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An Exchange on Psychohistory

In response to:

Shrinking History—Part One from the February 22, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

In his two-part article on psychohistory [NYR, February 22, March 8], Robert Coles remarks that “Even friends get caught in such intellectual warfare, where sides are taken and one is considered either a friend or a foe.” It is a revealing remark. Why must one be either friend or foe? Cannot different inquirers work in different ways, without being enemies? Coles’s shotgun approach to psychohistory, turning it into an apparent wasteland since 1958 and Erikson’s Young Man Luther (he doesn’t even deal with Gandhi’s Truth), suggests he finds this notion uncongenial. The result is a narrow and distorted treatment of the field, and of some of the contributions in it, although there are valid judgments in specific instances. You entitle the first part of his article, “How Good is Psychohistory?” The article really raises the question, “How Good is Coles on Psychohistory?”

Any discussion of the use of psychoanalysis by historians (or history by psychoanalysts) must take place in the context of a basic controversy in history over the use of analysis, of any sort, as against the traditional descriptive and chronological approaches. Many historians, surely the majority in the profession, embrace the traditional approach, and either have little use or a real distrust of the new methods: quantitative, comparative, psychoanalytical, sociological, and so forth. Increasingly, however, some historians have wished to look at history more in terms of an overt “problem” approach, rather than in terms of an account of “what actually happened,” recounted with whatever novelistic and broadly human sympathies the historian might bring to it. Interested readers might look at the Journal of Interdisciplinary History to see what sort of work takes place in terms of the new approaches.

Psychohistory is one of the new approaches. It claims to derive assistance from formal psychology, especially psychoanalysis, which permits it to do something different, with its own value, from that achieved by the historian’s non-systematic, or at least unexplicit, intuition. Coles is right when he says that psychohistorians are no longer “neglected on all fronts.” He is wrong, however, when he remarks that “it is absurd at this time for…those interested in…developing a ‘field’ called ‘psychohistory’ to imagine themselves embattled, scorned outcasts.” He simply isn’t aware of the average historian’s dislike and disdain for this effort.

All he needed to correct his view was to have attended the recent conference on psychohistory arranged by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. to see the depth of the resentment, by some of the most distinguished members of the history profession, against any pretension to psychohistory. Erikson, who was there, recognizing an impossible situation, said almost nothing during the formal session, though at lunch time he whispered to a few of us, “Should I mention the word ‘unconscious’ to them?” The general view was presented by Jacques Barzun, who felt that Freud had added nothing to Pascal, and who published his views in the American Historical Review (February, 1972), where the interested reader can get the flavor of it, along with the replies in the next issue by William Langer and Peter Loewenberg, and judge for himself. I need hardly add that the situation was much worse back in 1956, when the Georges published their fine book, Wilson and Colonel House: A Personal Study. Would Coles also like to mention that the AHR did not even deign to review Young Man Luther when it was published two years after the Georges’ book?

Still, things have changed since 1956-58, and are changing even more rapidly today, though among a distinct minority. It is therefore doubly dismaying to have a “friend” of psychohistory attack it in the same dogmatic, intolerant way—legitimate criticism is another matter—as its out-and-out enemies. Coles is attacking it, for he is really distrustful, first, of the whole view of psychoanalysis as an effort at “science,” and, secondly, of its application, suitably modified, to historical study, i.e., psychohistory. What Coles doesn’t like is explicit theory. This is clear, for example, in his own work, such as Children of Crisis, where he praises Anna Freud’s work “with English children during German air attack” for being done “so simply, so directly and with a minimum of theoretical flourish.” Fine! But what of Anna Freud’s The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense? Hardly without theoretical flourish!

Why not allow for both kinds of work? Not to do so is really to take the position that Sigmund Freud, aside from his accidental artistic qualities, adds nothing to a Kierkegaard, a Nietzsche—or a Pascal. In my own book, In Search of Nixon, I stressed that psychoanalysis “claims to have a scientific system of concepts, based on clinical data.” Others before Freud, of course, had had intuitive glimpses into the human psyche. “What Freud added to their insights…was system, and the grounding and regrounding of his systematized concepts in clinical evidence, and then the hard work of detailed analysis of particular case ‘histories,’ which in turn provided new concepts.” If one adds that, naturally, such an effort at a “new science” will discard, modify, and enlarge its concepts and data, would Coles agree? If not, what does he think psychoanalysis is, and how does he see its difference, at least in principle, from, say, literary intuition? These are fundamental questions.

