Category Archives: Book Reviews

Love and Other Emotions: Reflections from the Novel The Girlfriend Project (Originally Published on the New Existentialist Blog)

This review was originally published in the New Existentialist Blog: https://www.saybrook.edu/newexistentialists/posts/07-22-14/. It is reposted here in its entirety. 

The Girlfriend Project (2014) by Jason Dias is not your typical novel about love. Although it could be considered a romantic novel given that its focus is a love story, the plot is more existential in nature. Embedded in this unlikely love story is an exploration of the nature of love and other emotions. And love takes center stage.

Ernest has been diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder and appears to accept this diagnosis as it explains many of his life challenges. Emotions, especially love, befuddle him. His recognition of emotions is not through the usual subjective process, but instead through a rather detached, somewhat objective analysis of his behavior. From his wife and his therapist, he learns to identify many emotions even if he does not emotionally identify with them.

At the beginning of the novel, Ernest characterizes himself as rather dependent upon his wife, who dies early in the novel. Because of his wife’s encouragement from before her death, he agrees to enter therapy after she dies. He does so and finds a therapist that appears to be a pretty good match.

Upon encouragement from this new therapist, he begins considering dating. However, Ernest clearly does not have much confidence or know-how in the dating department. He hires Jenny, a down-on-her-luck waitress to be his girlfriend. Jenny is attractive and socially more skilled, but also has struggled in her own pursuits of love. Out of desperation from her current financial and life predicaments, she agrees. From this very unusual situation, the love story begins.

Ernest and Jenny’s relationship traverses several unexpected twists that lead Ernest into an exploration of his childhood and his relationship with his wife. Meanwhile, Jenny has a dramatic encounter with a previous lover, which introduces an element of action to the novel. With these elements, Dias is able to keep the reader engaged at more than just the psychological level.

What is Love?
The exploration of the meaning of love has almost become cliché. Yet, this question is so essential or our very existence that it does not wear old as with many clichés—at least not when explored with sufficient psychological depth, as Dias does. But Dias adds an interesting twist: How do we understand, know, and experience love without the typical emotional understanding that most people rely upon.

Dias begins his exploration of love by taking away the most common guide to recognizing it: our subjective emotional experience. He also calls into question the many overly simplistic answers often offered by the cynics. Dias, through Ernest, recognizes that there is something important in love, even if the particular lesson eludes him. Although Ernest seems resigned that he will never know or understand love, he continues in the pursuit, even if not recognizing that it is love he is pursuing.

The description of the book says that it is an answer to Camus’s The Stranger. In a similar way to how Camus encourages the reader to examine what it means to be human, Dias lures the reader into examining what it is that they consider love. In the end, Ernest still may not understand love, but he has become convinced that it exists.

Conclusion
Many existential writers, at the end of their pursuit of meaning, seem to end up with answers in the genre of love, compassion, and relationship. Rarely, however, are the answers clear. Indeed, love may never be clear. It is at once the most compelling and elusive of the emotions. Dias, as a good existentialist, does not pretend to have solved the problem of love. He does, however, provide us with some important paths to explore in its pursuits. He also leaves us with the belief that love, even if we cannot fully comprehend what it is, is well worth pursing.

This is a novel well worth the time for those interested in existential psychology. Or even those just interested in examining the nature of love.

— Louis Hoffman

Read more New Existentialist Blogs by Louis Hoffman

Review of The Beautiful Risk by James Olthuis

James Olthuis is an impressive therapist and writer. I was first introduced to this book when attending a presentation on Olthuis’s approach to therapy. I was so struck by the deep compassion and love that was evident in his presence. When providing a therapy demonstration, it was evident that Olthuis is truly gifted in his ability to connect with people and recognize their suffering.

This book is an excellent book, but does not replace the power of attending one of Dr. Olthuis’s workshops. While Olthuis does not consider himself an existential therapist, the similarities abound in his relational approach which he describes as being strongly influenced by relational theory, feminism, and postmodernism. An important point of convergence between Olthuis and existential thought is in the valuing of the relationship. He demonstrates the power availed through a compassionate relationship between therapist and client. Some of the most powerful illustration in this book are the times when Olthuis talks about the power of crying with his “therapeuts.”

A central theme throughout this book is love. For Olthuis, the basis of this is his spiritual beliefs and convictions. The Beautiful Risk, in embracing this relational perspective, the concept of love, and spirituality provides a great example of a high quality integrative perspective. Yet, it is still a good read for those not interested in the more spiritual approach.

