Carlo Strenger

Homo Globalis


Psychoanalysis Meets Existentialism: Robert Stolorow on Trauma and Authenticity

Existentialism and Psychoanalysis can elucidate traumatic experience poignantly

Posted Apr 26, 2011

Until the 1970s psychoanalysis was a major cultural force in most Western countries, and in the US it was also a central player in the mental health establishment. It has largely lost its standing with the wider public and in academia; partially, because our culture is enamored with quick-fix methods that promise quick relief; partially also, because psychoanalysis has not done enough to communicate with the scientific mainstream. 

Like psychoanalysis, existential thought has fallen out of favor with general culture. At mid-twentieth century it was highly popular: its emphasis on authenticity; its critique of encrusted ways of thinking and living gave many an alternative to the bourgeois dream of making it and fitting in.
But existentialism also highlights the tragic dimension of human existence: our relentless fight against realizing that our existence is finite; that we have limitations that cannot be overcome; that nevertheless we are free, but can only realize this freedom if we face personal and existential limitations. This tragic dimension is no longer popular in our culture that perpetuates the myth of "Just-do-it," and repeats the mantra that happiness is a birthright.

Nevertheless existential thinking is lately making a comeback: in the last two decades experimental existential psychology has validated the core ideas of existential thought: the denial of death is indeed one of the strongest motivators in human nature. We all seek to avoid mortality awareness by immersion in daily life, in the goals taken for granted in our culture.

Trauma tears apart the context of everyday certainties that sustains us, as Robert Stolorow shows in his new World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis (Routledge 2011). Stolorow, a founding member of the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles and former Professor of Psychology at Yeshiva University, since the 1970s, has consistently worked out an intersubjective version of psychoanalysis that has been immensely fruitful in helping many psychoanalytic therapists to find better ways of understanding and helping their patients.

Stolorow's main objective in World, Affectivity, Trauma is to show how modern psychoanalysis can be enriched by integrating existential philosophy into its concepts. Stolorow, a scholar specializing in the work of the towering figure of existential philosophy, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), first introduces the reader to central concepts of Heidegger's thought.

Heidegger's basic thesis is that humans live in a world structured by links of every-day significance that guide our day-to-day lives: we stick to unquestioned acceptance of our social identity, our connection to those close to us and to the rest of our social world. We mostly move in a set of clearly defined obligations and roles we take for granted.

Behind this, Heidegger argues, lurks the existential structure of human existence: we are finite beings; making choices all the time, living within the horizon of our knowledge that we are finite: we will die at some point. The full realization of the truth of our existence generates unbearable existential anxiety: in reality we are engulfed by nothingness: all our choices could be different; and all of them are utterly final: since time is limited, every choice we make annihilates all the options we did not realize.
Humans cannot possibly live with the existential anxiety that goes along with full consciousness of the deep-structure of our existence. Hence, to survive psychologically, we live in what Heidegger calls a state of inauthenticity; we cling to the system of everyday significance that provides us with structure, meaning and safety.

World, Affectivity, Trauma elucidates the nature of trauma making use of Heidegger's phenomenology of human existence. In Trauma, the system of everyday significance we take for granted suddenly falls apart, and we are faced with the unprotectedness of our existence brutally.

Stolorow's phenomenology of trauma comes extraordinarily alive in his poignant description of a central traumatic event in his life: in 1990 his wife Dede died unexpectedly at age 35. Theirs had been a very close relationship; they were united by a rich, dense set of common meanings that included professional cooperation as well.

Stolorow vividly describes how in the years that followed, his system of everyday significance collapsed time and again. For example: in the midst of a conference with esteemed colleagues of many years, the whole of the event and the people in it were suddenly completely emptied of all meaning: "The significance of my professional world had collapsed into meaninglessness. The conference and my friends offered me nothing; I was deadened to them; estranged from them. I felt uncanny: like a strange and alien being - not of this world." (p 43)

The great strength of Stolorow's book is to gradually unveil what trauma really means: the collapse of all meaning; the drastic change in the way we experience space and time; and the terrifying experience of the evaporation of everyday meanings that we take for granted.

The space of this article does not allow following Stolorow's closely woven elaboration of the phenomenology of everyday significance and its disintegration in trauma. Let it be said that the reader is richly rewarded by this dense text that elucidates the deep-structure of human existence. The book is a treasure for practicing clinicians of all styles, because it helps us understand some of the most central tenets of human life and the experience of trauma in great vividness and poignancy. But it will also be of great value for a wider educated readership interested in a deeper understanding of the structures of existence and the nature of trauma.

Stolorow's book also shows that the combination between psychoanalysis and existentialism has the potential to create an alternative for a culture enamored with quick fixes, mindless "happiness" and an obsession with spectacular success: living authentically means embracing the tragic dimension of human life.