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Exploring Psychological Catastrophe and the Interpersonal through Winnicott, Bion and Levinas

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Length: 30 minutes

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Susan E. Mull, PhD

I felt instantly enthralled, years ago, when I first heard about Chestnut Lodge from a senior colleague familiar with its vision and legacy.  The Lodge’s pioneering spirit, use of clinical innovation, and basic regard for the humanity of all individuals, struck a deep chord.  Although the accumulated years of socio-cultural and bureaucratic changes eventually took its toll on undoing the operational life of the hospital, the existence of Chestnut Lodge lives on its symbolic powers.  In quite a personal way, Chestnut Lodge and its reputation for creative investigation into the human experience of the psychotic individual, feels soul-stirring.  In what often feels like a crooked world, the Lodge’s approach offers a straighter path.
 
Drawing upon the creative spirit symbolized by Chestnut Lodge and other psychodynamic approaches, the purpose of my paper is to explore psychotic experience and the realm of the interpersonal from two distinct vantage points:  the ontological and the ethical.  Most psychoanalysts and therapists are familiar with the clinical theories of D.W. Winnicott and W.R. Bion.  Both men were deeply interested in understanding aspects of human experience concerned with emotional breakdown and psychological catastrophe. Psychotic experience is understood as the self-in-peril, pointing to primal ruptures within a basic sense of somatic-emotional(-mental) security and stability.  In my discussion, I will explore the correspondences and divergences between these two men and their thinking, as well as the clinical utility of both.  Unlike Winnicott and Bion, Emmanuel Levinas was neither a psychoanalyst devoted to developing a theory of emotional development, nor a clinician devoted to the treatment of psychological suffering. Levinas, on the other hand, was interested in formulating what he called a “first philosophy” – a way of apprehending human experience and personal relations that centers not around ontological concerns of the individual, but around ethical responsibility to the other.  Through the face-to-face encounter, the intersubjective relation is constituted through a call from and towards the other.  In my discussion, I will explore Levinas’ unique notion of “transcendence” and its ethical relation to living in the world.

As we continue to investigate the ontological insecurities of the human being, I believe our vision both requires, and is expanded by, the ethical perspective developed by Levinas.  By bringing together the concerns and perspectives of Winnicott, Bion and Levinas, I believe an approach to understanding human experience is created that grants greater dimensionality, and wholeness.  This approach may be akin to Bion’s notion of working with shifting vertices to gain a fuller appreciation of the “whole.”


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