I highly recommend this book for therapists and those seeking to become a therapist, especially those who feel stifled by many of the ways therapy is practiced in today’s society.

Added 2004; Never been updated.

Review of Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donahue

Dr. Robert Murney, my long time mentor, was the first person to introduce me to Anam Cara. It was during a time when his wife had been diagnosed with cancer and he was trying to prepare for the possibility of losing her. He showed it to me one day and said this was the only book he had ever read seven times. The book intrigued me for two reason. First, it had such an incredible grip on Dr. Murney. But also because as he described the book it just seemed filled with existential wisdom. I quickly purchased the book and devoured it in a couple of days. It remains one of the most profoundly intriguing books I’ve ever read. Not more than a year later, we were joking that we should be getting a commission for all the copies of this book that we gave away as gifts or that were sold upon our encouragement.

John O’Donohue is a Catholic priest living in Ireland. However, his writing has not always been very well accepted within the Catholic community. This is partially because it is rooted as much in Irish paganism as it is in Catholicism. This is an issue which O’Donohue addresses in Anam Cara. When Christianity entered Ireland, it was blended with folk wisdom and religion, just as has occurred in many other parts of the world. It is this rich blending of traditions that brings this little book to life.

“Anam Cara” literally means “soul friend.” This is comparable to what is often referred to as “soul mates.” Unfortunately, the concept of soul mates has often been degraded by superficial, romantic views of what it means to be soul mates. The view presented in Anam Cara, however, is far from shallow or superficial. For O’Donohue, an Anam Cara is someone who deeply impacts who we are as a person. It’s more than finding someone to marry or even someone to spend your life with. It’s more than a best friend. It’s someone who becomes a part of you.

O’Donohue’s version of a soul mate interacts with many ideas not considered in the more traditional literature. For example, he views time apart and death as two extremely important aspects of being a soul friend. It is death, that makes life and our relationships so precious. It is time apart, or solitude, that allows us to invest deeply into our immediate relationships. These harsh realities are part of the beauty of relationships.

Anam Cara has been a great lesson for me as a therapist, but even more it has been a great lesson for me as a human being. Dr. Murney, who introduced me to this book passed away several months before I sat down to write this review. In his death, I realize the preciousness of his life and friendship. I think he’d be happy to know that in his death I think of this book and that it has been a comfort to me in my grieving for him.

The lessons in this book are very much alive. It is an important read for all those in the professions which deal with the soul and relationships.

Original Version added February, 2006
Never updated

Review of Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra may be Nietzsche’s most important and brilliant piece of writing, and Walter Kaufmann’s translation, with its insight translation notes, may be the most significant version. Though the overarching theme of this book is fairly evident, there is a tremendous amount of confusion not only about the book, but even its central theme. In concise terms, the thesis of this book is that people must overcome themselves. Nietzsche speaks of this in terms of the overman, which is often translated as superman.

The traditional translation of superman, according to Kaufmann, may account for much of the confusion. Superman, in Western thought, easily becomes imbued with super powers or godlike qualities; however, this was not Nietzsche’s intent. The overman is less about super qualities and more about the courage to face himself or herself. The overman is willing to take responsibility for his or her life while creatively engaging the world. Included in this engagement is the willingness to not accept the values of one’s world, culture, and even religion; instead, the overman critically examines these worldviews while creating their own values.

In concept of overcoming oneself, Nietzsche takes on one of his most controversial and misunderstood topics: religion. It is clear that Nietzsche is not religious and to attempt to reconcile him as a man of faith would significantly misrepresent his thought. However, Nietzsche is neither pro-religion nor the as much an enemy as he is often portrayed. The main concern Nietzsche has with religion is blind faith and conformity. This type of religion, Nietzsche is adamantly opposed to. However, a religion in which the individual has struggled to attain is not seen as dangerous.

Two important quotes may help understand Nietzsche’s view of God:

“Alas, my brothers, this god whom I created was man-made and madness, like all gods! Man he was, and only a poor specimen of man and ego: out of my own ashes and fire this ghost came to me, and, verily, it did not come to me from beyond. What happened, my brothers? I overcame myself, the sufferer; I carried my own ashes to the mountains; I invented a brighter flame for myself.” (p. 31)

“In their hostilities they shall become inventors of images and ghosts, and with their images and ghosts they shall yet fight the highest fight against one another. Good and evil, and rich and poor, and high and low, and all the names of values – arms shall they be and clattering signs that life must overcome itself again and again.” (p. 101)

The first quote demonstrates some bitterness toward religion, though it does not rule out the possibility of healthy religiosity. Nietzsche’s position is not that different from Freud (1927/1961), and quite possibly contributed to Freud’s perspective. Essentially, Nietzsche viewed God as a projection of our wishes (will-fulfillment) and our pathology; not a metaphysical reality. Because of this, God’s characteristics are dependent upon the individual and the culture. This helps to explain Nietzsche’s controversial claim that “God is dead.” Frequently, this is interpreted as a metaphysical statement; however, this was not the nature of Nietzsche’s claim. Instead, Nietzsche was stating that the cultural and individual understanding or creation of God is dead. It is a critique of culture and individuals, not God.

