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).

Eliot is writing of the human fear of not understanding something or someone that is human. He is saying that when we cannot understand another person we put pressure on them, one way or another, to become something we can understand; this pressure is the sort of influence that represses and distorts. There can be an anxiety about not understanding those people – including oneself – that one cannot ignore. And not being able to ignore someone – or not being able to ignore something about oneself – is itself a kind of revelation of character. In a sense, we are what we are unable to ignore. And what we do with what we cannot ignore is at the heart of psychoanalysis.

Eliot is a writer fascinated by what he cannot understand, by the limits of intelligibility, by the obscurity of experience. ‘The world, as we have seen,’ he writes in the conclusion to his Harvard dissertation on F.H. Bradley, ‘exists only as it is found in the experiences of finite centres, experiences so mad and strange that they will be boiled away before you boil them down to one homogeneous mass.’ This acknowledges the recondite eccentricity of personal experience and its irreducibility to a system. The young Eliot believed that there is something about experience that is mad and strange, that resists explanation. So when he writes of May Sinclair’s novel that ‘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,’ it is implied not only that it remained for psychoanalysis to analyse this atmosphere, but that it would never be able to do it: this unknown terror and mystery, these experiences so mad and strange, are not subject to anything we can call analysis. As he writes tartly in his dissertation: ‘For a metaphysics to be accepted, goodwill is essential.’ Assent is generous bad faith.

Mad and strange experiences, unknown terror and mystery can be addressed and described in both secular and religious terms. What Harold Bloom calls so tendentiously ‘the Age of Freud’ is better known as part of a period in which more and more people in Europe were moving over to a secular or at least quasi-scientific account of what had traditionally been religious concerns. Previously, what was unintelligible in experience had been referred to God. For Freud, as for many other people of the time, the unintelligible was referred to materialism, and more specifically to the body in culture, to what bodies could do to each other and why they did it (Darwin, of course, is one of the central figures here). What couldn’t be understood in human experience found a new set of referents. Freud was not talking to his patients (or to his colleagues) about their souls and their relationship to God – or, indeed, about exploitation and the class war – he was talking to them about their bodies and their relationships with their parents; and, above all, about their relationship to their own spoken words. In this medical context experiences that were mad and strange were called symptoms; the therapeutic project was to find forms of understanding that made a difference. The psychoanalytic conversation, such as it was, was about personal history rather than religious observance. To flourish in the Age of Freud – as Bloom puts it, perhaps with bleak irony – meant no longer seeking religious solutions for the problems people saw in life. The theological was displaced by the erotic. But it is the fate of the unintelligible – of that which cannot be ignored and cannot be understood – that preoccupies Eliot and Freud, among others, at this time. The mystery in life either needed a new referent, or people needed to be reminded, in no uncertain terms, of its traditional, sacred referent.

There is a dramatic moment in his essay ‘Virgil and the Christian World’ (1951) when it is as though Eliot is looking both ways at once. He is in the process of discussing the question of whether Virgil’s fourth Eclogue did in fact prophesy the coming of Christ, as some later commentators were to insist. ‘Whether we consider Virgil a Christian prophet,’ Eliot writes,

will depend upon our interpretation of the word ‘prophecy’. That Virgil himself was consciously concerned only with domestic affairs or Roman politics I feel sure: I think that he would have been very much astonished by the career which his fourth Eclogue was to have. If a prophet were by definition a man who understood the full meaning of what he was saying, this for me would be the end of the matter. But if the word ‘inspiration’ is to have any meaning, it must mean just this, that the speaker or writer is uttering something which he does not wholly understand – or which he may even misinterpret when the inspiration has departed from him. This is certainly true of poetic inspiration.

How do we understand the meaning Eliot gives to the word ‘inspiration’, a word he uses very sparingly in his prose? (‘No one,’ he notes in After Strange Gods, ‘can be the sole judge of whence his inspiration comes.’) If poetic inspiration comes from God, from Eliot’s Christian God, so to speak, then it is as though Virgil, in this case, may not understand what he is writing, but God did and does, as do Virgil’s later Christian commentators. Prophecy, after all, is not only to predict the future but to foretell it, to know what will be called history in advance. The mystery would be that the poet could write at once so knowingly and so unknowingly.

