Volume 2, 1 (1993)


Volume 2, 1 (1993)


The British Gestalt Journal 1993, Volume 2, 1

Editor - Malcolm Parlett - Bristol
Production Editor - Ray Edwards - Dorset
Assistant Editors - Pat Levitsky - London, Judith Hemming - London
Editorial Consultants - Petrûska Clarkson - London, Marianne Fry - London
Editorial Advisors - Hunter Beaumont - Munich, Germany, Gill Caradoc-Davies - Christchurch, New Zealand, Gilles Delisle - Montreal, Canada, Maria Gilbert - London, John Leary-Joyce - St Albans and London, Flora Meadows - Glasgow, Scotland, Peter Philippson - Manchester, Gary Yontef - Los Angeles, USA

Editorial - Malcolm Parlett

2,500 Years of Gestalt: From Heraclitus to the Big Bang - Petrûska Clarkson

Addressing the Whole Field: The Implications of Food and Chemical Intolerance for 
Psychotherapy - Andy Sluckin 

The Large Group - Gaie Houston 

The Self in Gestalt Therapy Theory - Lee McLeod 

Individuality and Communality - Erving Polster 

The Theory and Practice of Assertion Skills: An Applied Gestalt Approach - Ray Edwards 

Beyond Contact Processes: Ethical and Existential Dimensions in Gestalt Therapy - Reinhard Fuhr 

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Fritz Perls' Centenary

I never met Fritz Perls, but my trainers in the Cleveland Institute had known him and all had Fritz stories to tell. There was no way, as trainees, that we could simply consign Fritz Perls to the realm of history - he simply would not stay there. That we were in the phase of revering our trainers as somewhat god-like, and that they themselves were acknowledging Fritz's indelible influence, increased his distinction in our eyes.

Yet the picture I put together of the man was unsettling. I was astonished by hearing of some of the outrageous things he did and got away with; intrigued with how he still accumulated respect, and forgiveness; appalled by accounts of his cruelty and indifference; fascinated by how peoples' faces lit up when they talked about him. I was excited (and scared) when, in fantasy, I imagined working with him. I went through a phase of being critical, for his having promoted (in one era) a trivialised and technique-dominated style of Gestalt that people around me, on my returning to live in Britain, wrongly assumed was all that Gestalt amounted to. Latterly, as I have gained in self-support and understanding, I feel more affectionate and respectful towards him. Altogether, in weighing my changing and conflicting reactions I feel confirmed by reading these words from Clarkson and Mackewn:

The flavour of Fritz Perls the man is hard to capture: as though he is evading definition, he shifts and changes with each description. Who Perls was depends upon whom you speak with, and when. (1993, In press).

Fritz Perls (originally Friedrich Saloman Perls) was born a hundred years ago on July 8, 1893 in Berlin, and in this centennial year we celebrate his life and work. Any obligation I might have felt to attempt to summarise his overall contribution is thankfully removed: instead I refer you to the forthcoming publication of Fritz Perls, by Petruska Clarkson and Jennifer Mackewn, from which I have already quoted. This timely and most welcome book (to be published in 1993 in the Sage Publications series of Key Figures in Counselling and Psychotherapy), will - let us hope - fully instate Perls as the 'Key Figure' he deserves to be seen as. Such acknowledgement is overdue.

That much of his influence has gone unnoticed, with Gestalt philosophy and practice taken over by others covertly rather than with a flourish of references given, may in part be due to Fritz Perls himself - his own character, style, actions, tastes. The flamboyant showman in him attracted a vast following, yes; but while the figure shone brilliantly, the ground was not properly tilled. Many of those who introjected Perls then went off to introject the latest craze elsewhere. Perls, with his over-the-topness, enlivened many; but he also shocked and put off many thoughtful practitioners and commentators, figures who would for ever likely downplay the Perlsian influence. And he was restless, both geographically and within the scope of his work, and this was not conducive to leaving permanent settlers and a substantial edifice behind him. I rather doubt that, if it were not for other Gestalt pioneers in America - e.g. notably Laura Perls, along with Paul Goodman, Jim Simkin, Isadore From, the Polsters and the Cleveland group, (as well as Joe Wysong for having started The Gestalt Journal and the North American Conferences) - Gestalt therapy would have survived as a distinctive school of its own, or that Fritz Perls would now be celebrated.

