Commentary Magazine


From the Couch . . .

To the Editor:

Dr. Wheelis’s essay [“To Be A God,” Aug. ‘631 was tremendously moving . . . and brought into focus the seldom explored . . . role of the analyst in the broader culture . . .

The grinding, slow-paced work of analysis with . . . goals, sometimes fully realized, sometimes only partially, is an innately frustrating occupation which must lead to a sense of futility and to a quest for a grand design and purpose in life. Unlike those who deal in merchandise, concrete services, or artistic creativity, the analyst views a long parade of unsuccessful lives intimately yet without real participation. Like the critic, he can only observe, never create . . . .

The slim margin between probability and possibility . . . has always fired imaginary assaults on totally new frontiers, and each person pursues the illusion that a germ of greatness rests in him. . . . I suspect that the analyst, uniquely privvy to this illusion in a way that no one else in the world is, becomes easier prey to his own illusions as measured against others, and uses it to overcome the limitations of the role he has assumed . . .

Viola F. Bernstein
Riverdale, New York

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To the Editor:

An investigator cannot expect absolute clarity or exhaustiveness of description when dealing with a system within which an act of investigation necessarily affects the object being investigated. This crucial limitation applies, as Dr. Wheelis suggests, to the description of physical systems which must be interfered with—by the introduction of even the smallest available information-gathering probe, a photon—before we can say anything about them. We can know only so much about certain processes because the processes allow of only that much accuracy of description, not because we are too clumsy as investigators or because our instruments are not discriminating enough. . . .

The virtue of “To Be A God” is that it says only as much, and says that much only as precisely, as it can. Wheelis has a feeling for the limits of description that his system imposes on him. A man thinking about the substratum of his thought processes surely constitutes as self-limiting a system as does an electron (whatever an electron is) being bounced off course by photons being sent in to “find” it. In a gross but relatively straightforward way, the analogy between indeterminacy in quantum physics and limited precision of discussion, limited solution of necessarily imperfectly articulated problems, in self-analysis seems to me to hold. . . .

Marvin Bram
Chicago, Illinois

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To the Editor:

. . . Allen Wheelis’s honest, sensitive, and sometimes brilliant revelations of the disenchantment of a practicing psychoanalyst make one of the few times a member of that profession has emerged from Olympus-behind-the-couch to question the validity of his religion . . . . Perhaps analysis is at last coming of age. . . . His conclusion that it is better to act as if we are indeed free, even if this means the conscious choice of what might possibly be no more than an illusion. . . . is obviously both valid and necessary. Where Dr. Wheelis errs, however, is in his insistence upon finding some logical metaphysical grounds for such a choice. Subjected to logical analysis, his quest for some evidence of the existence of free will only repeats the ancient cosmological. argument of . . . St. Thomas Aquinas and all others who have searched for that elusive entity, the “uncaused cause.” The point is that proof of the existence of such a primal cause is both impossible, unnecessary, and, incidentally, by no means equivalent with any proof for the existence of God. The only important thing, and I suspect that Dr. Wheelis would agree, is to act as if such a cause existed. . . .

Likewise, Dr. Wheelis’s dichotomy of man as being either an “arrogant puppet who thinks he’s a god” or a “humble god who thinks he’s a puppet,” is useful as a metaphor, but is incapable of withstanding logical analysis, even granting the author’s presupposition that man is an either/or creature, whose real identity is always distinct from his beliefs and actions. For the possibilities are endless. . . . If the best we can do is chase an illusion, why not admit that it is an illusion, and carry on from there? . . .

(Mrs.) Barbara Lefcowitz
Buffalo, New York

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To the Editor:

. . . Dr. Wheelis . . . starts with a nice description of a vineyard, puts that aside like one useless pearl from a lost necklace, and goes on to torture himself with schoolboy philosophy saved from tedium only by the fact that the worrier is a mature and successful psychoanalyst who, presumably, should have come to some working truce with all this by now. . . .

But where is the revelation? What is the insight? That Dr. Wheelis will be his own god and make his own life a creation, positing free will as what makes the world go round? Aside from the Calvinists and the Baptists, and, I am sure, some others, don’t we all manage to hobble along through darkness on just such a premise?

It seems to me that all of us, Dr. Wheelis included, are in need of a God-concept to free us from the existentialist ennui. Either this or at least a commitment to man-made “creation,” for which Dr. Wheelis says he could choose to die meaningfully. Creation is the key here, as we all know it to be. Dr. Wheelis might try taking the beginning of his story and letting it shape itself to an end, instead of carefully twisting it into a piece of second-rate Sartre. . . . Of course Dr. Wheelis could call this creation predetermined, and therefore let it depress him.

(Mrs.) Carol C. Becker
Princeton, New Jersey

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