Their answer, obviously, affects one’s view of psychohistory. If psychoanalysis is seen as an effort at “scientific” understanding of unconscious mental processes, however halting and however limited in achieving therapeutic success—Coles evidently encounters difficulties here—then the attempt to use it in dealing with historical materials is justified. Of course, such use must take into account the fact that we are seeking to comprehend and explain historical materials, and not to treat and cure living patients. So conceived, however, the use of psychoanalysis in history can be more or less explicit, and more or less “theoretical,” i.e., actually using psychoanalytic concepts, and even attempting to modify them in the light of historical data. It can also be used in terms of a “problem” approach, as well as a descriptive one. Both approaches are legitimate, and one judges examples in each genre on their merit, and, for the former, especially as it contributes to further research.

Because Coles is dogmatically against the “problem” approach, he is simply unable to estimate or even recognize most of the work done in the field. For example, what one wants in an estimate of Langer’s The Mind of Adolf Hitler is not only a judgment on a work written in 1943, and now published openly as a classic example of its kind, but a discussion of what corrections, extensions, etc. are called for in the light of both recent historical research and psychoanalytical developments. How does Langer’s work measure up in the light, say, of Erikson’s own article on Hitler’s youth? Of the work done by Robert Waite (and not just his afterword to Langer’s book) and Rudolph Binion? Of the various psychological studies on Nazism by Peter Loewenberg and Saul Friedlander? Etc.

Similarly, we should want to know about the actual work and its importance for theory of those whom Coles lumps along with me as active proponents of “psychohistory,” a term, incidentally, propagated by Erikson. Why, instead of spending so much time on the ancient Leonardo, didn’t Coles analyze the value of Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961), Death in Life (1967), and Revolutionary Immortality (1968), or John Demos’s A Little Commonwealth (1970), and “Underlying Themes in the Witchcraft of Seventeenth-Century New England,” (AHR, June, 1970)? Major developments have been taking place in relation to family history and, for want of a better term, group history, and a fair estimate of psychohistory’s achievements since 1958 would have to deal with these, too.

Coles doesn’t deal with them because his intent is purely polemical. He simply doesn’t like “problem” history. He will only accept “life history,” tout court. I assume, to take an example close to home, that this is what leads him to sheer falsification of quotes and to a complete and unconscionable distortion of my book, In Search of Nixon. Let me be specific. I begin by stating that I am not attempting a life history: “A true psychohistorical account, or even psychobiography, would approach Nixon’s life chronologically, seeking to study his personal development in the context of the changing times…. Another possible approach deals with themes or patterns discernible throughout Nixon’s life, in the context of general history; I shall take this approach.” Instead of a life history, I address myself to a problem, which I call the Nixon Problem, one which has puzzled many people, and which I spell out in much detail. Is this illegitimate? Well, let us see how Coles deals with such a work.

He starts out (after a quote from Wallerstein, as a putative justification for psychohistorical activity of my kind, which seems to me a lot of nonsense) by distorting the difference between an important element in a man’s character—orality—and a supposed character type (the “oral type”); a distinction that an analyst, of all people, ought not to ignore. Thus, he says, “Nixon is called ‘oral’ and ‘anal’ at various points.” I defy Coles to produce such a quote. In the two or three pages I devote to this matter, I state specifically that I am dealing with, for example, the concept of orality in Eriksonian terms, i.e., as oral modes of behavior, and merely note a few items under this heading, e.g., Nixon’s food habits, and his use of speech as a mode of releasing aggression. I certainly do not call him an “oral type.” The same is true for the concept of anality, which I deal with even more slightingly in terms mainly of Nixon’s metaphors, and their connection with his fear of “letting go,” as manifested in body rigidity, and his intense need for control: “control of himself, control of others, and control of the world around him.”

Why, then, does Coles single out this small part of my book, in order to misconstrue it? Incidentally, why does he have nothing to say about Erikson’s discussion of anality in Luther, a major and prominent topic, frequently criticized (incorrectly, I believe) by many historians who cite the wide prevalence of anal language at the time? Why the double standard?

