Monday, July 25, 2005

The Phenomenology of Charisma - Part 2 of 3


Oakes maintains (page 188) that a charismatic relationship begins with a seeker’s surrender and trust. According to Oakes, only later does the seeker begin to project her or his own ultimate concerns onto the ‘prophet’ and through this projection become ‘fused’ with the person of the ‘prophet’ to such a degree that the ‘seeker’ interacts with the ‘prophet’ as if he or she were an expression of one’s own inner, deeper, more essential ‘self’.

If so, this leaves unanswered the question of why someone would trust or surrender to another individual without some sort of substantial motivation for doing so? Apparently, Oakes seems to be saying that trust and surrender arise prior to, and independently of, the establishing of a charismatic relationship which, according to Oakes, revolves around the dynamics of ‘extraordinary needs’, ‘ultimate concerns’, and the perceived embodiment of these qualities in the person of the ‘prophet’ -- something which Oakes claims happens later in the relationship and, therefore, does not appear to be the initial reason why someone trusts and surrenders to the ‘prophet’.

According to Oakes, charisma spiritualizes a relationship. Yet, somehow, trust and surrender -- which, presumably, are essential to any sort of spiritual relationship -- take place, on Oakes’ account, before the main component of a charismatic relationship -- namely, the perceived presence of the embodiment of ultimate concerns -- is established.

The foregoing sequence of events appears somewhat counter-intuitive. A more likely explanation would seem to involve the possibility that the felt or perceived presence of charisma is what helps induce someone to trust and surrender to a ‘prophet’, and, if this is the case, then, Oakes may be mistaken about when the projection of ultimate concerns on to a ‘prophet’ takes place.

Furthermore, one wonders if it is so much a matter of a ‘seeker’s’ projection of ultimate concerns onto the ‘prophet’, as it may be a matter of such ultimate concerns actually being reflected in, or resonating with, some, or all, of the words and behaviors of the ‘prophet’. In other words, is one to suppose that the perception of the embodiment of ultimate concerns in another human being is merely a delusion in which nothing of those ultimate concerns actually is present in what a ‘prophet’ says and does, or should one assume that, to varying degrees, something of a substantive nature concerning such ultimate concerns is actually touched upon by the teachings and actions of the ‘prophet’?

To be sure, a seeker could be mistaken. For example, a seeker might believe that something of his or her ultimate concerns was present in what the ‘prophet’s said and did, only to discover, subsequently, that such was not the case or that whatever was present was being expressed in a fraudulent and manipulative manner. Or, a seeker initially might believe that a given ‘prophet’ could serve as a venue through which the seeker’s extraordinary needs and ultimate concerns could be realized, only to, later on, come to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that the ‘prophet’ could not actually assist one to fulfill one’s extraordinary needs or ultimate concerns. Alternatively, a seeker’s first, cursory impression of a ‘prophet’ may have led the seeker to believe that the prophet and she or he shared a set of common concerns, values, and the like, only to realize, upon closer inspection, that the two, despite initial impressions, really aren’t on the same page with respect to a variety of issues, concerns, goals, and values.

However, such mistakes are not necessarily delusional in character. They are beliefs that come to be, hopefully, constructively modified in the light of subsequent experience … something -- that is, constructive modification -- to which delusions are inherently resistant.

As such, it is not ultimate concerns, per se, that are being projected onto the ‘prophet’. Instead, what is being projected is a hope concerning the potential value of what may ensue in relation to one’s ultimate concerns by linking up with someone claiming to be a ‘prophet’.

Trust and surrender are offered in exchange for a promissory note, of sorts, about future considerations in conjunction with the fulfillment of extraordinary needs and ultimate concerns. The felt presence of charisma is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an indicator that someone -- namely, a ‘prophet’ -- can satisfy the conditions of that promissory note. The felt presence of charisma, justifiably or unjustifiably, tends to create certain kinds of expectations concerning the fulfillment of ultimate concerns and extraordinary needs in the future.

Notwithstanding the foregoing considerations, one still is unclear about what charisma is or how its perceived presence has the capacity to induce or inspire trust, surrender, and expectations concerning one’s ultimate concerns and extraordinary needs. One has a sense that, somehow, the perceived presence of charisma might have a ‘spiritualizing effect in as much as trust and surrender, which are important components of spirituality, might be engendered, somehow, through the presence of something called ‘charisma’, and, yet, the manner in which this takes place -- the dynamics of the spiritualizing process -- remains elusive and puzzling.

