Walker Percy Wednesday 174


A Tertium Quid:

The Lady Novelist?

Tolstoy once said that a talented lady novelist could spend five minutes looking through the window of a barracks and know all she needed to know about soldiering.

If she can see so much in five minutes, how much more must the talented therapist see after, say, a hundred hours with his patient?

So here is the real question, or rather the main specter which haunts every inquiry into language as behavior. Granted the shortcomings of the two major methodological approaches to the talking patient-the analytic-psychical and the organismic-behavioristic is not the sole remaining alternative the novelistic? Instead of “novelistic” we could say phenomenological, for the novelist must first and last be a good phenomenologist, and to most behavioral scientists phenomenologists are closer to novelists than to scientists. But is it not the case that when all is said and done and all theories aside, what happens is that the therapist gets to know his patient pretty well, understands him, intuits him, can talk with him and about him-and that behavioral theory can never say much about it?

Let us at least articulate our unhappiness. Unhappiness changes. We are no longer miserable about the old quarrel between classical behaviorism and classical psychoanalysis or about the more intricate quarrels and rapprochements of their followers. For it has become more and more evident that our main emotion when confronted by both Freud and Skinner, say, is not partisan feelingsfor both are “right” in their way-but rather epistemological embarrassment. Both men put forward dyadic models, one for organisms interacting in an environment, the other for invisible “forces” interacting within a psyche. The question now is not which approach is right but how both can be right at the same time. To us now, Freud’s and Skinner’s models stand to each other like the two worlds on each side of Alice’s looking-glass. Both worlds are demonstrably right and useful in their way, but how do you get from one to the other?

Is the lady novelist the only tertium quid?

But first, what does the lady novelist see if we put her down, not outside a barracks window, but on the other side of a viewing mirror through which she can see therapist and patient who were talking about the rat behind the arras and related oedipal feelings? She notices first off, let us say, that the patient does get excited. But far from its being the case that he is upset and is “resisting” the disclosure of unpleasant unconscious contents, she has the distinct impression that the patient is delighted. Moreover, being a good novelist and well attuned to the intellectual fashions of the day, she has the distinct impression that the patient’s pleasure has something to do with the fact that he has produced a kind of behavior which measures up to, or fits in with, the very theory to which he and his analyst subscribe. Perhaps it also occurs to her that the patient is in a sorry fix indeed if his chief claim to happiness is that occasion when he manages to be sick in the right way.

Suppose that the lady novelist is right. Is she then the tertium quid? Is her way the only way to get at what is going on? And if it is, has not all the fun gone out of the game of behavioral science and the scientific method itself lost its splendid rigor?

Have we not in fact come back to George Miller’s original misgiving, which haunts all behavioral scientists when the subject of words and meanings is raised? Must we not then let it go at that, surrender the field to Tolstoy’s lady novelist, or to Husserl, which is to say the same thing?

Perhaps. But Charles Peirce did propose a radical theory of signs which undertook to give an account of those transactions in which symbols are used to name things and to assert sentences about things. In view of the heroic and generally unavailing attempts during the past fifty years to give such an account through one or another dyadic theory, it might be worthwhile for once to approach triadic behavior with a genuine triadic theory.

Such a theory might bestow order and system upon the phenomenologizing which to the behavioral scientist must seem closer to novel writing than to a science of behavior.

For example, the oedipal patient’s agitation may be given some such preliminary reading as follows:

The patient’s agitation is not dyadic misery-resistance to the disclosure of unacceptable unconscious contents-but triadic delight. This delight, moreover, is quite as fundamental a trait of triadic behavior as organismic “need-satisfaction” is in dyadic behavior. It is a naming delight which derives from the patient’s discovery that his own behavior, which until now he had taken to be the unformulable, literally unspeakable, vagary of one’s self, has turned out not merely to be formulable, that is to say, namable by a theory to which both patient and therapist subscribe, but to be namable with a name which is above all names: oedipal!

As such, the patient’s delight has good and bad, authentic and inauthentic components, which must be traced out and identified within an adequate triadic theory. Thus, the patient’s sentence It’s oedipal! must be investigated for Platonic and even magical components in its mode of coupling as well as for its valid intersubjective celebration of an important discovery. Perhaps the patient’s sentence can be paraphrased in some such terms as: “At last I have succeeded! At last I have produced a proper, even a classical, piece of psychopathology!”

Accordingly, the patient’s behavior with its strong normative components must be evaluated on a normative scale which is in tum an integral part of the triadic theory in question. It is impossible in other words to avoid the subject of the patient’s impoverishment and loss of sovereignty.

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