Dismissing the possibility of sheer malevolence, I believe that the answer to all of the above lies basically in Coles’s disdain for explicit theory. We see this when Coles goes on to chide me for saying, “What we have been discussing up to now may be thought of as the psychological banalities of Nixon’s character” (of course, as the context shows, I meant that his private psychological traits were of no importance to history if not connected to cognitive and political strengths), and arrogantly asks “why the author has bothered to write this book at all, especially since the rest of the book offers nothing else about the President’s ‘character’ [utterly untrue as a glance at the summary on page 166 will show], only an extensive justification of the value of ‘psychohistory’ as ‘science.’ ”

The “rest of the book,” to begin with, explicitly states that psychohistory is not science: as I said, psychohistory “seeks systematically to use the theories and concepts of a ‘science,’ psychoanalysis, to reexamine and ‘test’ these same theories and concepts in terms of changing historical contexts, and yet, at the end, to offer an ‘explanation’ that is more like general history than psychoanalytic science. In short, psychohistory is still a form of history.” Next, I specifically call attention to the fact that

psychohistory’s conclusions, alas, cannot (or at least should not) be presented in summary terms, without a clear understanding that such a procedure is like saying that Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is about a man reminiscing in bed…. Clearly, any conviction that such statements [i.e., summary ones] may arouse in a reader can only come from the detailed supporting data behind them. It is the density of material, building up a conclusion as one builds up a puzzle, that makes such summary statements anything more than parlor-room Freudian clichés.

The reader can well imagine my surprise at having Coles, who surely should know better, expressing himself in exactly such clichés. His dislike of “problem” or theory-oriented work leads him to ignore the theory of psychohistory, and its problems, itself, and to distort my work in a totally irresponsible fashion. What his misquotations and rendings out of context show, however, is to what length Coles’s polemic carries him. His “review” is a travesty.

The fact is that Coles will allow no work since 1958 to stand next to that of his master, Erikson. I do not believe an uncritical attitude (quoting Bainton, to misleading purpose, is merely Coles’s way of throwing sand in our eyes), exemplified by Coles’s book on Erikson, is the greatest tribute one can pay to a great man, while putting down developments in his field. Erikson’s genius, and a major reason why single-handedly he created, or recreated, the field of psychohistory, consists in his combining theory and practice, for example, in Young Man Luther. Erikson doesn’t hide his psychoanalytic concepts; having modified Freud’s he presents them explicitly—indeed, works them out—in the course of dealing with detailed historical data. True, his work is a life history; and a brilliant one, hard to equal. But this doesn’t mean other kinds of psychohistorical approaches cannot be employed.

Coles, of course, thinks it does. He wants us all to be novelists, such as George Eliot, or historians such as C. Vann Woodward, or, presumably, psychoanalysts and psychohistorians such as himself. He talks loftily about the possession of “a measure of grace, so mysterious…so impossible to define” (how, incidentally, does one quantify “measure of grace,” to paraphrase his comment about my use of the term “ambivalence”?). In his dogmatic intolerance, it seems to me that Coles shows singularly little of that “measure of grace” he extols, and which he has exhibited so persuasively at other times. He criticizes Clinch’s Kennedy book for its reductionism and one-sidedness, and, paradoxically, exhibits exactly the same qualities in his own discussion of some of the books “covered” in his article. The result is a tendentious and misleading polemic on psychohistory.

Bruce Mazlish

Princeton, New Jersey

Robert Coles replies:

Mr. Mazlish’s letter requires some of the “detailed analysis” he mentions—to the point that one must begin with the very first paragraph and go right through to the last one. The issue, again and again, is one of elementary logic. To begin, I never said I was the one who favored an either/or position: friend or foe. I was trying to account for a remark an editor had made about a supposed effort on the part of two authors to “conceal” what, in fact, they made no effort at all to conceal. Mr. Mazlish, who happens to be that editor, chooses not to explain or defend his remark, but confuses an interpretation of mine with a position of advocacy, which he then for some reason—attendance at too many psychiatric conferences?—calls “revealing.”

Next, he lectures us on “the problem approach” to history—coming forth with “analysis” on the one hand “as against the traditional descriptive and chronological approaches.” (Italics added.) One can analyze at some length that rather surprising, if not revealing, set of alternatives. No doubt those historians who have felt that their descriptive and narrative essays or books are at the same time thoroughly analytic endeavors will want to question themselves as never before—or smile and continue to go about their work. It turns out, ironically—though I had never before given the matter any thought—that those two essays on “psychohistory” in the NYR were certainly in the tradition of the “problem approach.” I made it quite clear, I thought, that the “problem” which Freud faced with Leonardo’s life requires close scrutiny precisely because it persists to this day—it is a major issue in the work of one contemporary psychoanalyst or historian after another, and especially those who call themselves “psychohistorians.”

