I've recently read some Kierkegaard, which I wrote about here briefly, and I just finished Sartre's "Existentialism and Emotion." Though I have often called myself an "Existential Christian Taoist" (in part to form the acronym for Electro-Convulsive Therapy which I have twice endured), my understanding of Existentialism has been more second hand. In the book Sartre spends the last two chapters on "Existential Psychoanalysis," showing how it might differ from traditional psychoanalysis. Fascinating though somewhat dated stuff.
In my Logopoetry I essay I substituted "Existential" for "Post-Modern" as the dominant philosophical core of poetry since roughly 1960. I stand by my pronouncement; the key problem of the Post-Moderns has been the problem of the self, perhaps best typified by the poetry of Mark Strand, but certainly also owing to the psychological research of such luminaries as Kohut and Kernberg.
In any case, how does existential psychoanalysis differ from traditional analysis? In Existentialism, existence must precede essence. Our essence, our configuration of personality, derives from our choices, and not to choose is as much a choice as to choose. Thus our personalities are not powered by unconscious material but by conscious choices, and whatever we become conscious of no longer belongs to the unconscious. Thus an existential therapist would not be interested in potty training, rather what the subject could remember about the choices in such a struggle--which of course doesn't have to be a struggle at all, since training often goes smoothly. The individuation of attachment to mother can also be seen as a choice, a choice that leads to other choices of independence--or not. There are no excuses in Existentialism; what you see is what you get. To say, "I would have been a doctor if only I'd had the money" is equivalent to choosing not to be a doctor. To say "My mother dominated me" means you chose to be dominated. In this Existentialism somewhat resembles Renaissance paintings where children are represented as little adults. Adolescence is a creature of the post-industrial world. That choices may be harder to make in adolescence perhaps makes them even more important. But there is no excuse for one's behavior. It is freely chosen in the face of circumstances and despite circumstances, and the resulting path fits best with the transactional analysis concept of "life script"--the drama we live out from our repeated choices, what in pure analytic terms might be named a "complex."
Naturally the existential approach simplifies analysis. Begin with today's choices and work back if necessary; or let the therapist proclaim to the patient that they are entirely free to choose differently at once. In this it would resemble the educable notions of cognitive-behavioral therapy, re-shaping the thinking and choices of a personality rather than trying to understand the underlying unconscious impulses.
Nevertheless, people do get stuck in the complexes of their past choices, as in a life script, why women who are abused often pick abusive boyfriends, why all the sisters in my mother's family chose alcoholic husbands. Can such unconscious choices really be explained by earlier capitulations in development, or do they more deserve the mercy of extended analysis as the basis for choice? In my experience, putting a life under the microscope of choice does not sufficiently allow for the godlike influence of the parents on the tabula rasa of the infant. We do not choose our parents, our circumstances. How does the boy born in a Bengal slum secure the hope of bettering himself? How do the rich and privileged end up in rehabilitation centers? The course of adult development never did run smooth, and there are jerks and suprarational progressions which occur in all of us that simple choice cannot explain. What choice does a seven-year-old have in sexual abuse? Little or none. Who thinks of resisting their father at that age? So the existential approach, like transactional analysis, seems too simple and limiting for the task of helping human self-understanding. In this I think Sartre is wrong and unwittingly aligns himself with B. F. Skinner and extreme behaviorists.
To put Existentialism on its head we must declare that essence precedes existence, that some inborn nature, our DNA in short, has a strong effect on development. Take my inherited illness, for instance, manic-depression. If identical twins are raised separately from birth and one develops full-blown manic-depression, the chances the other twin will have it are 75%. What does this have to do with choice? Or in anoxic birth insult resulting in cerebral palsy? Or in Turner's syndrome or any amount of genetically determined defects? Obviously Sartre didn't have such science at hand when he penned his book, but he was wrong. I think essence precedes existence. I think the constellation of our DNA predisposes us to certain choices and life patterns. We have too many biological choices already made for us at birth--not a tabula rasa but a precondition and tendency towards certain choices, why boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls.
Thus existential psychoanalysis appears to me a crock. What is needed is understanding and forgiveness both for the choices we freely made and those incumbent upon us from our birth natures and unchosen circumstances. Dwarfs don't do well at basketball, in other words, no matter their choices. As imperfect beings we need help with our natures and the choices that issue from our natures, not a bald declaration of our responsibility for everything. Strangely, Sartre steals a passage from Dostoevsky when he says, "You are responsible to everyone for everything." What a burden to assume from birth!
