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 alone at our society. Those political scientists and journalists who try to figure out what presidents can and cannot do, those historians who try to apprehend the subtleties of America’s development as a democracy, the regional tensions, the push and pull of economic and social forces—they have been seduced by complexity, ambiguity, even uncertainty. The author says we need “autonomy, self-direction, and freedom.” Those observers and scholars of American history need the freedom to use the word “because” more boldly—though one can drop the word and get the same startling result:
The Kennedys, like American scientists, achieved the “impossible” through teamwork in their election triumphs. But once elected, they seemed to “fall under a fairyland spell” that kept them from accomplishing any significant part of their professed aims.
The “spell” is next defined: “neurotic conflict.” It seems that Mr. and Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy (called “Joe and Rose”) made “excessive demands for perfection and social success” on their sons and daughters. The result: a need on the part of those children for their own “frustration, punishment and even destruction”:
I do not see the Kennedy failures in performance as caused mainly by bad luck or by the vagaries of politics and human nature. Rather, the factual failures were largely the result of psychohistorical circumstances that existed for the Kennedy sons even before they were born and that strongly affected the shaping of their individual characters.
So much for “bad luck” or the “vagaries of politics and human nature”—the stuff of novelists or play-wrights, the passing fancy of newspapermen, the preoccupation of old-fashioned, overly scrupulous scholars or essayists, who may be aware of “unconscious emotional conflicts,” but who get sidetracked by their search for facts, their insistence on maintaining detachment as well as respect for those they study.
Perhaps this book has its place; some day social historians will want to study its by no means unique mixture of Nichols and May psychology, non sequiturs, simple-minded social commentary, and dizzying historical over-statement. For example, Mr. Joseph P. Kennedy is singled out from the rest of us parents for “unconsciously” projecting “his needs and longings onto his sons.” Even though the author admits that some of the book’s points “may seem strained, and even cruel,” she persists, in the interest of truth. Thus, “Jack, Bobby, and Teddy” (as they are called by this expert on their lives who has never even met them) “would all take up cigar smoking, the Freudian symbol of potency and power.”
Then there was President Kennedy. Here is what his White House staff was all about:
Thus Kennedy was not only in close and constant touch with his family, but he also created a new family of staff retainers who seem to have served partly as substitute parent images daily filling the old dual role of nursemaids and slave drivers.
One of them was Kennedy’s secretary, Mrs. Lincoln. He may have liked her, but his general attitude toward women, along with a few other things, is summarized in the following four sentences:
Kennedy essentially disliked and distrusted women. Therefore his strong emotional need for support and approval led him to follow the counsel of male authority figures. Unfortunately, a large number of these authority figures—such as McNamara, Rusk, Acheson, Taylor, Bundy, and Rostow—were as confused and misguided as Kennedy about national values and priorities. The 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers clearly revealed this about their Vietnam Policy.
There it is: from sexism to Vietnam in less than a paragraph. Not that the author forgets other parts of the world. She says the President had “an emotional fixation” on Castro, who was “Kennedy’s alter-ego: the bold leader Kennedy longed to be but could not bring himself to become.” Why could he not? “Making laws may arouse unconscious resistance in the lawmaker who has suffered much in his own life from rigid legalisms.”
As for the President’s brother and trusted adviser, he was similarly “neurotic.” Did he have compassion for the poor and vulnerable in this nation? Yes, but “this is understandable in view of his ‘underdog’ position in the family and the emotional insecurity he never lost.” Did he like athletics and inspire young people to follow suit? True, but there was a reason:
Here we can see a belief in the masculine mystique of physical toughness, and also a probable need for reassurance and affection through physical contact with other males that was more difficult to express directly. Football for the Kennedy sons—and especially Robert, who even kept a football in his Attorney General’s office and often tossed it around with his staff—carried deep psychological undertones of emotional need and gratification.