Oakes believes that the secret of charisma lies in a narcissistic dimension of human development. More specifically, he believes that the alleged ‘extraordinary needs’ of both a ‘prophet’ and a seeker are entangled in the agenda of a ‘nuclear self’ which forms under certain conditions that, according to Oakes, are conducive to the emergence of narcissistic personality disorder in, at the very least, ‘a charismatic prophet’.

Although at one point in his discussion of the phenomenon of narcissistic development Oakes voices a cautionary note concerning the question of how well can we know the mind and inner life of another human being, nevertheless, he soon leaves such caution behind when delineating Kohut’s theory of narcissism and seeking to link that theory to the idea of charisma. Of course, generally speaking, it is often part and parcel of theoretical work to take some risks while venturing into uncharted conceptual territory, but some risks may be more viable than others.

Heinz Kohut developed his theory of narcissism while treating patients with narcissistic personality disorder. He sought to explain the origins of this disorder.

The patients being treated by Kohut tended to possess a grandiose sense of self-confidence, untouched by any sort of self-doubt. They often were very perceptive about people and social dynamics (sometimes uncannily so), could be quite persuasive, but also were given to blaming and accusing others of various failings and short-comings.

Such patients frequently were inclined toward exhibitionism and were given to voicing unrealistic, naïve fantasies concerning themselves and their place in the scheme of things. In addition, these individuals tended to demonstrate little evidence of possessing a conscience or experiencing any sort of guilt when involved in wrong doing. Moreover, their relationships with others usually were marked by an almost complete absence of empathy for people and, as well, appeared to be imbued with a belief that other people existed to serve the needs of the narcissist.

According to Freud, all of us go through a period of primary narcissism during infancy when we believe that everything not only revolves around us but that the world is, in a sense, a creation of our own. Furthermore, this period of narcissism is said to be characterized by a child’s sense of oneness with the world -- meaning the mothering one -- which is posited to be a continuation of one’s life in the womb when, supposedly, the boundaries between mother and child are completely dissolved.

During this period of felt-oneness, the child is said to bask in the nurturing glow of exaltation transmitted through the mother’s gaze and treatment of the child. Through this sort of adoring interaction, the child feels worshipped and develops a sense of uninhibited, grandiose omnipotence which permeates the mind-set of the infant.

In the course of normal development, Freud indicates that primary narcissism becomes significantly attenuated and modulated as experience introduces a child to the pain of feeling alone in a world that, in many ways, appears indifferent to the desires of the child.
Feelings of omnipotence are ravaged by the onslaught of a sense of helplessness.

With the waning of primary narcissism, the child no longer believes herself or himself to be the center of the universe. A Copernican-like revolution has shaken the foundations of the child’s previously Ptolemaic existence.

The idea of ‘primary narcissism’ is a theoretical construct. Whether a fetus or an infant ever has a sense of oneness with the mother, or whether an infant ever operates out of a framework which is permeated with feelings of omnipotence and grandiosity, or whether an infant ever operates under the illusion/delusion that she or he is the creative and causal force behind the happenings of the universe, or whether the infant ever has a sense of being worshipped like a ‘god’, or whether an infant ever has the sense that he or she shares a state of perfection with a ‘saintly’ mothering one – all of these are highly contentious, largely speculative considerations.

Instead, one might entertain the possibility that any deeply developed notion of primary narcissism in the Freudian sense might have a very difficult time becoming established in amidst the realities of this world. After all, almost from the first spank on the bottom which introduces us to this plane of existence, there is a great deal of human experience indicating: that we are not omnipotent; that however intimate one’s relationship with the mothering one may be, there is felt separation in the sense that there are very real differences between how the mothering one behaves and how we might wish the mothering one to behave; that we cannot always make the nipple appear upon demand; that the discomfort of wet diapers or a colic-ridden system do not always disappear with the mere wish for this to be so; that we are not in control of how hot or cold we feel; that the ravages of colds, fevers and illness descend upon us without our permission; that we might have difficulty in believing that one rules over the universe when we can’t even get our hands and fingers to go where we would like or accomplish what we would like.