A review of Thus Zarathustra Spoke would not be complete without some notes on the literary style. If nothing else, the literary style of this book demonstrates Nietzsche’s brilliance. He utilized a tremendous understanding of religious literature with he often mocked through his style of writing. A person familiar with the Bible will quickly recognize his frequent indirect references to Biblical ideas, stories, and quotes. It is through these that Nietzsche shows his wit and command of literary style. It is also where Nietzsche likely offends and drives away many of his readers. This is unfortunate. Even if one does not agree with Nietzsche’s appraisals of religion, or care for his clever mocking; there is still important messages in this book for the religious and the non-religious.

To the religious, Nietzsche challenges people to become more than sheep. However, it is clear that he believes most people chose to be sheep: “No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse” (p. 18). If one chooses to be religious, they should know what that choice entails! One should take the time to learn if it what they truly believe or if it is what they seek to achieve security escaping the fears and anxieties of life. Escapist religion is dangerous religion; however, religion achieve through struggle and genuine belief may be a responsible choice.

Added 2004; Never been updated.

Review of The Cry for Myth by Rollo May

In all the significant books written by Rollo May, this is the book which has had the greatest impact upon me and my thinking. The breadth of May’s knowledge and the depth of his understanding quickly become very evident. It is also interesting to note the influence of Jung’s theory in this book. While Jung’s influence is apparent in many of May’s works, perhaps none as much as this volume.

In the first section of the book, May provides an outstanding overview of the concept of myth from an existential framework. May defines myth in a very Tillichian (Paul Tillich) fashion as that which cannot be proved, but yet is believed. However, in stating it cannot be proved it is not claiming that myths are false. In one of the most powerful lines in the book, May states: “There can be no stronger proof of the impoverishment of our contemporary culture than the popular – though profoundly mistaken – definition of myth as falsehood” (p. 23).

 In the next several sections, May applies this to many of the great myths of our society. Part II examines “Myths in America.” Included in this analysis are Gatsby and the American Dream, the American frontier myths, individualism, and narcissism. Part III expands to include the “Myths of the Western World.” In this section May examines Dante’s journey through hell, Peer Gynt, the Briar Rose, three views on Faust, and the devil & creativity. The final section, Part IV, closes with a discussion of “Myths for Survival.” Included are the issues of women’s liberation, mortality, planetism, and humanism.

Whether a psychotherapist or just interested in existential perspectives, this is an excellent book.

Added 2004; Never been updated.

Review of Paulus: Tillich as Spiritual Teacher by Rollo May

This short book is one of my favorites of Rollo May. It’s only a little over 100 page, has been out of print for a while (though still fairly easily accessible), and is not your typical Rollo May book. However, it did win the 1987 American Psychological Foundation Gold Metal Award.

The book is a tribute to May’s mentor and friend, Paul Tillich. Tillich, one of the most famous American theologians, spent many years teaching philosophy and theology at Union Theological Seminary. His work has not only be influential on theology and philosophy, but he has also been a powerful influence on existential psychology.  His most famous work in psychological circles is The Courage to Be.

May compassionately gives the story of Tillich’s life and thought in a way which applies to psychological theory. Tillich is presented in a very human manner in this book. His mistakes, including his affairs, are not hidden from the reader. Rather, Tillich is presented as who is very human yet able to make profound contributions to the world of thought.

One of the greatest contributions of Tillich’s thought which May addresses is the benefits and agony of doubt. Tillich saw doubt as contrary to faith, but rather as part of it. This also forms the basis for one of Tillich’s greatest quotes: “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful” (p. 71). This statement is one that has become my teaching philosophy.  I believe it can be applied well beyond the the topic of faith in God, to many other realms of thought.

Another important contribution in this book is May’s discussion of Tillich’s presence. This is the basis for the title being referred to as “Paulus,” which brings a much more intimate feel with it. May goes through extensive detail about his perception of Paulus’ presence. This has been the basis for much of my own though development around the issue of presence — both in examining my own presence and also in using this as a teaching technique for those studying to be therapists.

