Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Menningers of Kansas

Happenstance caused me to pull a volume from a shelf, a book I must have obtained in the 1960s but had but briefly skimmed then. Some vague memories remained, but the volume still had its dust jacket; dust jackets routinely come off when I read a book with care, hence I hadn’t. The book was Karl A. Menninger’s The Vital Balance: The Life Process in Mental Health and Illness. This time I read the book. In that process I discovered the reason why, nearly 50 years ago, I had put it aside, and also why I shouldn’t have. Every sincere and learned effort has value, and Menninger, one of the apostles of Freudian psychology, was a man of merit and worth.

Living in Kansas City from the early 1950s to about 1970 with some interruptions, we were quite aware of the Menninger Clinic in nearby Topeka, Kansas (in Houston since 2005), an institution that ranks up there with the Mayo. Learning more now, I discovered, for instance, that Charles F. Menninger, Karl’s father, together with William W. Mayo, have a day dedicated to them (March 6) in the Episcopal Church (USA)’s liturgical calendar! The Wikipedia page that told me this is also labeled Saints portal—which tells the astute reader a good many interesting things about cultural fusions and such in these Latter Days. In any case, the Menninger Clinic was founded by C.F. Menninger and his sons Karl A. and William C., all three psychiatrists. The third and middle son, Edwin A. Menninger, became a journalist, the founder of a paper in Florida, and a great promoter of flowering trees, which is not a bad divergence from the family profession if diverge you must. Edwin also wrote a book called Fantastic Trees.

The most famous Menninger was Karl (1893-1990), principally owing to his writings. Best known of these are The Human Mind, his first, Man Against Himself, and The Vital Balance. While Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is permanently linked to the concept of sex, the libido, the life drive, Karl Menninger’s work is centered on Freud’s lesser-known death drive that others, later, labeled Thanatos, after the Greek personification of death. Human existence is the battle between life and death, played out in each individual, both being drives, a favorite Freudian concept (in German Trieb). Menninger’s Man Against Himself, is a detailed analysis of this darker drive, which manifests as aggression and destruction. And his The Vital Balance is an attempt to show in fine detail how the right balancing of these two drives produces the fully-developed human being.

It is undoubtedly useful to see reality, occasionally, through lenses quite differently fashioned than my own, and reading Menninger is an example. Does modernity also have its own projection of a Fallen World? Oh, yes. It does when it is serious—and Menninger was serious above all. Also an eloquent writer on the most arcane and difficult subject, the human soul, albeit that word, when used at all by him, gets quotes around it. Something in that Freudian lens, however, blocks out some of the light. When Menninger refers to transcendence, he uses that word to mean a better adaptation; to use his own phrasing, when you transcend the destructive and the libidinal drives, you are “weller than well.” And, in the end, Thanatos has the last word after all…
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The flowering tree shown is the Tabebuia, courtesy of Mary616 (link), which also has more information on Edwin A. Menninger.

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