"Silver Linings Playbook" - A Story of "Love and Will"


Sometimes when I'm deep into a book for a few weeks, and then go see a movie, I find traces of that book's ideas on the screen. In many cases, I admit, the connections are forced, and I'm stretching the film far beyond its boundaries to shift the focus onto the book. (I've probably been guilty of just this kind of over-reach on this blog.)

In the case of David O. Russell's latest film Silver Linings Playbook, though, I walked out of the theater struck by the film's clear relationship with a book I just finished reading - Love and Will by existential psychotherapist Rollo May. (Russell also directed I Heart Huckabees - which itself is a kind of primer in existentialism.) May's book is an exploration of mental illness, particularly as it relates to modernity's misappropriation of love and sex, and wishing and willing - and it gets at some of the deeper questions Silver Linings Playbook explores.

Many critics and moviegoers have walked away from this film lauding its raw, up-front portrayal of mental illness, but the "take-away" has been simplistic. "We're all a little crazy," one critic writes; another concludes that it "suits our anxious times." These may be true statements, but they focus exclusively (and not even very thoroughly) on the "what" of the film, ignoring the "why" and the "how."

Silver Linings Playbook tells the story of Pat (Bradley Cooper), who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital to move back in with his mother and father (De Niro). His breakdown (and bipolar diagnosis) resulted after he discovers his wife, Nikki, making love to another man to their wedding song; but his difficulties have long been in motion, even manifesting in paranoid delusions. Now, desperately trying to lose weight, read his wife's English syllabus, and put his life back together, his motto is "Excelsior!" - Latin for "ever upward!" Wildly swinging between despair over his past and a journey "up, up, up" to a new future proves too much for his parents, who live quietly with their own neuroses - obsessive rituals surrounding gambling and football.

Pat soon encounters another lost soul, the recently widowed Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, who has already snagged the Golden Globe and SAG award for best actress). Although there is an initial magnetism when they meet, Pat soon discovers that Tiffany has her own skeletons - namely, sex addiction - and rather than risk damaging his fragile marriage for a fleeting sexual encounter, cultivates a friendship with Tiffany in order to use her to communicate with Nikki.

The storyline that follows is somewhat predictable, but the heart of the story remains unique. We watch as two characters valiantly confront their illnesses, and resolve them against each other almost providentially. Medication, therapy, and group support - while helpful - prove not to be the key factors in their growth; instead, it's a parallel climbing through a crisis of love (Tiffany) and a crisis of will (Pat) that results in their happy ending, their embrace of a new "silver lining."

Existential psychotherapist Rollo May
Rollo May argued in his book Love and Will that dual crises of love and will are at the heart of modern psychology - a theory concocted not from the armchair, but from "twenty-five years of working intensively as a pscyhoanalytic therapist with persons trying to meet and work through their conflicts." May's thesis is that "these conflicts have generally been based upon some aspect of love or will gone wrong."

Being an existentialist, he begins his book with immediate, brute facts of experience before climbing his way to more abstract concepts. For example, he notes that he and other psychotherapists had been encountering a certain character type in analysis more and more: what he calls a "schizoid" personality. The "schizoid" is someone who is "cold, aloof, superior, detached." They may "erupt in violent aggression" in the course of psychoanalysis, and the eruptions have a "curiously explosive quality." They are "intelligent, articulate, efficient, successful in work, but detached in personal intercourse and afraid of intimate relationships."

May sees these three traits - sexual promiscuity (often leading, paradoxically, to frigidity or impotence), interior detachment, and outward explosiveness, as intimately related. Undue emphasis on sex illustrates "the desperate endeavor to escape feelings of emptiness and the threat of apathy." From this interior state, the eruption of violence also results: "when inward life dries up, when feeling decreases and apathy increases, when one cannot affect or even genuinely touch another person, violence flares up as...a mad drive forcing touch in the most direct way possible."

A key factor, then, is the inability to "affect or even genuinely touch another person" - and this brings us to the crux of May's argument. "Love has become a problem to itself," he writes, because we have stopped distinguishing between different (but inter-related) types of love.

There are four kinds of love in the Western tradition. One is sex, or what we call lust, libido. The second is eros, the drive of love to procreate or create - the urge, as the Greeks put it, toward higher forms of being and relationship. A third is philia, or friendship, brotherly love. The fourth is agape or caritas as the Latins called it, the love which is devoted to the welfare of the other, the prototype of which is the love of God for man.

What characterizes the modern attitude toward love is "the separation of sex from eros." This separation reaches its peak in the schizoid personality; and the promiscuity, apathy, and eruptions of violence of the schizoid person make up "a complex mask for a repressed longing" for eros. But what is eros?

