Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Influence of Abner Dean

Originally posted on October 7, 2011

I was strangely influenced as a young man by the surrealistic, semi-cartoon art of Abner Dean, who drew cartoons and pictures that intrigued me. I had been into comic books, but here was a fellow who, like Saul Steinberg, used cartooning to present serious themes. Recently, I remembered Dean and wondered why I was fascinated by his work. I realized that I also not only cartooned funny, but also serious—some early drawings were more visual poems, though I don’t claim that they were of great artistic merit.

Abner Dean was an illustrator whose books were more known in the late 1940s and 1950s. (I googled him and found that if you click on “images” you can see a great many of his drawings. Others have done the scan-on for me.) I was impressed by Dean’s books and collected some as a teenager and young man, though I’ve been wondering why they appealed to me. I only recently have developed some thoughts that speak to this.

The mixture of cartooning and serious was only one element. The other was that Dean presented a “world shorn of meaning,”—a condition I still see as prevalent today. I think Abner Dean was a commentator on the de-myth-ification of our Western Civilization. In the (rightful) flight from the tyranny of kings, aristocrats, doctrinaire religion, and autocratic systems in general, and the turn towards scientifically-based knowledge, democracy, and liberalism, there has been an intellectual vacuum. I confess some sympathy with this rejection of even subtle oppression, but then I also recognize certain elements in traditionalism that have value—especially the power of tradition or that kind of thing to supply myth—a system of connection and meaning: This is how you are connected to the world, and this is what it means. (My solution to this problem is that we should more consciously engage in personal and collective myth-making!)

I have pursued both channels, moving away from illusions that no longer serve us, yet also intrigued by esoteric systems that hint at “the more-ness” of the cosmos that can offer meanings. I’ve been handicapped in this journey by a layer of insulation that in some ways has allowed me time to contemplate the problem more objectively. (That’s a mild oxymoron, because the senses of connection, of meaning, of identity, of aesthetic value, and the like all are profoundly subjective, not objective. Yet the challenge of psychology is to appreciate and understand such dynamics to some degree, allowing for un-ending variations that transcend our provisional models.)

My handicap is that I have been blessed with several deep roots of identity and meaning—the idealistic streams of medicine and the modern theme of progress; the extravagant models of esoteric psychology and philosophy (e.g., the great chain of being); the rootedness in Jewishness as an ethnicity even if I couldn’t develop a sense of connection with its religious foundations; a kind of unaffiliated idealism that fit with part of the intellectual climate of the mid-20th century. I didn’t really feel much of the sense of alienation that emerged during my teen and college years through the beat culture of North Beach in San Francisco, but I liked many of its ideas.

I too felt a bit of tension and bewilderment at the themes of phoniness and hypocrisy that pervaded so many social institutions and some cultural, economic, political, religious, and other domains. This has only grown with time—I’m increasingly impressed with the streams of non-rationality, irrationality, rationalization, the underlying power of the true religion of consumerism (true only in the sense that the almighty dollar is the functional god even as people pay lip service to the traditional objects of devotion appropriate to their culture), and so forth. Yes, phoniness pervades.

Part of my interest is vocational. I was a psychiatrist who always considered the wider culture and the paradoxes of that culture as factors in the overall stress and causation or reinforcement of a great many patterns of neurosis. Freud did this too, but he superimposed his own theory which inhibited others from noting that there were many other sources of stress that Freud never considered or perhaps he himself had not penetrated his own capacity for denial—such as a more feminist view of depth psychology.

Nor do I claim that we are anywhere near a final analysis: New facets of subtle mixed messages continue to emerge in my consciousness, at least, and I am aware that many of them remain out of the field of awareness of a goodly percentage of psychologists and psychiatrists, such as, for example: 
– sociometry and the dynamics of rapport, and the feelings associated with this quite touchy dimension of social psychology—guilt or shame over whom we prefer, whom we don’t prefer, and feelings of rejection at not being preferred by those whom we want to prefer us… etc.
– play, the dynamics of loosening the literal nature, or the social consequences, or the provisional exploratory quality of certain individual and collective actions, which then blurs into humor, satire, and many other forms.
– the need for freedom to create, to feel empowered as a creator, unafraid of making mistakes, the capacity for improvisation, etc.
– the source of feelings of meaning and what degree of structure is needed, when does it become doctrinaire, etc. Also I think this has to do with distilling out what is most valid and important in religion.
– related to the above, the function of myth, story, poetry, drama, etc. in culture and in mind
– and so forth.

Most of the above I know have been thought about, at least peripherally, but at least a few other thinkers or researchers in the culture if not the field. But the point here is that getting the word out still has a long way to go. Also, various formulations probably can do with being more fully elaborated and  refined.  More later.

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