Volume 13, 1 (2004)

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Volume 13, 1 (2004)


The British Gestalt Journal 2004, Volume 13, 1


Editorial - Malcolm Parlett 

The Dialogic Relationship in Gestalt Therapy - Martina Gremmler-Fuhr

Playing in the Sand - Christine Stevens

The Song is You - Susan Gregory

Interviewed by Malcolm Parlett - 'Facing Death' - Daan Van Praag

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A Gestalt Conversation Over Time

The British Gestalt Journal offers a continuing conversation about Gestalt therapy and its various branches, roots, flowerings, and fruits - and sometimes its parasites and plant diseases as well. For regular readers, even though the gaps between issues appear to be long, there are strands of connection between them: the conversation continues. Over the years many diverse themes have been addressed - and many more readers are realising the benefits of having a collection of back issues as a reference library of some of the best Gestalt writing in recent times. Some themes - like the need not to forget our heritage of anarchism, or the place of the founding book - crop up in passing in almost every issue; other substantial themes, referring to dialogue, embodiment, phenomenology, field, and experimenting (to name a few) are subject to continued re-visiting, so central are they as Gestalt preoccupations. Yet the conversation, while it takes a familiar turn, does not repeat itself: it always moves on, with new growth in new seasons. 

Like any good continuing conversation, that of the BGJ is richly punctuated with disagreements, anecdotes and vignettes, extensions and diversions, with different slants on what is held in common. Contributors - from across the globe, and drawn from different Gestalt communities and traditions - pitch in, join the-conversation, and enter their views for the record. Others may butt in with counter-examples and divergent interpretations. And while the pages provide the locus of the ongoing conversation, it extends outwards, with copies of the BGJ being passed around and read widely, almost chained in Gestalt institute libraries, and photocopied liberally for trainees (often in defiance of the copyright law - we would prefer negotiated bulk buying arrangements). 

In summary the BGJ exists to serve the needs of the Gestalt community to think aloud about itself; about what it is we stand for, believe in, and can offer our times - in short, what we are, what we do, and what we share in this approach to which we are committed. At the same time, we are also a window through which others - from different therapeutic and psychological persuasions - can look in upon us. 

Volume 13, No.1 is a good example of the conversation in action. It is revisiting old themes and introducing new ones. It contains a variety of topics that cohere in interesting ways, even though it does not meet the criteria for calling 13, 1. a Special Focus Issue. There are fresh subjects and different methods described; there are welcomed new writers; and there is both emotional and intellectual intensity. More explicitly than usual it includes voices from professionals outside the Gestalt community. Thus, in this issue, there is a Letter to the Editor from Sally Quilter; and Tricia Scott was specifically invited to provide a book review of a major new Gestalt book (more on these below). Both Sally and Tricia describe themselves as 'integrative therapists' and even though Gestaltists like to think of Gestalt therapy as the quintessential integrative therapy (for very good reasons), the fact is that the 'integrative' brand has become associated, at least in Britain, with an outlook that spans across the whole field of psychotherapy theories. We welcome these 'other' voices and perspectives, evidence of the fact that the British Gestalt Journal is being read more and more by practitioners who do not identify with the Gestalt label - a development we celebrate. 

As hosts and convenors of the ever-changing conversation, the editors are active - seeking to extract new writing; to honour experience and wisdom; to stay at the cutting edge of Gestalt thinking; to encourage the diffident or hitherto silent to come out as writers; and to lead as well as to follow in helping to shape the next trends of interest and import. While we often take the initiative, we are also dependent on what is sent to us and on the availability of first-rate manuscripts in a sharply competitive Journal market. The process - surprise, surprise! - is one of continuous creative adjustment.

Language Forms

The medium of the conversation is of course in words of prose. The writing varies a lot: plain, colourful, modulated, obscure, jargon-bound, evocative, highly personal or very detached. If we want to represent the diversity and range of what Gestalt therapists and other practitioners do and think about, then the writing and language forms need to support the enterprise. 

What kinds of language are appropriate for discussing Gestalt therapy? This is the question addressed here by two writers from Australia, Don Diespacker and Bruno Just, who provide two welcome Opinions on this very subject. (It is the first time we have had two Opinion pieces in the same issue, another innovation.) Each is making the point that the semi-technical, theory-laden, clinical language of the journals is not the only language option, and that other descriptive forms - vital, un-stale, quirky, grabbing the reader's attention by direct image -also have a place, and might foster other revolutionary trends and tastes. They look to the literary form, and seek alternative ways to capture the experience of Gestalt practice and philosophy, bringing us nearer to the actual experience rather than 'talking about', theorising, and standing at some distance. 

