The Magazine

Master and Shrink

Sigmund Freud puts Henry James on the couch.

Oct 22, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 06 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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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.

Yoder sets all this up very neatly. His story is told through a number of differently reflecting lenses. He has invented a character named Horace Briscoe, a young American who is a summer guest at Lamb House while working on a doctoral dissertation about James's stories about artists and who reports on all he knows firsthand about the meetings between the novelist and Freud. He has created a correspondence on the subject of Freud, describing his intentions and his behavior, between James and Edith Wharton. And he has devised a record of notekeeping that Freud maintains while in Rye in which he comments on the progress of his psychoanalytic sessions with James. The pieces from all these sources match up and fit in nicely to form a mosaic-like rendering of the meeting of the two great minds.

Henry James is a one of a small number of gods residing in my personal pantheon. He is a writer about whom I am able to read almost everything, and have in fact read a vast deal. I believe I know a fair amount about James's life, both in its artistic and quotidian aspects. Yoder, on the evidence of this book, knows no less than I. With my radar turned all the way up, I have not been able to catch him out in a single mistake or false note in his detailed portrait of Henry James. He knows James's habits, the habits of his servants, his speech, his epistolary style, his supremely ironic point of view, what subjects he was ready to discuss (with astonishing circumlocution), and what subjects he placed permanently off limits. James's relationships with his brother, with the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, with the sculptor Henrik Andersen--all this Yoder works gracefully into his narrative. In his portrait of James, Yoder has, as the gymnasts say, nailed it, a perfect six.

The portrait of Freud is less full and thereby less persuasive. Freud, in fact, at times comes close to seeming a comic figure. The comedy begins with his sometimes lapsing into Germanic syntax: "Shall we be ein cab taking to Lamb House" is an example. Yoder involves Freud in a dust-up with a heretical archdeacon, who is a neighbor of James, in which the scientific Herr Doktor not only loses his cool but, at one point, is choked by the enraged clergyman. Everywhere Freud finds sexual symbols in James's dreams and in his life. At one point, he writes in his notes, James "expressed surprise when I told him that the ear trumpet [of the hard-of-hearing Miss Woolson] might well be a displaced genital device, involving as it does the insertion of a 'shaft' into the aural orifice." Only toward the novel's end, when his report on his own analysis of Henry James is discovered, and it turns out to be in many ways balanced and sensible, does Freud regain stature.

Just at the center of the action in Lions at Lamb House Yoder constructs a romance between Horace Briscoe, who will eventually be the chronicler of the meeting between Freud and James, and the rather sexually advanced (for the time) niece of the heretical archdeacon. This is artfully done, and entertaining, but the true center of the novel is the meeting of the two masterminds.

Artists have always tended to step around psychoanalysis, finding something deeply repellent, if not comical, about it. Paul Valéry was suspicious of it. James Joyce called it "neither more nor less than blackmail." Vladimir Nabokov was perhaps most unrelenting in his disdain of Freudian doctrine, never passing up an opportunity to call its founder the "Viennese quack," or to characterize psychoanalysis as little more than using classic myths to cover up private parts, referring to "the oneiromancy and mythogeny of psychoanalysis." He detested what he took to be Freud's crude use of symbolism, with every symbol having a sexual meaning.

But what Nabokov, and all other artists along with him, most disliked about Freud's thought is its determinism. So much of fate, in Freud, is set, locked in for good, in the sexual patterns of early childhood. Literary artists see this as greatly delimiting the individuality and freedom of human beings in a world much more varied and richer than could be dreamt of in the philosophy of Sigmund Freud and his followers.

In Lions at Lamb House, Henry James, the consummate artist, shows less animus than detached amusement at Freud's venture of psychoanalyzing him. Bring it on, he in effect suggests, and shows himself, as William James suggested in his letter to Freud, "genially skeptical of the more schematic interpretations of the human personality." Freud, meanwhile, is respectful of James. He contended, after all, that everything he knew he learned from the poets. ("Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me," he wrote.) Freud believed, for example, that "that ghost story [James's The Turn of the Screw] offered yet another intimidating instance in which a supreme artist had anticipated, and even trumped, his own clinical findings--an angelic vaulting into the realms of the high imagination into which a poor clinical investigator could only toil step by tedious step."