Finally, the author, who can toss a few passes of her own, reserves the longest throws for the book’s last paragraphs: “Yet the Kennedy mystique can also be seen as essentially the outcome of some four thousand years of the Graeco-Judeo-Christian ethos which has directed and energized Western civilization, and which has now spread over the world.” There is cause for hope, though: “By studying the lives of national leaders, such as the Kennedys, we can find reflections of our own search for identity and confirmation, and help change both ourselves and our nation toward maturity and health rather than neurosis.”
There are other reasons to study the lives of important men of history. As Walter C. Langer makes clear in his book on Hitler, the Office of Strategic Services was interested in winning the war; “maturity” and all the rest could come to Germany (and America) later. Colonel William J. (“Wild Bill”) Donovan knew Dr. Langer, then a Boston psychoanalyst, and asked him to put together a psychological appraisal of Hitler, including an estimate of what he might do if things should go badly for him, as they already were going in 1943 when Langer began his hurried job. Yet, for all the rush, this book is decidedly better than the one on the Kennedys. Langer’s portrait of Hitler is far more thoughtful and sensitive than Miss Clinch’s caricatures of the Kennedy family.
Langer avoids psychiatric name calling.1 He emphasizes Hitler’s strengths, his abilities, his obvious capacity to mesmerize and lead a nation. There are mistakes of judgment or emphasis, but these are usually owing to false information which was supplied to the relatively uninformed analyst and his quickly assembled staff. The prose is clear, a clue to the author’s essential modesty and common sense. Once in a while there is an utterly fatuous remark, but it is usually delivered in a way that makes one less angry than regretful:
I may be naïve in diplomatic matters, but I like to believe that if such a study of Hitler had been made years earlier, under less tension, and with more opportunity to gather first-hand information, there might not have been a Munich; a similar study of Stalin might have produced a different Yalta; one of Castro might have prevented the Cuban situation; and one of President Diem might have avoided our deep involvement in Vietnam. Studies of this type cannot solve our international problems. That would be too much to expect.
At only one point does the author reveal the smugness and arrogance that are all too common in such efforts, and even then they derive from a remark of one of Langer’s colleagues: “Now I know what his [Hitler’s] perversion is.” Not that anyone knows. We are never given any hard, concrete evidence—only guesses and second-hand speculations, some from highly unreliable sources, as the historian Robert B.L. Waite makes clear in his useful afterword. “It just came to me out of my clinical experience,” the surprised Dr. Langer heard when he asked his colleague how she had come to that conclusion. Fortunately, it was Dr. Langer and not his colleague who tried to figure out the personality of a man whom he had never met and about whom he had only the most shadowy and suspect of information. Professor Waite says that such an attempt is justified: “Basically, he is convinced the perversion existed because he knows as an experienced analyst widely read in the literature of abnormal psychology that many patients with the same patterns of behavior as Hitler have exhibited a penchant for the same perversion.”
Once again we are back to the same problem. Clearly those “patterns of behavior” Hitler had (shiftlessness for a while, anxiety, phobias, sexual inhibitions) have been and are shared by millions of people. Some of them may end up, as conjecture about Hitler would have it, lying on the floor and pleading with women to empty themselves (the nearer the better, and all over, if possible), but some may choose other ways to find pleasure, and by no means do all those with Hitler’s “patterns of behavior,” or anyone else’s, share his supposed “penchant.” A million prior interviews with distributed men and women would not enable anyone to know the facts of a particular person’s private life. Nor does Dr. Langer’s prediction that Hitler would probably commit suicide when and if he were cornered constitute “dramatic and convincing evidence of the validity of his approach to an understanding of Hitler’s personality.” But Dr. Langer mentions several other possibilities, and is unwilling to pin himself down—a refreshing trait, in view of the certainties that other writers are drawn to.
Hitler himself repeatedly mentioned his intention; he would go down to death on his own rather than surrender, bringing all of Germany with him, if he had the choice. Clearly Dr. Langer was right in suggesting suicide as “the most plausible outcome,” though he lists insanity and death in battle as other possibilities. But then, my ninth-grade Latin teacher made a similar prediction—he was more unequivocal—in class around the same year, when we were reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars; and so did the journalist Dorothy Thompson, who mentioned the very same likelihood several times in her syndicated columns during the early 1940s. I would imagine that thousands of people thought about Hitler as a probable suicide when they read their newspapers and saw how desperate his situation had suddenly become.