The bundle of desires, wishes, and motivations which collectively are referred to by the term “nafs” is a very different entity than the idea of primary narcissism. There is a considerable amount of metaphysical theory (e.g., oneness, omnipotence, and grandiosity, being worshipped, shared state of perfection), infusing the concept of primary narcissism which is absent from the notion of nafs that simply posits, based on observation and experience, that there are wishes, desires, thoughts, and motivations within us seeking expression and which tend to generate a sense of frustration or anger when the sought-for realizations are blocked, thwarted, or ignored in various ways.

Leaving aside such considerations for the moment, let’s return to Kohut’s theory of narcissism. According to Kohut, the mothering one filters the tendency of the world to intrude into the life of an infant, and, as a result, the mothering one has a role to play in helping to gradually initiate an infant into the realities of the world and away from the influence of the condition of primary narcissism.

Sometimes, however, something happens and the filtering process breaks down. There is some sort of traumatic tear in the process and, in one way or another, the child is deprived not only of the filtering assistance afforded by the mothering one but, as well, the child loses the process of gradual initiation into the realities of the world – realties which undermine and attack the child’s sense of primary narcissism.

As a result, Kohut believes that some children, when faced with such a traumatic situation, seek to assume the responsibility of managing the filtering/initiation process by using the condition of primary narcissism as a coping strategy to try to filter and fend off the demands of the world. In such individuals, rather than the condition of primary narcissism becoming attenuated and modulated over time, this condition becomes strengthened and comes to dominant many aspects of that person’s way of interacting with the world.

Although those individuals who become inclined to filer reality through the colored lenses of primary narcissism do learn, through trial and error and sometimes with great difficulty, how the world operates and how to negotiate many different kinds of problematic encounters with the world in a way that will help to avoid punishment while garnering various worlds, nonetheless, Kohut believes that, for the most part, such people are ensconced in a paradigm of reality which is self-serving, largely – if not completely -- devoid of empathy for others, lacking in conscience, steeped in a sense of grandiosity concerning oneself, constantly seeking feedback from others which validates that sense of grandiosity, and are often skilled in insightful social observation as well as the art of persuading and/or manipulating others to become tools for the acquisition of whatever is desired or sought – especially positive feedback concerning one’s fantasies and delusions about grandiosity (this is often referred to as ‘narcissistic supply’).

Anyone who opposes, seeks to constrain, or interfere with the paradigm of primary narcissism through which the world is perceived and engaged by someone in the throes of narcissistic personality disorder is likely to become the focal object of what Kohut refers to as ‘narcissistic rage’. Such interlopers are resented, resisted, and riled against -- either openly and/or through various forms of indirect stratagems in which people become pawns to be used, and if necessary sacrificed, to check the perceived antagonist.

Kohut distinguishes between messianic personalities and charismatic personalities (rather than ‘leaders’ or prophets’) within the foregoing context of primary narcissism gone awry. The messianic personality is someone who projects a sense of grandiosity outward in the form of an ‘object’ and identifies this externalized, “idealized superego”, or ‘self’, as God who is to be served, worshipped and from whom revelation/guidance is received. The charismatic personality, on the other hand, is someone who internalizes the sense of grandiosity and equates one’s own being with an idealized sense of the omnipotent ‘self’ or Godhead which is to serve as an example for others.

Kohut believes that a messianic personality is pulled by externalized ideals and the challenge of trying to emulate and live up to those ideals. A charismatic personality, however, is driven by ambitions revolving about her or his need for self-aggrandizement, together with a validation of that sense of grandiosity through the recognition and acknowledgment of others.

Following up on an idea of Kohut’s, Oakes advances the theoretical possibility that ‘seekers’ may hook up with ‘prophets’ in ways which are mutually accommodating. In other words, individuals who have had their own problems negotiating the transition from primary narcissism to a more ‘realistic’ way of understanding that the world does not revolve around one’s existence, may have ‘extraordinary needs’ which a messianic or charismatic prophet is perceived to be able to address and/or resolve. By helping a messianic or charismatic prophet to validate his or her sense of reality through the act of following such an individual, a seeker hopes to receive, in return, what may be needed in the way of the satisfaction of the seeker’s ultimate concerns that will permit that individual to be happy, transformed, content, at peace, in harmony with one self or the world, or whatever else may be the thrust of the ultimate concerns and ‘extraordinary needs’ of a psychological/emotional nature inherent in the seeker.

