The publication of an expanded and revised version of Leslie Farber’s The Ways of the Will nearly twenty years after his death and almost a quarter century since the appearance of his last book is an occasion of both interest and pleasure. After a long eclipse, his name and work recently came again to public attention through two prominent sources. One was the publication last year of Emily Fox Gordon’s memoir, Mockingbird Years, a work that details her psychotherapy with Farber. The second was a Summer 1999 special issue of the journal Salmagundi devoted to a rediscovery of Farber’s work and to critical assessments and memoirs by several renowned psycho analysts, including Adam Phillips, Stephen Mitchell, and Robert Jay Lifton. So it is fitting that a new collation of previously collected and uncollected essays should now appear.
In these essays, Farber seeks the underlying coherence in a wide range of experiences by making good use of a single concept, namely will. In its appropriate use, he tells us, will is joined to other faculties, like intelligence, judgment, and imagination. Its presence is neither insistent nor forced, but quietly carries us in a particular direction, helping to determine the course our life takes. In its inappropriate use, will separates itself from these other faculties, becoming bloated and overbearing, as it attempts to subject all aspects of experience to itself. Farber concedes that certain goals are more or less amenable to the relatively isolated action of will, while insisting that others become irrevocably distorted when subject to its influence: “I can will knowledge, but not wisdom; going to bed, but not sleeping; eating, but not hunger; meekness, but not humility; scrupulosity, but not virtue; self–assertion or bravado, but not courage; lust, but not love; commiseration, but not sympathy; congratulations, but not admiration; religiosity, but not faith; reading, but not understanding.”
As we read this list, we notice how the second term of each pair, the one not amenable to will, is, because it is more desirable, the more tempting to will. It is precisely in this temptation to will what can’t be willed that Farber locates our most poignant distress. It is, of course, fair to ask how, if not through will, these most desirable qualities of being arise. Beyond that, we might wonder what about these qualities makes them out of reach, at least when willfully sought.
Farber locates the answer to these questions in what he calls the first realm of will, in which we are moving, unconsciously, “in a particular direction, rather than toward a particular goal.” He means by unconscious neither repressed contents nor their automatic enactment in symbolic form. Rather, he is pointing to those moments when we are mercifully free of self–consciousness, when our senses, and beyond our senses, our very being, are alert to the situation itself, ready to meet it, not to force it. The possibility of courage, for example, arises when dangerous or difficult circumstances so deeply stake their claim on us that we respond almost despite ourselves. Afterwards, others may infer that we have been courageous, but to seek courage directly is a form of vanity rather than the unselfish surrender required. It is an irony richly savored by Farber that we are most free precisely at such moments of surrender, when the clamors and claims of self–will are subordinate to the situation itself.
Although there is a strain of idealism in Farber’s writing, an attitude almost of reverence for what he calls the “givens” (which he defines as “that which is given us to receive by calling it by name”), it is not the only, nor even the predominant, strain. Farber is a worldly and sophisticated person who gives and goes to cocktail parties and enjoys gossip as well as more serious talk. He has a novelist’s sense of character and situation, and speaks in a lively, improvisational voice. The very titles of his essays—“He Said, She Said,” “Family Reunion,” “Lying on the Couch,” “O Death, Where is Thy Sting–a–ling–a–ling?”—place him with those who have written, in a personal voice and with leisurely, speculative elegance, of familiar yet puzzling aspects of our nature: of jealousy, despair, sex, lying, the family. It is not overstatement to say that, in their originality, depth, and dramatic grasp of the human condition, these essays are absolutely first–rate. Like all great essays, they lead us at once out to the world and to our inmost selves.
Farber’s excellence as a writer, however, is not all that distinguishes him from others of his profession. His philosophical assumptions about human behavior challenge what amounts to a shibboleth among psychologists: that the cause of present behavior is lodged in personal history. This conviction directs the course of psychotherapy backwards into the past, in the belief that only there will definitive truths, pertinent to present dilemmas, be found. Farber does not deny the influence of personal history on behavior, which would simply be foolish. But he is also keen to the ease with which historical explanations can be turned into self–serving justifications. In addition, he recognizes that, no matter how diligently therapist and patient glean the past for definitive insights, those that are found are useless if the patient lacks the will (or willfully refuses) to make use of them. Farber believes, therefore, that will is a category sui generis, not reducible to insight, libido, or any other construct that attempts to circumvent the knotty and paradoxical issue of human freedom.