With Langer’s study of Hitler we face once more the nagging questions other “psychohistorical” inquiries pose; and Dr. Langer can no more settle those questions for us than could Freud in the case of Leonardo. How did a wretched, deeply troubled, at times pathetic youth—the “neurotic psychopath” of this book—end up Führer of the Third Reich, a man not only possessed of authority and power but believed and heeded by millions? If not Hitler, might it have been someone else? If only Hitler, then surely it was not his “perversion” or his disordered mind (the province of the psychoanalyst) that accounts for his successes.
Hitler’s life, like many other lives, presents many purely psychological mysteries, apart from the “psychohistorical” one of his particular rise to power. After the First World War, this nondescript, pitiable ne’er-do-well suddenly turned into a remarkably persistent and adept politician, then into a charismatic leader, finally the Führer of most of Europe. Langer refers to a “transformation of character,” as well he might. But how to account for it? We are told that there is an explanation: the weak and panicky Hitler, “in order to quiet his fears,” suddenly “imagined himself as a person who far surpassed his enemies in all the ‘virile’ qualities.” We are given the name for such a psychological maneuver, “identification with the aggressor,” and its importance is described in language not unlike that used by Freud in connection with Leonardo: “This is the key to an understanding of Hitler’s actions since the beginning of his political activities to the present time.”
Presumably Hitler was thereby freed to become what he eventually did become. If only that maneuver worked as well for thousands of other nobodies, who have tried desperately to convert their vulnerability and self-hate into something they can use on others. The Weimar Republic was full of such people; America has its share: people who “identify” with various “aggressors”—and, having done so, get nowhere. As for psychological recovery or “transformation,” psychiatrists can spend long, intimate months, if not years, with patients and not know why at a particular moment a person is suddenly, it seems, “better.” In retrospect, we come up with formulations, explanations: such and such was “interpreted.” We are less likely to mention the many times we have offered similar “insights” to other patients, even to the same patient, all to no avail.
Langer was no doubt right about the turn of mind Hitler experienced. But he goes way beyond the bounds of logic—and his own profession’s knowledge—when he makes that commonly indulged-in “mechanism” the “key” to an understanding of Hitler’s “recovery,” let alone all the subsequent “actions” of that satanic genius. Nor is the “messiah complex,” also cited by him, very helpful—as any psychiatrist knows who works with the severely disturbed and utterly ineffectual “paranoid schizophrenics” who inhabit our state hospitals, insisting every day that they could save the world, if they were only heeded.
No one wants to circumscribe the continuing attempt of psychologists and psychiatrists to make sense of the irrational and bizarre, the seemingly normal but in fact pathological. It is when a more polemical, even aggrandizing tone enters the discussion that the possibility of a rational distinction between different objectives becomes hard to maintain. In this regard, Kurt Eissler is at least candid in his book on Leonardo. The first section of the book is frankly called “Polemics,” and in a chapter called “The Historian vs. the Psychoanalyst” Eissler makes no bones about what he believes and, moreover, expects of those who disagree with him:
There can, of course, be no doubt that the psychoanalyst has to know the results of historical and iconographic research; but what he does with that knowledge in order to reach psychological conclusions will more frequently than not strike the historian as far-fetched and inconclusive. [Meyer] Schapiro dismisses us with the admonition that the analyst should inform himself better about Leonardo’s life and art and the culture of his time before applying his science to the psychological study of that life. Wohl and Trosman, with their little understanding of the subtleness of the genius, believe the problem could have been solved if Freud had “allowed his manuscript to be scrutinized” by an expert in history. These writers by-pass the essential question that is at issue between the historical sciences and psychoanalysis and that cannot be resolved as long as the historian and philologist do not acquire full insight into psychoanalysis and are restrained by the bias of our time from obtaining maximum knowledge of the structure of the human mind by consistent and long-lasting clinical work.2
No doubt somewhere there is a historian prepared to insist that any psychoanalyst who wants to write about history take a full graduate course and spend a few years doing “proper” historical research. But some scholars have to some degree combined the two disciplines—the historian Bruce Mazlish, for example, or the political scientist E. Victor Wolfenstein. Both men have psychoanalytic knowledge—of an order Dr. Eissler would doubtless find acceptable—as well as training in their professions.
