Darkness at the Bifurcation Point
A Parable of Perls of Wisdom
by Frederick David Abraham for James L. Frank (© Frederick David Abraham)

The Grand Inquisitor: You have been accused of betraying dialectical principles of systems psychology, and engaging in monological static theoretical positions. For the house of chaos to bifurcate in any meaningful way, it is essential that you confess to this asymptotic behavior, this point attractor.

The Grand Master: The accusation must be utterly false. I have always lived by Heraclitian dialectics of change, tension of oppositions, and the union of opposites.

GI: Hegel said the same thing. But look what he did. You call that decentering?

GM: So he screwed up. Neitzsche did better. Jung was on to something. Hell, dynamics. Chaos theory. It is all awash with flux. Leibniz gave us flux, and the calculus to surf on it.

GI: Precisely. Who was more centered than Leibniz? A universal language! An alphabet of the mind! Unity in science! The positivists surfed on it. Observational basis of universal truths. Is that what your dynamics is? I'd call that a confession.

GM: The positivists were relativists, observation was an intimate dialectic between the observer and the observed. No static attractors there. Just let me go. You wouldn't know a flux if it slapped you in the face.

GI: Insolent dog, Master. Must we prove your perversion? Your adherence to a corpse? The death of chaos? Didn't Athena squish that centuries ago?

GM: Look you deconstructionists. You poststructural fools! Who is more centered than you? You go through a bifurcation sequence until you have a annihilation catastrophe. Wham! No more attractor. That's as stable as you can get. You deconstructed yourself into a structure! We are the ones living with flux.

GI: Chaos theory lives in a box. We will prove it. You will confess. Give me a dynamical deconstruction or reconstruction by commenting on the layers described in this excerpt in terms of nonlinear dynamical systems theory. Reconstruct that as if you were a dynamicist. You can draw pictures or whatever you want. We will give you every advantage.

To help you understand the importance of the implosive layer and its role in neuroses, I will describe more completely what I consider the five layers of neurosis. The first layer we encounter is what I call the Eric Berne layer, or the Sigmund Freud layer, or the phony layer, where we play games, play roles. It is identical with Helene Deutsch's description of the "as if" person. We behave as if we are nincompoops, as if we are pupils, as if we are ladies. As if we are bitches, etc. It is always the "as if" attitudes that require that we live up to a concept, live up to a fantasy that we or others have created or as an ideal. What you call an ideal, I call a curse. It's an attempt to get away from oneself. . . .This, then, is what I call the first, or phony, layer, which includes these roles, the top-dog/under-dog, the controlling games. If we once become aware of the phoniness of game-playing and try to become more honest we encounter pain,unpleasantness, despair, etc. . . .Once we are capable of understanding our reluctance to accept unpleasant experiences, we can get to the next layer, the phobic layer, the resistance, the objection to being what we are. This is where all the should nots that I have already discussed occur.
If we get behind the phobic layer, the objections, we find at that moment the impasse occurs. And within the impasse there is the feeling of not being alive, of deadness. We feel we are nothing, we are things. In every bit of therapy we have to go through this implosive layer in order to get to the authentic self. This is where most schools of therapy and therapists shrink away, because they also fear deadness. Of course, it is not being dead, but the fear and feeling of being dead, of disappearing. The fantasy is taken for reality. Once we get through the implosive layer, we see something very peculiar happening. This can be seen most dramatically in the catatonic state, where the patient who has appeared as a corpse explodes into life-explosions happen.
The explosions is the final neurotic layer that occurs when we get through the implosive layer. As I see it, this progression is necessary to become authentic. There are essentially four types of explosion: explosion into joy, into grief, into orgasm, into anger. Sometimes the explosions are very mild- it depends on the amount of energy that has been invested in the implosive layer.Perhaps I can make clearer where the catatonic state, the implosive state, comes about by talking about physiology. You know that in order to move a muscle, you send an electric shock into the muscle, and the muscle jerks. If you interrupt the shock, again the muscle jerks, In order to keep the muscle contracted you must constantly repeat the electric shocks. So you can imagine in a catatonic state, or anytime you get tense, how much energy is invested in keeping tense, keeping rigid.. And if this energy is not invested in keeping yourself rigid, the energy is freed for all kinds of activities - thinking, moving about, being alive.
If suddenly freed, the pent-up energy will explode. Implosion becomes explosion, compression becomes expression. (Perls, 1970, from an address given in Atlanta, GA. at a conference of Gestalt Therapists.)

