Decent Insanity

Michael Ignatieff

Huston-Sartre, Sartre-Huston: an odd couple, but not an inconceivable one. Huston wasn’t scared or contemptuous of intellectuals, and he had even directed Sartre’s No Exit in New York. The Freud oeuvre was hardly natural material for Hollywood, but Jones’s biography and the version of the Freud-Fliess letters then just published led Huston to think that Freud’s discovery of the unconscious would make a gripping intellectual adventure story. He also hoped the picture would send his audience out into the street ‘in a state of doubt as to their own powers of conscious choice or free will’. For his part, Sartre had once dismissed Freud as a doctrinaire mediocrity, but the neurotic trajectory of genius traced by Jones was, curiously enough, to raise Freud in Sartre’s estimation. ‘That Freud of yours, I must say, he was neurotic through and through,’ he remarked at the time to an analyst friend, with an odd note of admiration and possibly self-recognition. Like Huston, he began to see Freud’s discovery of the unconscious as a highly cinematic descent into hell. They even agreed on the incredible proposition that the imaginary young patient – Cecily – should be played by Marilyn Monroe. Sartre apparently thought she was the greatest actress in the world. Not least, they agreed on the money: $25,000 was to be Sartre’s fee. That was about all they agreed on.

Huston wanted a sharply-paced detective story, but when the script arrived a year later, it was as thick as Huston’s thigh: a seven-hour melodrama which followed each of Freud’s false turns on the discovery to the talking cure, as well as each of his battles with the father-substitutes – Charcot, Meynert and Breuer – who stood in his path. Length and a meandering plot-line were not the only problems. Huston had wanted to break with the conventions of the Warner Bros bio-pic of the Thirties, but some of Sartre’s dialogue matched the worst of the genre in sententiousness. Sartre’s characters are always delivering themselves of such lines as: ‘Freud, leave to the night that which belongs to the night. To probe the soul without being corrupted one would need the purity of an angel.’

The dark secrets of Sartre’s neurotics were comically melodramatic: the truth which Cecily knows but disavows is that her mother danced as Leda in a swan routine at a strip club; Cecily’s acting-out of her neurosis requires her to obey all the clichés of the ha’penny romance; she dresses up as a prostitute and makes as if to hurl herself into the Danube, only to fall into Freud’s arms at the last moment. Freud’s opponents don’t content themselves with ridicule. They gather outside the lecture hall and howl: ‘Dirty Jew! Filthy Yid! Back to the ghetto!’ Meynert, the chief opponent, turns out to be a schnappes-swilling scorpion-collecting closet-hysteric. The moments of dramatic resolution – Freud’s overcoming of his Oedipal crisis – occur in just the spot Gothic melodrama demands – at the graveyard, by his father’s tomb. And in the domestic scenes, Freud’s slightly thick wife Martha is always delivering herself of lines like ‘I’m a decent woman, I am, and I haven’t got an unconscious.’

We don’t know how Huston reacted to dialogue of this degree of awfulness: he may even have liked it. The film he eventually made – Freud: A Secret Passion – and the films he has made since – Under the Volcano, for example – show that he is a sucker for windy portentousness. Perhaps the lines sounded less windy in 1959 than they do now. In any event, in October of that year, when Huston had read the script, he summoned Sartre to his country house in Ireland, and asked for cuts. He soon found himself ‘on the verge of exhaustion from trying to follow what Sartre was saying; the drone of his voice followed me until I was out of earshot, and when I’d return, he wouldn’t even have noticed that I’d been gone.’ Sartre wrote to de Beauvoir that Huston ‘shuns thought because it makes him sad’. How could he work, he asked, with a man who had told him his unconscious was a big void? One senses that their mutual dislike was physical. Sartre, the Communist ascetic, would have taken Huston’s jodpurs and Irish tweeds as a terminal sign of intellectual inconsequence, and Huston for his part was physically repelled by this loathsomely ugly, wall-eyed barrel of a man who came down each morning wearing the same grey suit, white shirt and tie. Despite looking like a Protestant deacon from Alsace, he was, Huston reported, ‘heavily into the pills’, popping benzedrine to keep himself at his logorrhoeic pitch. When Huston asked for cuts Sartre moved into speed-fuelled overdrive and returned with a still longer version. A total impasse was reached, Sartre washed his hands of the project, and Huston and another European equally unused to the ways of Hollywood, Wolfgang Reinhardt, set about boiling the Sartre stew down to a three-hour version. J.-B. Pontalis’s otherwise admirable introduction misleadingly suggests that Huston jettisoned the Sartre version. Yet in his autobiography Huston insists that the Sartre script remained the bedrock of the version which was actually shot in 1961. By this time, Marilyn Monroe’s analyst had advised her that she was in no shape to play the Cecily character; Montgomery Clift’s analyst should have advised him likewise. He was enacting his own descent into the inferno and by the end of the shoot was so battered by drug and alcohol abuse that he could only do his speeches when Huston pasted his lines to bottles out of shot. The picture opened in the New York art circuit in 1962 and died a quick death.

The moral of this tale would seem to be that cinema should stay away from Freud. This apparently is what Freud himself believed. In 1925, when Karl Abraham tried to enlist his help with Pabst’s Secrets of a Soul, Freud refused: ‘My chief objection is still that I do not believe that satisfactory plastic representation of our abstractions is at all possible.’ A film version of Lectures on Psychoanalysis would be dreary indeed, but what Pabst had in mind was something different: a cinematic voyage into the inner world of dreams, fantasies and hallucinations. Pabst was not the only film maker who believed that cinema was the most suitable medium for the depiction of the unconscious. The belief was held by the Surrealists, whom Freud, despite some polite encounters with André Breton and Salvador Dali, considered ‘too idiotic for any decent insanity’. Pontalis has some intensely theoretical but very stern objections to cinema’s claim to privileged access to the unconscious. Cinema, he seems to be saying, severs the tip of the remembered image from the unconscious submerged beneath, and in the process can only represent the sign system of the unconscious as a system of images. But if this is his objection it is scarcely specific to the cinema and he might as well have said that no single medium – neither verbal nor visual – can hope to capture an inner experience which resists recovery in any kind of language.

There are moments in the early cinema – L’Age d’Or, Le Chien Andalou, Pabst’s Secrets of a Soul – which, though they may not represent the unconscious as they claim to do, deliriously subvert the realist conventions which govern the way we represent our inner states. Some of these conventions are faithfully at work in Sartre’s script: ‘if the setting appears dreamlike in character,’ he writes, ‘this is solely because it is too sharp, lit by a harsh white light, with something imperceptibly abstract deriving from its extreme cleanness and from the very noticeable absence of all props of a railway journey.’ This simply equates dream sequences with lots of dry ice, and it seems dull indeed when set beside the epic images of Surrealist cinema, the woman ravenously sucking the toe of the statue in L’Age d’Or, the razor drawn across the eye in Le Chien Andalou. No dry ice here, just the imagination unchained. Fifty years on, these images still retain their chilling, delirious aura.

If cinema, except in the early days of the silent movies, has rarely escaped its own clichés in the matter of depicting dreams, it is even worse at challenging the stereotypes governing the depiction of the creative process. In the bio-pic tradition, the great men – Zola, Lizst, Pasteur – are rarely shown doing what they did for a living: adventures and softly-lit domestic blisses sweep the audience past the embarrassing boredom of creation. On the other hand, creative thinking – its incredible difficulty, its serendipitous indirection – was a drama which Sartre understood as well as anyone. What is best in the script – Freud’s resistance to the logic of his own ideas, his baffling submission to the charlatanry of Fliess, his blind promenade up each cul-de-sac of thought – is also what makes the scenario unworkably long as a movie. Yet the Huston condensation left the process of thought too truncated to be plausible. Even in Sartre’s full-length version, the fact that we know the end of the story – the mature theory – loads the narrative of discovery with false portentousness. Consider this exchange between Freud and Martha:

Freud: At all events it is a displacement of feeling. I’m just an image of the other, a symbol. She has made the same transference.

Martha: Transference. What a fine word. It explains everything.

This does convey the casualness, the indirection of how the word might have been coined, but the lines echo with a heavy clang. Sometimes the portentousness is hilarious:

Fliess: It all hangs together, Freud. The nose and the nerves in the nose are simply a relay. (Stares into Freud’s eyes with his terrible gaze.) Everything’s ruled by sex.

Freud: By sex!

Freud pulls an astonished face. He hurriedly removes his finger from his nose.

Sartre might have avoided sententiousness had there been an additional distancing layer of time in his narrative – the older Freud looking back on his own younger anguished self, for example. After all, it is cinema’s capacity for ironic juxtapositions of present, past and future which constitutes its real affinity with psychoanalysis. Whatever else Freudianism may be, it is a working-out of the psychic consequences of the Proustian insight into the simultaneity of time in consciousness. Yet this scenario’s monotonously linear form allows no point of ironic and self-mocking judgment, and its portentousness is inscribed in the narrative conventions which it obeys. These conventions are defined not only by the narrative need for a destination, for a rounded ending, but also by a positivist history of science according to which a great man’s biography is a lonely but unswervingly teleological pilgrimage towards the truth. Analyses, lives, lonely voyages towards insight, are interminable, are without the rounded ending, the graveside epiphany, which cinema, the history of science and our narrative traditions all insatiably demand.