Presumably, those individuals who identified with, or felt resonance in, the coping strategy adopted by a messianic personality, prophet or leader, would gravitate toward, or be attracted by, or feel at home in circumstances where the ‘idealized superego’ had been projected outward and could be sought in the external world as an ‘object’ of some kind through which one’s world could be ordered, guided, and ethically oriented. On the other hand, those individuals who identified or found resonance with the coping strategy developed by a charismatic personality, prophet or leader, might be inclined toward, attracted by, or feel comfortable in an environment where the ‘grandiose self’ was sought within and, if located, could lead to a sense of omnipotence, freedom, and primal release.

Although there is a certain degree of coherence and consistency to the foregoing theoretical framework and without wishing to argue that there is no one (either among ‘prophets’ or followers) who operates in accordance with such psychological dynamics, nonetheless, there are a great many reservations one might have concerning such a theory. For instance, to assume that all people externalize an ‘idealized superego’ or identify with an internalized ‘grandiose self’ may be a way of accounting for the observed behavior of some individuals, but such an assumption also tends to prevent one from considering the possibility that truth and reality are not necessarily a function of what we project, create, or identify with but may exist quite independently of what we think, feel, and believe.

Not every search for the truth is necessarily a reflection of unresolved issues of primary narcissism. Not every issue of ethics or morality necessarily reduces down to what we seek to impose on reality or what we internalize in the way of parental values. Not every search for identity is necessarily a function of the nuclear self’s agenda which, according to Kohut and Oakes, precipitates out of the transition from primary narcissism to more mature modes of interaction. Not every search for wisdom is necessarily a reflection of the development of coping strategies for psychic survival. Not every search for justice is necessarily a reflection of one’s likes and dislikes. Not every search for guidance is necessarily an exercise in finding a match between a ‘prophet’s’ psychological profile and one’s own psychological needs. Not every ‘prophet’ is necessarily a product of the psychodynamics of everyday life. Not every thought of awe or omnipotence is necessarily either self-referential or a matter of what one projects onto the universe. Not every experience of love is necessarily a mirrored reflection of the presence of narcissism. Not all dissatisfactions concerning the limitations, problems, and lacuna of psychoanalytical thought are necessarily evidence that denial and other defense mechanisms are at work to save us from the painful realization of repressed wishes, fantasies, impulses, and thoughts.

What is the truth concerning such matters? Whatever they may be, one shouldn’t start out by, in various ways, pre-judging the matter.

One cannot claim to be objective while being predisposed to restrict one’s investigation to purely psychological principles in relation to some phenomenon without examining the possible merits of metaphysical or trans-personal explanations with respect to that same issue. One cannot claim to be value-neutral while ignoring possible data, experience, and phenomena which are not necessarily consistent with one’s philosophical and/or psychological orientation.

Oakes admits that trying to trace such ideas as messianic and charismatic personalities back to the dynamics of infantile phenomenology is a speculative exercise (e.g., 42). However, at other times he speaks in terms which appear to transpose these speculative exercises into ‘likely’ explanations of this or that phenomenon, or this or that individual (and, I have already pointed out that almost none of what Oakes or Kohut have to say is ‘likely’ to be accurately reflective of the lives, teachings and personalities of such individuals as Jesus, the Buddha, or Muhammad -- peace and blessings be upon them all -- not to mention any number of other spiritual luminaries who appear among the ranks of both historical Prophets and the great mystical guides from many different spiritual traditions).

Although it is desirable to want to subsume as large a body of phenomena, behavior, and data, as is possible, under the rubric of one theoretical framework, one also has to be prepared to acknowledge the possibility that reality may be far more complex, rich, nuanced, and problematic than the capabilities of any single theory. Moreover, while certain individuals may exhibit behavior and characteristics which are compatible with, say, the theories of Kohut, nevertheless, this does not automatically preclude the possibility that there may be many individuals who do not demonstrate profiles which easily, if at all, conform to the requirements of such a theory. Indeed, there may be a variety of different currents of human potential which are running through the ocean we call ‘reality’.

