Petrūska Clarkson, Ph.D.

October 31, 1947 - May 21, 2006

Petrūska Clarkson, one of the most significant figures in the history of Gestalt therapy in England, died on the evening of Sunday, May 21 in Amsterdam.  A leader in the early development of Gestalt therapy in Europe, her written contributions include Gestalt Counseling in Action and, with  Jennifer Mackewn, Fritz, the comprehensive examination of Frederick Perls and the foundations of his theoretical thinking.  For those of you unfamiliar with Petruska's thinking, we are making available her article, "The Beginning of Gestalt."  The article, which appeared in Volume XX, No. 2 of The Gestalt Journal, was based on her presentation at the first International Gestalt Conference, "A Global Vision: Taking Gestalt Therapy into the 21st Century," which met from November 6-10, 1996, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sponsored by The Gestalt Journal, the conference brought together for the first time presenters and participants on a global scale who explored views of Gestalt therapy from a broad spectrum of cultures.


Petrūska Clarkson

Life is achieved by resolving the tension in responsive feeling and creative activity, in which having is not eliminated but is assimilated to being, in which one and another become I and Thou; in which science is integrated with metaphysics; in which autonomy (managing my own affairs) is transcended in liberty, which is participation; in which my body and the world with which it is consubstantial and which enlarges and multiplies its powers is the place in which I bear witness to Being. . . (Marcel,1952, p. 66)


Beginning The Beginning

It has too often been said that Gestalt therapy suffers from a lack of theory. At the same time it has established itself in experiential and clinical applications throughout the world. I have personally taught Gestalt in Italy, Russia, Scandinavia, Ireland, England and South Africa, and students from many more countries including, Japan and Jamaica, have studied Gestalt with me in London. I have encountered two polarities in dealing with this issue of lack of theory. One way is to bring in — through importation, introjection or integration — concepts, ideas and theories from other fields and other disciplines. These are often far removed from both the philosophical and cultural core of Gestalt; thus, in my opinion, impugning the integrity of the Gestalt approach. This tendency is exemplified in what someone has called the ‘Gestalt and . . .’ syndrome — Gestalt and bodywork, Gestalt and aromatherapy, Gestalt and object relations. However, as I wrote in Clarkson, 1989, 1 have very serious doubts about the procedure described above as a way of enhancing Gestalt. It seems to be like providing an artificial limb for a person who does not need one. As if Gestaltists do not have or cannot develop theory and methodology sufficient from what already exists in Gestalt. Somehow by a psychoanalytic child development add-on or a psychodiagnostic DSM injection, Gestalt would be “saved.” I believe current tendencies in Gestalt have reached their enantiodromic opposite. A new moment could envisage a return to the most ancient as well as a turn to the most new, not as an empty repetition compulsion, but as an intentional action of recreation.

I think that there are a very large number of books, sources, theories and approaches which share the central philosophical and methodological tenets of Gestalt. These need to be recognized as Gestalt textbooks, since they belong inside the cadre of Gestalt more than anywhere else. I am thinking, for example, of the work of the phenomenologists Merleau-Ponty (The Phenomenology of Perception, 1962/1970), Marcel (1952) and Minkowski (Temps Vecu (Lived Time), 1943/1970). An extensive discussion of these must wait for another time. However, I can say that the continuity of a tradition of 2,500 years spans Gestalt thinking from the beginning of time in the Western tradition, to the current frontiers of the scientific inquiry of our current world. Between them they seem to me to constitute a whole contact cycle from the ancient preSocratic texts of Heraclitus up to the modem interpreters of quantum physics and chaos theory such as Capra (1978), Zohar (1990), Bohm (1980/1984), Gleick (1989) and Briggs and Peat (1989). They do not seem to be a wig to cover a full head of hair, but the articulation of the implicate order of Gestalt itself, an improvisation on Paganini which brings out more of the true beauty of the theme without destroying the integrity of the work of art.

