When the Cure Becomes the Problem : WE’VE HAD ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF PSYCHOTHERAPY: And the World’s Getting Worse, <i> by James Hillman and Michael Ventura (HarperCollins: $17; 242 pp.)</i>

<i> Csikszentmihalyi is a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. His most recent book is "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience."</i>

This Tuesday, about 60,000 representatives from 160 governments, in cluding U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, will meet in Rio de Janeiro for a two-week Earth Summit to try to reconcile the needs of developing countries with the carrying capacity of the environment. A key question they will be asking is: How can billions of Asians and South Americans snag some of the cars and refrigerators that Europeans, Japanese and North Americans take for granted, without blowing the ozone shield out of the sky? (This is the meeting, by the way, at which our elected representatives, beholden to the chemical industry, will try to prevent the passage of measures to regulate chlorofluorocarbon release.)

It would be difficult to think of a more appropriate venue for such an august assembly. Rio, the most bewitching metropolis in the world! Rousing rhythms, romance, seductive beaches! Surrounded by shantytowns where millions endure a miserable existence without plumbing or hope. Near rain forests being ground to pulp to fuel the sweet life in glass high-rises. Rio, with its colorful, tiled avenues--where swarms of street children have been rounded up by militiamen and killed somewhere out of sight in the bush--is a living symbol of the untenable tension we have unwittingly created between us--fortunate, high-tech urban superconsumers--and the rest of creation.

The delegates at the Earth Summit have their job cut out for them. It is getting clearer every day that anything like a humane lifestyle cannot be sustained in the future without drastic changes in the way we live now. Of course, it is always possible that some unexpected technological breakthrough will resolve our problems, creating new sources of clean energy and preventing the implosion of a growing population on diminishing resources.

Another possibility is that humanity, ever resourceful in the face of the inevitable, will mend its ways in time when the handwriting blares from the wall--when, in other words, plagues, riots and famine have made life untenable even in the affluent suburbs. It might just be possible to change our behavior before catastrophe strikes and find a global modus vivendi that can take us one more notch up the evolutionary scale rather than into oblivion.

It is this last possibility that the authors of “We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy” explore. Both believe we are mad--what else would you call a species that systematically destroys the habitat that allows it to live? Both think that our neuroses and general unhappiness are caused by this alienation from the anima mundi, from the natural context of earth, sky, water and other animals. Both believe that modern psychotherapy, with its emphasis on introspection, self-pity and individual solutions, is more a part of the problem than the cure. Both look for help to animism, deep ecology, ecofeminism and radical therapy (Freud is out, Jung and Laing are in).


In a transcript of conversations and letters between James Hillman, an East Coast Jungian analyst, and Michael Ventura, a filmmaker and L. A. Weekly columnist, the two authors focus on the question, “Why did psychotherapy fail?”

Now such a way to go about writing a book sounds a bit contrived at first, but it works. The two conversational sections are particularly enjoyable, with all sorts of fresh ideas darting back and forth, as in a successful jam session. It is a perfect style to express the jittery, funky, sophisticated brainstorming of the attractively neurotic interlocutors. The letters are also often illuminating, but they do not have some of the spontaneity that makes the rest of the book so appealing.

My favorite ideas from the authors’ manic exchanges: therapists should start treating their client’s schedules (because calendars are among our biggest defenses); clinical hierarchies should be turned upside down, with lowly art therapists getting more pay and respect than psychiatrists (because shaping aesthetic experience is more beneficial for the soul than dispensing chemicals); the God of the last era becomes the devil of the next (and therefore Christian fundamentalism is a satanic cult); romantic love is an ecological problem; sexuality should be re-ritualized, and sacred prostitutes of both sexes should be recognized as highly sophisticated performance artists.

A good deal of this alienation, the authors believe, is the result of the emphasis of American culture on individualism, typified by the Norman Rockwell ideal of the happy, self-sufficient family. Rockwell’s vision “is a distortion of what families were for thousands, probably tens of thousands of years,” Ventura observes. “During that time, no family was self-sufficient. Each family was a working unit that was part of the larger working unit, which was the community.”

Alienation, of course, is hardly a neurosis peculiar to America. Hillman sees its other wellspring in the culture of manic living that is endemic throughout the First World. While connecting us superficially by fax, CNN and rapid transportation, this culture has isolated us in more fundamental ways. As Hillman observes, “I live everywhere and nowhere. But I don’t know who lives next door to me. Who’s in the next flat? Who’s in 14-B?”

Whatever its cause, the authors conclude, alienation is certainly exacerbated by therapy’s definition of the self, drawn from the Protestant and Oriental traditions, as “the interiorization of god . . . the inner divine.” Hillman contends that the self can be defined more accurately as “the interiorization of community.” “And if you make that little move,” he writes, “then the boundaries between me and another would be much less sure . . . . So it wouldn’t be, ‘I am because I think.’ ( Cogito ergo sum, as Descartes said.) It would be, as somebody said to me the other night, ‘I am because I party.’ Convivo ergo sum .”

Only one of the authors under review are psychologists, and James Hillman is not exactly mainstream. But if it is true that war is too important to be left to generals, and religion to priests, it is also true that psychologists should not have the last word on the soul. And the evidence is rather persuasive that the soul needs some overhauling. Otherwise, as these authors suggest, soon Gaia may want to stop the human experiment in sheer self-defense, and if she decides to do so it won’t be pretty. These two books won’t solve the problems that the 60,000 delegates will face in Rio, but they may help us recover our bearings in this old world that refuses to stand still.