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Nietzsche and Rank: Precursors of Existential Humanistic Psychology 1

I want to begin with awe—because that’s what I think we brought in today. Awe—first of all because this gathering of souls and the uniqueness of this meeting is awesome. Where else, even at APA (especially at APA?), do grown men and women stand around and reflect on the thrill and anxiety of living, the core of living, through the conduit of two such stellar explorers as Friedrich Nietzsche and Otto Rank.

I want to thank each one of the speakers for the love you obviously poured into your presentations, and the eloquence that resulted. If this symposium is a love-fest, then let it be, proclaim it throughout the halls of the convention! For we are in dire need of such love-fests, and the lack of them in our alleged science of the mind makes me almost want to weep.

There is so much richness in these papers, I hardly know where to begin, let alone how to reflect on it in 10 minutes. The thread that kept striking me about all the commentaries was that leather-bound gift of Nietzsche’s collected works that Rank bestowed upon Freud. It shows up all three times, and as central content. For Will the act signified the perpetual ambivalence of the original thinker, the great debt owed (and that should be recognized) but also the great push to break away, to proclaim one’s freedom. I agree thoroughly that Rank’s gesture was not mere narcissistic wounding—but was both a chiding and a declaration, a call to a future vision (which both he himself and by implication Freud too were in on forging). The core Nietzsche-Rank dilemma between fate and freedom, necessity and possibility that Will identifies (and actually all three presenters allude to) is precisely the core "battle" as I call it, of optimal depth psychotherapy.

This is a battle that is being increasingly threatened today--suppressed, denied, dismissed, cultured out (as Laing would say). Indeed, the beauty of these thinkers—and all those who followed in their footsteps—is that they named and prized this battle (this agon as the Greeks called it), but in so many corners today it is being curtailed, and as a result the heart of therapy is also being cut out. What I mean here is that the exceedingly informative battle between the part of a person that that cleaves to the past, to destiny and the part that struggles to emerge, that aspires to possibility, is being resoundingly bypassed today—tragedy, struggle, self and other encounter are being gravely overlooked today in the name of quick fixes—drugs, televisions, computers, internets, junk foods and so on.

We have so many ways and so many means today to deflect the battle and convince ourselves we are content. But the result is that we also deflect the chance to deeply explore ourselves, to see what "gods there may be in our diseases", as Jung put it, or possibilities in sadness (Rilke), or illuminations in bereavement (Shakespeare), or intelligences in madness (Poe) and so on. And most of all we deflect the chance to really "weigh" our lives (both literally and figuratively, to pause, slow-down, and give our lives weight), such that profound and full-bodied decisions can be made about who we are and how we are willing to be in the world. In short, we are increasingly bypassing the chance to live with intentionality, as Rollo May put it, with a full-bodied orientation toward a given direction or project, with passion and with poignancy. And as a result, we are living on "thin milk," as R.D. Laing put it, outside agents, pale substitutes, that "program" but do not evoke personal transformation. Ah, how we miss Will Therapy!

The Jazz composer, then,—suggested by all three presenters--is a pivotal Nietzsche-Rank image. There is no resort to pat answers or ready formulas with jazz, and so it is with our dynamic duo; as Ed said, "If you are too sure of yourself you do not want a showdown with Nietzsche," and in another place, he muses, "Nietzsche would have loved Ellington." Yes, all these allusions are dead on; Nietzsche and Rank are crying, screaming from rooftops: "know the traditions, know where you came from, know what you’re up against; but then, let it rip, groove on your horn, celebrate your voice, and make love to the tension!"

It’s the living on narrow ridges, the heeding of demands of the hour (Buber), that so define our psychophilosophers. James Lieberman is right on target to my mind when he speaks of Rank’s brief therapy. Far from being a forerunner to managed care, Rank’s short term therapy evolved from his relationships; not from his "approved" list of interventions. There is assuredly something potent, poignant, and mobilizing about discussions of termination; just raising the question can be transformative. On the other hand, it could be terrifying, and I do not think Rank shirked that terror or unduly amplified it. Simply put, and like Nietzsche’s prose, he awakened people, kept them at their personal edges, and called them to account. Such so-called short term intervention is not about "short" at all, it is about the recognition of death—how to step up to it, grapple with it, and respond to its inexorability.

Beyond therapy, however, I am increasingly convinced that the next big step for us who dwell on such characters as Nietzsche and Rank, existentialism and romanticism, the science of persons—is 21st century life. Our next big task, it seems to me, is to translate the Nietzsche-Rank nexus—the stress on life’s mystery, the wisdom of the body, perspectivism with passion, the great chain of being, the gay science-- wissenschaft (in its original terms), and the complexity of will--into current social practices--at work, at home, and in the schools. I encourage each of us to consider these translations—as for my own, I have recently developed a notion that draws from the above that I term the fluid center. The fluid center is a pivot point, a pause, a space between the reductionisms and elitisms of our age which aspires to elasticity of living. More formally, I define the fluid center as any sphere of consciousness which has as its concern the widest possible relations to existence; informally, I define it as the richest possible range of experience within the most suitable parameters of support.

Recently, I have applied the fluid center to the educational and work settings. In a very summated nutshell, the fluid center at school would revolve around what I call the "awe curriculum", which is a variant of Ernest Becker’s (1967) exhilarating (though too little known)"alienation curriculum." The awe curriculum brings a sense of the thrill and anxiety of living, the humility and wonder of living to formal learning. In brief, the awe curriculum calls for the systematic study of how various cultures throughout history cultivated or failed to cultivate a sense of awe in their populaces—at home, at work, at places of public devotion or worship, and in relationships. Put another way, students would grapple with how and whether cultures instigated humility and wonder (that is, awe), or humiliation and arrogance (that is, alienation) among their peoples, and second, how those valences relate to students’ current lives (a most important part).

I would advocate the fluidly centered and awe-based spirit at work by calling for business-wide mental and physical well-being programs, where bosses and workers spent 4 hours a week exercising their minds, bodies, and spirits. For the mental well-being program, workers would take one hour, twice a week, to reflect on the significance and impact of their work on their lives (and the lives of those they serve); for the physical well- being program, a wide array of dietary, conditioning, and healing practices would be offered and taught.

The upshot is that these programs would work in tandem with each other and with the awe-based educational immersion to re-create (revolutionize?) the very fabric of day to day life. They would nourish that which Ernest Becker, following Robert Maynard Hutchins, and echoing intensively Nietzsche and Rank, terms "The Great Conversation; which are everyday dialogues about the big questions, the meaningful questions in life. Everyone, or most everyone, could be in on these dialogues. And they would be more than dialogues but genuine encounters, where, following the carnivalesque tradition (which each of us has celebrated today), people would play out the varying parts of themselves—would be granted access to these varying parts--and would deepen, evolve, and call out what is genuinely alive in each other, as a result.

© Kirk J. Schneider
Presented at a Discussion Panel, APA August 2000

Note: This talk is being adapted for an article with the Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry. All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced without the written consent of the author.

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