Negative Capability, Psychosis, and Politics

Several weeks ago I blogged about negative capability as viewed by a psychotherapist, Diane Voller.  She applied this literary term to describe the need of a therapist to become “involved” with the patient on a level that is not the safe cocoon of clinical detachment.  She explained how this required finding the courage to embrace the vulnerability that certainly lead her into the profession in the first place, and finding that she could survive in the tumult, confusion, doubt, fear, and ambiguity that lurks in the human heart. Any meaningful therapy can be offered only by someone who has found the courage to live “in the trenches” of human pain and not be affected too much by what the anthropologists call, “contagion.” (Voller’s article can be found here–

The term was coined by poet John Keats in the early 19th century to describe the gut-level turmoil that he recognized gave him the ability to cavort about in verbal field of his heart produce poetry.  Good poets have a facility to venture into that territory as they have found a solid core in their heart which allows them to handle the duress, though often this ability is tested to the limits.  These poets can stand tall, stand firm in an existential abyss that would destroy a lot of people. Most people avoid this duress and do so without problems.  They will certainly live on the surface of life but that is the calling for most people and “surface dwellers” are always the back bone of any tribe.  It is true their “calling” is an escape in a sense but “escape” has its place always in human experience.  Even the poet, standing firm and tall, utilizes an “escape” but does it while giving expression to the subterranean energy that flows in his heart.  Standing “firm and tall” merely means that he has the ego integrity that will permit him to abide, at least occasionally, in this existential dark place and withstand the tumult.

But there are some in any tribe whose heart is anchored in this existential abyss in a way that threatens reality, his own and others.  In fact, this person’s heart is not just anchored there but it has become a “comfy zone” to the point of removing any desire to find his way out or any awareness that there is an, “out there.”  The delightful cocoon in which he is imprisoned, his “empty world of self-relatedness” (Paul Tillich), has become a fortress from which he will wreak havoc on those around him.  While the rest of us daily face reality, part of which is, “those thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” as we toil-on in life most of us do not sip the tasty nectar of a private delusional system. A extreme delusional system, such as psychosis, sometimes allows one to function in a social context if he can find one in which his need for power and control is accommodated.  This person can even achieve great power, even becoming the leader of a huge and important nation if he can find enough people who are fear-based in their identity to allow his fear-mongering to trigger deep-seated insecurities and frailties.

“Psychotic” or even “mentally ill” is not a fair term to describe to most of these who have fallen under the spell of a demagogue.  The internal conflict that is common to us all does not reach so deeply that it expresses itself in the need for power and control like it does with a demagogue.  Many people’s response is one of powerlessness and even hopelessness making them fodder for a demagogue’s promises of power and might, possibly in slogans like, “Make America Great Again.”  Any culture provides “conflict avoidance” maneuvers or contrivances…religion being one…and the internal strife can be avoided or minimized. But, the suppressed pressure, often generations in the making, seeks to find expression and sometimes deep-seated needs will supersede moral and ethical standards and people will pledge their support to someone who is the embodiment of everything that they have spent their life opposing.  They will have found someone who can articulate the rage and frustration they have spent a life time silently enduring.

Let me be less subtle.  I don’t know that “psychotic” is the appropriate term for Trump but I do know that he demonstrates classic psychotic features.  And he has the structure of a political party who finds his delusional machinations compatible enough with theirs that they stand firmly behind him.  It is a “folie a deux” carried to the extreme of a, “folie a millions.”  If they fail to support him, then their quest for power will be thwarted and possibly even for the long-run, and they might have to acknowledge their “internal conflicts” without blaming them on Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.  Denial is always easy and more comfortable…in the short run.  But the conflict that is being avoid, in all its abysmal ugliness, eventually will “out” and great will be the devastation.

I must reiterate.  I am not saying that those who voted for Trump and support him are mentally ill…any more than the rest of us!  I am suggesting that they, like all humans, have internal conflict which Henry David Thoreau had in mind when he noted, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.”  It is often extremely painful to bring to the light of the day this existential anguish and it can lead to mental illness, including psychosis.  But those with an open mind and heart, or at least one that is not rigidly closed, can give expression to this turmoil through art, music, poetry, and non-dogmatic religion.  This turmoil cannot be given redress by mere regurgitation of cultural commonplaces and naïve unexamined premises.


Here is a list of my three blogs.  Check the other two out sometime!


About literarylew

I am a retired mental health counselor in El Prado, NM near Taos. I have a life-long passion for the liberal arts and a deep spiritual commitment. I will utilize my voracious appetite for the written word in this blog, delving into literature, psychology, religion, philosophy, and linguistics.
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