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Love at Harvard

Love’s Story Told: A Life of Henry A. Murray

by Forrest G. Robinson
Harvard University Press, 459 pp., $29.95

Love’s Story Told is a remarkable biography, with a startling tale to tell about the man who is its subject, the woman he loved, and the literary presences and psychological myths that dominated their lives.

One August morning in 1924, when the Cunard liner Scythia was on its way from Boston to Liverpool, its captain came down with acute appendicitis. As luck would have it, Sir John Bland-Sutton, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, was on board and was able to operate successfully on the captain. The chloroform was administered by a thirty-one-year-old American physician, Henry Alexander Murray, a well-to-do and extremely engaging New Yorker accustomed to regular holidays in Europe.

After the operation the two medical men relaxed over drinks in the lounge and it turned out that Sir John was addicted to the work of the largely forgotten American novelist Herman Melville. He had come over for just four days to explore New Bedford, the port from which Melville had embarked on his whaling voyage in 1841. Moby-Dick “was a kind of Bible” with him. He kept it at his bedside, and of course had the book with him. He urged it on Murray.

Many a book is said to have “changed” someone’s life. The charming, easygoing Murray, whose most obvious social trait was a regal tendency to flatter people and to get on with them all too easily, was so transformed, shaken-up, and galvanized by the force of Moby-Dick that both his professional and his personal life were to be redirected by the book. The immediate effect of Moby-Dick on Murray was to make him identify with Melville. He acclaimed Melville as a prophetic and unafraid discoverer of the unconscious, and saw Melville’s inner life as his own. (I am informed by several Harvard Ph.D.s in Psychology that as future director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic, Murray strenuously pushed for incorporating theories of the unconscious in psychological studies at Harvard.) Melville provided Murray with his first happy shock of recognition of himself. I met him just a few times, and was always exhilarated by his intellectual enthusiasms. Visiting him when he was a very old man (he lived to be ninety-five) I was not surprised to see pictures of whales mounted around his front door in Cambridge.

A patrician out of Edith Wharton’s old New York, Murray was leery of his cold and grandiose mother, who much resembled Melville’s, but until his great sea change he was faithful to the conventions of his upbringing. He had been a good little boy at Groton under the fierce eye of the Reverend Endicott Peabody; he became captain of the Harvard crew and was now the proper husband of a conventional Bostonian woman whose mother was a Saltonstall. Graduating in the class of 1915 with a gentleman’s C, he had almost indifferently gone into medicine. Handsome, rich, intellectually restless, with every avenue in American life open to him, he had no trouble completing the work for the Ph.D. at the Rockefeller in 1926, where he experimented on chicken embryos. People who met him at the time did not find anything unusual or heretical about him except perhaps his tendency to get very excited about the latest master thinker. When deeply stirred, he stammered.

After Moby-Dick and his conversion to a belief in the unconscious as the prime agent in Melville’s life, which he felt resembled his own, Murray went to Zurich to be analyzed by Jung and to consult with him professionally. His relation to Jung was another major experience of Murray’s life, and Jung’s influence easily coalesced with Melville’s. Jung’s theory of the unconscious emphasized the formative power of ancient myths on the individual psyche, and Moby-Dick was full of myths. Jung had classified human beings into psychological types, drawing on his fundamental distinction between introversion and extroversion. Murray adapted much of his system when he became head of Harvard’s Psychological Clinic and developed the Thematic Apperception Test. This consists of black-and-white pictures suggesting personal and interpersonal situations, about which the subject makes up stories. During World War II Murray was in charge of screening candidates for the OSS.

Jung as a self-contented universal sage with supposedly Orphic gifts (in this he resembled Yeats) became another sacred figure to Murray. The great man could be near megalomaniacal in playing his authoritative role, and in respectable Zurich, with his wife’s entire approval, he serenely managed to live with a young disciple. This fascinated the sexually discontented Murray to the point where he soon emulated Jung.

Christiana Morgan was an arrogant, beautiful, and well-connected Bostonian four years younger than Murray, and married to another man of means. She adored her father, a Harvard professor of pathology, and had a son whom she indifferently left to others to bring up. Forrest Robinson in his astonishingly candid and detailed story of the bond between “Harry” and Christiana—his tone is suitably dry and avoids the overt irony that would have detracted from the story—says that after reading Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious “Christiana was now in earnest what she had always been in fact, a rapt spectator to her own inner drama.”

