A Dream of Reason- VI: Part 4 Thread in the Labyrinth (1985): AA’s Mechanism of Action

Thread in the Labyrinth (1985): AA’s Mechanism of Action

by Avron Soyer


            Our theoretical focus is pursuit of “the negative absolute.”

Our substantive focus is alcoholism and “the explicit culture” of Alcoholics Anonymous…. By the explicit culture of A. A. we intend “the twelve steps” (59-60) and “the serenity prayer.” We will refer to tacit traditions and intermediary patterns (e.g., common aphorisms and slogans) only in so far as required to interpret explicit culture.

2.Pursuit of the Absolute

            “Absolute meanings” (a.k.a., “pure ideals”) are natural and necessary to language. They are beyond experience. Yet the gradations within our compass encourage us to “complete the figure”[1]. We are drawn to experience… to embody… all absolute meanings: absolute love, courage, justice and – whether we admit it or not – their opposites (e.g., absolute hatred, cowardice and cruelty).

Absolute meanings open interpenetrating inexhaustible dimensions (tight rope walking).

3.On Shadow

            What are the basic dynamics of “shadow”?[2] Shadow is not limited to any specific “content” (e.g., sexuality). Shadow arises between autonomous language and immediate lived existence through the struggle to embody absolutes, including absolute coherence.[3]

The passion for coherence can modify and reinterpret but not eliminate the pull of diverse experiences…. To experience what one’s identity “rules out” threatens “normal daylight” with conversion into “shadowland.”

Two relevant variables are diversity of experience and openness of “legitimate identity.” We suggest that the greater the variety of potential experience and the narrower the range and scope of relevant “legitimate identity” the greater, everything else being equal, the prevalence and intensity of shadow.

4.Night Side

 4.1. Opening

            Above we enter from “the side of light”: darkness is only shadow. Here we enter from “the night side,” through “the negative absolute.”[4]

4.2. Absolute Midnight

To be caught in a deepening loop reliving again and again a single scene that defines one to oneself as absolutely evil and damned and/or absolutely lost and abandoned approaches the existential extreme.

There is often a feverish search for a way out of the closed sequence: the past substituting itself for the present exists at once as potentiality and as completed fate.

5. On Alcoholism and “The Twelve Steps”

5.1. Methodological Note


            Our strategy is to assume that the explicit culture of Alcoholics Anonymous is effective against alcoholism and to explore implications of this proposition for the interpretation of alcoholism and of A.A…. We intend to move only along lines opening from the negative absolute. (Sociological-psychological methodology seeks to discern and respect not evade or transgress limitations of relevance and range.)


         We quote the twelve steps as they appear in Alcoholics Anonymous (3rd ed.) with one important exception. We write “the higher power as we understand it” rather than “God as we understand Him.”

Belief in “God-as-Him” is not required for participation in A.A. twelve step exercises. In principle and practice A.A. and all its derivations are open to agnostics and atheists…and to those of all faiths including believers in The Great Mother.

For many “secular” people the focus on “the higher power” in A.A. is shocking. Yet against the background of history it is A.A.’s freedom from sectarianism that surprises [especially when one recalls that there are secular as well as religious traditionally warring candidates for higher power (not only Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc., but also France and Germany, China and Japan, Bosnia and Serbia, capitalism and socialism…and on and on ad infinitum)].

To the best of my knowledge the limitations on the notion of higher power in A.A. are that it should be imagined as benevolent to oneself and to the world, and should not be a living mortal person. (One would be discouraged from Satanism, from a self-image as damned by a righteous God and from “sponsor” worship.)

5.2. Alcoholic Pride and the Ahab Complex

            The conviction that one could at any moment “by a single gesture” put aside years of addiction expresses “alcoholic pride.”

Entrapment dreams freedom. As pursuit of “absolute light” generates its shadow so pursuit of absolute self-loss and degradation is haunted by “a helpless angel”…“a shadow of light.”

Freedom from addiction is imagined as unqualified absolute freedom.

Pursuit of the negative absolute and its luminous shadow leads to progressive estrangement from the natural human ebb and flow of experience. We designate this pattern “the Ahab complex.”

Were the negative absolute attained one might be “let go.” Thus the alcoholic is most open to change when in despair (“bottoming out”). Yet the absolute qua absolute is outside experience. The natural triumph of absolute self- destruction is death.

5.3. On The Twelve Steps and the Ahab Complex

            The first and most important step:

  1. “We admitted we are powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable”, performs an absolute surrender that need never again be tested. One is always an alcoholic, even when sober.

The second and third steps,

  1. “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”,
  1. “We made a decision to turn ourselves over to the care of a power greater than ourselves as we understood it”, introduce the balancing power of the positive absolute as an ego transcendent ideal personally chosen and embraced as benevolent. They initiate a qualitative shift of focus.

The fourth and fifth steps:

  1. “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”,
  1. “We admitted to a higher power, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”, return the alcoholic to the ethical life with its inescapable incompleteness and ambiguity…. The alcoholic now connected to an ego transcendent positive ideal is not abandoned to dissolve in light.