Even if one were to accept Kohut’s psychoanalytical theory concerning the way in which individuals supposedly deal with the problem of primary narcissism, and even if one were to accept Kohut’s tendency to conceive of the difference between messianic personalities from charismatic personalities as being a function of whether, respectively, an ‘idealized superego’ was externalized or a ‘grandiose self’ was internalized, nonetheless, one still has difficulty understanding precisely how the ideas of ‘prophet’, ‘narcissism’, and charisma fit together.

Oakes does suggest that ‘seekers’ tend to be attracted to, or inclined toward, those ‘leaders’, ‘guides’, and ‘prophets’ who best reflect the ‘extraordinary needs’ of such ‘seekers. As a result, some people are attracted to, and follow, messianic ‘prophets’, while others are attracted to, and follow, ‘charismatic prophets’.

However, right away there is a problem here. If charisma is, to some extent, a function of the resonance of psychological profiles between, on the one hand, a ‘prophet’ or ‘leader’, and, on the other hand, a follower, then, why refer to only one of the two classes of ‘prophets’ or ‘teachers’ as charismatic?

In both cases, there may some sort of attraction involved. Yet, apparently, the attraction experienced in the case of so-called ‘messianic prophets’ is not an expression of charisma.

Of course, Oakes argues, quite explicitly, that charisma is very much rooted in someone – ‘prophet’, ‘teacher’ ‘leader’ ‘guide’ – being perceived to be the embodiment of another individual’s ultimate concerns. Nonetheless, the same kind of question which was raised in the foregoing comments needs to be asked again.

If one assumes, as seems logical to do, that both ‘messianic prophets’ and ‘charismatic prophets’ might be perceived to embody someone’s ultimate concerns, then, why does the adjective, charismatic, only refer to one of the two classes of ‘prophets’? Someone might counter, in Oakes’s defense, by saying something along the lines of: ‘Well, there are ‘extraordinary needs’ present in the case of the followers of ‘charismatic prophets’ that are not present among the followers of ‘messianic prophets’ and this phenomenon of ‘extraordinary needs’ together with the idea of the embodiment of ultimate concerns is what gives rise to the experience of charisma’.

However, such a possible response seems rather weak and not without its own problems. More specifically, if ‘extraordinary needs’ are a reflection of the unresolved issues of someone’s psychological profile with respect to, say, primary narcissism, then, why should one suppose that the needs of someone who seeks out and follows a ‘messianic prophet’ are any less extraordinary than the needs of someone who seeks out and follows a ‘charismatic prophet’?

For example, why should one suppose that developmental problems surrounding the issue of an externalized ‘idealized superego’ are any less extraordinary than the developmental problems swirling about the internalization of a ‘grandiose self’? What are the criteria for determining what constitutes “extraordinary needs”?

Furthermore, there are also some questions which ought to be directed to the alleged link between charisma and the perceived embodiment of ultimate concerns. In other words, just because someone is seen to embody the ultimate concerns of another individual, why should one automatically assume that the former person will be considered to be charismatic?

Oakes indicates that the meaning of ‘ultimate concerns’ will vary with the ‘seeker’ or ‘follower’ being considered. Ultimate concerns could be of a political, economic, ecological, philosophical, sexual, social, and/or spiritual nature.

We may consider our children to be expressions of our ultimate concerns, but this doesn’t necessarily make those children charismatic. We may treat our careers as an expression of our ultimate concern, but this doesn’t make our boss charismatic. We may believe that a given political leader embodies our ultimate concerns concerning a variety of social, legal, and economic issues, but we may not necessarily view the leader as charismatic so much as we may evaluate the ‘leader’ in terms of competence or incompetence, or in terms of someone who is popular or unpopular. A defendant in a murder trial may see his or her defense attorney, the judge, and the jury to be embodiments of her or his ultimate concerns concerning freedom, but this fact does not necessarily cause someone to perceive those other individuals as charismatic. We may believe that doctors, school teachers, police officials, fire fighters, and university professors may embody some of our ultimate concerns, but we don’t necessarily consider those individuals to be charismatic. The members of a congregation or parish may perceive their minister, rabbi, priest, or imam to embody their ultimate concerns, but they do not necessarily consider such ‘leaders’ to be charismatic – although they may consider them to be knowledgeable, approachable, compassionate, interesting, and committed.

