Life and times of Akhter Ahsen

December 22, 2019

Discovering the indispensable link between psychology and art/ literature through a reading of Akhter Ahsen’s works

Wide recognition is not the sole, legitimate factor to distinguish genius from minor writers. Many a time mediocrity might steal the show and excellence get pushed into oblivion. But stealing the show doesn’t warrant winning the long battle for survival in the annals of history.

Akhtar Ahsen, a polymath scholar and genius in the field of psychology, is a less known name for Pakistani academia, connoisseurs and literati. A cursory look at his works is enough however, to get a glimpse of how diverse his mind was. And as we peruse his books sooner rather than later, we are awestruck by the scholarly depth, topicality and relevance to us—to our psychological, existential and political situations.

Multilingualism and multiculturalism were hallmarks of his person and works. He was born in a Punjabi Muslim family settled in Sialkot on January 28, 1933. After getting a master’s degree in psychology from Government College (now University) in Lahore, he emigrated to the USA where he lived till his last breath, i.e., December 21, 2018.

It seems that he resorted to multilingualism as a way to define, assert and express his creative self in and through more than one way. He wrote in English, Urdu, Punjabi and Arabic. Not only was he adamant to keep intact his original indigenous identity and living up to global intellectual practices in his creative and intellectual endeavours, but also acquired an enviable knack of integrating multiple perspectives into a single emancipatory vision.

He was a psychotherapist, theorist, poet and drama writer. Though he did justice to all these fields, his genius featured in a specific approach to psychotherapy which he himself invented—image psychology, a term coined by him in 1980. Ahsen co-founded the Journal of Mental Imagery and the International Imagery Association in 1977 with Dr A Sheik. The imagery was not confined to psychology. In the words of Judith Hochman, “he [Ahsen] applied it to the psychology, experiment, sociology, education, literature and mythology”.

Discovery of the eidetic image embedded in the very structure of the mind—and its pervasion in cerebral and emotional manifestations—was a Copernican revolution in the field of psychology. It would be no exaggeration to say that if there were a Nobel prize in psychology, Ahsen would have been seriously considered for founding a school of image psychology. As against cognition-based psychic theories by Freud, Jung and later by Lacan—giants of modern western psychology—Ahsen offered an image-based theory of human psyche. Moreover, he also revolutionised the concept, characteristics, function and role eidetic image plays—and has been playing—in not just healing scores of psychosomatic ills but in art, literature and in spiritual uplift.

He wrote over forty books and numerous scientific articles spanning disciplines like psychology, sociology, philosophy, mythology and literature. ABC of Imagery, Aphrodite: The Psychology of Consciousness, Basic Concepts in Eidetic Psychotherapy, Ganesh: Broken and the Misshapen, Illuminations on the Path of Solomon, Imagery and Sociology, Trojan Horse: Imagery in psychology, Art, Literature and Politics, New Surrealism and Prolucid Dreaming are the most mentionable among his works.

It needs to be stressed that incomplete meaning is not something half-baked, faulty or blemished, rather it can be conceived as a movement towards an unknown, unspecified yet highly rewarding destination.

His epic poem Manhunt in the Desert needs a special mention. It is a study in consciousness that encompasses all the above-mentioned disciplines. Joseph Campbell, the celebrated American mythologist, said of the work, “You did not write this, you received it.”

Image, imagery and eidetic image are the words—or in precise terms, concepts—that recur in all his books. Image is one of the most popular words being used by commoners, journalists and experts of social science and critics of art equally. Interestingly, it is the popularity that renders it misshapen. Mostly it is intended to mean a mental copy of something, a notion that Ahsen aims to deconstruct.

To him, image is neither a copy of a thing or some event nor a sort of picture metaphor—as proposed by the propositionist school—but a ‘poetic metaphor’. We can say the moment Ahsen seeks to define image, he discovers an indispensable relation between psychology and art/literature or between psychotherapy and aesthetics. Though Ahsen employs highly academic jargon, the following quote from his book entitled Trojan Horse covers almost every aspect of his notion of image:

“The term image in various usages and definitions involves not only the representational, that is, spatial elements, but also operational attitudes functioning within the representation which do not so much involve recall of space as feelings, judgements, concepts as well as actions, making the structure much more comprehensive”.

As image is not a mere copy of something, it cannot be thought to have been wholly based on memory. Newness is a distinctive feature of image and art alike. But memory, in the words of Ahsen, “operates with haste and, as a result, tends only to incestuously reproduce its own self rather than create anew”. He also asserts that “The memory mechanism is, in essence, antithetical to Art”.

It is not the art only that suffers at heart at the hands of memory mechanism but education too. Art in the name of the sanctity of tradition –a memory of golden past—sacrifices its spontaneity and newness. However, Ahsen admits, a limited role for memory. “In new experiences memories are not recalled as constrictive referents; on the contrary, they are used as the processable raw material for the construction of new objects”, he elucidates.

Ahsen is of the view that reality occupies a central place in psychology and art. But the word reality is as elusive as it is problematic. Newness is the quintessential trait of reality that both psychology and art seek to embrace. And this newness is tied to magic rather than logic. So, Ahsen constructs a new image of reality—a magical reality. In magical reality, A is not really A but something else, provable through a new experience.

In Ahsen’s own words, “in a truly magical way we find that part is whole, contact is unification, imitation is reality, wish is action”. The assertion ‘imitation is reality’ might appear deceptive. Image is not a faithful imitation of outer reality, instead a confluence of both subjective and objective perceptions. Simply, image—as a metaphor—is reality.

What is a metaphor? A metaphor arises out of an urge for newness on one hand and resistance against ‘egocentricity’ and repetitious logic’ on the other. When we say something is another thing, a metaphor is born; ye raat us dard ka shajar hae (this night is a tree of that pain) is the first line from Faiz’s poem Mulaqat (Meeting). Night is one thing and tree is another. There are glaring dissimilarities among them, yet under the feeling of some pressure (or painful condition) some fresh associations are formed which are more magical and less logical. The meaning of this image-metaphor remains incomplete.

For Ahsen, in poetically incomplete meaning(s) lies the true aesthetic value of art, as when meaning becomes complete it is no longer innocent but closed, egocentric, unexciting, and barren like logic. It needs to be stressed that incomplete meaning is not something half-baked, faulty or blemished, rather it can be conceived as a movement towards some unknown, unspecified yet highly rewarding destination. That which is true in the domain of aesthetic is equally valid in psychotherapy. We can thus say psychotherapy goes the way of aesthetic.

As stated earlier, in metaphor two different, distanced things are tied to one another and the logic of this act rests with the feeling of some pressure—a disturbing emotional state. All metaphors are built out of routine, ordinary and monotonous words. What makes them novel are their fresh associations. This means that a metaphor is a result of a Janus-perception, in Ahsen’s formulations, where two alternative views of the world as two faces of perception are locked in opposite directions.

The theory of Janus-perception offers a new approach to understand, interpret and evaluate mythology, poetry and even our colonial history, entangled in binaries. Janus, a Roman god having two faces, looking towards past and future at the same time, is a metaphor of locking opposite perspectives —subjective and objective, past and future, personal and political—into an emancipatory vision.

The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid, Nazm Kaisay Parhain (criticism) and Rakh say Likhi Gai Kitab (short stories)

Life and times of writer Akhter Ahsen