The Magazine

Master and Shrink

Sigmund Freud puts Henry James on the couch.

Oct 22, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 06 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Lions at Lamb House

by Edwin M. Yoder Jr.

Europa, 239 pp., $14.95

Counterfactual history deals in questions of What If: What if the Athenians had brought more cavalry and proved victorious at Syracuse? What if Lenin hadn't arrived at the Finland Station? What if the Germans had won World War II? What if John F. Kennedy hadn't died young? Counterfactual questions, all of them, and the list is, potentially, endless.

Normally thought of as a historical exercise, the counterfactual is even more central to the enterprise of fiction. What if an aging Spanish knight with a doleful countenance, fired up by legends of chivalry, set out to win the love of a beautiful maiden named Dulcinea? What if an elegant and honorable Russian woman were to leave her husband and child to run off with a handsome but feckless cavalry officer? What if a man woke to find himself turned into, of all things, a beetle? Counterfactual, all of it-the counterfactual, in the hands of great artists, turned into classical fiction.

This example of Kafka's "Metamorphosis" is a reminder that, many years ago, in a story in the New American Review, Philip Roth imagined that Kafka had lived long enough to have to flee Hitler, and that he had shored up in Newark, New Jersey, where he was forced to teach Hebrew to a 12-year-old Philip Roth and his dopey contemporaries. What a brilliant notion, counterfactual at its core! Roth came up with another several years later in imagining the fate of the Jews in the United States if Charles Lindbergh, sympathetic to the Nazis as he was, and perhaps the most popular American of his time, had been elected president of the United States.

In Lions at Lamb House, Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a frequent contributor to these pages, has, counterfactually, written a highly amusing novel that is, at bottom, of great seriousness. Yoder's what if has Sigmund Freud, the Viennese alienist, as he was then known, paying a two-week visit to Henry James at his Sussex retreat at Lamb House in Rye, with the intention of putting the novelist through a brief psychoanalysis.

"For the first time, so far as I am aware," Freud tells James at the outset, "a great writer is to be psychoanalyzed, and not from a text or a painting or a sculpture."

Although psychoanalysis is not usually thought of as an adversary proceeding, one's first thought at the prospect of Henry James encountering Sigmund Freud is, What a match! We have in these men, as Yoder has Freud put it, "two different wayfarers in the quest of the mysteries of consciousness," with Freud of course staking a claim to have dove deeper, down into the murkier waters of the unconscious. As his friend Edith Wharton tells James, "This is an escapade worthy of one of your own tales." And in Edwin Yoder's capable hands it turns out to be just that.

The novel is set in the late summer of 1908. Henry James is 65, Freud 52. Freud arrives at the train station at Rye with a letter in his pocket from William James, his American confrere, the author of Principles of Psychology and, of course, Henry's older brother. William has set up this encounter, as he writes to Freud,

not only to promote a meeting between two far-ranging minds, allied as they are in the quest for the deep secrets of human consciousness; but also because I do worry a good bit about Harry's more eccentric preoccupations. They seem to me to exhibit what you and I might call a certain fetishism. Perhaps your term would be 'obsessional,' although without clinical study I would be slow to speak of 'neurosis' in Harry's case.

What William James is worried about, specifically, is the circumambulatory style in which his brother has composed his later novels, a style that he also applied to the revision of his earlier novels for the New York Edition of his fiction--a style that William could neither pierce nor abide. He was also worried about the adoption by Henry, who lifelong suffered from costiveness, of the method of digesting food known as Fletcherism, which called for chewing every mouthful of food 32 times, or 100 chews per minute, before swallowing. Freud never quite gets around to investigating these matters with any intensity, but he does subject Henry James to an analysis of sorts that nearly results in Freud's abandoning his own methods.