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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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.