When I say I am an Existential Christian Taoist, what I mean is that I believe in free will within the limits of genetics, that I believe in the Christian approach to failed humanity, and that I also believe in the flowing nature of reality, that reality as much comes to us as we choose it, that often it is best to go with the flow of one's appointed life than resist it maniacally, though sometimes such resistance is needed. Sometimes you must be a rock in the river of life, as the river is going the wrong direction for you.
My ECT designation allows for inherited tendencies and informed and uninformed choices, with a philosophy of eternal redemption attached. Here Christianity does Existentialism one better: Every choice in life leads to damnation or salvation. Choosing one's self over all others is the path to damnation; choosing one's self and others, or in relation to others, respecting in them the same spiritual center that all men share, is the path to salvation. And the path to salvation is not the lonely, haunted, desperate path Kierkegaard paints; it is rather the joyful submission to a process in which our choices are informed by our best beliefs, chief among them "Love your neighbor."
Still, extremism does not obtain here; before becoming a Christian one must first become a person, preferably an adult. If religion (esp. fanatical devotion) is introduced too early in a child's development it can be stunting, leading to fear and closed mindedness. Christianity is meant as a blessing, not a curse. To love and be loved are its central constituents. To do good works is an outgrowth of this spiritual contract. To pursue healing of others, as Christ did (and the first hospitals were established by Christians), is witness to the fact that we are not whole, that we bear diseases we did not choose, that there is something essentially wrong with a world where beings capable of salvation are subjected to suffering not of their choice.
I agree with Sartre that man's chief desire is to be God, and that this lies at the center of many of our choices--the wish to control everything, the infant's wish to control its mother, the broker's wish to control the stock market. These are infantile longings that nevertheless seep into our adult consciousness and cause continual havoc. Sartre argues that in our wishing to become God, God is relegated to the limit of our powers, a "god of the gaps" if you will. I agree with this in part, as does the Bible, where the Fall originated from a desire on man's part to become as God. Yet in Sartre's formulation God is no longer necessary, he is only a symbol of the pinnacle of man's striving, beyond which we feel the need to posit a god.
But it's much simpler than this. The process of development is a ceding of the imagined, narcissistic powers of infancy in favor of individuation and socialization. This happens whether we like it or not, and here choices can be revealing, as in the unpublished poet who considers himself the greatest undiscovered talent in the world and sneers at editors who have rejected him. Such a one has been able to maintain his imaginary centrality and importance in spite of experience. But in most cases experience chips away at our narcissism until we see others as equal in value if not ability. This is the necessary and normal education of this life. And if in this experience one feels a lack, an abiding need for something or someone greater, it is also natural to adopt a religious stance, not as a defense but as a hope for the best in us.
Religion is not a defense against insignificance; it is not a band-aid for suffering; it is not a reward for good behavior or good works; it is a necessary longing for transcendence that religionists believe is natural to man and his development.
To make it absurd, what would the Existentialist say to a risen Christ? That he chose to be resurrected? A priori, Existentialism does not allow for miracles except those that are achieved through our choices and work, perhaps with a little luck. An Existentialist could pass his fingers through Christ's wounds and say, "How interesting! What choices did you make to attain this?" There is no room for the supernatural in Existentialism, indeed no room for fate as we understand fate as the intersection of natures and events. If I encounter a bar room brawl I will likely try to end it or take up one side of the struggle. Others might retire to the safety of the bathroom or outdoors. Just these sort of encounters put the lie to pure Existentialism, as our choices flow from our natures and our natures derive ultimately from our inherited biology, secondly from circumstances over which we have no control, as in our parents' treatment of us. Being the second-born son in my family, in addition to my inborn sense of justice, makes me take up the defense of the innocent, always tempting me to join the fight. My brothers are more peaceable than this.
Should I remove "Existentialism" from my acronym? No, because I think as one matures, the primacy of choice becomes more dominant. What one chooses at forty differs immensely from what one can choose at twenty. Experience tempers hope, hope informs experience, and no forty-year-old is going to take off for a career as a professional baseball player--that choice would be absurd. One has the freedom to make absurd choices but the wisdom of experience tends to narrow such choices to the bounds or reality as we move forward.
Here's one: Did I choose to be a poet or was I chosen? I go into this a bit in my essay in Pif, "How I Became a Poet." I was already making up songs and poems before I could read. I wrote poetry from an early age. Why? It was part of my nature. In the essay I refer to people and things that discouraged me from poetry, but I could never stop reading it or writing it. Thus a poet is both born and made. We suffer our natures and our choices. When our choices are most in accord with our natures we are most happy. Then happiness is not a concern of Existentialism, rather integrity--the integrity of acknowledging one's choices. I say choices pre-exist in us according to our natures, that essence precedes existence, and if in saying this I no longer qualify as even a junior existentialist, so be it. I have made my choice.