Next, after insisting that the issue ought not to be one of friend or foe, Mr. Mazlish, only two paragraphs on, refers to a “friend” of psychohistory who has made an “attack” on it. I do not think that kind of statement “revealing,” only foolish. One befriends the work of those individuals one respects: among analysts, for example, Freud, Anna Freud, Erik Erikson, Harry Stack Sullivan, Harry Guntrip, Charles Rycroft, D. W. Winnicott; among historians, C. Vann Woodward, Peter Gay, Christopher Hill, Edward P. Thompson. One looks for intelligence, good judgment, a touch of originality, and yes, a certain freedom from those ideological constraints which admittedly press upon all of us. How does one befriend an ill-defined abstraction called “psychohistory”?

As for “explicit theory,” I wrote a whole book on Erikson’s and, incidentally, a long essay (with an admiring section on The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense) on Anna Freud’s (Massachusetts Review, Spring, 1966). It was Anna Freud who chose to write up her work with English children with an almost complete lack of psychoanalytic terminology; and she has over and over again in recent years (see, especially, Normality and Pathology in Childhood) taken after, in her own discreet but nonetheless firm way, those who pile theory on theory—with little or no resort to real evidence.

As for those “accidental” artistic qualities of Freud’s, they deserve much more attention than they have received. His masterpiece, The Interpretation of Dreams, was heavily autobiographical, and Erikson has done well to evoke the Augustinian tradition of confessional literature when looking at Freud’s writing. Freud himself referred to his “mythological theory of instincts.” A lot of us see patients and, these days, feel impelled to theorize endlessly about their “conflicts.” Few of us have the resources Freud had to evoke through vivid, suggestive, often dramatic and metaphorical language the reader’s imagination and sympathy—the artist’s task; hence, figurative language like repression, the Id, reaction-formation, or expressions like “seething cauldron,” and on and on. As for that trio, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, one can only half facetiously wonder who in the world ever has or will “add” anything to what they have offered us. In this regard, Ernest Jones quotes Freud as observing that Nietzsche “had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was ever likely to live.”

Next comes the complaint that I did not pay attention to the work of Robert Lifton or John Demos, as well as “major developments” which have taken place in what is called “family history.” There are indeed many books I didn’t discuss. I had to ignore Harold Laswell’s work, also the work of Fred Greenstein, and James Barber’s recent interesting book on the American presidency, a book by David Hunt called Parents and Children in History, and most of all, the major development in the “field” of “family history,” Centuries of Childhood by Philippe Ariès—a botanist who has no interest, implicit or explicit, in “psychohistory” or for that matter, psycho-analysis.

The problem was not only one of space, though the two articles were long enough, but again, a certain line of analysis undertaken: how Freud, and then others, right up to the present time, confront various outstanding historical figures. Robert Lifton, whose work I have evaluated in three separate essays, and John Demos, whose work I do indeed admire, are primarily interested in analyzing certain cultural “themes” that have made themselves felt in certain societies at particular moments of history. But, anyway, what is this talk of “psychohistory’s achievements”? Only one or two of those I have just mentioned refer to “psychohistory” at all in their writing. Dr. Langer, incidentally, was told in one review that back in 1943 he was writing psychohistory, “whether he knew it or not.” It is an interesting business: corral just about anyone in sight, call them all “psychohistorians,” then speak of “achievements.”

Next, alas, one is told, incredibly, about “falsification of quotes,” a charge that certainly warrants substantiation. But none is given. On page 101 Mr. Mazlish talks about his “feeling that Nixon had a strong quality of anality.” On page 121 he deems it “worthwhile to notice a few points about his [Nixon’s] orality.” On page 173 we are told that “anality is an important element in Nixon’s character.” I do indeed know the difference between ascribing orality or anality to a man and calling him an “oral character” or “anal character,” concepts developed with especial vigor and clarity by the late Dr. Joseph Michaels, a Boston psychoanalyst. I never said that Mazlish called Nixon an “oral character type,” so where is the “falsification”?

