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Pesskin, A. (2020). The Destroyed World and the Guilty Self: A Psychoanalytic Study of Culture and Politics by David P. Levine and Matthew H. Bowker. Published by Phoenix Publishing House, Bicester, 2019; 208 pp, £25.99 paperback. Brit. J. Psychother., 36(1):172-174.

(2020). British Journal of Psychotherapy, 36(1):172-174

The Destroyed World and the Guilty Self: A Psychoanalytic Study of Culture and Politics by David P. Levine and Matthew H. Bowker. Published by Phoenix Publishing House, Bicester, 2019; 208 pp, £25.99 paperback

Review by:
Annie Pesskin

Written by two American social scientists with a lively interest in psychoanalytic ideas, The Destroyed World and the Guilty Self is a densely written, 10-chapter book concerned with the unconscious phantasy that the world we live in is a dangerous place to be. They are interested in what underpins this phantasy, how and why it develops in the minds of individuals, how this impacts on group life, and how both the phantasy and defences against it reverberate through American political and cultural life. Their wide-ranging lens explores the Frontier myth through the TV show Godless, totalitarian states of mind in George Orwell's 1984, as well as how a search for ‘justice’ to correct the perceived ‘dangers’ in the world today echoes through culture wars over racist heritage, white privilege and attitudes towards immigrants.

Sometimes it makes a welcome change to read a book concerned with psychoanalytic ideas that is not written by a clinician. Instead of the well worn road where clinical experience is explored with reference to key psychoanalytic theories, Levine and Bowker do something rather different. They start from the observation that wherever you look, whether in literary fiction, film, TV or computer games, you find vivid expressions of the destroyed-world fantasy: depictions of extinction-level events and world-ending scenarios, struggles for survival against non-human monsters, or the various human forms of monstrosity be they World War, Cold War, genocide, and/or nuclear annihilation narratives. They are not wrong, are they? Take for example, TV shows such as The Handmaid's Tale, Mr Robot, Stranger Things, Black Mirror, or Game of Thrones.

They declare that the ubiquity of this 'dangerous world’ fantasy reveals how it has a special hold over us. (They write fantasy with an 'f’ - I am going to refer to the 'ph’ and 'f’ forms of fantasy interchangeably for the purpose of this book review, implying the Kleinian unconscious 'ph’ kind.)

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