A centenary is a time for reappraisal, a process where the individual is spotlighted from the (supposedly superior) vantage point of today. We may be looking backwards at a life, but true to field theory we are in fact creating something in the present, imbued with contemporary meaning; the centenary becomes a vehicle for looking at our own times, not his. One way to proceed overtly with such a project is to fantasise Fritz Perls encountering the present-day psychotherapy scene in Britain. This is what I will do.

Well, faced with the rapid professionalisation of psychotherapy, he looks a bit queasy. Registration, accreditation, national and international associations and the like ... it seems a long way from Esalen and Lake Cowichan. Yet for all its anti-anarchistic and pro-bureaucratic tendencies, its institutional politics, and its apparent restrictions on individuals' freedom, his discomfort with the present trend is not total. Perls was, after all, a highly skilled professional who wanted to be taken seriously by fellow psychiatrists. And, as he passionately believed that Gestalt provided a basis for a psychotherapy of the future, he would be against Gestaltists ending up on the margins of psychotherapy developments.

Encountering another contemporary preoccupation - that of therapeutic abuse - Perls is clearly on the defensive. By present day standards, indeed by standards of any day, his notorious promiscuity and lack of any sense of 'forbidden zones' are unacceptable. He provided ammunition for his detractors, and has weakened the influence of Gestalt therapy. That said, we must also recognise the immense distance that lots of us, including myself, have had to travel in the last twenty years, as consciousness about gender relationships and the potential for abuse has steadily and vastly increased.

Next we come to the present day phenomenon of the whole of psychotherapy coming under fire, with challenges from those advocating its democratisation (e.g. various twelve-step and other self-help movements); from those finding evidence of abuse of power in the therapeutic relationship (e.g. Rutter, Masson); and from those who question the whole therapeutic emphasis on the extended interior journey (e.g. Alice Miller, Hillman). Amid so much turbulent rethinking, Fritz Perls looks at home. He was, after all, an arch-questioner himself, always ready to disturb the status quo, to throw ideas and practices back into the melting pot. And he was no stranger to controversy. Undoubtedly, some of what is being written and talked about would challenge him personally; equally, there is a lot implicit in Gestalt therapy which itself challenges assumptions of mainstream psychotherapy, still dominated by analytical thinking and practice, though less so than in Perls' day. (In fact, the newer object relations school of psychoanalysis appears to have re-invented much of what has been central to Gestalt therapy practice -a development which might have delighted Perls - yet without any credit or recognition having been given - which would not have delighted him.)

One onslaught on psychotherapy would, I think, especially appeal to Fritz Perls. It is the recently published book entitled We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, (Harper 1992), containing conversations and letters between James Hillman (the distinguished renegade Jungian) and Michael Ventura (described as a "cutting edge columnist”).

Hillman and Ventura argue that psychotherapy is apolitical to the point of being anti-political: it offers the promise of a private intra-psychic journey into childhood as the route to health, rather than drawing on our human dissatisfaction to confront the public world. They argue that instead of focussing merely on past abuse, we should wake up to how we are being abused now: e.g. by having to breathe polluted air, by being scared to walk the streets, by being manipulated by corrupt economic assumptions. I think the transposed-to-now Fritz, always conscious of the wider political and social scene, would agree with these sentiments (or more likely, as Elaine Kepner recently reminded me, would be saying that he had "said it all before and there was nothing new").

In their wild thinking - "furious, trenchant, audacious" (to quote the dust jacket) - Hillman and Ventura choose to gloss over counter-arguments and the acknowledged benefits of therapy for many. In a way reminiscent of Perls they are out to shock, to wake us up. Hillman writes:

Suppose we entertain the idea that the world is in extremis, suffering an acute, perhaps fatal, disorder at the edge of extinction. Then I would claim that what the world needs most is radical and original extremes of feeling and thinking in order for its crisis to be met with equal intensity ... (p. 151).

