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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 7.4 (2000) 311-315
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The Nature, Causes and Types of Ecstasy
M. Dominic Beer
Besides its historical significance, Mayer-Gross's thesis is important because it addresses a subject, ecstasy, that has been largely neglected in the psychiatric literature. Many of the more recent textbooks of psychopathology barely address the subject of ecstasy (Hamilton 1974, Scharfetter 1980, Shepherd and Zangwill 1983, Sims 1988; Berrios 1996). There has been, it is true, debate in this journal on issues related to happiness, for instance, on the subject of "Mild Mania" (Moore, Hope, and Fulford 1994, Nordenfelt 1994, and Seedhouse 1994). A related debate has also occurred as to whether happiness itself should be classified as a psychiatric disorder. Bentall (1992) made the somewhat tongue-in-cheek proposal while Harris, Birley, and Fulford (1993) rejected it. But these debates have concentrated on whether mild mania is an illness, and, if so, whether it should be treated compulsorily under the Mental Health Act.
In his thesis, by contrast, Mayer-Gross examined the deeper question of how abnormal happiness should be distinguished from genuine religious ecstasy. It is with this question, and with Mayer-Gross's analysis of the distinction, that I will be concerned in this commentary. Mayer-Gross was influenced by Jaspers, and I will also cover what Jaspers had already written on this subject in his General Psychopathology (1959). I will start with a brief summary of Mayer-Gross's treatment of the distinction between abnormal happiness and genuine religious ecstasy.
Summary of Mayer-Gross's Views on Ecstasy
Wolff provides a valuable translation of Mayer-Gross's doctoral thesis and places both Mayer-Gross and the thesis within their historical context. She also helpfully updates the references which Mayer-Gross cites.
Wolff gives a clear account of what Mayer-Gross considered the six basic differences between abnormal happiness and ecstasy.
1. Ecstasy is calm and free of all inner turmoil; whereas, happiness is associated with a sense of potency.
2. Ecstasy is an overwhelming inner experience that strives to drive every other experience out. Happiness is an inner experience that strives to color others with its emotional tone.
3. There is no place in ecstasy for the phenomena of external awareness; whereas the emotional tone of happiness "streams out" to external objects.
4. The ego "dissolves" in the face of ecstasy; whereas, the ego is strong and assertive in happiness.
5. During ecstasy, the unpleasant quality of physical sensations accentuates the threat to the integrity of the self. In happiness, physical sensations reflect the happy mood.
6. The state of consciousness in ecstasy is impaired because of the poor attentive grasp of external reality; whereas, in happiness, consciousness is clear because grasp is retained. [End Page 311]
Mayer-Gross's careful delineation between ecstasy and abnormal happiness raises two questions: "What is the nature of ecstasy?" and "What are the causes of ecstasy?" In the remainder of this commentary, I will consider these two questions in turn. I will also look at what overlap there is, if any, between the different types of ecstasy.
What is the Nature of Ecstasy?
Before World War II, Anderson (1938) reviewed the literature on ecstasy and concluded that little had been written in the great German and French psychiatric textbooks on this subject. He quoted a number of authors from the 1920s who had written anything of note on the subject. The Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler wrote of schizophrenic ecstasy: "Association with the outer world is so completely interrupted that an absolute analgesia exists" (80). Oswald Bumke's huge textbook described ecstatic states among patients with epilepsy "in which they saw the heavens open, [heard] God speaking to them, felt transfigured, even [believed] that they were God." (81) E. W. Anderson calls this "probably the classical psychiatric description of ecstasy." (81) The Frenchman Pierre Janet distinguished three degrees of ecstasy--recueillements, extases, and ravissements--with six essential criteria:
1. Complete immobility and detachment from outside things.
2. Enormous internal activity.
3. Intense faith in the reality of what is experienced.