Murray’s proper wife, Josephine, after one interview with Jung, thought him “a dirty old man.” Christiana thought him a genius and concluded that “the unconscious” was the main content and driving force of her personality, waiting to be expressed. Her “very active imagination,” as Robinson puts it, went in for “visions”—of “bulls, pigs, stallions, goats, rams, snakes of all colors and sizes, winged birds, golden cows, scarabs, a sphinx, satyrs, a classical youth with flute, giants, dragons, earth mothers, an Indian, wise old men, women transfixed and transfigured, spears, swords, the sun and the moon, Christ, great negroes, Indians, anonymous men and women alone and in crowds, blood and fire and water in abundance, icons, badges, crosses, spears…” The earliest of the visions served as the subject matter for Jung’s Vision Seminars, which he offered on a regular basis in Zurich between 1930 and 1934 and which were published in 1976.

She certainly forced her visions on the infatuated Murray as the theme of their long, wild, and often bizarre sexual life. She was his “anima,” or Jungian life force, capable of evoking his “feminine dimension,” he was her “animus.” They were not just lovers in their love nest near Harvard Yard; they were participating in a high literary drama that they felt had somehow been composed for them by Melville, Jung, the less Orphic Freud, and on occasion any other theorist whose latest book had corroborated their certainty (it was mostly hers) of finding the way to complete fulfillment.

Murray and Christiana appropriately met at a performance of Parsifal. From Robinson’s assiduous retelling of their literary and philosophical enthusiasms, it is clear that they exemplified La Rochefoucauld’s view that “no one would fall in love if he hadn’t read about it first.” Christiana was firmly exalté about lovemaking, the sibyl or high priestess of the accoutrements and rituals necessary to lovers so special as themselves. On one occasion she had him wear a dress, on others she wanted to be whipped and to whip him, and on yet another “the lovers drew a few drops of each other’s blood into a small cup and then drank to the unity of two in one.” The idea was to bring her many visions to fruition, and she once explained to Murray that “it was the World Force, not herself, that was speaking” in her determination to do this. They called themselves “the dyad,” in which she took the name “Wona” and he “Mansol.” While the dyad by definition excluded others, it was to be a model for others, and she demanded his help in writing “The Proposition,” a never published record of their life together, meant for those who could benefit from their wisdom.

Christiana demanded aggressiveness from Harry as the sign that he had passed beyond good and evil to a new level of freedom and creativity. Wona would “go mad,” she wrote in 1936, “if her body were not conquered as violently as her spirit had been conquered by his Mana. Her body must be completely possessed—and for that she must break the Christian conscience that made him impotent and tender.” Because he was aroused, and also because of her challenge to his manhood, Harry gave Christiana some of the pain that she, in her own grappling with guilt, demanded of him. But there was something more that moved him now—fear. He was indeed afraid that Christiana might “go mad,” or that in her frustration she would become self-destructive.

Part of the trouble was that Christiana grew jealous of Murray when he became absorbed in running the Harvard Psychological Clinic, though she participated in its work and wrote professional papers. What she wanted was love all the time, their special love; she became distraught when it faded, and she began drinking more and more heavily. One day in 1967, when they were at a beach resort, she was found dead in a few feet of water. The “circumstances…made Henry suspect suicide,” Robinson writes.

Murray’s attachment to Christiana was deep and wounding enough, but he was far from being self-destructive; what engrossed her completely he put to use as a psychologist famous for his studies in “personology,” which among other things considers the role of fantasy and narcissism in giving energy and coherence to one’s personality. In his essay “Vicissitudes Of Creativity,” published in 1959, he wrote that “complete emotional expression” between two members of a dyad was a corrective to “the traditional Christian practice of repression of primitive impulsions” and to “the psychoanalytic notion of the replacement of the id by the ego (rationality), which results so often in a half-gelded, cautious, guarded, conformist, uncreative, and dogmatic way of coping with the world.”

Similarly, his passion for Melville and his feeling that he and Melville were doubles in some psychological sense identical turned out to be very much a professional matter for him. He wrote a thousand-page biography of Melville which he never sought to publish. I suspect that for all his decades of work on it, he was so busy being “creative”—his greatest wish for himself—on so many projects taken to be important in the upper reaches of American life that he feared his work had been superseded in the Melville revival that began in the late 1920s, with its steady flow of biographical and critical studies.