I happen to believe that Gestalt is the psychological and therapeutic theory which will survive the necessary paradigm shifts of the 20th century. It is the psychotherapy intrinsically most compatible and potentially comfortable with the discoveries flowing from quantum physics and chaos theory. Having its roots in the first mists of Occidental philosophy, Gestalt has already proved endurance. Remember that Perls said he had “discovered Gestalt, not invented it.” Gestalt will not survive if it runs like a yapping lapdog after the skirts of the psychoanalysis which Perls had found so wanting, or if it twists itself into a travesty of what is easiest to sell to managed care.

I believe that the radical revisions and assumptions of the paradox-embracing postmodern climate with which we are confronted on the conceptual, cultural and experiential horizons of our time are indeed most compatible with Gestalt as a psychotherapeutic and organizational approach.

There will be others to talk of the end, I want to talk of beginning.

The Beginning of Gestalt — The Drive to Wholeness

My beginning was in South Africa. I was born there in the shadow of the mountains surrounding Pretoria to parents whose forefathers and foremothers had fled the religious persecutions of Counterreformation Europe. My parents called General Smuts ‘Oom Jannie’ (Uncle Jannie) — a term of endearment for the last prime minister before apartheid, a philosopher king and warrior, an intellectual and spiritual giant, and the architect of what became the United Nations.

Smuts was the founder of the philosophy of Holism. His major book is called Holism and Evolution (Smuts, 1926/1987). Holism permeated the intellectual and spiritual atmosphere of that time and that place. Fritz and Laura Perls of course had fled to this area of South Africa when the German people turned against the Jews. Perls gave as the subtitle of his first book, Ego, Hunger and Aggression the words: “The Beginning of Gestalt therapy” (1969). (This was with some hindsight, of course, in the Random House edition, after Gestalt had already begun to gain acceptance as a psychotherapeutic method.) It was not just an elaboration of psychoanalysis,it was also an attack and rejection of its mostvalued tenets. Primacy and pre-eminence were accorded to Holism.

The final net result is that this is a whole-making universe, that it is the fundamental character of this universe to be active in the production of wholes, of ever more complete and advanced wholes, and that the Evolution of the universe, inorganic and organic, is nothing but the record of this whole-making activity in its progressive development. (Smuts, 1926, p. 426)

Fritz and Laura brought psychoanalysis with them and it commingled with Smuts’ Holism in their thought and practice. So much so, that the first section in their book, covering philosophical foundations, is called: “Holism and Psycho-analysis.” Perls then added the second section to expound his belief in the centrality of mental aggression in psychic life and he called this “Mental Metabolism.” They called the method of psychotherapy which they had developed “Concentration Therapy.”

Now we know that this was to become Gestalt therapy, the Therapy of Wholes, the first and perhaps only holistic therapy. Perls took it for granted that everybody who read him had also read Smuts; this is another factor contributing to difficulties in understanding Perls’ book.

When Perls, Hefferline and Goodman wrote that “Concentration is the symptom par excellence of a sound holism” (1977, p. 64 ), they meant that through this concentration method now called Gestalt, power can be withdrawn from destructive purposes against people and cities and be used for growth and development instead — as Smuts had originally meant.

Of course, as we go from Smuts to Perls, Hefferline and Goodman we find that the holism we have discussed is a process of creative synthesis. The wholes are not static, but evolutionary, creative and in a continual state of Heraclitian flux. Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951) appeared to have understood this when they wrote: “But in fact every successive stage is a new whole, operating as a whole, with its own mode of life; it is its mode of life, as a concrete whole, that it wants to complete; it is not concerned with seeking ‘equilibrium in general’”(p. 450).

For many years I have been tracing the notion that everything is a whole to Heraclitus (e.g. 1991b). In my 1994 paper “2,500 years of Gestalt: from Heraclitus to the Big Bang” I accept Heraclitus as the original father of Gestalt, there being many of his ideas and images intact and alive in the Gestalt corpus. Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher of Ephesus who lived from “about 546-470 BC” (Runes, 1966, p. 124). Throughout the Heraclitean canon we find many and varied statements and restatements of the idea that everything is essentially a whole or a Gestalt. To take only one example:

wholes and not wholes (= parts)
convergent divergent
consonant dissonant
out of all a one
and out of a one all.
(Heraclitus in Guerrière, 1980, p. 94-5)

Beginning at the Beginning — The Beginning as the Summoning of Creative and Pro-social Contact

The unifying force of all life phenomena which is suggested by Heraclitus is physis. The river water symbolizes the one physis or life force. Physis was first named by the pre-Socratic Greeks as a generalized creative force of Nature (Guerrière, 1980). It was conceived of as the healing factor in illness, the energetic motive for growth and evolution, and the driving force of creativity in the individual and collective psyche (Clarkson 1991, 1996). Physis can be understood to be the life force, or élan vital, which is the term Perls and his colleagues used.

