Wounded Healer: Rollo May's Psycho-Spiritual Odyssey

Part 5: A conversation with biographer Robert Abzug.

Posted Jan 26, 2021 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina

Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Dr. Rollo May
Source: Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This is Part 5 of my conversation with historian Robert Abzug, whose authorized biography of celebrated psychologist Dr. Rollo May, Psyche and Soul in America: The Spiritual Odyssey of Rollo May (Oxford University Press) will be released on February 1, 2021. (See Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.) 

DIAMOND: I want to ask about what you refer to in the book as Rollo's "romance" with existential therapy. May was exposed to existential philosophy at seminary, especially via his relationship with mentor Paul Tillich, the existential theologian. He entered more deeply into existentialism during his prolonged bout with TB, consuming the writings of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger among others. He later, as a psychologist and psychoanalyst, became immersed in European existential analysis--the application of existential philosophy and phenomenology to psychotherapy--while contributing original chapters to and co-editing the groundbreaking 1958 book  Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology, which influenced countless American psychotherapists, including young psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, who, following May, went on to become the preeminent living exponent of existential therapy today. 

  As you know, I have described May's and my own orientation to therapy as "existential depth psychology," a synthesis of existential therapy with the depth psychology of Freud, Jung, Adler, and Rank, et al. My question is: What significant differences do you see between the work of the early Swiss existential analysts like Binswanger and Boss, that of contemporary British existential-phenomenologists like van Deurzen and Spinelli, and Rollo May's own distinctly American existential approach?  

 Benjamin Abzug
Professor Robert Abzug
Source: Courtesy Robert Abzug. Photo Credit: Benjamin Abzug

ABZUG: Why “romance?” I admit it might not be the first term one might think of to describe May’s relation to existential psychology, its use in therapy, and broader existential ideas. Yet, his embrace of existentialism and its therapeutic application can best be understood biographically from his engagement with Tillich and his discovery of Kierkegaard, arguably one of the first existentialist thinkers (before the term itself had been created). May’s initiation into existentialism was through reading Kierkegaard, whose work Tillich initially recommended.

But interestingly, May rejected the religious dimension of Kierkegaard, stripping his use of K.’s work of its core concept of the “leap of faith,” and eventually turned that instead into acting authentically in the world. Thus, Tillichian theology, Kierkegaard’s radical religiosity, and the “existential” shock of coming close to death with TB—and the last two occurring almost simultaneously—affected May deeply even before he began the editorial process that he had been invited to undertake in 1953 that ended up as the highly influential volume Existence in 1958. Indeed, May experienced during this period something of a spiritual conversion, one he alluded to in the Preface to that fateful book by quoting Keats: 

"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies 

When a new planet swims into his ken . . ." 

The years following the publication of  Existence  saw May continuing this discovery, reading voraciously, and allowing existential and phenomenological ideas to influence his therapeutic sessions.  However, Rollo emphasized an important caveat: He always considered existentialism to be a starting point rather than a full-blown theory of therapy, an attitude rather than a method, yet one that could profoundly deepen the experience of both patient and therapist. As for his approach compared to the Swiss and British practitioners, it was far more eclectic and also stuck to certain traditional Freudian and Jungian concepts, notably the idea of the “unconscious,” a fundamental psychoanalytic concept that French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and others rejected; and that radical philosophical rejection of the unconscious was more common in Europe than in America. In short, May forged his commitment to existential psychology literally from the guideposts of radical theology and his own personal experience. He picked up keywords and ideas from the theories of others but used them in an open-ended search that encompassed philosophy, art, myth, religion, literature, psychoanalysis, and more.

A romance? All I can say is that when he discovered that new planet, he stayed married to existentialism for the rest of his life. 

DIAMONDAs you are well aware, much of what I have written about for Psychology Today here in my blog "Evil Deeds" over the past decade has drawn heavily upon Rollo May's work, particularly what I find to be his very helpful clinical conception of the "daimonic," especially as it pertains to the pervasive feelings of anger, rage, or resentment today as well as the psychology of human evil. From the perspective of a practicing clinical and forensic psychologist, this blog has historically focused mainly (though not exclusively) on the most destructive, negative, or evil expressions or manifestations of what May called "the daimonic," as seen in mass shooters, serial killers, and other violent criminal perpetrators, and described what I refer to as their "wicked rage for recognition." Indeed, we all have, I believe, from birth, a daimonic desire for recognition and attention--to be seen, understood, affirmed, accepted, and appreciated by the world. When this basic need is unmet during childhood, it becomes an insatiable craving. The crucial question is how we choose to pursue such sense of significance or recognition, i.e., positively or negatively, constructively or destructively. And how we deal with the existential frustration, anger or rage when failing to find or receive it.  

