" until the end of the nineteenth century because "the unconscious" as such did not exist until shortly before that time, that it began to exist as such around the time of Mesmer! This is exactly the type of thesis that strikes the reader as absurd if wrested from the setting of the historical evidence, but when considered after detailed exposition of that evidence actually seems plausible.Other such striking theses include the proposition that chemical anæsthesia was not used in surgery for nearly fifty years after the discovery of its principle because it was not felt to be necessary, until a generalized increase in the experience of pain in the early nineteenth century made it so; that there may be a correlation between the extent of a person's dream activity and the thickness of the calluses on his hands; and that what Europeans call football is a game of organized Marxism: use of the hands is the essence of what capitalism exploits, and precisely the thing that football forbids.Americans may encounter obstacles in assimilating the historical material, not least for want of adequate familiarity with European political, cultural, philosophical and literary history. But even assuming comfort in this terrain, the contemporary American reader is likely to reject one of the book's central themes. Van den Berg finds the admonition "we are all equal," issuing from the spirit and slogans of the French Revolution, a source of particular bedevilment, and he attributes to it a destructive social force. In van den Berg's estimation the idea that "we are all equal" is self-evidently untrue, but he contends that it is an inescapable fact of contemporary social life that we must act as though it were true. This, claims van den Berg, creates a falsehood at the heart of our social reality, and he proposes that the consequent pretending towards others and self which this falsehood begets operates to create and sustain inner dividedness.Such a view is problematic: it suggests unexamined entitlement, unexamined privilege. Surely the proposition that we are all created equal has been significant for more than two centuries in the United States, where it has a history and a status as an aspirational ideal, a collective dream. It also enjoys a constructive legacy as to the remediation of injustices visited upon enslaved persons and indigenous peoples, whose experience of being accorded a “less than equal” legal and social status caused them unimaginable suffering. Van den Berg's indictment of "we are all equal" nowhere acknowledges the constructive role of the proposition--not identical, but related--that "all men are created equal" in the American psyche and American history, and his criticism of "we are all equal" will surely alienate American readers. In fact we are not all identical, ergo not "equal"--our cultural legacies, temperaments, experience base, genetic predispositions, and many other things differentiate us--but in the eyes of the law, and in respect of opportunity to actualize potential through education and initiative, we should be considered equal. Equality under the law and of educational opportunity, to name but two examples, are deeply held American values widely regarded as ethical imperatives. One can read van den Berg's indictment of "we are all equal" in a more limited way, as a rebellion against a type of "political correctness"; however, this American reader finds the substantive argument unconvincing.But despite this flaw the book makes for a challenging, illuminating read. Those accustomed to thinking about human psychology in terms of models of intrapsychic functioning and organization may discover, through the book's deft interweaving of argument and historical fact, the correlation between apparently "inner" psychic conditions and the "outer" historical and social context in which such conditions emerge. Such discoveries can be profoundly disruptive in the best sense. If you read to have your worldview shaken up, this is a book for you. An ambitious work synthesizing history, literature, philosophy, psychology, and social critique, Divided Existence and Complex Society will disrupt your customary views of the givenness and immutability of internal psychological structures, whether you come to embrace its theses or not. One need not adopt the author's conclusions to find his method brilliant. A profoundly unsettling, fascinating work.