Eros is "a desiring, longing, a forever reaching out, seeking to expand"; it is the wider, stronger love of otherness that gives sex vitality and passion; "the biological is not denied but incorporated and transcended in eros." But eros is also dangerous and potentially tragic, because it threatens our sense of neatness and control. We can't manipulate eros the way we feel we can manipulate our bodies; in fact, it feels more like it manipulates us. Eros integrates sex into a matrix of wider meaning and receptivity, especially in terms of forming and being formed by another person - but also carries with it the negative and the tragic, "the threat of the loss of one's own being" as we stake our lives on something unpredictable.

Sex, on the other hand, is pliable and predictable, and hinges on our control - but is also unable by itself to incorporate or replicate eros. In fact, the more we proclaim that eros will result from freer and more frequent sexual expression, the more sex tends to become a shield for protecting ourselves from it. May explains:

We have set sex over against eros, used sex precisely to void the anxiety-creating involvements of eros. In ostensibly enlightened discussions of sex, particularly those about freedom from censorship, it is often argued that all our society needs is full freedom for the expression of eros. But what is revealed...is just the opposite. We are in a flight from eros - and we use sex as the vehicle for the flight.

This cleavage (pun intended) of sex from eros has historical roots in a reaction against Victorian puritanism, which denied sex and the body. This was itself deeply problematic for mental health, as Freud saw with the hysteria he treated in female patients. But the consequences of our revolt against eros have been just as problematic:

In an amazingly short period, we shifted from acting as though sex did not exist at all to being obsessed with it...partly as a result of this radical shift, many therapists today rarely see patients who exhibit repression of sex...in fact, we find in the people who come for help just the opposite: a great deal of talk about sex, a great deal of activity, but what our patients do complain of is lack of feeling and passion...so much sex and so little meaning or even fun to it.

May argues that there is a kind of "new puritanism" at work, which has three basic characteristics: "first, a state of alienation from the body. Second, the separation of emotion from reason. And third, the use of the body as a machine." This new puritanism creates a host of new neuroses, exhibited most clearly in the schizoid person suffering from apathy and depression. (For example, May describes one patient who talked about making love with a feeling of "generalized despair," and later having dreams of being behind a wall and crying out for help to no avail. As May eloquently puts it: "partners pant and quiver hoping to find an answering quiver in someone else's body just to prove that their own is not dead.")

This crisis of love and sex is embodied in the character of Tiffany, who herself is a recovering sex addict - and is as close to May's description of a schizoid personality as we could hope to get. She's caustic, aloof, apathetic; she has sex compulsively and indiscriminately with dozens, a patchwork of empty actions masking a deeper lack of meaning and passion; and we see her periodically flare into a violent rage.

Tiffany, it seems, is in flight from eros - likely because of the trauma of having lost her husband at such a young age - and treats her body as a weapon to defend against it. (For example, after spending only a few minutes with Pat, she offers to "fuck" with an impassive shrug, but only on the condition that the lights stay out. This captures her desire to create some ersatz connection, while still remaining emotionally and spiritually blacked out of the experience. Her whole person is not at all invested in the invitation.)

But despite all the no-strings-attached contact, the condition worsens - in fact, the person is gradually oriented toward his or her own extinction. May, citing Freud, says that the severing of eros from sex "has an ultimately self-defeating character and tends toward death." Thanatos - or the death instinct - pervades the technological self-manipulation of "copulation without eros," and represents the lurch of the animate back to the inanimate.

We see this same quality in Tiffany - and it extends, I think, beyond her being in mourning, and into what May calls the "self-enclosing darkness" of an addiction to sex and flight from eros. She is constantly dressed in black, and with Lawrence's brilliant acting seems to convey an awareness of her own mortality. She knows that men are constantly after her body, and she can pick and choose whoever she wants - but this only seems to stir despair. Her very identity is withering, creating a sense of panic that Russell's quivery cinematography underscores.

This modern crisis of love which we see in Tiffany is, May thinks, bound up with a parallel crisis of will. But what does he mean by this? How could there be a crisis of will in an age with so much freedom?

May argues that just as the modern person is in a rut over love and sex, he is an equally perilous rut over his own sense of will and responsibility: "the central core of modern man's 'neurosis'...is the undermining of his experience of himself as responsible, the sapping of his will and ability to make decisions." We are caught up in a "hell of frenetic passivity," in which we "search for everything else as responsible for one's problems rather than one's self." (And we feel this way, paradoxically, in an age of radical empowerment and countless possibilities.) In short: "we have gained determinism, lost determination."