Now normally the élan vital, the life force, energizes by sensing, by listening, by scouting, by describing the world — how is the world there. Now this life force apparently first mobilizes the center if you have a center. And the center of the personality is what used to be called the soul: the emotions, the feelings, the spirit. (Perls, 1969, p. 64)

Notice that for Perls too thelife force “energizes” and “describes” from the “center.” In Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman the importance of stressing creativity as the central activity of the healthy or holistic ego can of course be traced directly to the work of Otto Rank. In fact, Goodman, himself an artist, described Rank’s (1942/1989) major work Art and Artist as being “beyond praise.”

When I asked Isadore From about the difficulty so many Gestaltists throughout the world report in understanding Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, he explained that it was because they had not read Otto Rank. Without an understanding of Rank’s project, this major Gestalt work remains obscure. As littleas Perls thought that someone would not know about Smuts’ Holism, similarly Goodman did not envisage that generations of Gestaltists would grapple with his text in ignorance of Rank’s revolutionary break with Freud about the springs and nature of creativity. Anyone who blandly advocates a return to psychoanalysis to “give Gestalt more theory” has therefore completely missed the point Gestalt wanted to make.

Rank (1946) made a radical departure from the Freudian conception of the nature of the ego, id and superego because it did not sufficiently explain creative individuals or the creative personality. He developed the idea of the will as being the representative of the primal creative power, the striving force that can be found in creative individuals — similar to the concentration of awareness in Gestalt.

The psychological understanding of the creative type and of its miscarriage in the neurotic, teaches us therefore, to value the ego, not only as a wrestling ground of (id) impulses and (superego) repressions, but also as conscious bearer of a striving force, that is, as the autonomous representative of the will and ethical obligation in terms of a self constituted ideal. (Rank, 1946, p. 5)

Freud sees creativity as sublimation; Rank (1989) sees it as central. In fact neurosis is a kind of creativity, but essentially the failure of creativity — the “universal creative instinct in nature, which can produce mineral crystals and primitive ornament alike” (p. 94) and “the primal creative urge of the individual to raise himself from creature to creator” (p.219).

To create means:
to begin
to make a fuss
to be aggressive

Creativity is an act of aggression, a reaching out into the void not only to create a work or art but also to create or cocreate a relationship with another. Creativity implies relationship (Zinker, 1978). All relationship implies cocreation — in science as much as in love (Clarkson 1996a) (Ribeiro, in Clarkson 1997). This is of course the quite contrary (and much less known) stereotyped polarity of Perls’s Gestalt prayer. Again, a fact so well known, so deeply understood that they thought the opposite might need to be stressed.

We have been at pains to show that in the organism before it can be called a personality at all, and in the formation of the personality, the social factors are essential .... The underlying social nature of the organism and the forming of personality — fostering and dependency, communication, imitation and learning, love-choices and companionship, passions of sympathy and antipathy, mutual aid and certain rivalries — all this is extremely conservative, resistible, but ineradicable. And it is meaningless to think of an organism possessing drives which are “antisocial” in this sense, opposed to his social nature... (Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, 1951, p. 433)

Of course be-ing is not without strife and conflict. Heraclitus said that “War is the father of all” (Kahn,1987 p.67). Indeed the creative aggression of the individualtoward life is closely mirrored in the relationship between the creative individual and the collective (Rosenblatt, 1995).