Professor Mazlish has been an especially active proponent of what he and others (Robert Jay Lifton, Joel Kovel, John Demos) call “psychohistory.” Each of these men has his own particular way of working with historical materials from a psychological (more precisely, psychoanalytic) point of view. They share a common interest in drawing upon several disciplines in the hope of seeing human experience more broadly, and escaping the rigidities and biases inherent in any particular psychoanalytic formulation. Robert Wallerstein has perhaps made the best case for such activity:
Consider the impact on the assessment of an individual’s psychological functioning if the limiting social postulate were changed from that of the “average expectable environment” to that of a “systematically fluctuating or a turbulent environment”; compare a campus in unrest set within a world in turmoil. That is, the simplifying assumptions made for its purposes by one behavioral science, if looked at as variables as they are in another behavioral science which makes them its central subject matter, would influence the explanations arrived at in important ways.3
Yet as one goes through Mazlish’s In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Inquiry or Wolfenstein’s The Revolutionary Personality: Lenin, Trotsky, Gandhi, it seems clear that both scholars have as many dangers to avoid as opportunities to grasp. In both books we are warned that psychoanalytic “reductionism” is offensive and perhaps a thing of the past. Nevertheless, Nixon is called “oral” and “anal” at various points, as are Lenin, Trotsky, and Gandhi. Ambivalences are discussed, problems with mothers and fathers described at length.
In the case of Mazlish’s book an interesting dialectic of sorts takes place. First the President is described or typed. (“Orality is an important element in Nixon’s character.”) Then the reader is informed that such a description merely makes Richard Nixon a human being. If he has used a “genital metaphor and an anal one,” then “others frequently use similar metaphors.” After we have read two-thirds of his book, in which words or phrases like “passivity,” “death anxiety,” and “survivor guilt” are pervasive, Mazlish makes this statement: “What we have been discussing up to now may be thought of as the psychological banalities of Nixon’s character.” One wonders, at this point, 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,” only an extensive justification of the value of “psychohistory” as “science.”
Understandably, Professor Mazlish has singled out Nixon, who has, after all, singled himself out. This “search” for Nixon ends with the discovery of “three traits,” which he characterizes as “role identification,” “ambivalence,” and “denial.” We have already been informed that any of us can possess these qualities. But Nixon apparently has more of them: “ambivalence, of course, is in all of us. Yet as a scholar I have never dealt with a public figure as ambivalent as Nixon.” Exactly how does one quantify “ambivalence”? Has Mazlish studied other public figures? If so, which ones, and on what basis has he made his judgment? How are we to compare Nixon’s “ambivalence” with, say, Wilson’s? How does a psychiatrist distinguish among the degrees of ambivalence he finds in his various ambivalent patients? If the “degrees” of those three traits are at issue, one can find many patients who qualify as intensely ambivalent and who are also inclined to “deny” and resort to “role identification.”
Nor do such patients become, on that account, hard to “know,” as the President is claimed to be: “The three traits have made Nixon one of the most difficult political figures to analyze.” Maybe the problem lies elsewhere; maybe the tools of psychoanalysis are inappropriate to the task at hand. In contrast, intelligent political journalists like Jules Witcover or Garry Wills, whose mind has been disciplined by the Jesuits, can “analyze” Nixon suggestively. Wills has evoked brilliantly those aspects of America’s social reality that President Nixon has, one suspects, never overlooked or failed to understand. Wills understands the power of a certain kind of religious piety, even when it has become thoroughly secularized.
Richard Nixon’s career—assisted, one should not forget, by Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan—can be seen as the discerning response of an able and ambitious man to currents in American life he fully appreciates, and even manages to evoke with some credibility, in spite of the widespread distrust he also generates. When Wills analyzes our country’s conflicting ideals and assumptions he gets as close to the “real” Nixon as any of us may find possible or desirable.
