Perhaps we should say: better late than never. Last month the London Times Literary Supplement published an essay written by T. S. Eliotin 1926. A French translation was published in that year. The English language version seems to have gotten lost… until now.
I am drawn to the essay because it represents one of the few occasions where one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century offered an opinion about Sigmund Freud. Not about the validity of psychoanalysis, though his thoughts certainly imply a judgment, but about its influence on the best novelists of his time, in particular on D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.
Of course, no one reads Lawrence any more. His primitivist paeans to primal sexual energy seem a bit dated. People do read Virginia Woolf, perhaps because she is a better novelist. Both Lawrence and Woolf were certainly influenced by Freud, Woolf through her association with the Bloomsbury writers who championed him in Great Britain.
Before offering Eliot’s views, one feels constrained to mention that the greatest German language novelist of Freud’s day, Thomas Mann was a great champion of psychoanalysis. Of course, Mann believed that Freudian theory had arisen out of Schopenhauer and Ibsen, thus out of philosophy and literature. He was happy to see that Freud had offered a pseudo-scientific rationale for Germanic cultures. For his part Eliot was not quite so enamored of Middle European cultures.
In his article, Eliot argues that Freud seduced novelists into believing that his simpleminded and simplistic version of human psychology represented a higher truth. Thereby, he deprived the novel of the moral dimension, the moral complexity that he finds in the works of Henry James.
What does Eliot mean by this moral dimension? He is saying that James—without doubt, a far better novelist than either Lawrence or Eliot-- depicted characters who were facing moral dilemmas and who exercised their free will, even, at times, when there were no good options.
In Eliot’s words:
But one feels that it is right; and that our contemporary novelists, under the influence of the shallower psychology by which we are all now affected, have missed that deeper psychology which was the subject of Henry James’s study.
He continues to blame psychoanalysis for the bad novels produced by those who have been influenced it:
All that I wish to affirm is that nearly every contemporary novel known to me is either directly affected by a study of psycho-analysis, or affected by the atmosphere created by psycho-analysis, or inspired by a desire to escape from psycho-analysis; and that, in each case, the result is a loss of seriousness and profundity, of that profundity which Henry James, if he did not always get it, was at least always after.
D. H. Lawrence does inspire Eliot to engage an especially British brand of wit. The poet denounces the novelist for having bought into the Freudian mythos uncritically:
No line of humour, mirth or flippancy ever invades Mr. Lawrence’s work; no distractions of politics, theology or art [are] allowed to entertain us. In the series of splendid and extremely ill-written novels – each one hurled from the press before we have finished reading the last – nothing relieves the monotony of the “dark passions” which make his Males and Females rend themselves and each other; nothing sustains us except the convincing sincerity of the author. Mr. Lawrence is a demoniac, a natural and unsophisticated demoniac with a gospel.
Being a Freudian means promoting-- as I have been wont to say-- a pseudo-religion. After all, Lawrence’s idealization of the gardener Mellors in Lady Chatterly’s Lover, along with his contempt for Constance Chatterly’s crippled husband, amounts to cultural propaganda.
Lawrence presents ideas more than characters. He seems to wish to reduce human existence to a humorless version of sexuality, a reactionary reduction that does not correspond to what human beings actually do between the sheets:
… they seem to reascend the metamorphoses of evolution, passing backward beyond ape and fish to some hideous coition of protoplasm.
Eliot objects to Lawrence’s primitivism, influenced as it was by Freud. And he makes the more telling remark that we are wrong to assume, just because Freud said so, that this is the truth of human being. He added later that psychoanalysis made a fetish of emotional intensity:
This search for an explanation of the civilized by the primitive, of the advanced by the retrograde, of the surface by the “depths” is a modern phenomenon. (I am assuming that Mr. Lawrence’s studies are correct, and not merely a projection of Mr. Lawrence’s own peculiar form of self-consciousness.) But it remains questionable whether the order of genesis, either psychological or biological, is necessarily, for the civilized man, the order of truth. Mr. Lawrence, it is true, has neither faith nor interest in the civilized man, you do not have him there; he has proceeded many paces beyond Rousseau. But even if one is not antagonized by the appalling monotony of Mr. Lawrence’s theme, under all its splendid variations, one still turns away with the judgement: “this is not my world, either as it is, or as I should wish it to be”.
This does not mean that Lawrence had no talent. He had great talents. Thus, it is all the more dispiriting to see that psychoanalysis poisoned his novels:
Mr. Lawrence has a descriptive genius second to no writer living; he can reproduce for you not only the sound, the colour and form, the light and shade, the smell, but all the finer thrills of sensation. What is more, into detached and unrelated feelings, in themselves and so far as they go feelings of importance, he has often the most amazing insight.
Eliot admires Woolf far more than he admires Lawrence:
She is not only civilized but prefers civilization to barbarism; and she writes with great care, always extremely well and in one at least of the great traditions of English prose, and sometimes with astonishing beauty. She also has a remarkable descriptive gift (witness two short pieces, “Kew Gardens” and “The Mark on the Wall”), a gift which is very much under her control.3She does not like Mr. Lawrence abandon herself to the ecstasy of one moment of perception; her observation is employed continuously and involves an immense and unremitting toil of arrangement; illuminating not by flashes but by a continuous mild and steady light. Instead of seeking the primitive, she seeks rather the civilized, the highly civilized, only with something left out. And this something is deliberately left out, by what may be called a moral effort of will; and being left out it is in a sense, a forlorn sense, present.
To Eliot, Virginia Woolf’s great talent was compromised by psychoanalysis. But, what is he getting at in the text quoted? To be fair, Eliot himself is not very clear about it, but I suspect that what he finds wrong in Woolf is her free associational style, her willingness to present the mind through a series of fragmentary thoughts and images and memories.
Surely, Woolf does not present human consciousness as Henry James does. Having suffered the influence of Freud, she has gotten the idea that the mind spits up fragmentary thoughts and images and memories, eventually to yield an answer to the question of what one really, really wants.
Just as free association teaches people a perfectly useless and dysfunctional mode of conversation, one that is guaranteed to make it that much more difficult to organize thought or to focus on a task at hand, this bad Freudian habit does not even redeem itself when it becomes the basis for fiction.