Mazlish’s book on Nixon is full of psychoanalytic pronouncements of the most incredibly speculative variety, often by his own admission proffered without a shred of supporting evidence. On page 69 we learn that Mrs. Nixon’s strength “may touch on some masochistic need of Nixon’s to confront again his own self-doubt and fear of weakness.” What that verb “touches on” is supposed to mean, the reader has no way of knowing, even as he or she may wonder about that phrase “masochistic need.” Do we get any supporting information? No, only a gratuitous slap, in the very next sentence, at Garry Wills, for an “awkward comment” of his—to me, a thoroughly valuable and well stated one—on Nixon’s parents and their marriage. The sad fact is that I addressed a number of questions to Mazlish in my essay, and none of them has he chosen to answer, for all the length of his letter. Why? And they were questions that had to do with theory, explicit theory. Some social scientists, tightening their neckties and putting on their jackets, might even call them “basic” or “methodological” questions.

Next comes the relationship of Erik H. Erikson to “psychohistory” and, as well, the essay under question. I thought I made quite clear why I liked Erikson’s thinking and writing; they are, quite simply, a good deal better than Mazlish’s. The issue is not a “double standard,” but one standard. Erikson handles psychoanalytic theory more sensitively, more thoughtfully, perhaps the word is more knowingly, than Mazlish. I just can’t picture him saying, as Mazlish does, that “football has always had a deep symbolic significance for Richard Nixon.” Such bold, unqualified use of adjectives: “always,” “deep”—and about a man we are told again and again has kept himself an enigma. Then, the criticisms of Erikson in the essay are dismissed as “sand” in the reader’s eyes, whereas I am simultaneously charged with “an uncritical attitude” toward the same person. Heads you lose; tails I win.

But I will be candid: I do indeed see nothing which Mazlish would want to call “psychohistory” that comes close to equalling Erikson’s work on either Luther or Gandhi. And it has to be mentioned that I discussed three books published within the last year, and another book and article published within the last two or three years. As for the parenthetic question on the quantification of grace, one can only at this point call with special desperation for the help of some logician—preferably a patient and kindly one. A writer has talked in quantitative terms of “ambivalence.” A reviewer asks him rather pointedly, he hopes, how one takes such a word and measures it or uses it comparatively—without, that is, careful qualification. The reviewer ends his essay by indicating that some things, of great value and importance, are quite ineffable. Now he is asked—apparently with tongue nowhere near cheek—how one quantifies “grace.” As Kierkegaard said: “Suddenly one can lose hope—words have been rebuffed, thrown to the winds.”

Finally, the reader is entitled to know that Mr. Mazlish’s career as a “psychohistorian” is more extensive than I had the space to indicate in my essay. I tried in that essay to indicate what I thought of Nancy Clinch’s The Kennedy Neurosis. However, I fear that I neglected to mention that the book contains a foreword by Bruce Mazlish. It is full of lavish praise. One “major contribution” after another is extolled; the book is called no less than “a landmark in political biography.” It is claimed to have “a potent claim on our attention.” If I reviewed a recently (1973) published “landmark” with such a “claim,” how did I at the same time ignore “achievements since 1958”? And lest I be again accused of quoting out of context, here is more: “When one adds that the book is written in a clear and compelling style—indeed, there is a mounting dramatic intensity to the presentation—pleasure joins importance in urging us on to its reading.” In fact, Miss Clinch “wishes not only to analyze the Kennedys, but to offer treatment to ‘the American psyche.’ “

I frankly don’t know what to do with that last observation; it is almost impossible to imagine, short of science fiction, what the author has in mind. But one has to ask why any responsible historian would want to endorse such a book. In his letter Mazlish uses quite sharp language—“shotgun approach,” “dogmatic,” “intolerant,” “polemical,” “nonsense,” “travesty.” Yet he announces the great value of a bad, bad book—one that is laughable, if not slanderous, even as he does scant justice to Jacques Barzun’s thoroughly valuable article which, incidentally, after the aside in the above letter, does indeed warrant the reader’s careful scrutiny.

In any event, for all our disagreement, I certainly welcome Professor Mazlish’s use of the word “tendentious”; I did indeed have what Webster’s dictionary calls a “reformatory intent,” along with a definite viewpoint to express, and I made clear that position to the best of my ability. Upon reading his letter, and going over his various pieces of “psychohistory,” I only worry that upon occasion I was a little less “tendentious” than the “material” in question warranted.

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