Overall, this is an excellent, excellent book which I highly recommend to therapists, theologians, and anyone interested in existential theory.

Added 2004; Never been updated

Review of Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning by Viktor Frankl

The nemesis of Frankl’s writing has always been the discontinuities of his books. While Frankl’s essays are penetrating and powerful, when brought together in a book format they retained the feel of a collection of essays instead of a unified work. It could be argued that this has always been a limiting factor in logotherapy becoming more influential. Until this book, there has not been a book of Frankl’s which has been able to achieve consistency through the entire piece.

While if you were to only read one of Frankl’s books, I’d recommend Man’s Search for Meaning, this book is the best overview of his theory.  It is more of a therapy book aimed at clinicians, but could also be an interesting read for those interested in existential or logotherapy theory.

Added 2004; Never been updated.

Review of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

I have often heard it suggested that this book should be reread every decade of one’s life. At each stage of life, the book can bring new insights. Many are familiar with the general content of this book, however; no description can adequately deal with the power of the story. The first portion of this book, which entails over half the book, is Frankl’s story of his experience in the concentration camps during World War II. This is both gripping and chilling. I will make no attempts to give an overview of the story because it is a story that each person must read for themselves.

Frankl was a psychiatrist trained in psychoanalytic theory prior to the concentration camps. He began his break from psychoanalysis prior to his experiences in the camp, but these experiences further pushed Frankl toward an existential approach. Frankl in a very compassionate way wondered why some people were able to survive the brutality and horror of concentration camps while others died or killed themselves. His answer, ultimately, was that some people were able to find a greater meaning. While all the physical and political freedoms may be taken away from an individual, no one can take away the freedom to choose the way in which a person will face their life.

In the last two sections of the book, Frankl outlines a brief overview of logotherapy — Frankl approach to therapy. Logotherapy literally means meaning therapy. Meaning is the central tenet of his approach. While this overview does provide a description of the major points of logotherapy, it is not his best writing on his therapy approach. In general, Frankl has never produced an overly organized view of his theory. Most of his books are collections of essays which often don’t provide the best continuity from one essay to the next. The best overview of logotherapy is his book Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning.

Overall, this is one of the most powerful existential books ever written. It is a good read for therapists and those interested in existential theory alike. There are few people for whom this book wouldn’t be an appropriate read.

Added 2004; Never been updated.

Review of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic by Stephen A. Diamond

It is a bit intimidating to write a review of Stephen Diamond’s book. Rarely in my life have I read about book as packed with content as this volume. The 312 pages of this book read like 500-600 pages of text. While the thickness of ideas in this book make it a slow read, Diamond is still able to write in a manner that makes the book highly readable and easy to understand.

Diamond redeems anger in much the same way that Rollo May redeemed anxiety. Throughout the book he returns to the idea that what turns anger into evil, mental illness, and other destructive entities is not the presence of anger, but rather its denial, suppression, repression, and containment. What is needed is a healthy, creative expression and acceptance of anger. While this central thesis of the book seems simple enough, Diamond demonstrates why it is not so easy to redeem anger, especially in the context of an American society which abhors it. But it is this very dread of anger which has led to anger becoming a national epidemic!

Rollo May, in delineating the basic motivational theory of existential psychology, placed the idea of the daimonic at the center in much the way the the libido and the id were central features of Freud’s motivational system. Diamond makes several attempts at defining this elusive term. In his first attempt, he quotes Rollo May (1969) stating the daimonic “is any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person” (p. 65). This affirms the naturalness, the innateness, of the daimonic. The daimon is something very human and to be human is to have a daimon.

But what are these natural functions May and Diamond talk about? The elusiveness of this question is one of the strengths of this theory. Initially, Freud’s theory was almost exclusively based on sexuality (interpreted literally and symbolically) and our sex drive or life instinct. Later, Freud expanded his theory to include a death instinct. This allowed psychoanalysis to become much more inclusive, but it still remained a rather closed, fixed, and narrow system. In moving to the daimonic as the basic motivational component, both the life instinct (sex) and the death instinct were subsumed as part of the daimonic, but not the entirety of it. The daimonic is a mixture of instinctual (biological), experiential (personal history, emotions), and collective (cultural, societal, familial) influences. An individual can become focused on one aspect of the daimonic or experience it more broadly. In the Victorian era, when Freud was developing his theory of psychoanalysis, it was a societal phenomenon to repress and fixate on sexuality. Freud’s theory was a logical and accurate analysis of this phenomenon and it was not until later in his career that he began to realize this focus was only one aspect of the daimonic (though Freud was not drawn to using this word). Later, Becker (1973) will argue that death has become a new culturally repressed and fixated phenomenon. May will focus on the fixation on anxiety, but also broaden the awareness of the daimonic to include anger and many other emotions. Now, Diamond, argues that anger is becoming the new cultural fixation. As these fixations usually become repressed, they find their expression in mental illness and other societal ills.

