The New Confessionalism

Dr Christina Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when he was seventeen and she was fifteen years old, initially claimed that a fear of flying made it difficult for her to come to Washington to testify. It emerged, however, that she flew regularly to places as far apart as Tahiti and Delaware.

President Trump mocked her claim to suffer from fear of flying. I am not sure that it is the place of a president to mock a citizen of his country in this fashion, but I couldn’t help smiling nonetheless. “I’m no psychology professor,” he wrote, “but it does seem weird to me that someone could have a selective fear of flying. Can’t do it to testify but for vacation, well it’s not a problem at all.”

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I was familiar with this selective type of fear from my medico-legal practice. People would claim to have been rendered agoraphobic by some negligent act or omission such that they could no longer leave the house and go to work, and therefore were entitled to large sums in compensation, but when I examined their medical records I would discover that they had been immunised against yellow fever for a holiday in Brazil. The man in the street might think that this discovery would have put paid to the claim. If you can leave your home to go to Brazil (64,000 murders last year), surely you can catch the Number 17 bus to go to the office twenty-five minutes away?

But the man in the street would be wrong. The apparent discrepancy would be explained away by a psychologist, and this is precisely what a psychologist did in the case of Dr Blasey Ford. He said that it was not uncommon for a fear of flying to wax and wane according to destination. In other words (though he did not pronounce them), it was the destination, not the flying, that created the anxiety. But oddly enough courts never seemed to draw this conclusion, perhaps because it would have threatened the lucrative livings provided by the tort system. That is why practically no claim was too outrageous to be entertained.

To return to Dr Blasey Ford. In her testimony, which she gave very well, she said something that particularly interested me, namely that one of the reasons that she had not come forward in public before the nomination of the judge to the Supreme Court was that constant reiteration of the story of her trauma (whatever it was, for few people doubted that she had experienced some kind of traumatic event, or thought that she was simply a liar and a good actress) caused her to relive it and to make her feel worse. That is to say, as someone who has evidently had a very successful career, she had deliberately put the traumatic event behind her and got on with her life. In so doing, she had exercised one of the cardinal virtues that is not much in fashion, namely fortitude (not that the other cardinal virtues are very fashionable either).

We have given up fortitude and have replaced it by that incontinent type of confessionalism known as psychobabble. Hardly a week goes by without some famous person or other (“a celebrity,” says a friend of mine, “is someone I’ve never heard of”) revealing one detail or other of his disreputable personal life, for example that he is addicted to dog biscuits, whereupon there is an outpouring of praise for his candour and an avalanche of similar confessions, breaking the last taboo—last in the sense that Nellie Melba’s last performances were her last, there were always more to come.

The dog biscuit addict is then further praised for having sought professional help, for having checked himself into a clinic or rehabilitation centre, having thereby admitted that, his immense fame and fortune notwithstanding, he is but a vulnerable human being, vulnerability being the new saintliness. He has acted responsibly because, as everyone knows, there is a technical solution to the problem of addiction to dog biscuits, because there is a technical solution to everything. Have not the latest scanners of the utmost sophistication demonstrated that certain areas of the brain of dog biscuit addicts light up in the presence of dog biscuits? It’s wonderful what they can do these days.

Therefore, a person who exhibits fortitude is irresponsible: indeed, fortitude, like the duck in the diagram that suddenly becomes a rabbit, has changed to being a deadly sin, indeed the deadliest, from having been a cardinal virtue. The person who exhibits fortitude inflicts his suffering (because of the trauma’s effects on him) on others, on his family, and indeed on the whole of society. Above all he is a traitor to himself. If only he would engage with therapy, the latter being a duty as well as a right. As it used to say with monotonous regularity—and truth—on my school reports, Could do better. Or, as it used to say on the sides of some Nigerian buses, Why die in silence?

Of course, the new confessionalism is quite without real confession or self-examination. Whatever is supposedly confessed is no more painful than, say, confessing to being anaemic or to having high blood pressure. We are in the moral world of Dr Chasuble, the cleric in The Importance of Being Earnest: “Charity, dear Miss Prism, charity! We are none of us perfect. I myself am peculiarly susceptible to draughts.”

The difference is that while Dr Chasuble’s immortal pronouncement is held up to our laughter—and it is surely very few jokes that evoke laughter however many times repeated, as Wilde’s joke does—we now take this kind of thing with deadly seriousness, or at least with earnestness.

Wilde wrote before the high tide of shallow self-revelation, of course. What accounted for that tide? The decline of religious belief was important, as was the consequent rise of psychoanalysis. The latter, adopted by the intelligentsia with alacrity (and where the intelligentsia leads, can the plebe be far behind?), gave the impression that the solution to every human problem lay buried, like pirate’s treasure in tropical islands, deep in every mind, and which once uncovered by the simple expedient of talking more or less endlessly about oneself would remove all obstacles to a happy, fulfilled life. Even more delightfully, your unhappiness was always found to be someone else’s fault, usually but not exclusively that of your parents.

The great tide of psychoanalysis has now gone out, except in intellectually backward countries such as France and Argentina, where incomprehensible, convoluted psychoanalytical books continue to pour from the presses, more for ostentation than use (the first victim of psychoanalysis was prose style). But the psychoanalytical tide left the flotsam and jetsam of its doctrines behind on the beaches of the Western mind, and everyone now knows, or rather believes, that bottling things up, keeping things to yourself and getting on with your life, are the worst possible things that you can do. Traumatic experiences are like pus that accumulates in an abscess, which must eventually be released if it is not to cause septicaemia. Undisclosed and undiscussed trauma causes emotional septicaemia sooner or later: so that, like the teeth of the British working classes which their possessors believed would only give trouble in the end so that it was best to have them all out soon as possible, it is best to drain the emotional pus of trauma by talking about it long and often.

Dr Blasey Ford found precisely the opposite to be the case: fortitude is, if not exactly healing (for what has been done cannot be undone), at least anti-inflammatory and self-reinforcing, in so far as achievement after trauma is a cause for pride and therefore an incentive for further achievement. Though not religious, I recall Psalm 84 (in the Prayer Book version):

Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee: in whose heart are thy ways.
Who going through the vale of misery use it for a well: and the pools are filled with water.

Psychology, not just of the Freudian variety, has proved singularly useless in explaining Man to himself or in guiding him in how to live. No doubt it has helped some people in some circumstances, but its intellectual harvest after so much effort has been meagre and its cultural effects have been devastating. Karl Kraus said that psychoanalysis is itself the disease that it pretends to cure, and that might be said of psychology as a whole. It places a distorting lens between ourselves and genuine self-reflection. It has encouraged, if not caused, mass neuroticism and narcissism. Know thyself: read no psychology.

3 thoughts on “The New Confessionalism

  • pgang says:

    Interestingly psychology has replaced philosophy as the sole source of contemporary epistemology, given that humanist philosophy has imploded into nihilism and has nothing more to offer. If psychology is now also finished (not that it ever really began), then we are truly at the end of this dystopian cultural experiment, as the intelligentsia no longer have anything to babble about.

    Speaking of babble, has anyone noticed that nobody wants to communicate with you any more – they just want to ‘reach out’ to you. Makes me want to vomit.

  • Victor says:

    My Labrador has an appalling, really quite self-destructive, addiction to dog biscuits, which I’ve never been able to understand — he had such a loving and safe puppyhood.

  • T B LYNCH says:

    Psychiatrists spend too much time in the company of the insane – and the disease is catching.

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