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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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.