It may be, too, that with the acuteness he brought to analysis of his own personality, he recognized that the biography was as much about himself as it was about Melville. The main point of connection was Murray’s lifelong grievance against his coldly superior mother, whom he likened to Melville’s disdainfully patrician mother, Maria Gansevoort. He extracted from the perhaps unpublishable biography a hundred-page essay published as an introduction to Melville’s Pierre (Hendricks House, 1949). This is an extraordinary document for several reasons. Pierre (subtitled “The Ambiguities”), published just a year after Moby-Dick had “failed” in 1851, is not an easy book to grasp. It was obviously intended to parody the romantic and melodramatic fiction in favor at the mid-century, and it becomes itself wildly melodramatic, in a strenuously complex format that only Melville’s unappeasable mind could have come up with. It opens with a dedication to Mt. Greylock (which Melville could see from his study at “Arrowhead,” near Pittsfield, Massachusetts); then, with a kind of ferocious raillery, the book describes the idyllic life on an aristocratic estate of young, privileged Pierre Glendinning with his widowed mother. Pierre and his mother profess to adore each other, but Pierre, who is less detached, and is naively idealistic, cannot see an inch beyond the enchanted life his mother has made for him.

Enter the dark lady, Isabel, who pronounces herself Pierre’s half sister. Pierre, overcome by Isabel’s beauty and pathos, the shock of his father’s sinfulness, gives up everything—his fiancée, Lucy Tartan, his mother, his estate and inheritance—to flee with Isabel to Melville’s native New York (a place he identified with his father’s early death and his own worldly failure). There Pierre and Isabel pose as man and wife while remaining tremulously chaste. Lucy bravely joins them in their wretched rooms, while Pierre gets involved with religious cranks and fakes, and devotes himself to writing a masterpiece that will save himself and the two women. The book is rejected by the critics, who insult the author’s character; Pierre is attacked by one of his boyhood friends, murders him, and in his “dungeon” in the Tombs Prison, Pierre and Isabel poison themselves from the “vial” she has “secreted” between her breasts. Physically entwined at last, Isabel “fell upon Pierre’s heart, and her long hair ran over him, and arbored him in ebon vines.”

Preposterous in a mere summary, Pierre triumphs over Melville’s intended parody and the unreality of the hero. The prose is often intentionally ridiculous, but the story goes far beyond Melville’s contempt for the best sellers of the time and becomes, as Murray acutely recognized, a powerful reflection of Melville’s own feelings as an orphan, his difficulties with his proud mother, and his sexual ambiguity. While Murray, in writing of Melville’s White-Jacket and Billy Budd, took account of the “male bond” natural to sailors spending years together at sea, he underplayed it, probably because Murray could not identify with it any more than he could identify with the poverty and literary discouragement that forced Melville to become a customs inspector and to stop writing for publication. He thought Melville gave up out of “psychic exhaustion” alone.

Still, the stealth and ingenuity with which Melville advances the incest theme between mother and son, and between Pierre and Isabel, were understandably fascinating to Murray. He saw the book as a confession of feelings toward women that were not altogether clear to Melville himself, and so he insisted on treating the novel as a psychological document. Although he was aware of the romantic rhetoric of the period, he took every word of the book so seriously that he slights both Melville’s parody of popular fiction and the absurdity of Pierre himself. But as a work of literary psychoanalysis, Murray’s “preface” is one of the most perceptive essays ever written on Melville—and this by a psychologist whose description of his other enthusiasms could be hasty. It is brilliant in its recognitions of Melville’s inner turbulence and self-accusation, particularly in the character of Pierre:

Pierre, in all truth, is deficient in heroic substance. Unlike Ahab, he does not “make a courageous wreck.” His decline and fall begin immediately after quitting Saddle Meadows, when he gives ear to the Evil One. A little later, half-siding with his enemies, he remorsefully recalls “all the minutest details of his old joyous life with his mother” and curses himself as an idiot fool for throwing away his noble birthright for a “mess of pottage.” His reservoir of love is dry within a week; none of his sacred vows are fulfilled; his heart, “God’s anointed,” surrenders unconditionally to hate, disgust, and scorn, directed against himself as well as against the world; he succumbs to the castigations of a bad conscience and has no defense against the accusing countenance of Plinlimmon; he gives way to floods of self-pity, moans and whines over his humble quarters, his solitariness. Writing is a battle for him; but is he really so delicate? He damns his vocation, begrudges the energy he gives to his book. Having lost his own truth, he disparages all truth. Finally, traitor to the spirit, he goes over to the world, stabs his manuscript—“here will I nail it fast, for a detected cheat!”—and spits upon it. The only possession saved from the wreck of his whole character is his spurious pride of purity—a prime cause of the disaster. Pierre is “the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man.”

In this essay the analyst and analysand blend (not for the first or last time) in the doctor’s love for and use of his patient. Through Melville’s life and writing Murray at last attained the mastery with which to describe two lifetimes at once. In the end, his own dark lady probably mattered less to him than Herman Melville, the terrifyingly complex mind in whom, rather immodestly, Murray saw his alter ego.

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