Consequently, one need not feel compelled to automatically agree that charisma is a function of the perception that someone embodies our ultimate concerns. Nor is it necessarily the case that charisma is a function of ‘extraordinary needs’ per se.

According to Oakes, individuals follow a ‘prophet’, ‘leader’, ‘guru’, or ‘guide’ for a reason (page 126). They are looking for something and come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that such a ‘prophet’ may be able to provide what they are looking for, or they need something and, rightly or wrongly, they come to believe that the ‘prophet/leader/teacher’ may be the key to the fulfillment or satisfaction of that need.

Oakes cautions his readers that trying to fathom the deeper motivations which shape the decisions which people make with respect to whether, or not, to follow a ‘prophet’, ‘teacher’ or ‘leader’ is an exercise in speculation. Oakes goes on to indicate that when the people whom he interviewed were asked why they joined a group or decided to follow a ‘prophet/leader/guide’ that, quite frequently, they responded in terms of wanting to realize some sort of ideal -- such as enlightenment, salvation, or some similar “great work” which involved a transformation of the ‘self’ – and, yet, when these same individuals were asked what joining a group had permitted them to accomplish or what leaving such a group would mean to them, Oakes said that very different kinds of responses were given.

When the purpose of the ‘great work’ of self-transformation is not realized, followers often speak in terms of other kinds of values. For instance, they may speak about the process of having been part of something in which they placed their trust and to which they surrendered and which yielded certain kinds of experiential dividends and life lessons other than total self-transformation.

Some of these individuals may have had many of their illusions, naïve and otherwise, dispelled as proximity exposed the feet of clay of this or that ‘prophet/guide/leader’. Yet, these same individuals may, nonetheless, feel a sense of gratitude for what they have experienced and learned in conjunction with that ‘leader/prophet/teacher’. Other individuals speak in terms of the satisfaction derived through having been able to work hard and achieve or learn things which, prior to joining, they may not have thought possible or expected of themselves.

Oakes mentions four qualities which he claims form the core of a follower’s attachment to a ‘prophet/teacher/leader’. These qualities are: (1) faith (very vaguely and amorphously defined), (2) trust, (3) courage (in the sense of the courage that a ‘prophet’ gives to seekers in his or her role of someone who, allegedly, has attained salvation or self-realization, and, therefore, is a living exemplar, supposedly, of what is within the grasp of one and all) , and (4) projection (the placing of one’s ultimate concerns onto the figure of the ‘prophet/guide/leader’).

A charismatic ‘prophet/leader/guide’ could strengthen faith, or induce trust, or inspire courage, or provide a reason for why one believes that such a ‘prophet’ actually does embody one’s ultimate concerns, and, therefore, represents a worthy recipient of such projection. However, admitting this possibility doesn’t really make charisma something which is caused by some combination of faith, trust, courage, and/or projection, as much as this may indicate that charisma could play a causal role in the explanation of why someone becomes attached to a given ‘prophet/leader/teacher’ through faith, trust, courage and projection.

Similar sorts of comments could be made in relation to Oakes’ contention that, for example, ‘love’ and ‘freedom’ are characteristic of groups led by ‘charismatic prophets’, whereas ‘truth’ and ‘ethics’ are associated with ‘messianic prophets’. To begin with, it is not obvious, in any prima facie manner, that someone who is perceived to be an extraordinarily loving human being would necessarily be any more charismatic than someone who is rigorously devoted to the truth, or that someone who is an extreme individualist will necessarily be perceived as being more charismatic than someone who is devoted to duty with respect to moral and ethical issues.

We may be attracted to all of these kinds of individuals. Yet, such attraction is not necessarily of a charismatic kind … we may be attracted for other reasons such as having respect for such people or wanting to emulate them or wanting to learn from them or feeling comfortable around these kinds of individual.

One is still left wondering why messianic ‘prophets/teachers/guides’ aren’t referred to as ‘charismatic’. One also is still wondering why so-called ‘charismatic prophets’ are considered to be ‘charismatic.’


Anab Whitehouse

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