As a result of this, Farber eschews case histories in favor of phenomenology. Case histories treat the person’s past rather than the person himself as what is important; Farber’s approach tries to change that. Each problem he describes opens onto (and opens up) a particular kind of being–in–the–world: the hysteric’s ad diction to form over content, his disguise of uncertainty by a manner of knowingness; the despairer’s pursuit of the “life of suicide” (one of Farber’s brilliant phrases); the envier’s reluctance to acknowledge another’s superiority, and the machinations by which he avoids that acknowledgment; the shrinking of the anxious person’s world as all else recedes before his relentless need to control what can’t be controlled. In each case, the person described is not a stranger, but someone we ourselves, at one time or another, have been.
It has become part of our received wisdom that the distinguishing characteristic of psychological understanding is that it shows the connections between past experience and present behavior, and that the understanding of a person’s past is the sine qua non for modifying its implacable effects. Farber questions this and places instead the concern that the patient be truthful at the heart of psychological understanding. In fact, he believes that it may actually do harm to assume that there is a decisive connection between past and present and that psychological treatment should search for these supposed causes in the past, and celebrate them when found. He thinks this standard practice minimizes the person’s present freedom by privileging truth at the expense of truthfulness. As Farber writes, “The truth that interests me is problematical, partial, modest—and still breathing. It is not normally dramatic and revelatory, and its attainment depends far more on thinking hard than feeling freely. To put it another way: I think that speaking truthfully is a far more fitting ambition than speaking the truth.”
It will not be surprising, therefore, that Farber renounces the moral neutrality with which the majority of psychotherapists approach their work. The landscape his patients inhabit is a moral one, in the sense that their actions partake, however obliquely, of the dimension best specified as good and evil. In his writing, the latter term most generally refers to what Farber understands as a desecration of the “givens,” a willful refusal to acknowledge their claims. He knows that such refusal may have its roots in painful circumstances, and that it inevitably perpetuates and complicates pain. Despite this, he sees the moment of refusal as a choice. Farber knows all about the deceptions and evasions that beset people at such moments. But he also knows about moments not so tainted, moments of courage, generosity, and the redemptive talk that may accompany an attitude of truthfulness. His belief in the possibility of such moments, and his conviction that people can turn towards (or away from) them, make for the dramatic tension at the heart of his essays.
Since Farber applied his ideas in his practice, it is legitimate to wonder what psychotherapy with him was like. Though he did not write explicitly of psychotherapeutic technique, Emily Fox Gordon’s memoir of her psychotherapy with him, which can profitably be read as a companion to The Ways of the Will, yields a rich portrait of Farber in action.
Gordon began psychotherapy with Farber while she was an in–patient at Austin Riggs, a psychiatric facility in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, at one point in an already (though she was only in her late teens) long career as a psychotherapy patient. She had come to expect a kind of neutrality, something like Freud’s “evenly hovering attention” when she spoke with her therapists, and under its influence had herself become neutral, vague, almost neutered. It was quite a change when she realized that Farber “judged and revealed his judgments.” At the first community meeting that he attended at Austin Riggs, she saw the “unmistakable expression of shocked contempt” that came over his face at another patient’s offensive remark. Towards her, as well, his attitude was “never the ‘unconditional positive regard’ with which therapists are charged to view their patients. His regard was highly qualified and partial, and as real as rock.” In addition, she learned that, for Farber, psychotherapy was an occasion for personal, truthful, lively talk, and that he expected her to come to sessions “as pulled together as possible—ready to exercise judgment, to make distinctions, to listen and respond, to view myself first as a moral and then a psychological being, most importantly, to tell the truth.” Gordon had, apparently, never spoken with someone whose talk was utterly serious but not sententious, and like a prince’s kiss, it aroused her from the stupor into which she had drifted.
Although this was clearly therapeutic, Gordon goes on to reveal some of the difficulties that arose from her unconventional treatment. First, she developed an “organ of veneration” for Farber and “things Farberian.” This kind of idealization, which would have been noted and analyzed in a more traditional psychotherapy, was apparently never talked about in Gordon’s treatment with Farber. Also, Farber invited Gordon to social and family occasions, both to welcome her when she first moved to New York, and, presumably, to enjoy her own lively company. But there is no evidence that they ever discussed how she felt about being included in this way, and if this deviation from standard practice was indeed helpful to her.
Gordon’s memoir reveals how she successfully, almost heroically, struggled to maintain a genuine loyalty and devotion to Farber, a mature sense of gratitude for all she gained in her therapy with him, without having to minimize the many ways he was less than helpful and occasionally hurtful. Her present devotion less resembles the “unconditional positive regard” it once was, and has become, like Farber’s regard for her, “highly qualified and partial, and as real as rock.”
That’s exactly what Farber would have wanted.
Barbara J. Moore is a psychologist in private practice in New York City and a member of the faculty of Queens College, City University of New York.