GM: Of course. This is incredibly simple. You ask me to comment on these layers as if I was an expert. I can play that game. Just five bifurcations. All we need is a state space common to all layers, a control parameter, and presumably run a developmental control stick backward, deconstruct the neurotic onion. Piece of cake.

GI: Ya. If it is that simple. let's see if you can even identify the five layers?

GM: I can even though Perls didn't. He describes four layers: phony, phobic, shrunken, exploded. However the count is correct when one realizes he has described three attractors: phony being, nonbeing, being, and two bifurcations between them, implosive and explosive. His five layers mixed apples and bifurcations. A simple bifurcation sequence with plosive bifurcations.

GI: Failed already! Can't find the five layers. And you thought it was going to be a piece of cake. I suppose now you will talk about dimenisonality of attractors, instability of bifurcation points? How will you work self-organization in?

GM: No problemo! Phony layer: a very low-dimensional chaotic or periodic attractor. Imploded non-being: an attractor even lower in dimensional and size. The catatonic case being a fixed point attractor, dimension 0. Being: a larger attractor of medium-high dimensionality. If the dimensionality were too high and the personality would disintegrate, a condition seen in creative folks before a final implosion. Self-organization? Obvious. The individual views their own neurotic behavior. Awareness of the phony layer pushes one to the bifurcation point, where instability reigns. Some can feel the ecstasy and hope there in anticipation, as well as fear, for they have to move on to a new attractor. This abyss, as Neitzsche and many Jewish mystics called it, requires courage. Some love to surf the bifurcations, but some move on to the despair of nonbeing that Perls describes, and dwell in that attractor for awhile (E.g., Horowitz). Perls describes the next bifurcation, the explosive one, without insight into its self-organizational aspect, but nonetheless it is there. One despairs of despair. One explodes into being (again, Horowitz). Why he calls this last attractor neurotic I don't know. To me it seems brimming with the essence of life. I do feel these bifurcations have both the angst and the enthusiasm, even ecstasy found in existentialist hopes and limitations of being. Is it neurotic to enjoy life and simultaneously despair its limits? I think not. At any rate. QED. Give me my prize and let me go home. Find someone else for your prison.

GI: Not so fast. Aren't you forgetting something?

GM: What? What? I've done it all. Played the game as if a grand dynamics master.

GI: Think so, huh? Un uh. Nope. What about the state space. How can you describe attractors and bifurcations without describing the state space?

GM: What do you want for nothing? In the first place. Perls gives one precious little to go in. There would have to be considerable deconstruction, peeling more layers, to isolate variables. In the second place, the reconstruction of attractors need not depend on the exact definition of variables. Any variables related to the interaction features of the system contain all the information about the system behavior. Even with one variable you can reconstruct an attractor. These are basic theorems of mutual information theory and attractor reconstruction theory. That is why there can be a proliferation of so many theories in psychology, and they all seem correct. Let dynamics give them some grounds for communication and a balance of unification and diversity; make psychology a proper chaotic attractor.

GI: So, name a few axes.

GM: Well I could conjecture that there would be some variables in the emotional/drive arena, some in the cognitive-intellectual arena, and perhaps a third category, like Torre's generalized learned pragmatics of navigating turf with some novel elements.

GI: That's a cop out. All psychological theories can be handled that way.