Based on what you disclose in May's biography, due to his challenging childhood background, Rollo was himself deeply motivated and driven by a daimonic need for fame, recognition, love, admiration, and desire to make some positive and perduring contribution to the world. In this regard, he, like Freud and Jung, was a daimonic man. Yet, unlike the mass shooter, serial killer, or psychopath, May, like Freud and Jung before him, managed, for the most part, to channel his daimonic anger and craving for recognition into relatively creative rather than evil deeds. This basic existential choice between destructiveness and creativity is, to me, something we all participate in daily, and, to cite an extreme example, distinguishes the true artist from the psychopath. 

For May, the problem of human evil was certainly an ultimate concern, to utilize Tillich's term; but so equally was human creativity. As Rollo makes clear in his Foreword to my book, Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic (1996), "the daimonic (unlike the demonic, which is merely destructive), is as much concerned with creativity as with negative reactions. A special characteristic of the daimonic model is that it considers both creativity on one side, and anger and rage on the other side, as coming from the same source. That is, constructiveness and destructiveness have the same source in human personality. The source is simply human potential" (p. xxi).

Indeed, in my book, I argue that May's paradigm of the daimonic was intended to provide a more existentially and phenomenologically informed alternative to the traditional conception of the "unconscious" in psychoanalysis and the "shadow" in Jung's analytical psychology. It offered a sophisticated transcendent synthesis of these diverse worldviews, and elegant unifying vision of human existence. Do you agree with this assessment? 

In any case, please say more regarding your view of Rollo's key concept of the daimonic and his own artistic and creative proclivities, as evident in his overall impressive and prolific body of work, and more specifically, as addressed in books like Love and Will, The Courage to Create, and  My Quest for Beauty, which contains some of May's own original watercolors and drawings.  

ABZUG: I certainly agree with your assessment of the “daimonic” and its roots for May, though I think his use of the term was more a refinement of the unconscious than an alternative. The interesting thing to me about this conception is that in fact it sits somewhere between the “religious”, “philosophical,” and the “psychological” concepts that May came to make his own. Let me try to explain. The issue of evil in the world, of course, is a subject that has concerned philosophers and theologians for millennia, what in religion is known as “theodicy”—how do you explain Evil in the world when a presumably benevolent God created that same world? For May, deeply influenced by Freud the radical atheist and Tillich the radical theologian, as well of course by the existentialists, the answers of all three hover within the unifying idea of the “daimonic.”

One element was, of course, Freud’s concept of the Id  (or Es  or it ). However, it was too mechanistic/biological for May and for many others. As for religion, the greatest influence was Tillich, who rejected use of the traditional term “demonic” only to denote “evil.” As early as 1926, Tillich used it in reference to the energy unleashed by a presence of the holy, one that was stronger or weaker in different individuals but always present. It was part of what made human beings human.

That human connection to Tillich’s “ground of being,” the realm of his “God beyond God,” might produce good or evil in various strengths depending on its use in the cause of destructive or creative behavior—and for both May and Tillich, the two were often intermixed when that energy ran high. Yet May had given up his conventional theological beliefs by the mid-1940s, for reasons that would take too long to explain in this already complicated answer! In a sense, his spiritualized conception of the "daimonic" served to replace what he had come to consider the outmoded constructs of organized religion.  

As you point out, Rollo could feel these primal daimonic forces within his own psyche—the creative and the destructive—and sought a theory that would do justice to his own unique being.  To work with and constructively express these energies rather than repress them. He saw the need in psychology and psychotherapy to create a more general model that marked something broader than the Id but also independent of Tillich’s mystically abstract notion of God.

The daimonic concept that became the touchstone of May’s existential psychology combined the dramatic potentials of ancient Greek philosophy, Freud's idea of the Id, Jung's notion of the shadow, and the courageous spiritual directedness of Kierkegaard’s and Tillich’s radical Lutheranism. It offered a multilevel synthesis of these diverse worldviews that lends nuance and breadth to our vision of human consciousness.

 I might add that my biography of May grapples not only with Rollo's intellectual, emotional, and artistic creativity but also with less evident destructive aspects of his personality, in part to demonstrate the vivid reality and influence of the daimonic in his own life. Yet, in a more general sense, the daimonic is an extraordinarily useful concept when assessing individual personalities and pivotal moments of turbulent transformation in society.  

Part 6, the final portion of this conversation, can be found here