And yet if we take Eliot’s definition of the word ‘inspiration’ away from Virgil’s pagan (or proto-Christian) world and Eliot’s Christian world, we get an astonishingly precise account of what Freud was to call free association – the golden rule, the distinctive thing about his psychoanalytic method. ‘The speaker or writer is uttering something which he does not wholly understand – or which he may even misinterpret when the inspiration has departed.’ If God is no longer deemed to be in some sense the source of these unwitting words, then what or who is? It is not too extreme to say that Eliot’s description of poetic inspiration is in some ways an account of what happens to the patient when he free-associates in analysis, and that it may, from a certain psychoanalytic point of view, also be an account of what happens when we speak and write. We never wholly understand our words; and we are never in a position to interpret them authoritatively. Because of the unconscious, one could say crudely, we never quite know what we are on about.

Freud claimed to have got his idea of free association as a therapeutic method from one of the favourite authors of his youth, Ludwig Borne. In 1823, in an essay called ‘The Art of Becoming an Original Writer in Three Days’, Borne wrote:

Take a few sheets of paper and for three days in succession write down, without any falsification or hypocrisy, everything that comes into your head. Write what you think of yourself, of your women, of the Turkish war, of Goethe . . . of the Last Judgment, of those senior to you in authority – and when the three days are over you will be amazed at what novel and startling thoughts have welled up in you. That is the art of becoming an original writer in three days.

Borne’s list of what comes into one’s mind is in itself revealing. This is the democratisation of inspiration – inspiration and originality for everyone. From inspiration to free association as the route to, or the sign of, originality (for Freud, what is original about oneself is one’s history). Not trying to understand what you are writing – indeed, not being able to – is seen to be the way to write. The way to speak is not to choose (or over-choose) your words.

The method of free-association comes about when people don’t try to understand each other; or rather, when understanding is deferred. If, as Borne suggests, you write down, ‘without any falsification or hypocrisy, everything that comes into your head’, you are simply following wherever your words take you. The implication is that this is something we do not usually do; indeed, that this is something we might work quite hard to avoid – as though to follow our words wherever they may go is surprisingly dangerous. And that the ordinary act of trying to understand what we are saying – the wish for discernible meaning – may be a kind of anxious vigilance. That, at least sometimes, we interrupt ourselves with what we call understanding; that our sanity is in our punctuation. We cannot help but wonder what we fear will happen if we do not exert this pressure for meaning. What else might we do with someone – and the someone who is ourselves – that we cannot understand and cannot ignore? If we lost faith, or even interest in the understanding project, what else might we do with each other? Though Freud never quite goes this far, he does invent a form of therapy that might be described as an interim measure. He says, in effect: if you as the analyst listen to another person and suspend your will to understanding, and if you, as the patient, defer your appetite for understanding and just let yourself speak, something else will come through in your words. And sometimes it will even seem as if something else, something quite other is speaking through you. This, of course, has consequences for what used to be called the moral life.

When Eliot writes, in his great essay on Baudelaire (1930), that ‘so far as we are human, what we do must be either good or evil,’ we may or may not agree, and yet still wonder how we go about making such decisions, how we know just how to assess our actions – beforehand, as it were; without the consequences in sight. (This, one could say, is morality as prophecy.) It is one thing to say that our actions are either good or evil, it is quite another to be jumping to conclusions about which is which. In the project of suspending internal censorship and saying what comes into one’s mind, Freud is encouraging us to play for time, morally. He is not saying our words are not good or evil, he is saying that when we speak we censor ourselves too knowingly. We live as though there is something inside us – call it a figure, or a voice – who already knows the difference between good and evil, and intervenes accordingly. That we are moralists wanting to be, and fearing to become, more morally complex and subtle. What happens, Freud asks, what do you find yourself saying, if you hold on to not understanding, if you hold at bay all the forms of moral judgment that are ordinarily called understanding? Is the idea of original sin, for example – or even Freud’s idea of a death instinct, some unavoidable internal badness – something that turns up when understanding can no longer be deferred, when it is intolerable not to seem to know what is happening, what one is doing?