Of course, their arguments present a challenge to the BGJ. Unlike some Gestalt journals we have never published poems or included illustrations, or even photographs of Gestalt icons and historical sites (I recently saw a photograph of the house in which Fritz and Laura Perls lived when in Amsterdam, following their flight from Germany - should we include such items of curiosity, I asked myself?). Aside from a few diagrams, we have opted for bare, spare prose - and, at least for some of our readers, rather a lot of it is not so easy to digest. Should we embrace a multi-media representation of Gestalt, simplify, jazz it up, dumb down? 

It is true that sometimes we hear that the BGJ can seem daunting; that the articles are too long, too 'academic'; and that this also sends out the (wrong) signal that writing for the Journal is difficult and unlikely to be successful. While many other readers (including trainers, editorial board members, and the Friends of the British Gestalt Journal) have told us that the present formula serves the community well overall, we do pay attention to these other, less favourable views. 

It may be necessary to repeat for newcomers to the BGJ the historical facts of our beginning: that for twenty years up to 1985, there was very little published about Gestalt therapy; and there was nothing like a community that was sufficiently grounded, consolidated in itself, or with a literature substantial enough to stand in the therapy marketplace and be convincing on behalf of Gestalt. The publishing of the BGJ was an assertive new step. At the time there was only one English language Gestalt journal in existence; Gestalt writers were few; most teaching was by demonstration and therapy in a group, with direct experience held to be the only way it could be learned. There was no culture of writing, theory discussion, or attempting to describe what the fundamental processes were in Gestalt therapy, or how they came about. 

Diespacker and Just are also making a political point, and as George Orwell pointed out in his famous 1946 essay, politics and language are always intertwined. Perhaps we were making a political point in the early days of the BGJ: that Gestalt therapy could be written about and documented just as well as in the dominant and confident psychoanalytic traditions. Whatever our notions, aware or unaware, there was an absolute conviction that intellect had to be respected as much as emotional expression, and that deep involvement in the experience of Gestalt therapy did not preclude reflecting on what the practices entailed. 

Editing the BGJ, we realise that language can be debased. George Orwell railed against 'pretentious diction', 'stale metaphors', and a whole 'catalogue of swindles and perversions' where complex constructions of words disguise rather than enhance meaning, or 'give an appearance of solidity to pure wind'. We have sought to champion better writing. However, good, clear, alive writing is rarer than we would like, and (as we have argued before) is not being encouraged or enhanced by the creeping influence of writing in a dissertation style that is portentous and laboured. Orwell to the rescue! 

It is obvious that many questions arise about the writings of Gestalt therapy, and they include matters for the BGJ, but not only for ourselves of course. We welcome the challenge in the two Opinion pieces to think about language with greater awareness.

The 'Expressivist' Nature of Gestalt Practice 

It is a deeply held item in the background thinking of Gestalt therapy that we value self-expression, that human beings have the chance to fulfil themselves, and realise their nature in unique ways. As ideas these are part of Gestalt's inheritance from the Romantic era. They are so much part of modernist culture, (as Charles Taylor has pointed out in his book Sources of the Self, 1989, Cambridge University Press), that we can forget that they are of recent origin in the history of ideas about what is human and what is a 'good life'.
For Gestalt therapists, the artistic, the non-verbal, the creative forces of human life have a special place. It is in exploring these domains, rather than in the dominant verbal and 'rational' mode, that Gestalt therapists in particular can excel. Instead of mechanistic, scientific, and analytical explanation, there is description, grounded in phenomenology and inviting direct participation in the experience itself rather than merely talking (or writing) about human life. The holistic and natural way is to keep close to the senses, to register and express feelings, and to involve the physical body as integral to all human experience. This is consciously to challenge the automatic supremacy accorded to reason and thinking with the mind. The Cartesian heritage, that has split off rationality and thinking, and has led to the pervasive mechanistic and scientific 'construal' of what it means to be human in the 21st century leaves out so much of the human condition, or approaches it in a way that 'denatures' it. The Gestalt tradition allies itself with those movements in philosophy, the arts, and literature that attempt to reclaim what has been down-graded, without recourse to religion. Beyond the mechanistic and instrumental, lie the deep callings of men's and women's hearts, the basis for a fundamental moral sense, captured for some in the word 'spiritual' (though the word sits uncomfortably for others) and which is part of a wider holistic vision of humanity and the good life.

Several contributions to 13:1 open doors into the numinous, the non-verbal, and the 'beyond-the-rational' realms of human nature; and as such they help to redress what can easily be a bias in the Journal away from direct experience and into disembodied intellectuality. They reinforce the 'expressivist' turn, away from a denatured and jargonised psychology. 

Perhaps most of all, in this issue, we are grateful to Daan van Praag for the interview which takes us so truthfully into his direct experience as he faces imminent death. This is a rare opportunity to listen to a distinguished and experienced Gestalt teacher as he reflects on the end of living. We are very privileged to have this conversation to read and to be silent with. 

