The Soul of Man under Psychoanalysis

Adam Phillips

One walks about the street with one’s desires, and one’s refinement rises up like a wall whenever opportunity approaches.

T.S. Eliot to Conrad Aiken,
31 December 1914

Writing a London Letter for the Dial in September 1922, T.S. Eliot suggested that there were ‘at present . . . three main types of English novel’. There was the ‘old narrative method’, the traditional tale, represented by H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett and Compton Mackenzie. At the other end of this contemporary spectrum there was the ‘dangerous’ Dostoevskian novel in which the writer has what Eliot calls ‘the gift, a sign of genius in itself, for utilising his weaknesses’. Dostoevsky, in Eliot’s view, has a relationship to his own pathology that is a form of artistic vocation. ‘Epilepsy and hysteria,’ Eliot writes, ‘cease to be the defects of an individual and become – as a fundamental weakness can, given the ability to face it and study it – the entrance to a genuine and personal universe.’ The idea that what one is suffering from, that what one experiences in oneself as weakness or defect or shame might be ‘the entrance to a genuine and personal universe’ sounds, of course, like the kind of thing Freud and his various inheritors were saying at around this time: that symptoms of illness were signs of meaning; that personal vulnerability was an opening, an ‘entrance’, to use Eliot’s word; that where people were vulnerable was where they had once made room for other people. For Eliot, ‘the most interesting novelist in England’ is D.H. Lawrence, who has, in his view, been ‘affected’ by Dostoevsky.

Yet sandwiched between the conventional and the Dostoevskian novel there was what Eliot calls ‘another interesting type, but of a very short ancestry . . . the psychoanalytic type’. Ancestry was, as we know, very important to Eliot. Psychoanalysis itself – a ‘scientific method’, Eliot writes, that ‘rests upon a dubious and contentious branch of science’ – was very new; the British Psychoanalytic Society was set up in 1919. So the whole notion of a psychoanalytic novel was unprecedented. For Eliot, this type of novel, ‘most notably illustrated’ by May Sinclair’s Life and Death of Harriett Frean, was not promising. ‘The conclusion of Miss Sinclair’s book,’ he writes, ‘extracts as much pity and terror as can be extracted from the materials: but because the material is so clearly defined (the soul of man under psychoanalysis) there is no possibility of tapping the atmosphere of unknown terror and mystery in which our life is passed and which psychoanalysis has not yet analysed.’

Extracting pity and terror in obedience to Aristotle suggests something at once willed and formulaic about Sinclair’s novel. But the allusion to Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism is perhaps more telling. Neither Wilde nor Freud, for quite different reasons, was ever Eliot’s cup of tea. Indeed, they both seem to represent for Eliot false solutions to a similar problem, the problem of evil. Psychoanalysis and socialism, not to mention Wilde’s particular brand of flagrant theatricality, were, for Eliot, inadequate responses to original sin. For the men of the 1890s, Eliot wrote in 1928, ‘evil was very good fun. Experience, as a sequence of outward events, is nothing in itself; it is possible to pass through the most terrible experiences protected by histrionic vanity; Wilde, through the whole experience of his life remained a little Eyas, a child-actor.’

Eliot argues that something important is being treated with insufficient seriousness; because of the excessive, hedonistic self-regard of Wilde’s ‘histrionic vanity’, some fundamental experience is alluded to without the appropriate gravity. It is what Eliot calls ‘the most terrible experiences’, ‘the atmosphere of unknown terror and mystery in which our life is passed’, that he needs to find the language for. It cannot be found in the dubious science of psychoanalysis or in the excessive clarity of Sinclair’s psychoanalytic novel where ‘the material is so clearly defined’, and it was evaded in Wilde’s amused child-acting. It was the important thing that mattered to Eliot, and the important thing was sin.

The phrase, ‘the soul of man under psychoanalysis’, tells us, perhaps better than any elaborated critique, where Eliot stood in relation to the ambitions of psychoanalysis. Where once, from a theological point of view, there had been sin, there was now, from a socialist point of view, exploitation, and, from a psychoanalytic point of view, there were instincts and incest and the unconscious. The soul of man under psychoanalysis, in other words, was deemed to be suffering from a secular form of self-division. What Eliot, in Notes towards the Definition of Culture, calls ‘higher religion’ ‘imposes a conflict, a division, torment and struggle within the individual’. ‘In the higher religion,’ he writes, ‘it is more difficult to make behaviour conform to the moral laws of the religion.’ For Freud, it is one’s instinctual nature in its definition by culture that creates this conflict and division: the conflicting agencies and forces are redescribed in secular, quasi-scientific terms. Where Eliot describes his ‘higher religion’ as ‘imposing’ this conflict, Freud found that his patients were the casualties of imposing ideals; higher religions – in various modern secular and sacred guises – were what people were now suffering from. Their supposed natures were irredeemably at odds with their cultural ambitions for themselves. They couldn’t, in Eliot’s words, make their behaviour conform to their moral laws. Their symptoms were the sign – the attempted self-cure – for the impossibility of this project. Or, as some would say, their symptoms were a critique of the ideals the culture foisted on them.