The sixth and seventh steps,

  1. “We were entirely ready to have the higher power remove all these defects of character”,
  1. “We humbly asked the higher power to remove our shortcomings”, reinforce the permanence of defeat and the presence of the positive absolute.

The eighth and ninth steps,

  1. “We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all”,
  1. “We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others”, move beyond reconstructions of personal consciousness into direct action. Past relationships are not only reinterpreted, they are also re-engaged on a transformed basis…. The qualification “except when to do so would injure them (i.e., those the alcoholic had harmed) or others” guards against escape into “the dream of light.” It insists on sensitivity to people’s actual needs, desires and vulnerabilities.

The tenth and eleventh steps:

  1. “We continued to take personal inventory and when wrong promptly admitted it”,
  1. “We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with the higher power as we understand it, praying only for knowledge of its will for us and the power to carry that out”, initiates an ongoing commitment to self-knowledge, ethical sensitivity. avoidance of hubris and continuing dialogue with the positive absolute.

The final step:

  1. “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of those steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs”, returns to yet transforms the original pattern. –   Alcoholism remains an absolute negative to be opposed absolutely. Yet this struggle is no longer locked inside the person. Nor is it projected out into the world as entirely external…. The struggle against alcoholism is no longer exiled from the nourishing complexities of immediate lived existence.

6. On Recovery as a Dialogical Process (1996)


Alcoholic pride is rooted in an ego that comprehends itself as entirely “thrown back upon its own resources” and would dominate the person absolutely in all circumstances through direct exercise of will.

Recognition of missteps (i.e., of “wrongs”) is crucial against the isolated ego’s fantasy of omniscience. Yet it must be carefully negotiated. Andras Angyal:

While the healthy person displays the constructive sequence (“I did it. I regret it. How can I do better next time?”) the neurotic behaves as if merely having guilt feelings settled the issue. He can use them in fact as an argument against settling anything: “I have spoiled everything. What is the use of trying; I can never live it down.” (235-236)[5]

There is beyond neurosis the trap of a terminal guilt loop.


Normally one is aware of one’s own “failures” and “trespasses” and of others’ carefully crafted self-presentations. For many, drunkenness offers the only respite from “the mask.”

Psychotherapists are professionals, their role is as experts not as fellow sufferers…. In A.A. meetings all participants are self-admittedly flawed.

Normally “name and rank” (i.e., place in the scheme of things) are disclosed yet self-exposure is potentially stigmatizing[6] and thus inhibited. The anonymity of A.A. “brackets” placement to enable I-Thou openness (an injection of anonymity to counter anonymity).


The ego caught in an addictive loop becomes, everything else being equal, less and less able to escape unaided. Even when the isolated ego can through pure exercise of will break all addiction to that which it opposes, it becomes its own loop addicted to itself (willing to will). Its relationship to (internal and external) non-self is victory (i.e., incorporation) or defeat (i.e., self-loss, annihilation). It resists beauty and compassion (which are coded as temptations).

Even if that will which only wills itself is never forced or tempted from self-penetration it is frightened and proceeds in ever deepening shadow.


The “serenity prayer”:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference

summons a personal autonomy that is in the act of liberating itself from isolation and hubris. – One cannot surrender oneself to the higher power and wait to be recovered. Serenity, courage and wisdom are required. Work is required: a constant injunction is “work the program,” a constant assurance is “it works if you work it.”

The choice is not between absolute omnipotence and absolute passivity, or between perfect virtue and absolute corruption. Recovery requires movement beyond false dichotomies.

7. Epilogue: On the Requiredness of the Positive Absolute


The passion to experience and embody the positive absolute is a co-constitutive aspect of human existence.

In the natural course of events co-constitutive aspects under pressure are not destroyed but (as aspects of sexuality in the Victorian period) metamorphized. Thus if the passion for transcendence is denied it can return mutated: less flexible, more dangerous.


The positive absolute can neither be abandoned nor achieved. Concern with small changes if isolated from visions of the absolute is cut off from profound imaginative engagement with fundamental human problems (including the struggle for self-knowledge).

We need not choose between fanatical pursuit of the ideal or, in Popper’s terms, “piece-meal social engineering.”

There is a yearning for the absolute that – rescued from hubris by reason, in dialogue with mortal finitude – recognizes and desires surprises.

Exert from A Dream of Reason by Avron Soyer, Continue Reading A Dream of Reason VI:Concluding Opening Modernity and the Breakdown of Order or Life 


[1] In a gestalt psychological sense

[2] Our understanding of “shadow” is influenced by Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, and Karen Horney.

[3] We specify “autonomous language” because all experience is language saturated.

[4] Our focus is on self-destruction (which of course wounds others indirectly). Yet “the shadow” can also operate directly through private and/or political violence.

[5]Angyal’s approach to therapy is presented as integrating psychoanalytic and gestalt themes. Perhaps it also synthesizes professional and A.A. insights.

[6] It might be illuminating to pursue the relationship between Goffmanian and Christian usages of “stigma” and “stigmatization” in the context of guilty knowledge, confession, healing, guilt, forgiveness and “the marked man/woman.”… There may be persons and personas (e.g., shadows of darkness and/or of light) who ambivalently yet passionately desire stigmatization.

Copyright, 2006 by Avron Soyer



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