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Book Reviews : Analyst Prescribes Therapy for Society

December 13, 1985|HANNAH LERMAN | Lerman is a clinical psychologist practicing in Los Angeles; her book "The Polar Bear and the Tiger: Freud and the Psychology of Women" will be published by Springer in 1986. and

All Mighty: A Study of the God Complex in Western Man by Horst E. Richter; translated by Jan van Heurck (Hunter House: $19.95)

In this psychoanalysis of culture, Horst Richter draws a parallel between, on the one hand, individual disillusionment with the failed omnipotence of parents and the pathological mistrust to which this crisis often leads and, on the other hand, the intellectual history of Western civilization, which reveals to him a compulsion to claim for man an omnipotence once attributed to God.

According to Richter, a German psychoanalyst, we lost the security of believing ourselves to be the protected children of Father-God at the end of the Middle Ages. The urge to dominate and control nature has been one way to cope with that loss, a way to tell ourselves that we really are in control. The worship of reason has also been a part. The substitution of reason for emotion, once generalized, has created an inability among us to experience another's pain. This, in turn, has helped to polarize society between the powerful and the weak--i.e., between those who can achieve some measure of control and those who cannot.

Richter's methodology is in the long psychoanalytic tradition of explaining group phenomena via individual concepts. Freud's own "Civilization and Its Discontents" is the paradigmatic example. Richter is to be admired for pursuing his argument to its ultimate conclusions. That is, he refuses to consider the Nazi period in Germany as an anomaly and links it to more subtle manifestations of the same phenomenon throughout Western civilization. He also indicates that those who have dropped out of our society are as much imbued with our societal pathology as those who most promote its stated ideals. He sees the nuclear battlefield as the inevitable end point of our common orientation.

Richter's presentation is weakest where he puts forth a potential solution to our dilemma. His answer--no surprise--is that humanism, tolerance and sympathy among people can reverse the present pathology. He does not tell us how we are to arrive at this promised land except by implication.

The last section of the book is a clinical case history of the author's intensive psychotherapeutic work with a young man. Its inclusion seems to suggest social psychotherapy as the primary solution. The conclusion to his case history, one in which the growth of emotional maturity in the young man resulted in the psychological deterioration of his authoritarian father, becomes an occasion for Richter to criticize his own earlier ignorance of more socially oriented approaches to psychological problems and his over-reliance on narrowly individualistic psychoanalytic methodology. First published in Germany in 1979, "All Mighty" was a best-seller in that country and offers much more food for thought than the typical "pop-psych" book on our best-seller lists.

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