It is sad to find toward the end of Mazlish’s book this remark: “Earlier we acknowledged that many people are wary of applying psychoanalysis to historical figures (and usually distrust therapy as well, a problem with which we cannot deal here).” It may be that many clinicians, who every day trust “therapy” enough to show up in an office and try hard to work with other human beings, have good reason to be wary: to repeat, so much that goes on in “treatment” is mysterious, intangible, elusive; one hesitates to apply to politics concepts already of very circumscribed or indeterminate value. Perhaps some of those wary clinicians would want to say what the psychoanalyst Leslie Farber did in response to the way human beings, from great men of history to ordinary workers and citizens, continue to be treated by members of his profession:
Without examining these normative statements in detail, the reader can see why psychiatry is so often charged with being reductive. For while the creatures described above may bear some resemblance to animals or to steam engines or robots or electronic brains, they do not sound like people. They are in fact constructs of theory, more humanoid than human; and whether they are based on the libido theory or on one of the new interpersonal theories of relationships, it is just those qualities most distinctively human which seem to have been omitted. It is a matter of some irony, if one turns from psychology to one of Dostoyevsky’s novels, to find that no matter how wretched, how puerile, or how dilapidated his characters may be, they all possess more humanity than the ideal man who lives in the pages of psychiatry. 4
True, psychiatric jargon can be defended: it is a kind of shorthand for busy doctors who are not interested in describing “life,” as novelists like Dostoyevsky are, but in understanding and “curing” patients. Even assuming that such a way of thinking and speaking about people helps clinical understanding and doesn’t itself affect “treatment”—an assumption I would certainly not want to make—one has to insist on the obvious, so far as men like Leonardo or Nixon go: they are not “patients” in treatment by “psychohistorians” and so nothing absolves us of the responsibility to measure up to the standards Dr. Farber suggests.
When the theoretical intent of the writing Farber describes becomes more ambitious, as it does in Wolfenstein’s book, among others, when we are after the roots of genius or the specific “drives” or “psychohistorical contexts” that make for a gifted artist or writer or politician, we are likely to find the same sorry results. Generalizations are heaped on one another and they turn out to be mirages, deceptively intriguing, but ultimately susceptible to being dismissed on the most elementary logical grounds. Lenin, Trotsky, and Gandhi, we are told, “each had an unusually ambivalent relationship with his father.” Even the word “unusually” does not deprive those men of the company of thousands and thousands of others. Because those men were “ambivalent” they couldn’t take orders. But they must be singled out even further, the author knows:
…the inability to be a follower, of course, does not account for the ability to be a leader. For this something more is needed, namely a firm identification with parental authority, an underlying feeling of connection with the moral standards and behavior of one parent or another.
Does that formulation work, though? Are those leaders thereby distinguished from many men and women who have become “doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs,” factory workers and white-collar workers, maybe even psychiatrists and historians?
No discussion of “psychohistory” can even begin without mention of Erik Erikson, yet I come to him toward the end of this essay. Most of the “psychohistorians” I have mentioned refer to him constantly. His influence rivals Freud’s; on those historians and political scientists I have discussed, I think it is fair to say his influence surpasses Freud’s. Philosophers and theologians, also, have been especially indebted to him. “Religion,” he writes in Young Man Luther, “elaborates on what feels profoundly true even though it is not demonstrable: it translates into significant words, images, and codes the exceeding darkness which surrounds man’s existence, and the light which pervades it beyond all desert or comprehension.”
One can look at such a sentence and be grateful for the subtlety of its content and expression. One can note the absence of heavy-handed “interpretations”; it is clear the writer does not intend to denigrate religion as an “illusion”; to “get” Luther, “explain” him, “expose” him, use him to prove a theory of his own—but rather to write a biography, an imaginative response to a series of facts about a particular person’s life. Those facts are assembled to tell a story, to interest and maybe bestir the reader, to allow a writer with, say, psychological or philosophical interests (and how many writers are without such interests?) a medium for self-expression through another’s life.
