Schopenhauer’s porcupines

Several years ago, I read Schopenhauer’s porcupines: Dilemmas of intimacy and the talking cure: Five stories of psychotherapy, by Deborah Anna Luepnitz.

It’s a fascinating book, and you don’t need to be a Schopenhauer scholar, a zoologist, or a psychotherapy patient to get a lot out of it. The entry card instead is being someone who relates to others or would like to do so.

It was there that I encountered Schopenhauer’s parable of the porcupines, the last of many from his Studies in pessimism:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

Schopenhauer presents his parables as telling us just how life is, but Luepnitz takes this one in a constructive way. She shows through five case studies how we all have simultaneous needs and fears for intimacy, thus creating a dilemma for full living. As she puts it (p. 19):

Psychotherapy cannot make us whole, but it does allow us to transform suffering into speech and, ultimately, to learn to live with desire.

I was impressed with the book. Coincidentally, shortly after reading it, I had dinner in Philadelphia with a couple, one of whom was her patient.

References

  • Luepnitz, Deborah Anna (2002). Schopenhauer’s porcupines: Dilemmas of intimacy and the talking cure: Five stories of psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur (1891). The essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; Studies in pessimism (tr. Thomas Bailey Saunders). London: Swan Sonnenschein.

3 thoughts on “Schopenhauer’s porcupines

  1. It’s too much to say “cure.”

    Her basic question is “how does talking help?” The case studies flesh out the answer, but in short, she says it “helps us to separate the particular catastrophes of our family and social circumstances from the general catastrophe of having been born human and, thus, subject to aging, death, and the dilemmas of intimacy.” (p. 18)

    Like

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