College sophomores of the 1950s and '60s had to read certain books if they were to have any hope to all of making the suitable responses to fashionable intellectual questions, such as, Is God dead? Is the Theatre dead? Is Psychoanalysis finally dead? William Barrett's Irrational Man helped with God, Martin Esslin's Theatre of the Absurd explored drama, Rollo May's The Meaning of Anxiety provided profound insights in psychology. These men collected and collated the works of poets, philosophers, and psychologists that you desperately needed to know but hadn't yet read.
May's work, written in 1950, was particularly ahead of its time, and was finally upstaged nearly two decades on by his best-selling Love and Will, a book very much of its time.
Now he has revised his first one, on anxiety, after 27 years, having finally caught up with the general public. When he first wrote The Meaning of Anxiety, only two books had been published on that subject; now, writes May, "anxiety has come out of the dimness of the professional office into the bright light of the market place." In an age glutted with guide-books to show that anyone who can tune up a Toyota can smooth out a sputtering psyche and find a quick fix on emotional nirvana, Rollo May's intellectual approach to anxiety is informative, illuminating, and, so old-fashioned as to be quite refreshing.
May's thesis is romantic poetic theory applied to mental health. Instead of, "we suffer to create," he writes that anxiety "sharpens our need to create and enlivens our imagination." We are better off for it. By refusing to move from the familiar to the unfamiliar, we may reduce anxiety, but we also constrict self-awareness and self-actualization. Like a child who learns to walk after falling down repeatedly, we learn to develop ourselves by moving through experiences of anxiety.
The problem with The Meaning of Anxiety is that most of the good stuff was in the original, which May has revised in the light of new research. He added only two new chapters and the publishers don't make this altogehter clear in their advertisements.
In the new chapters May is unable to resist making the halftime locker-room peptalk. His exhortation to deal with anxiety by accepting it as a fortuitous challenge, like his equating of anxiety with degrees of intelligence and creativity, borders on the simplistic. Although he tries, he does not always make sharp distinctions between neurotic states of anxiety, which can be crippling and destructive, and everyday anxiety, which he says is not.
Nevertheless, The Meaning of Anxiety remains a provocative intellectual history of anxiety with solid discussions of philosophers and psychologists from Soren Kierkegaard to Karen Horney. Unlike many compilers of psychological primers, May makes his points clearly, with style. Almost in refutation of his own central point that anxiety is the best teacher, he creates no anxiety at all in his readers. (Norton, $12.95)