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  • Harry Stack Sullivan and the Gay Psychoanalysis
  • Jon Harned

In the 1930s Harry Stack Sullivan asked a friend, the design artist John Vassos, to etch for him a special emblem (Perry 1982, 342). What Sullivan was trying to say about himself through this symbol has never been clearly explained. His foster son, James Sullivan, thought it was intended as a puzzle with a surface and a hidden meaning: “This symbol with slight modification was reconverted from the Chinese symbol representing Eternal Life. Studied carefully—by those intelligent, the social scientists, psychiatrists, etc., this symbol represents something else. Follow its line and you will discover” (quoted in Perry, 343). Yet even if we admit the possibility that the design encodes a secret message, James’ interpretation of its surface meaning seems inconsistent with what we know about Sullivan, for even though he collected Chinese antiques, there is no indication that Chinese religion or philosophy played any role in his thinking. It is more plausible to assume [End Page 299] that Sullivan intended it to be associated with his own interpersonal theory of psychoanalysis.

If one looks at the evolution of Sullivan’s ideas from his papers on schizophrenia in the 1920s to the series of lectures he delivered to the Washington School of Psychiatry in 1946–47, later reprinted as The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, the direction is like that of a widening spiral in which an initial binarism—represented I suggest by the contrasting horses of the insignia—is progressively elaborated as Sullivan assimilated concepts from other fields, most importantly linguistics and British object relations theory. The central distinction in Sullivan’s psychology is between psychic and cultural forces that integrate the individual with society and those that disintegrate that tie, or to put it another way, between forces from within and without the individual that connect the components of the self and forces that split the self, dissociating the conscious from the unconscious mind. Despite his differences with Freud, Sullivan conceptualized schizophrenia as an instance of civilization and its discontents. As he put it in a paper from the 1920s, “the motivation at work [in schizophrenia] is in a general way conflicting groups of elaborated (and more or less successfully repressed) personal tendencies opposed by tendencies of the nature of ideals (cultural controls)” (1962, 113). By the time of his 1939 lectures on Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry, he traced the integrating and disintegrating tendencies to a psychological origin in the infant’s early discrimination between the “Good Mother” whose nipple brings satisfaction and the “Bad Mother” whose nipple creates anxiety (1953a, 77–79). In The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, the good mother/bad mother personifications evolve into the infant’s and later the child’s sense of itself as divided between a “good-me” and a “bad-me” (1953b, 161–62). Repeated experiences of behavior that parents reward and that builds self-esteem and behavior that parents punish and that diminishes self-regard solidify the division of the self into opposing tendencies, one toward satisfaction through interpersonal relations and one toward security against anxiety through withdrawal from interpersonal relations. To be sure, Sullivan’s psychology includes trinities as well as dualities. To the differentiation [End Page 300] in object relations theory between good mother and bad mother and between good and bad selves, Sullivan adds an even more malignant self-personification, the “not-me,” the breeding ground of psychopathology (1953b, 162–64). And thought processes develop from the earliest “prototaxic” symbols of pleasure and anxiety (such as “the good nipple” and “the bad nipple”) into “parataxic”symbols (symbols of prototaxic symbols, such as good mother and bad mother) and finally gain interpersonal validity in “syntaxic” symbols, which are “consensually validated” (1953b, 28–30). Nevertheless, Sullivan’s ongoing project is always to devise therapeutic strategies that will enable a person to have comfortable, satisfying experiences with other people as opposed to experiences that are guarded and shallow. Even though we are all riven between our better and worse impulses, between the white horse and the dark horse, both must be present for healthy psychological functioning. The anti-anxiety processes can produce personality “warps,” defensive patterns of behavior that frustrate the need...

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pp. 299-317
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