Like the flight from eros into sex, the flight from will into determinism was partly a reaction against Victorian culture, which held that we're "the captain of our souls," the lion-tamers of all of our base, bodily desires - what May calls "wish":

'Will power' expressed the arrogant efforts of Victorian man to manipulate his surroundings and to rule nature with an iron hand, as well as to manipulate himself, rule his own life in the same way one would an object. This kind of 'will' was set over and against 'wish' and used as a faculty by which 'wish' could be denied...will power, then, was a way of avoiding awareness of bodily and sexual urges and of hostile impulses which did not fit the picture of the controlled, well-managed self.

The Victorian image of man was all will, and no wish; today, our image of man is all wish and no will. We see man as an isolated monad, propelled forward in life by his brain chemistry, his passions, his environment, his childhood, but rarely by his own will.

May is not suggesting that the answer is a return to Victorian will power - far from it. But he does argue that we have forgotten the central role that will plays in our lives.

The character Pat in Silver Linings Playbook is at the crossroads of wish and will. As a creature of our age, Pat's emphasis in life has been on wish with little regard for will - he acts on impulses, entertains delusions, and rides the waves of his own excitability, leading up to the impulsive violence that lands him in his predicament. Suddenly, Pat is confronted with a giant step upward in self-consciousness - he is told he is suffering from bipolar disorder.

But rather than blaming everything on this disorder, what we see is Pat's sudden embrace of the "Victorian" mindset. He is determined to will himself into shape, over against any wish that bubbles up.

Naturally - and this was the downfall of this Victorian view - this creates enormous inner conflict in him. Pat hurls books through windows, runs manically in a garbage bag, even physically wrestles with his parents. He tries to will away the existence of "My Cherie Amour" - the song playing when he discovers his wife with her lover - rather than confront it. Pat, who was once riding blindly on the wave of "wish," has now crashed head-first into a brick wall of will.

Richard Brody argues in The New Yorker that this emphasis on will is the whole message of the film: "the premise of the movie...[is] bringing about happy endings through the force of will." But Brody is only half-right; Pat's happy ending comes through will, but not through its force. Force of will is what we see play out in the first half of the film - and so long as Pat forces his will, he stands bewildered at the crossroads, unsuccessful, and slipping deeper into a rut.

But something wonderful happens - and I find it significant that it happens through one of the most immediate and ancient uses of the body, namely, dancing.

As Pat begins a dance regimen with Tiffany (at first, to win back Nikki), they're both brought into closer contact with themselves and their crises. For example, Tiffany breaks down and explains to Pat how her husband died and says to him: "that's emotion." But Pat is familiar with emotions, both high and low - instead, she seems to be projecting herself onto him and - I would argue - opening herself up to the emotion of eros. Likewise, Tiffany provides Pat with a way of funneling his wish into his will, of fusing the two through the ordered chaos of dancing. They lose themselves in each other, but paradoxically, find themselves; they start to gain control only when they give up being the controller.

For May, after this fusion of wish and will comes the power to make decisions - and we see a more decisive and constructive Pat toward the end of the film. He confidently whispers to his wife some unheard goodbye, reconciles with his father and his family, and chases after Tiffany to win her over. And just as Pat is opened to the integration of wish into will, Tiffany is opened to the integration of sex into eros - she abandons herself to his invitation to love, dethroning the "safe" mechanisms of impersonal sex.

What's interesting is that we see them swirling toward each other in a similar attitude, despite having just resolved two very different crises. It is not just a falling in love (or lust) through passions and impulses; their traumatic experiences in the past forbid this kind of naivete. Instead, their attitude is what May calls "care":

Care is a state in which something does matter; care is the opposite of apathy. Care is the necessary source of eros, the source of human tenderness...the source of will...care is always caring about something. We are caught up in our experience of the objective thing or event we care about. In care one must, by involvement with the objective fact, do something about the situation; one must make some decisions  This is where care brings love and will together.

The goal of May's book is to transform our deterministic (see below) psychological-philosophical picture into something which makes space for the creation of a future; and the creation of a future can only come from meaning, value, and intentionality; and these three can only come from a re-capturing of the mystery of love and will.

Silver Linings Playbook is a case study of these truths.

***A ranting philosophical footnote on former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, determinism, and phenomenology:

May argues that, in psychotherapy, "appeals to volition" often make a psychotherapist "uncomfortable" - because the working assumption is that free will was something of a happy illusion. With the advent of neuroscience, this assumption is stronger than ever; but with some poking and prodding, determinism falls apart philosophically. May explains:

'Complete determinism' is a logical contradiction. For if it were true, there would be no need to demonstrate it...this is illustrated ad infinitum in psychotherapy, when the patient argues rigid determinism, generally when he is discouraged or wishes to escape the meaning of intentions. And the more he is 'determined to be a determinist' - the more he argues (which already is intentionality) that he has nothing whatever to do with the fate that is bearing down upon him - the more he is making himself in fact determined.

Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy illustrates the contradictions of determinism we're living with in his review of Silver Linings Playbook:

If we're going to better understand the brain's shortcomings, we need to shed the shame with which we saddle them...I recently left Congress to launch One Mind for Research, a national, collaborative campaign to unite scientists studying different parts and problems of the brain, and to find mental-health cures.

I agree that we should "shed the shame" and the stigma of mental illness; but Kennedy seems to be implying that mental illness is simply a result of "the brain's shortcomings" or "problems," meaning mental states are equivalent to or directly caused by brain states. In short, will and freedom have been shoved out of the picture. But then, in self-contradiction, Kennedy says:

In the film, Patrick's shot at recovery cannot begin until he overcomes the delusions that disguise reality. I've similarly learned that honestly confronting my limitations is a steep climb, one worthy of every ounce of energy I have.

Kennedy suddenly imports a centrality of will into the recovery process - and rightly so. We "recover," "overcome," "confront," "climb," with "every ounce of energy." Life is a struggle, and we all know it.

But how is it that will power plays no role in our neuroses, but then a central role in confronting them? What keeps our will power from being a pre-determined brain state, the brain's "successes" rather than its shortcomings?

We are now wading into a very difficult philosophical issue, but the point is this: our working assumptions create a practical dilemma. We import will when it suits us, but physical determinism is our ready-to-hand "get out of free free" card. When asked to reconcile the two by some principle, we're flummoxed.

Freud himself lived with this dilemma. On the one hand, he writes that "the deeply rooted belief in psychic freedom and choice...is quite unscientific." But then, on the other, he admits that analysis seeks to "give the patient's ego freedom to choose one way or the other."

Either will is really will, and is central to human failing and flourishing - and that includes illness and wellness - or it isn't. Even if Freud was right (as May admits, and I'll admit) that "rigid, deterministic causality does work in neurosis and sickness...he was wrong in trying to carry this over to apply to all human experience." We need to make room both for determined forces and willful choices without living in a state of complete incoherence; we can't make our will supreme, but neither can we shove it out of the picture when it suits us; and we can't invoke it if deep down, we think it's an illusion.

For May, the key to showing the centrality of will while honoring its limits is the phenomenological concept of intentionality:

Ever since Descartes separated understanding from will, science has proceeded on the basis of this dichotomy, and we tried to assume that 'facts' about human beings could be separated from their 'freedom,' cognition could be separated from conation...this is no longer possible....intentionality does not rule out deterministic influence, but places the whole problem of determinism and freedom on a deeper plane.

Rather than "making everything into object or subject," as we do in our deeply-held Cartesian dualism, intentionality "is shown in the act itself. By my act I reveal myself, rather than by looking at myself." On the wider horizon of acts of consciousness, which necessitate both a subject-pole and an object-pole, the problem of determinism and freedom - fueled by the Cartesian split - evaporates. The act of thought, not the self-reflexive thought, is the ground of our being, and it is always toward or about something.

This dynamic picture of the world has practical benefits; rather than oscillating wildly (like Freud and Kennedy) between what Walker Percy called "beastilism" and "angelism," i.e., between the conception of ourselves as mechanistic animals with "problems of the brain" one day and all-powerful disembodied intellects using "every once of energy" the next, the phenomenological reduction emphasizes our being-in-the-world, our navigation of a matrix of motions and responses, pushing and pulling, objects and subjects and other subjects. We retain the weight of freedom and responsibility, but neither can we disentangle ourselves from forces beyond our control.

I think you'll also find the concept of intentionality, at May describes it, in Silver Linings Playbook. As the film progresses, both characters stop seeing themselves as objects to be studied or controlled by their own subjectivity - like specimens under the microscope - and more as perceiving, believing, desiring, hoping, intending, feeling individuals, harnessed by love and will, and living and acting in the world.


  1. Matt,
    Thank you for the work you've done! The interview with Rollo May brought me back some 40 years into my classroom at Cathedral High School--and some of the challenges/excitement of that wonderful time, both in the classroom and in the teacher's lounge. Second, the video was a reminder of what excited me about Rollo May in the first place. I wish that 40 years ago I had your grasp of the material and your enthusiasm that is in evidence in every paragraph of your essay.

    Vlad the Impaler (a.k.a. uncle Fred)

    1. Thank you Fred! I've decided to order another one of his books - "Man's Search for Himself" I think. I'm indebted to you for introducing me to him - I know I'll be drawing from his timeless (and timely) wisdom again.

  2. Having gone from unknown actress to Oscar nominee to "The Hunger Games" in what seemed like a blink of an eye, Lawrence shows herself a master of timing and plays off Cooper brilliantly.

    Grace Crawford (View Information on Kaspersky Software Download)