Christine Stevens, a new writer in our pages, describes the work she has been developing using the sand tray and small toy figures and other objects in a setting and mode designed to be playful, and projectively revealing. The participant/client seems to enter the awake equivalent of the dream world. It is very good to have such a detailed documenting of an approach that some will already know, and which for other readers will inspire them to experiment with the approach. Sandplay is not new in the therapeutic world at large, but Gestalt practitioners have not been in the forefront hitherto. 

Then Susan Gregory describes the place that singing can have in therapy, and the many connections she has made between the power of singing and its place in various traditions, the physiological facts, and the expressive purposes and clinical consequences of acknowledging the song within us. 

Another new writer here is Andy Birtwell, who discusses the place of laughter in Gestalt therapy. He reviews, with great panache in a congruent style, a recently published book by Lenny Ravich, an Israeli Gestaltist. The book is about humour, the visceral power of laughter, and the need to retain a positive outlook. We are particularly pleased to be reviewing a book by a long term overseas subscriber and, for a period, one of the Friends of the British Gestalt Journal.

Revisited Themes

The continuing conversation returns to some of Gestalt's central themes. We are delighted to include a major review article by Martina Gremmler-Fuhr on The Dialogic Relationship. This is presented here for the first time in English. It already has a distinguished place as a chapter (in German) in the Handbuch der Gestalttherapie that was reviewed by Christine Shearman in the last issue, and to which further reference is made in an encouraging letter from Nancy-Amendt-Lyon in the present issue. 

The article by Gremmler-Fuhr is of importance in examining a pivotal feature of contemporary Gestalt - the emphasis on dialogue in the therapy relationship. This comprehensive and authoritative article will be frequently referenced - for good reason: it challenges us to think again about our assumptions and beliefs. It is not an article to scan quickly, but to read more than once. No-one, however experienced, will fail to be stimulated to think in more precise ways about contact, dialogue, encounter, meeting, and relationship. Focusing on Editorial relationship and dialogue, there is also a well-argued response from Peter Philippson, who in his Letter to the Editor vigorously disputes the review of his book by John Kirti Wheway in the last issue. Writers of books reviewed here have no automatic right to reply: reviews stand as statements of an informed reader's grappling with the book-writer's long-crafted and public statement, and the general convention of publishing is that the writer has had his or her say, and now it is time for others' reactions. However, we have at times broken this convention, always in the spirit of advancing dialogue within the Gestalt community, and we do so again here. 

In passing, I should like to make the point that the Letters columns are open to readers' reactions to articles or previous topics discussed, including those from earlier issues. Letters can be brief or long, and are a good place to try out getting published. They are a popular feature of the BGJ. 

In 13:1, there is a provocative letter by Sally Quilter in response to Bill Cornell's article in the last issue, (which came with commentaries by Leanne O'Shea and Michael Vincent Miller). Bill Cornell replies in a similarly thoughtful way. We are hoping that this conversation around the erotic, and about love in therapy, will continue, with further contributions perhaps from Leanne and Michael, as well as others. So if you have a point to make yourself, or a different view, or confirmatory example, or even a mini-case study, please consider writing a letter. 

Another Letter to the Editor comes from Gary Yontef, in response to Des Kennedy's article in the last issue. In particular, Yontef disagrees with Kennedy about his use of 'perception', but there are other points as well. We hope to carry Des Kennedy's reply to Gary Yontef in the next issue.
Finally, in this round-up of the contents of this issue, there are two book reviews of Gaie Houston's new book on Brief Gestalt Therapy. One review is from Tricia Scott, already mentioned. Having as the reviewer someone who is not specifically Gestalt trained means that some features of the book and the argument are highlighted that probably might not have been by a Gestalt specialist. Tricia Scott's thoughtful reactions may indicate how this important new book will 'play' with a non-Gestalt audience - for whom it is intended. We invited Dinah Ashcroft to provide a Gestalt perspective on the book as well, and so we have two reviews of the same book - again an experiment. We are grateful for these two well written critiques of an important new Gestalt book published in Britain. 

Altogether, then, it is an issue with a lot of promise and much to think about. We hope that you enjoy it.

Malcolm Parlett

Letters to the Editor:

A Welcome Cross-Cultural Exchange - Nancy Amendt-Lyon 

Yes! But...What about Love? A Response to William Cornell - Sally Quilter 

Love and Intimacy: A Reply to Salty Quilter - William Cornell 

Response to John Kirti Wheway's Review of 'Self in Action' - Peter Philippson 

'Perception' and 'Awareness' - and Other Disagreements: A Response to Des Kennedy - Gary Yontef 

Book Reviews:

Brief Gestalt Therapy by Gaie Houston - Tricia Scott

Brief Gestalt Therapy by Gaie Houston - Dinah Ashcroft

Something Funny Happened on the Way to Enlightenment by Lenny Ravish - Andy Birtwell


Writing about Gestalt Therapy - Don Diespacker 

Gestalt Therapy as Literature: A Brief Introduction to the Transtheoretical Genre - Bruno Just