The ‘fundamental weakness’ that Eliot saw Dostoevsky successfully transform into great art was linked with a sense of sinfulness; for Freud, the source of Dostoevsky’s great art is captured in the title of his 1928 paper, Dostoevsky and Parricide. This, one could say, is glib shorthand for the differences between them. Yet Freud and Eliot, with their disparate personal and cultural histories – Freud a godless European Jew and Eliot a gradually aspiring American Anglo-Catholic – have what might be called a shared perplexity, an anguished scepticism about the self. They are both preoccupied by the way modern people make what is unacceptable about themselves intelligible, by the preconditions for recognising something as unacceptable and by the nature of an adequate response. That we are divided souls – if not actually divided selves – is not in question for either of them. What is in question is finding the suitable, the sufficient language for this conflict.

When Harold Bloom writes with his useful (and usual) fervour about Eliot that ‘to have been born in 1888, and to have died in 1965, is to have flourished in the Age of Freud, hardly a time when Anglo-Catholic theology, social thought and morality were central to the main movement of mind,’ he is writing with unnecessary triumphalism. The idea of ‘the main movement of mind’ was, after all, as precious to Eliot as it is to Bloom. If in some spurious, putative cultural competition the language of Freud has won out over Eliot’s language of Anglo-Catholic theology; if some of us, or most of us, are now more likely to talk about sexuality and violence and childhood when we talk about people rather than to talk about the soul and original sin and redemption, it is worth remembering just what this transition from the language of sin to the language of unconscious desire entails. It is naive to believe – as both Eliot and Freud showed us in their different ways – that languages could ever be anything other than the traces of their own histories. We would be right to assume that there were also continuities and evolutions where there seemed to be ruptures and revolutions. Both Freud and Eliot write out of a history of descriptions of self-division, of the individual in conflict, riven in one way or another. It is no accident, so to speak, that R.D. Laing took his title The Divided Self from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience.

If we take self-division and conflict for granted, as Freud and Eliot clearly do; and if we take seriously the problem, and not merely the progress, of secularising a language; then the question becomes this: does this division, this conflict we experience in ourselves, reveal our sinfulness, and if not what does it reveal? It may just reveal the fact of division; and yet so much depends on the way in which we assign moral status to the combatants. In this agonistic picture of ourselves – by which we are clearly compelled if not actually bewitched – there is an anxiety about the division of the moral spoils. Once we relinquish the reassuring but sparse intelligibility of a world of good and bad we begin to experience the vertigo, the disarray of what is politely called moral complexity. When we don’t understand something – and especially when we have taken understanding to be our currency – we are prone to coerce and oversimplify. ‘It is human,’ Eliot writes, using the difficult word,

when we do not understand another human being, and cannot ignore him, to exert an unconscious pressure on that person to turn him into something that we can understand: many husbands and wives exert this pressure on each other. The effect on the person so influenced is liable to be the repression and distortion, rather than the improvement, of the personality; and no man is good enough to have the right to make another over in his own image.

Perhaps it is too Freudian to say that Eliot’s stated dislike of Freud was an obscured affinity; but the language here – unconscious pressure, repression and distortion of the personality – is more than merely allusive. Eliot runs the psychological account into the overtly religious – ‘no man is good enough to have the right to make another over in his own image’ – and dramatises the collision and collaboration of languages that is integral to my subject. I want to read Eliot’s description from what could be called a psychoanalytic point of view, and say that it is also an account of the unconscious pressure people put on themselves when they don’t understand themselves. What Eliot thinks of here as an inter-psychic pressure – something going on between people, and perhaps couples in particular – is also an intra-psychic pressure, something we do to ourselves when our unintelligibility to ourselves makes us suffer. We make ourselves apparently familiar to ourselves. What else, we might wonder, could we possibly do? This, I take it, is one of the dilemmas that psychoanalysis sets out to explore. People come for psychoanalysis because there is something about themselves that disturbs them and that they cannot ignore (to use Eliot’s word).

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