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Atkin, S. (1974). Power and Innocence. A Search for the Sources of Violence: By Rollo May. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1972. 283 pp.. Psychoanal Q., 43:514-515.

(1974). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 43:514-515

Power and Innocence. A Search for the Sources of Violence: By Rollo May. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1972. 283 pp.

Review by:
Samuel Atkin

Rollo May is primarily a humanizer of knowledge, and a good one at that. His recent book, Power and Innocence, is an eclectic amalgam of psychology, existential psychoanalysis, ontological metaphysics, political science, and propaganda. To this reader the book comes across as a political feuilleton serving the politics of the New Left. It manages most eloquently to discredit violence as exercised by the Establishment and to apologize for violence by the anti-Establishment rebels. At the same time it manages somehow to take an essentially pacifist position.

It would take an ontologist to do full justice to May's thesis. He describes five levels of 'power': 1, the power to be; 2, self-affirmation; 3, self-assertion; 4, aggression; and 5, violence. It is self-assertion, as distinct from aggression (which May presents largely as a destructive force) that leads to self-fulfilment. The main discussion centers on 'power' in its aspects as self-assertion and self-affirmation.

Perhaps the most interesting idea presented is that of 'innocence'. Putting aside the 'childlike authentic innocence' of the poets and saints, May deals mainly with what he calls 'pseudo innocence'—a blindness to the evil in the world. Pseudo innocence is also a failure to acknowledge the reality of one's own 'power', a failure that leads to impotence.

May conceives of violence as a unifying and organizing principle. He quotes Sartre: 'Violence creates the self. It is an organizing of one's powers … to establish the worth of the self'. But violence omits 'rationality'; it also rules out language, which bridges across and contains violence and confrontation. The 'totality of one's involvement' occurring in violence is exemplified by what is expressed in ghetto riots or in the 'superrational' behavior of Joan of Arc. Self-realization through violence may be experienced in 'ecstasy', as for example the 'ecstasy' of participation in war and of a 'sheeplike acceptance' of war (a contradiction, I believe). May extols the doctrines of Fanon because violence can arouse an oppressed group from apathy. He sorts out rebels and revolutionaries as destructive or constructive in the context of his concept of power.


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