What we learn of the analysis itself comes chiefly from the journal notes Freud records about it and his later paper on the subject and James's correspondence on the subject with Edith Wharton. As James writes to Miss Wharton: "I remain of the view that Freud's mental 'science,' interesting as its insights occasionally are, is too schematic and mechanistic to account for the infinite, intricate shadings and vagaries of human consciousness." And he writes to her again: Freud "concedes that we storytellers do sometimes intuit what he aspires to reduce to a systematic hydraulics of the consciousness, replete with valves & vents, taps & gauges, pipes & conduits."

In Yoder's novel, James finds Freud "a decent sort," and even fears that he shall miss him upon his departure. None of which prevents him from thinking Freud quite wrong about his interpretation of Hamlet as incest-yearning, though he allows that he might be on "firmer ground" in his reading of Oedipus Rex. He holds that Freud is himself "a storyteller and a good one," adding that psychoanalysis "aspires to science but is no less a form of storytelling than my own."

Freud, for his part, faced with the brilliance of Henry James's talk, "wondered at times who was the analyst and who the analysand." In the end, after his stay of two weeks at Lamb House, Freud admits, to himself, his defeat: "My conclusion is that when one probes the unconscious of a great imaginative artist the powers of psychoanalysis are diminished. Or as I would put it, before the problem of the creative artist analysis must, alas, lay down its arms. Have I said that before? Yes, I believe I have." In fact, he says it much later, in his 1928 paper, "Dostoyevsky and Parricide."

In one of their sessions James tells Freud that his speculations, if correct, would presage the end of literature, and that he "would leave nothing to the imagination, no work for storytelling to do. But my dear doctor, imagination is all." At their final session, Freud says to the novelist: "Then we are at an impasse, and perhaps we may agree to leave it at that--you with your fine and subtle old art, I with my crude new science. .  .  . With that armistice our final session came to a friendly and philosophical but inconclusive end. I thought there would be a revelation, an epiphany at the end. But alas, no."

Yet, many years later we learn that there nearly was such an epiphany, at least for Freud. When the 62-year-old Horace Briscoe, now a professor at Johns Hopkins, is able to acquire from Freud's daughter Anna her father's paper on his brief analysis of Henry James, he learns that, in retrospect, Freud thought James "had had the better of the arguments." Freud also notes that "there were indeed moments in his company when I was tempted to lay the sword of psychoanalytic science at his feet and apprentice myself to poetry. But the hour [for doing that] is late and I am old and weary."

Edwin Yoder is very even-handed in his account of this debate between the artist and the analyst who believed he had come up with an irrefutable science of human behavior. As a writer, Yoder has a natural propensity to favor James, the artist over the analyst. Yet he holds out hope for psychotherapy, too, even allowing Henry James to concede the possible use of it, telling the young Horace Briscoe that "if psychological science could be devised and if people of ordinary talents could be trained as analysts, it would be useful to humanity since it would greatly expand the circle of human knowledge. But, my boy, those are very big ifs."

But let us consider, as Yoder's superior counterfactual novel encourages us to do, what would have happened if Sigmund Freud and Henry James had indeed met, and if James had caused Freud to lose confidence in his underlying assumptions and consequently to abandon psychoanalysis.

Ah, think of all the torture spared so many victims of psychoanalysis at the hands of later analysts who, over decades' long analyses, rigidly applied Freud's deterministic notions! Think of all the men instructed to resolve their Oedipus complexes by properly hating their fathers! Think of the grief saved so many at the hands of inferior therapists of various kinds, grotesque little mini-Freuds, dispensing cloddish advice! Think how different America over the past 75 years would have been without the influence of Freudianism everywhere eroticizing thought, relationships, and just about all other aspects of everyday life!

Here are some what ifs that could keep a lively mind engaged for months.

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide.