George Walford: Ideology of a Psychologist

The mystics have long insisted on the need for recognition of the dark side, and one achievement of the past century has been to link this intuition with the methods of science, producing rational studies of the irrational. One example appears in Aldous Huxley’s studies of consciousness-changing drugs (mainly, in those innocent days, peyoti) but the trumpets sound, of course, for Sigmund Freud. Many streams descend from that mighty source, and on one of these is located the subject of the present article: “An Experiment in Leisure” by Marion Milner (a psychoanalyst) writing as Joanna Field (London, Virago Press 1986, first published 1937). Everything said here about the author and her work is based on this book, published fifty years ago; it must be born in mind that her thinking may now be radically different.

The book is an investigation into her own psyche, undertaken as a spare-time project (hence the title) and it brings an enviable directness to its account of the shifting and many-layered meanings presented by symbols and images. It is enlivened by a gift for the illuminating phrase: ‘the glib ping-pong of argument,’ for example. Marion Milner looks inward, trying to understand feelings. But Marion Milner does not passively observe the operations of her psyche, she thinks about them, and in doing so she uses, inescapably, a certain mode of thinking, a certain ideology, and this brings her work within the field studied by s.i. No sharp line can be drawn between person and society; were self-investigation of this sort to be undertaken by millions of people in Britain it would become a social force, and one function of s.i. is to provide rational grounds for predicting, at least in terms of comparative magnitudes, how far it may be expected to spread. The more conventional and compliant the thinking, the larger the numbers that may identify with it, the more enterprising and individualistic the smaller its pool of potential adherents. In the Introduction to the book appears a remark suggesting the location of the work on the ideological range:

… although loving the clear precision of science and rational exposition I had always felt it to be slightly foreign and a little dangerous, too clear to be true…

That suggests a position just beyond the ideology of external precision and either/or rationalism. It indicates adherence to the ideology of internal relatedness, the one that facilitates biological studies and her emotional responses and their origins – which are clearly non-rational. She studies appears in social affairs as “soft” the images arising in the course of her psychic life, analysing their meaning and observing the conditions under which they become more or less potent. (Acceptance tends to reduce their power). At first sight no connection with systematic ideology appears. S.i. studies mainly large social groups, Marion Milner investigates her personal psyche. S.i. takes cognition and intellection as its field, Marion Milner seeks to understand her reformism. In the technical jargon of s.i. it suggests that the book has been written from a protodynamic stance, looking back to the parastatic which has been surpassed.

Marion Milner set out to discover what she really wanted, and she found below her conscious personality a deeper force; as she expresses it, “we are lived.” When she emptied her mind of wilfulness and submitted, then joy and freedom came. This deeper force was nothing alien; what she discovered was herself.

The work entailed a willingness to let go of the familiar social guidelines. Sexual matters are mentioned but left in the background, and one wonders whether that would have been so had the study been made in the more outspoken 1980s. The idea of “goodness” and the high valuation of self-sacrifice and self-control (required particularly from women) are bypassed, the new self revealed (our term, not Milner’s) is able to pursue its own desires and in doing so to wound others without suffering guilt. The outcome of the work, in short, was a person possessing more autonomy than the conventions find acceptable. Tradition, wisdom and established beliefs go overboard, the mentally independent human being comes to dominate, and this locates the activity in the eidodynamic part of the ideological range, it correlates with reform and revolution. People who regard themselves as inner-directed are unlikely to fit easily into the authoritarian state.

One thing Marion Milner says may seem to go against this. She speaks more than once of people who are certain who they are. Since her own effort can be described as an attempt to find out who she is we might expect her to look up to these others as having already found what she is still seeking. Not so; she speaks of them in a gently dismissive tone, with the implication that their certainty is illusory. We would suggest that for once she has failed to find the appropriate phrase, that what she wants to convey about these people would be better expressed by saying they have yet to realise that “Who am I?” can be a real question. If this be accepted our location of Marion Milner’s work in the ideological spectrum is confirmed. She did not begin to investigate her self until early maturity; through the first part of life she was (so far as appears from this book) in no doubt who she was, and this is the usual experience; even the minority who do come to question their own identity do not do so as children or young people. Only when a certain stage in ideological development has been reached do such questions attain importance, and for the great majority, who remain in the eidostatic phase, they never do arise.

Marion Milner’s experiment gives this result:

My conclusion was that there was a psychological necessity to pay deliberate homage to something, since if it is not deliberate it will be furtive, but none the less powerful and at the mercy of public exploiters of furtive emotions – the politicians, the atrocity-mongers, the popular press; and also the psychological necessity to find your own pantheon of vital images, a mythology of one’s own, not the reach-me-down mass-produced mythology of Hollywood, of the newspapers, or the propaganda of dictators.

On the one hand the great body of conventional people, accepting the rules and not analytical about their own behaviour. On the other the minority who try to find out what makes them tick. Of this smaller group some, like Marion Milner, turn their attention inwards, others, like the supporters of the left, critically observe human behaviour as it appears at large in the social macrocosm, speculating on the reasons why social groups act as they do. Marion Milner studies the individual while the thinkers of the left study social groups; her thinking has a different content from theirs. But she and they are alike in questioning received wisdom, in tearing down the conventional certainties and seeking deeper levels of meaning; her thinking is of the same form as theirs. This association finds explicit confirmation when she says:

In democratic countries the most powerful manipulators of vital images seemed to be the film-producers, the advertisers and the popular press; and these on the whole manipulated them quite irresponsibly for their own financial advantage, though at times of national stress and in elections they were also used politically. Under dictatorships vital images seemed used more deliberately for political purposes, primitive images of blood-brotherhood, of blood sacrifice for one’s country, of an absolute father-god-dictator at the head of the nation. (p. 225)

Like the left, and unlike the right, Marion Milner sees society as divided into a manipulated and exploited majority and a manipulating and exploiting minority.

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“The fact that black, brown and white people all taste the same when-cooked properly helps one to believe in the fundamental unity of the human race” (A History of the Pacific, London, Futtre Publications, 1979, p. 28)

from Ideological Commentary 26, March 1987.