But there are obligations: to the letter and to the spirit of the subject’s life. Though Young Man Luther has been widely praised, it has also been subject to serious criticism. Roland H. Bainton, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School, and an authority on Luther, has taken strong issue with a number of Erikson’s assumptions. He has emphasized how vague, ambiguous, and sometimes severely distorted are those “sources” which even the best of Luther scholars ultimately have had to rely upon.
Bainton is not opposed to psychological speculation—with regard to Luther or anyone else. He mentions in what respects Young Man Luther was helpful to him, even suggests further issues Erikson might have profitably explored. But he insists that much of Erikson’s thesis necessarily has to depend on his translation of remarks by Luther, and on the validity of various statements attributed to Luther, often at second, third, and fourth hand. He takes issue with several of Erikson’s translations. He also points out that sometimes there is contradictory information about Luther—so much so that several different yet plausible conclusions can be drawn, depending on which sources, letters, anecdotes are cited.5
Even so, in spite of such hazards Erikson’s book provides opportunities: to connect the past with the present, to show with discretion how the application of a particular discipline, psychoanalysis, developed in the twentieth century, makes more intelligible to us events that had a different kind of coherence for others who lived long ago. It is not enough to call Erikson a gifted writer or an unusually sensitive psychoanalyst. He is more than these. He has dared to bring up subjects like “virtue”; not just “conflict-free” or “neutralized” energy or “ego-strengths,” but various ethical strivings. He has insisted that those who would write about historical figures openly examine what their own prejudices might be, what their purposes are in studying a particular “life” or historical issue.
Erikson’s prose is the product of careful struggle because he knows the damage that has been done, particularly in psychology and the social sciences, by the use of “becauses,” “contexts,” and “interrelationships.” Erikson talks about “trust” and “initiative” and “industry,” plain and risky words that bring us closer to life and imply judgments on human experience. By doing so, he is also choosing not to rely on an evasive technical vocabulary. “Conflicts” there are; but also resolutions to them—and beyond that, affirmations that have their own authority, momentum, and, yes, psychohistory: a thoughtful father here, a kind-spirited mother there, a friend who helped, a husband or wife who helped even more, a time that begged for something from someone.
In Wolfenstein’s book we are told that Lenin lacked “trust” in comparison to Trotsky and Gandhi, and all three went through an “exceptionally stormy” adolescence, which, we are told, is “the period of the ‘crisis of identity.’ ” Here a phrase of Erikson’s has been turned into a new label. His ability to pull together in a single formulation many observations or ideas can be a mixed blessing. What is meant to inspire in others one kind of response (does this way of putting things fit? is it helpful? or ought I look elsewhere, perhaps use my own words, or simply keep looking and listening?) gets quite another response (that is the answer, or what I want to prove, or what I had better well prove, since everyone else these days is doing so).
In December of 1871, the first book of George Eliot’s Middlemarch was published; within a year the eight sections of that long and demanding novel had appeared. She had spent years preparing for the writing, and as an unashamed moralist, she wanted not only to tell a story but to instruct. She hoped in Middlemarch to show how certain individuals live—and thereby to raise the old philosophical questions that some of us in psychiatry claim to have new ways of approaching: Who am I? What makes me behave as I do?
Middlemarch is “about” life in the English provinces from 1829 to 1832; it offers a detailed picture of a nation on the brink of political reform, social upheaval, economic change, and it also offers an astonishing breadth of sociological “data”: dialects, customs, beliefs, prejudices. A novel of manners, a philosophical novel, a psychological novel, a Victorian novel, a novel which, as Henry James said, “sets a limit” to what “the old-fashioned English novel” can be—it is all of those, but it is also in a class by itself.
George Eliot combed through the available medical literature to prepare for her study of Dr. Lydgate. She knew English provincial life from personal experience, but she read newspapers, books, articles to supplement her knowledge. She paid especially close attention to historical sources; like Tolstoy in War and Peace she was writing about a generation that immediately preceded her own, and she was aware that sometimes it is harder to be accurate about the recent past than about a more distant time. She knew theology and religious archaeology, and as a result Casaubon is unforgettable; he draws our sympathy as well as our scorn. She had a thorough grasp of the workings of the unconscious mind, so that Bulstrode’s agonizing struggle with himself is presented with a keen eye for psychological nuance.