This expresses the kind of passionate urgency that characterised the conversations of the original New York group. Gestalt was to involve a radical critique of society and the endemic neuroses it engenders; it was to be subversive, as well as poetic, somatic, and communal. And Hillman, here and elsewhere, is (probably unwittingly) re-creating for our time some features of the essential Perls. (He travels right into Gestalt territory when, at another point, he says: "I would rather define self as the interiorisation of community," [ibid, page 40, italics in original]). Hillman and Ventura are urging that psychotherapy be a vehicle for revolution. When Perls was alive, although his outlook was radical and unsettling for many, it was not always clear what kind of revolution Gestalt was contributing towards. Now it is clearer, for being another decade or two more developed. Gestalt by virtue of its roots in holism, field theory, phenomenological thought etc., finds itself part of a more generally emerging culture, involving a revolutionary shift in knowledge, behaviour, attitudes, mind-sets -a change depicted by Morris Berman (in Coming to Our Senses, Bantam Books, 1990) as a "system-break", the likes of which (he says) has not occurred since the end of the middle ages and the coming of the Renaissance.

Berman, as others have, suggests we are in the early phases of such a system-break now ("too obvious to warrant comment," he adds cryptically). It is difficult to nail down what the break amounts to, because it is still "chaotic"; yet most commentators agree that a "new holistic paradigm" is central to it. The new outlook is growing in strength and faith, manifesting everywhere, and ready to become the dominant mode of thought as it becomes more unified ... . Call it New Age, call it what you will, it combines Eastern thought with relativity physics with cybernetics with Sufic and Franciscan and Zen mysticism with pagan animism with astronomy with biology with Hellenic polytheism with tribal ritual with Jungian and Freudian and Gestalt psychology with ecology ... (Ventura, quoted in Berman, ibid).

New paradigms, models, and gestalts do not arise without destruction of the old; and there are several indicators of a major system-break in progress, discernible in many walks of life and in current world developments. People sense a coming breakdown in the old order, instability, a felt discontinuity ("this has never happened before"). At the same time there is a growing recognition of the rise of a wholly different outlook, some profound shift in consciousness, which promises eventually to break through.

If the likes of Berman and Ventura are right, and there is this massive order of change now beginning, and if Gestaltists (such as Clarkson in her article in this issue) are correct in locating Gestalt philosophy and practice in the middle of the new holistic paradigm, then Gestalt therapy may already be a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary movement, even without realising it. Fritz Perls could yet come to receive far wider recognition than any thought possible.

I am suggesting, then, not too fancifully I think, that Fritz Perls exercised revolutionary influence; that more and more people are beginning to see human beings and life in the modern world, and the role of therapy, in ways which he intimately understood, wrote about and taught. For all his quirks, unappealing personal life, and confused legacy, he was an extraordinary, gifted, visionary figure, a pioneer ahead of his time.

As Fritz Perls' professional descendants so to speak,we can celebrate his centenary by becoming more assertive and articulate in taking forward his fundamental vision. This issue of the BGJ does so, we hope, by including several articles (those of Erv Polster, Gaie Houston, Ray Edwards) that demonstrate Gestalt 'facing outward' towards the world at large, the very challenge posed by Hillman and implicit in the early promise of Gestalt. Other articles (Andy Sluckin's, Reinhard Fuhr's , Lee McLeod's) are also taking Gestalt further on, filling in the ground, continuing the process of deepening and extending our discipline. As Editor, I thank all the contributors for their writing and thoughts and encourage you all to write, not necessarily at length, adding your own insights, reactions, and experience to our revolutionary journal.

Whatever Happened to 1992?

Now to a housekeeping matter: you may have already noticed that this issue is labelled Volume 2, No. 1, 1993. The last issue was Volume 1, No. 2, 1991. Ostensibly the Journal is published twice yearly, so what is happening? There have been delays, though in fact we have published three issues in almost eighteen months. What we have not been able to do is to catch up with a late start in 1991. The prospect has loomed of being nearly a year behind with the numbering of issues. We have therefore decided to make what we trust will be a once-and-for-all correction in the volume numbering, to accord with the actual dates of publication. We intend henceforth for there to be regular publication at the beginning of the year and half way through the year.

Malcolm Parlett

Letters to the Editor: 

Gestalt Reconsidered Again: Concerning to Book Review by Peter Philippson - Gordon Wheeler 

Techniques and the Field: Analytical Versus Gestalt Techniques - Pat Levitsky

A New Book of Case Studies - Bud Feder, Ph.D and Ruth Ronall, M.S.W.