Shrinking History—Part Two

The Kennedy Neurosis: A Psychological Portrait of an American Dynasty

by Nancy Gager Clinch
Grosset and Dunlap, 433 pp., $10.00

The Mind of Adolf Hitler

by Walter C. Langer
Basic Books, 280 pp., $10.00

In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Inquiry

by Bruce Mazlish
Basic Books, 187 pp., $6.95

The Revolutionary Personality

by E. Victor Wolfenstein
Princeton, 330 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Young Man Luther

by Erik Erikson
Norton, 288 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Leonardo and Freud: An Art-Historical Study” Essays edited by P. Kristeller and P. Wiener [Harper & Row] and in Ideas in Cultural Perspective edited by P. Wiener and A. Noland [Rutgers])

by Meyer Schapiro
Journal of the History of Ideas (reprinted in Renaissance

Psychoanalysis and its various “applications” have been embraced all too ardently by the American public—and not only by its so-called “lay” segment. Sometimes that enthusiasm was for the bad: it is astonishing, for example, how many writers submitted willingly to the brutal, stupid lashings an analyst like Edmund Bergler gave them in his books supposedly meant to “explain” writers and their “personality structure.” But sometimes much of value came of this enthusiasm: it is remarkable how openly and generously many important American medical schools welcomed analysts during the 1930s and 1940s, often to good effect so far as the education of young doctors goes. In any event, to this day a historian or political scientist, not to mention a psychoanalyst, who writes a biography or discusses some contemporary issue, or one connected with the remote past, from a psychological point of view stands at the very least an excellent chance of getting the public’s attention.

Walter Langer’s “secret wartime report,” now become The Mind of Adolf Hitler, has hardly been ignored. In view of the substantial scholarship on the Nazis that has gone relatively unnoticed—the work of historians, economists, political scientists—one has to look not only at the book itself but at the reasons for its appeal. Nor has Bruce Mazlish’s “psychohistorical inquiry” into Richard Nixon’s life been ignored—any more than will the portentously named The Kennedy Neurosis: A Psychological Portrait of an American Dynasty. Each of them is yet another variant of the kind of inquiry Freud began long ago: harnessing psychology to an understanding of certain people who have taken a significant part in history.

To start with the worst, the book on the Kennedy family is, alas, an exercise in nastiness, and an instructive lesson in how psychological words and phrases, presented as a means of scientific exposition, can become in certain hands instruments of moral condemnation, and even malicious abuse. The author of The Kennedy Neurosis, Nancy Clinch, refers to her “study of the Kennedys’ characterology” as a “form of psychohistory”; it is even “psychohumanism.” People have what she calls “self-actualizing needs.” There are “parental patterns” and a “specific cultural milieu,” and they, of course, affect a “hierarchy of needs.” When things go wrong a neurosis develops: “a self-defeating defense pattern of feeling and behaving.” Something called a “pseudo-self” comes into being. There is “basic anxiety” and it keeps generating “unconscious hostility.” After we learn about all that, we are told where we are going:

It is my purpose to analyze what the historical record seems to reveal: that the Kennedy drive to power was largely neurotic in origin and thus largely neurotic in goal; and that when power was obtained, the Kennedys were severely limited in the use of their authority for positive aims because of emotional conflicts and ambivalences.

Note the word “because”: assertive, unthreatened by any modifiers, anxious to make its connection. There is no point in looking at the structure of our government, let …

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