We are pro-social relationship-seeking beings, yet this is also paradoxically impossible without the productive achievement of outstanding individuals, who then become the pioneers and victims of this collective immortality, whether they will it or not. (Rank, 1989, p.421)

It has to do therefore, with a conflictual separation of the individual from the mass, undertaken and continued at every step of development into the new, and this I should like to designate as the never-completed birth of individuality. For the whole consequence of evolution from blind impulse through conscious will, to self conscious knowledge, seems still somehow to correspond to a continued result of births, rebirths, and new births, which reach from the birth of the child from the mother, beyond the birth of the individual from the mass, to the birth of the creative work of the individual, and finally to the birth of knowledge from the work. (Rank 1946, p. 12)

This mirroring of the creative and de-structuring interplay within forces of life and death in the universe and within the individual, between the individual and the group finds a metaphor in the notion of the fractal. (Clarkson, 199B) The fractal — a concept from chaos theory — is an immensely fruitful metaphor to draw upon within Gestalt today. The word fractal was coined by Mandelbrot (1974) to describe this phenomenon of a repeating pattern — the whole repeated in every fragment, and thus spiraling off each other towards creative evolution.

One of the many corollaries ofappreciating the cyclic nature of phenomena is the perception of the void — the abyss space. It may be fertile or futile, according to Perls, but is always a recurrent station in the perpetual cyclic motion. It is from the void that the new emerges; it was in the deepest darkness that Moses found God; and it is when we most truly let ourselves go into the emptiness that fullness can begin to arise. The recent scientific thrill of discovering evidence that our known world emerged with a “Big Bang” from the void (Davies, 1992, for example) echoes the human experience of a sudden insight, a figure/ground shift, a turnaround or enantiodromia that obliterates one phenomenological world and brings another into being.

Like death, it is inescapable and yet human beings so often try to a-void it. It is my conviction that if we only had time to teach the human race one set of skills before we self-destruct, it would not be the linear skills of making better products, but rather the cyclic skills of navigating the endless changes in our lives and in our worlds. Furthermore, I consider that the most important ability contained therein is the understanding of the void, along with the skills to transform our abyss-mal void experiences into new beginnings again and again and again. I think these are the most valuable lessons now for our planet and particularly, for our large systems and nations such as Russia, South Africa, Europe and the many organizations facing progressively unpredictable and increasingly chaotic futures (Clarkson, 1995c).

Always Beginning

To summarize, Perls Hefferline and Goodman (1951) identified four major emphases in their work:

  • to pay attention to experience, to become aware, to concentrate on the actual situation

  • to preserve the integrity, the inter-relationship of sociocultural, historical and animal/physical factors

  • to experiment

  • to promote creativity

They intended Gestalt to heal the splits and divisions of the person, science and psychotherapy between the following:

To restore grace and joy
To question the political and interpersonal threat of a science built on such an "absurdity"
To show that the "real" is intrinsically an involvement or "engagement"
To heal the preoccupation with the past in order to adjust to an adult reality that is "not worth adjusting to" and to esteem childhood traits which vitalize adults
So that education can take over the functions of psychotherapy; and to situate us in social context, and in culture
To restore the failure of communication which happens when poetry and the plastic arts become isolated and obscure
To retrieve the "unsought" and "inspired" as a quality of all experience, not special states or individuals
To restore community life its satisfactions, the inseparability of self and other
To disesteem "a reactive passionless mildness, when only a release of aggression and willingness to destroy the old situations can restore erotic contact"
To restore esteem for the reality of dream, hallucination, play and art and to retreat from an overestimation of the "reality-value" of deliberate speech, thought and introspection.

That’s all very well, but what does it mean for everyday life, for clinical practice, for the profession of Gestalt Psychotherapy? (Clarkson, 1995a) (Clarkson, 1996d).