GM: I didn't think you'd let me get away with that. Ok. Let's look at Perls again. We'll start with the phony layer. There are two very obvious dimensions here. One is the distance between a socially constructed self (Adam), and an inner being that seeks its own way (Eve). Another is the degree of awareness of that distance (God, Eve, and the snake). It is difficult to say whether these are system variables or control parameters. Because the attractor is playing itself out in a space of emotional and cognitive variables in the life space. In that life space there are two basins whose attractors represent the true self and the role-playing self. Hmmm. There must be some social control parameter that causes those basins to diverge, and that distance is itself the control parameter I just mentioned. This seems to be getting a bit messy. There is also the feedback from the locus of the trajectory at any time back onto this parameter. Further compounding this problems is the fact is that the awareness problem is also a function of this divergence, this distance. Messier still, but still possible. Pain, unpleasantness, despair, are all part of the state space, but the attractor exists in a part of the state space where they are minimal during the phony, but stable attractor. As the true-vs-social self disparity distance between true and social self increases, and the awareness of this distance, one gets near the unstable bifurcation point. Fear pushes one back to the old safe attractor (not for Perls), or to an existential courage for a bifurcation, some equanimity of acceptance of pain and into a sort of vamping or imploded attractor, which is nonetheless dynamic and allows some feedback as the self explores and constructs alternative dynamical schemes. This is the implosive attractor that allows some sort of subliminal, or perhaps even more active or aware process, of exploring yet unfamiliar parts of one's dynamical self, to get ready to construct or map the parts of the state space upon which to launch the next explosive bifurcation. The feeling of aliveness is obviously an important variable of the state space as well. Free play, joy, curiosity, enthusiasm. A bit hazy perhaps, but still a reasonable dynamical sketch of Perls system.

GI: Supposing I buy this sketch. Supposing I conclude you have painted one of many arbitrary portraits of the neurotic layers of Perls.

GM: Well I should think so. Give me my prize. I got to get back to work.

GI: There is just one little issue however.

GM: What's that?

GI: The essence of getting inside chaos is the enthusiasm, the engagement with life, and here you have just been role playing. Tossing out a paradigm without any real engagement. You don't even believe this stuff. Your just surfing an operational descriptive level without any real passion or concern for the Gestalt paradigm. And considering the common historical roots of chaos theory in psychology in Gestalt psychology, I'd have thought you could really get engaged here.

GM: You mean chaos has become a false god? A graven idol? An explanatory goal, rather than an engagement of my inner soul with life?

GI: Exactly.

GM: Chaos. Why have you forsaken me? The being-attractor shrinks, loses power, becomes too socialized. Academic social trivia are trying to remold it like the rest of academia. The creative souls are being driven out. It becomes a phony-attractor. It's like the Perls' bifurcation sequence is being driven by a periodic attractor of enthusiasm and ennui.

GI: We've proven your perversion. Now you are reduced to blaming the environment, when the fault lies within you. You can't find the real truth. You have to keep looking. Looking for the truth isn't finding it; it is looking for it. Heraclitus. Protagoras. I thought you listened to them. Instead you are stuck on Parmenides. You thought you were on the right track in seeing the Perls sequence, but was contradictory to look for a driving oscillator. It too is self-organization. Ha. I am teaching the chaos master. Hold out your arms; I got to nail you up a while.

GM: Forsaken. Forsaken.

GI: I'm leaving.. I'm going to check another victim, Prometheus. I like to gloat. Don't forget Socrates.

GM: Socrates? Socrates. Let me see. Rollo May mentions Socrates. What was it May said? "The beginning of wisdom is the admission of one's ignorance, and man can creatively use his powers, and to some extent transcend his limitation, only as he humbly and honestly admits these limitation to begin with." That, and love, they are the key to Prometheus Unbound. And Eve. They tried to transcend human limitations. Trying is ok. As long as chaos doesn't pretend to more than it is, doesn't get caught up in hubris, it can play a role in the search for life. Hey, Protagoras, it's ok.

Created: 10/28/96 Updated: 1/1/96