The brilliance of Rollo May’s reintroduction of the daimon may well have gone largely unrecognized had it not been for Diamond. While Jung and the Jungians retained a similar idea with the shadow, this term was still much more narrow than the daimonic, as Diamond illustrates. I don’t think that this important reintroduction can be underestimated, especially given the current state of the field of psychotherapy. The Daimonic, as a broad, integrated motivational system, allows existential depth psychotherapy to become an ideal foundation for an integrated depth psychotherapy. I do not believe any other approach to depth psychotherapy retains such a flexible, inclusive structure.

Building on the theory of the daimonic, Diamond is able to provide a penetrating analysis of demonology and evil. These are difficult and controversial topics, especially in a time when America is experiencing a paradoxical increase in secularism and, at the same time, a rise in fundamentalism. Diamond’s critique of demonology and reinterpretation of this phenomenon as “daimonic possession” is as good of a critique of demon possession as exists.

Diamond also tackles the difficult issue of mental illness in an existential depth psychology framework. While many within the depth psychology traditions are skeptical of diagnosis, Diamond presents a good argument for diagnosis combined with a reinterpretation of the foundational theory of categorizing mental illness. In many ways, Diamond redeems diagnosis for depth psychotherapy for those who choose to diagnose. An important part of this redemption is Diamond’s claim that the etiology of most mental disorders stems from the psyche, not the individual’s biology. Or at least not solely in their biological makeup.

For people interested in existential theory and/or depth psychotherapy, few books are a more important read. Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic is an excellent introduction to the breadth and depth of existential theory.

 

Added November 2004; never been updated.

Review of Psychotherapy Isn’t What You Think by James F. T. Bugental

Jim Bugental was one of the important early leaders of the existential psychotherapy movement. More than that, he was a strong proponent of depth psychotherapy in general. Psychotherapy Isn’t What You Think, one of his final books, is an important contribution to this literature. At the point of his career when he wrote this book, psychotherapy had undergone many significant changes. The depth realm of psychotherapy was no longer valued and often even mocked and attacked. While it is evident that Bugental is concerned by these changes, he does not respond to the attacks as much as speaking to the need for renewed valuing of the depth realms of existence. While this debate is reflected in the title and background of this volume, Psychotherapy Isn’t What You Think is more of a practical guide to therapy than a political statement about the contemporary field of psychotherapy.

The essence of Bugental’s message is that the most important part of therapy is the living moment or the here-and-now. For most therapists, this is the most difficult portion of therapy to learn. Techniques, interpretations, and general explorations of the past are much easier to learn than using the present moment. Bugental, who is a master teacher as well as a master therapist, illustrates this process with many case illustrations and examples of therapy dialogue.

A particularly important contribution in this book is Bugental’s illustration of working with difficult issues in therapy. Many of his illustrations involve working through resistance and anger processes in therapy. While many assume that existential-humanistic therapy is a ‘soft’ or ‘warm-and-fuzzy’ approach, Bugental illustrates the importance of being able to deal with the inevitable anger that generally arises in the psychotherapy process. Implicit in these illustrations are the dangers of avoiding dealing with anger, or contributing to a suppression of anger when it emerges through the natural therapy process.

Bugental also works to assist therapists in developing an ear for process. It is natural for all people, noless the therapist, to focus on the content or words instead of the process. Indeed, this is often what separates the master therapist from the typical therapist. While most therapists learn to deal with process to some degree or can recognize process when writing up therapy notes, few learn to utilize process in the therapy moment. Bugental illustrates what this looks like in many of his illustration of therapy processes.

In conclusion, Psychotherapy Isn’t What You Think is an important contribution to the literature. It is particularly an important read for therapist desiring to become better at working in the here-and-now of therapy, those wishing to improve there ability to work with resistance, and those wanting to improve their ability to deal with process elements of therapy. While it is rooted in the existential framework, it’s value is to all therapists, particularly those interested in depth approaches to therapy.