What it does not mean What it could mean
An identification with a diagnostic label: so that trainees are heard say "I don't know how to think about myself without my I diagnostic label" Acknowledging that the diagnostic label may contain more information about the diagnoser than the diagnosed
That qualified people assess the work of novices in ways which increase a perceived distance between themselves and the less experienced practitioners Welcoming newcomers and enacting the "generosity of the gifted and the abundant" in sharing learning with them as well as learning from their
The wholesale unthinking introjection of psychoanalytic terms or procedures into Gestalt practice Intellectual and academic work to create or discover terms which are idiomatically and uniquely Gestalt, from the natural Gestalt tradition and Gestalt sources
A denial of the fact that the dialogic relationship is also an experiment and that it sets up a false competition An acknowledgment and enactment that Gestalt is about experiment in the first place — including relationship
An elevation of obedience to consensus-driven "rules" — particularly in codes of ethics Valorizing responsibility and freedom to choose — philosophical notions which used to be at the heart of Gestalt
The use of an examination system which serves the status quo and the standardization and bureaucratization of "what is Gestalt?” The use of an examination system functioning as a rite of passage which includes members who may challenge or grow or overthrow "what their elders thought Gestalt was”
That trainees become scared and inhibited in their learning processes The celebration of curiosity and joy in learning and unlearning for oneself
Adoption of a spurious substitute (usually from psychoanalysis) or apology for the fact that Gestalt does not have a developmental theory An abiding appreciation for the fact that in the major canons developmental theory was seen as infantilizing, reductionistic, and often unnecessary and unhelpful for clients and for trainees
The imposition of the values of a small group in defining what Gestalt is or is not, without exploration, academic credibility, evidence or consultation Welcoming the diversity, creativity and spontaneity of the undiscovered, the inspired, the playful and the exceptional
An ignorance or rejection of the wealth of quantitative and qualitative research efforts which have gone before and a problematising of questioning, inquiry and open-mindedness A thorough and creditable grounding in those traditions which may involve a resocialisation out of the conventional paradigms which may have been unquestioningly introjected or to which there was a reluctant submission

Heraclitus said (and so did Perls) that we never step into the river twice and the sun is new every day. I think it should be so for Gestalt.

Upon those who are (in the process of)
stepping into the same rivers
different and again different waters flow.
(Heraclitus in Guerrière 1980, p. 104)

Change or evolution occurs for Heraclitus in a cyclic, patterned rhythm. ‘The cycle is the compact experiential reconciliation of permanence and degeneration. Man exists the cycle or the whole’ (Heraclitus in Guerrière, 1980, p. 89). It is clear from this quotation that Heraclitus appreciated the necessity to hold within our experiential reality the notion that structuring and de-structuring are inevitably connected in a cyclic configuration. This cycle encapsulates in a metaphorically archetypal form the very nature of the whole of human existence as it exists in a state of ever-recurrent flux. What was right yesterday, may be just the wrong solution for today’s problems, and so on ad infinitum.

The cycle of Gestalt formation and destruction has since Heraclitus therefore remained an intrinsic codification of the cyclic nature of the change of human evolutionary wholes. Contrary to some of the ideas in psychoanalysis, which emphasizes homeostasis alone, Gestalt acknowledges the need for the living being to create disequilibrium, to strive towards evolutionary or creative change as well, and recognizes the de-structuring activity as a necessary part of creative adjustment or creative transformation. And this must apply to our theory as well (Woldt and Ingersoll, 1991). Individuals, trainings and theory of Gestalt will always go through cycles. In that lies our redemption and the way to be creatively always beginning again and again and again.

This requires an attitude of ever new — particularly toward the familiar. Remember, too, that both Rank and Goodman (Stoehr, 1991) were poets. Here is a poem fragment from 800 years ago, made by the father of the Sufi movement, to illustrate the universality of Gestalt:

Tell me, is there any blessing
that someone’s not excluded from?

What do donkeys and cows have to do with fancy desserts?

Every soul needs different nourishment,
but be aware if your food is accidental
and habitual, or if its something
that feeds your real nature.

It may be, like those who eat clay, that human beings
have forgotten what their original food is.
They may be feeding their diseases.

Tasting that is done without silverware,
and without a throat. It comes down
from the heart of the Life Force. This other
is just dust kicked up from the carpet.

But we can receive nourishment
from everyone we meet. Any association
is food. Planet comes near planet,
and both are affected.

Man comes together with woman,
and there’s a new baby! Iron meets stone,

Rain enters the ground, and sweet herbs appear.
When green things and people converge,
there’ll be laughter and dancing,
and that makes good and generous things begin.

As we move about in the open, our appetites sharpen.
Flushed faces come from the sun. That rose-red is
the most beautiful colour on earth.
Through such runnings-together, the potential world
becomes actual. Live in that place of pure be-ing.

Don’t worry about having ten days of famousness here.

Revolve with me about the sun that is always new and never sets.

Work cannot be separated from the worker.


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