Esther Perel, the Jimi Hendrix of Psychology
“Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial — out of profundity. And is not this precisely what we are again coming back to, we daredevils of the spirit who have climbed the highest and most dangerous peak of present thought and looked around from up there — we who have looked down from there? Are we not, precisely in this respect, Greeks? Adorers of forms, tones, of words? And therefore — artists?” ~ Nietzsche
By intellectual leaps and bounds, my favorite activity in Los Angeles is to take advantage of the Senior Scholars program where each week for the rest of my life I have the privilege of sitting with brilliant UCLA professors and students discussing Lacan, Deleuze, Barthes, Foucault, Ricoeur, Bergson, Levinas, Sartre, Derrida, Buber, Nietzsche, Husserl, Hegel, Heidegger, Russell, Wittgenstein, et al.
I was stupid and immature when I was at the University of Pennsylvania thirty years ago and skipped the classes offered on Proust, Mahler, and Joyce and many other intellectual icons. In the summer of 1987 I had a 15 year-old German law student spontaneously give me a tour of almost every artwork in the Prado in her third language: I was deeply embarrassed. After living in Paris for many years, I realized how truly ignorant I was compared to the average French student who passes the baccalauréat exam at the end of high school.
Three graduate degrees later, I can now provide tours of most museums en francais et en anglais and I daresay that the study of European writers, philosophers, artists and musicians has made me a much better psychotherapist on many levels. Due to last century’s wars on their soil, Europeans still ask those annoying questions such as, “Who am I? What is it all about? What shall I do during my limited time alive? Why do so many human beings act so foolishly? Why are relationships difficult? How and why do I know things? How can I be happier? How can I make my life meaningful?” Meanwhile the veil of peaceful, late capitalism seems to have blinded (or anesthetized) many Americans from the fact that they are dying exponentially faster every day.
Attending UCLA’s Longevity Center and Lifespan Learning Institute “Relationships and the Health-Promoting Power of Connection Across the Lifespan” 2018 conference last weekend was analogous to attending Woodstock: there was so much transformational music, yet only one Jimi Hendrix.
Esther Perel is to psychology what Jimi Hendrix is to music.
Like Jimi Hendrix, Ms. Perel is a towering poet, a prescient philosopher, and a gifted and enthralling performer. More importantly, she’s excessively amiable, warm, fun-loving, compassionate and humble, which is what makes her anthropological, sociological and psychological observations so mind-blowing and digestible at the same time. Ms. Perel presents paradigm-shifting theses with lightness, ebullience and 100% authenticity (even if you know that she has previously uttered many of her poignant ditties).
If you don’t believe me, just watch one of her latest talks:
Ms. Perel is doing something that nobody else is doing — actually two things:
- bridging the gap between academics in their ivory towers and laypeople; and,
- bridging a second gap between European (mostly French) literary and critical theory and contemporary American psychology.
Her keen mind asks questions outside of the western medical paradigm, questions more in line with the type of existential queries that continental thinkers have been posing for the last 88 years (since the Frankfurt School — primarily Adorno, Marcuse, and Horkheimer).
For example, instead of pathologizing infidelity and portraying one person as a perpetrator and the other as a victim, Ms. Perel asks, “What emotional forces compel people to infidelity?” And, “What is fidelity?”
Brilliantly, her provocative suppositions tend to blossom into more questions. For example, “Everyone negotiates monogamy with themselves.” And, “An affair represents the shattering of the grand ambition of love.”
Humorously, she reframes why dating has gone so horribly awry in America in the past 15 years: Fear Of Missing Out. The first sign of a committed relationship is when both partners’ FOMOs are exhausted and they delete their dating apps.
From all of the above it is easy to parse a distinction between European and American mentalities: Americans are scientific and want to be right, they want truth, they want accuracy. Raised on a steady diet of post-war, trauma-induced relativism, Europeans’ primary goal is similar to that of Buddhism: to ease suffering. And their secondary and tertiary goals are to have the most INTERESTING understandings, and to feel vitality alive.
If you are not already one of the 20 million people who has watched Ms. Perel’s TED talks, then I recommend that you do so and read both “Mating in Captivity” and “The State of Affairs.”
We are entering a new era of understanding beyond the “scientific,” influenced by literature, art, music, poetry and philosophy, buttressed by anthropological and sociological observations — Ms. Perel calls it “interdisciplinary” whereas the folks in my neighborhood call it “holistic.” Call it what you will, the academic arts and sciences need to merge with each other and with the general public (and they probably wouldn’t suffer from a smattering of spirituality added in for good measure). Ms. Perel is doing all of the above. You remain ignorant of her cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, hybrid observations and theories about love and relationships at your own peril.