As she wrote she kept a notebook, published some time ago as Quarry for Middlemarch. All the facts in it, all the information she had gleaned, all her ideas and theories about human nature, all the historical veins she had tapped somehow came together in a story, in her characters. She condensed an era into a book. She transformed psychological characteristics into people—men and women who are not mechanisms or bundles of reflexes or drives or “needs.” In Middlemarch history lives through the individuals whose lives, large and small, go to make up history.
I suppose we could call Eliot a psychological novelist, or a novelist interested in how social forces mold individual “behavior” or how particular men and women respond to the demands of a given era. Certainly she knew how to “integrate” her “perspectives.” She meticulously fitted her knowledge into the novel, as Jerome Beatty in “History by Indirection: the Era of Reform in Middlemarch,” (Victorian Studies, December, 1957) and Asa Briggs in “Middlemarch and the Doctors”(Cambridge Journal, pp. 749-762) have shown. It might be useful for some of us today to study how she went about her work, rather than to try to figure out her “personality.” Maybe she was just a woman of broad sensibility who had taste and diligence and an extraordinary capacity to evoke the human complexity she saw about her.
In the same way, when one reads C. Vann Woodward’s Tom Watson or Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky, one gets a notion of how that impoverished Georgia youth or that Russian student, so fiercely determined and so high-minded, slowly came to terms with themselves—and with the historical currents of their times. We are not given the “mind” of Tom Watson or Leon Trotsky; rather their lives, their concrete struggles, their disappointments, their blind spots, their inevitable pride. Eventually we come to know them well, as well as we can know anyone we have not met or spent time with.
True, not all scholars can glimpse as much as C. Vann Woodward; few can give biography the power and drama of a novel, while providing the most vivid and searching kind of history. We certainly need more psychologically sophisticated historians—and more psychiatrists with a sense of history. But will that need be met be creating yet another “field” called “psychohistory”? One suspects that good historians like Woodward have no need of old or new psychological terminology or “perspectives,” even as an analyst like Erikson calls upon history naturally and wisely because he is an intelligent and learned man—possessing a quality of mind which no college degree, and maybe no course of study, necessarily provides.
Meanwhile Bruce Mazlish may well have offered us an “objective” when he described the historian William L. Langer’s suggestion that historians take a greater interest in psychology as an appeal for such an attempt on “a rather low level of theory.” That would do—along with plain old thoughtfulness, tact, and the hope that a measure of grace, so mysterious in origin, so impossible to define, so evident and satisfying when present, will somehow come to inform what is written.
(This is the second of two articles on “psychohistory”.)
March 8, 1973
We are spared the absurd generalities of Gustav Bychowski’s study a few years later on the same man (Dictators and Disciples: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of History, International Universities Press, 1948): ↩
One wants to read Eissler with respect and detachment but his persistent arrogance and rudeness make it hard to do so. We have reason to be grateful to Meyer Schapiro for the first-rate critical essays in which, without rancor, and with great sensitivity; he showed how Freud had erred. Eissler’s book on Leonardo was largely prompted by Schapiro’s observations, particularly his essay “Leonardo and Freud: An Art-Historical Study,” first published in the Journal of the History of Ideas, Spring, 1956, and reprinted in Renaissance Essays, edited by P. Kristeller and P. Wiener (Harper & Row, 1968), and in Ideas in Cultural Perspective, edited by P. Wiener and A. Noland (Rutgers University Press, 1962). ↩
The Psychoanalytic Forum, Vol. 4 (International Universities Press, 1972). ↩
“Martin Buber and Psychiatry,” Psychiatry: A Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, XIX (1956), p. 110. ↩
“Psychiatry and History: An Examination of Erikson’s Young Man Luther,” Religion in Life, Winter, 1971. ↩