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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, April 9, 2015


I've often referenced Alfred Adler's theory of compensation on this blog, particularly in the series COMPENSATION CONSIDERATIONS, beginning here. In the first of those essays, I loosely compared Adler's idea of "positive" and "negative" forms of compensation with the two forms of fictional "escape" Tolkien references in his essay ON FAIRY STORIES: in the sense of "escape from responsibility" and of "escape from a prison"-- implicitly as much a conceptual prison as a physical one. I considered expanding on that thought for a full essay, but felt that I needed to study Adler a bit more than I have since I wrote this 2009 essay.

I chose to read THE INDIVIDUAL PSYCHOLOGY OF ALFRED ADLER, an overview of his work  edited by one Heinz Ansbacher, with copious excerpts from Adler and explanatory notes form Ansbacher. I did not find the main thing I was looking for: a single Adler essay in which he expatiated at length on his two forms of compensation. However, this idea definitely appears in his first work on the subject, 1907's "Organ Inferiority and Compensation." In this essay Adler sets the groundwork for his conviction that pathological psychological conditions may evolve out of a subject's perception of personal inferiority: "The inferior organ is not a pathological formation, although it represents the basic condition for pathology." As a negative example of overcompensation, Adler posits a situation in which a paranoiac is so impelled by "the drive to see" that "the weakness of the overcompensation expresses itself in hallucinatory fits and visual appearances." Adler is certainly not saying that all paranoia evolves out of imperfect visual apparati-- he states that he does not offer his examples as "complete proof"-- but puts his examples forth as a tenable explanation for certain cases.

In contrast to this, Adler gives a positive example of a documented writer with poor vision: Friedrich Schiller, who exorcised his nearsighted demons by creating a fictional hero reputed for faultless aim and vision: William Tell. Current elitist criticism generally deems this form of compensation to be "negative." I mentioned in COMPENSATION CONSIDERATIONS, Jerry Siegel himself portrayed himself as the weakling who couldn't get lots of girls, and "compensated" by creating a mighty hero who easily attracted the female of the species.

What does it mean, that Adler deems this form of "artistic exorcism" as a positive response to perceived inferiority? Ansbacher notes that about the same time Adler broke away from Freud's circle and his doctrine, Adler took a palpable influence from the now-forgotten philosopher Hans Vaihinger. Ansbacher says of this author:

Fictions, according to Vaihinger, are ideas, including unconscious notions, which have no counterpart in reality, yet serve the useful function of enabling us to deal with [reality] better than we could otherwise.

Adler's former mentor Freud could not place any value on such fantasies, and he stands as one of the greatest influences upon the tendency of 20th-century intellectuals to devalue fantasy and/or "the pleasure principle" in favor of a supposed "reality principle."  Whereas Adler eventually wrote "I began to see clearly in every psychological phenomenon the striving for superiority" his old mentor wrote pessimistically that all should "abandon the belief that there is an instinct toward perfection at work in human beings." Most amusingly, Freud is so pessimistic that for him there could no future evolution along the lines of Nietzsche: "[The leader of the primal horde] at the very beginning of mankind was the Superman whom Nietzsche only expected from the future,"

Now, so far as I can tell from the Ansbacher book, Adler did not write of "negative compensation" in terms of literature. As he was a psychologist, he was most concerned with the ways in which human beings became psychologically dysfunctional. I have no idea if he had any particular feelings about the popular fiction of his day, though if he validated Schiller's personal fantasy of a far-sighted archer-hero, I would posit that he might not be entirely hostile toward the pop-fiction "supermen" of the early 20th century. At worst he might consider them in the same terms as Vaihinger: useful fictions that help one deal with reality.

In elitist criticism, it's a given that all escapist fiction is by its nature a "negative compensation" that insulates the audience from reality, as I've noted with respect to Theodor Adorno in particular. "Positive compensation," if one could put the elitists' convictions into Adler's terms, would presumably be the sort of "high literature" that validates the intellectual's struggle for personal meaning.

For a pluralist like myself, the matter is more complex. Though I prefer works with symbolic complexity to works without it, I can't state outright that the latter are "inferior organs" next to the latter. Even a story that works as nothing but a good "thrill-ride" fulfills, for me, Tolkien's definition of fantasy as an "escape from a prison," i.e., "positive compensation."

So is there a principle that works across the spectrum of "art-fiction" and "popular fiction" that parallels both Adler's "negative compensation" and Tolkien's "escape from responsibility" (which, to be sure, is not something Tolkien himself endorses; he's simply explaining the position of his opponents). The closest I can come is to repeat what I said in JOINED AT THE TRIP PT. 4.  Both types of fiction are fundamentally defined by the activity of "play," though "art-fiction" is play turned to the purpose of "work," while "pop fiction" is play for play's sake. In that essay I said that I found that DESPAIR, a work of "thematic realism," was inferior to Faulkner's LIGHT IN AUGUST because the former had too little "play," while THE CLANSMAN, a work of "thematic escapism," was inferior to GONE WITH THE WIND because the former showed too little "work." This, then, would be my criterion for both "negative compensation" in literature and the only ways in which fiction can be correctly seen as escaping responsibility. Only when a given work of a given mode fails to be true to its own mode would it be "escaping" from anything in a negative manner; that of escaping from its own potential as fiction.

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