I want to suggest that if we, as it were, de-Christianise Eliot’s definition of inspiration – if we take it out of the context that most interests him – it becomes something akin to an alternative to original sin. Or, to put it the other way round – to put it perhaps the Freudian way round – a sense of sinfulness could be seen as a pre-emptive strike against inspiration, against ‘the speaker or writer uttering something which he does not wholly understand’. That sin, in short, can be used as a form of understanding; part of the unconscious pressure we put on our experience to make it bearable. The idea of sin tells us beforehand that there is such a thing as sin; it settles an issue.

Nirvana was ‘nothing’ not because it did not exist, but because it corresponded to no thing that we know.

Buddha, Karen Armstrong

What Freud and Eliot are saying, in their different ways, is that the pressures we live under seem to require us to make them intelligible. That to be human in the best sense is to have some understanding – to be able to give some kind of account – of what we are suffering from. Whether the appeal is made to original sin or personal history and unconscious impersonal instinct, these are gestures towards an understanding of something and an acknowledgment of the limits or constraints on such understanding as we have. Eliot’s account of inspiration, like Freud’s therapeutic golden rule of free association, points us in two directions at once. At their most reassuring they tell us that not wholly understanding what we utter – in psychoanalytic terms, deferring one’s concern to make sense of oneself – can lead us, in the fullness of time, to a deeper understanding, to a more profound apprehension of what is ultimately only a concealed intelligibility. Sense-making, in other words, is not abrogated as a project, it’s just that a more illuminating way of making sense has been found. You have to – as Eliot wrote in ‘Little Gidding’, with a different intent – ‘put off/Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,/Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity/Or carry report’; the next words are, ‘You are here to kneel/Where prayer has been valid’, but this is also a meticulous description of what Freud encourages the psychoanalytic patient to do, but with a view to something essentially secular and deemed to be therapeutic. Their intentions (if that is the right word) may be radically at odds with each other, but both Freud and Eliot – whatever they may think about the soul of man under psychoanalysis – have a sense of direction. They may not be able to fulfil their wishes, to meet the obligation of their ambitions, but they have, to put it crudely, aims and objectives. Indeed their writings are an attempt to describe the good that they seek.

But there is another direction which they, or their words, point out, even if to call it a direction is in itself misleading. This is the possibility that through inspiration, or free association, understanding will never emerge; or rather, that what is revealed in inspiration or free association doesn’t so much challenge or stimulate our sense-making capacities as baffle them or endlessly defer them. All we can do is interrupt a bewildering delirium. The more outlandish implication is that Eliot’s inspired poet, like Freud’s free-associating patient, has in jected something irreducibly enigmatic into the culture, something no one quite knows what to do with. These irruptions might get assimilated, they seem to suggest, but we need to be mindful of what is at stake in the act of assimilation. What Eliot called the ‘unconscious pressure on that person to turn him into something we can understand’ – which could be redescribed as our consoling myth of interpretation – was understood by him to be in all likelihood a distortion and a repression. But of what? And what else are we supposed to, what else can we do, with whatever compels our attention but eludes our grasp? What, other than faith, is an alternative to our much vaunted understanding? And what, from a secular point of view, would it be faith in?

Eliot’s inspired ‘speaker or writer’ (it is worth noting that it is both) and Freud’s ideal patient who has agreed to set aside all his misgivings about what he has to say have been released in some way from the need to be intelligible to themselves. The pressure to turn themselves into something someone can understand is off, at least for the time being. It is assumed by both writers that the pressure to make sense – to be recognisable as something other than enigmatic – is considerable, that we live under the tyranny of not being too puzzling to ourselves and others. But above all it is when the pressure to understand is removed that the most valuable words are spoken or written; the act, the struggle to make oneself intelligible must therefore be some kind of distraction – in psychoanalytic terms, some kind of defence. The words that matter most are the words we don’t understand. If we have believed that words can matter only when we understand them – at least to some extent – in what way might they matter to us when we don’t? We are, after all, rightly wary of the cultivation of mystery, of the curators of secrecy.

What Eliot took to be characteristic of the soul of man under psychoanalysis – ‘the material is so clearly defined . . . there is no possibility of tapping the atmosphere of unknown terror and mystery in which our life is passed’ – was that this soul was too knowingly organised; it was clearly defined; the rules or principles governing its special behaviour were, by definition, intelligible. They could be described by people who had a particular skill. And it’s worth noting that his alternative to this is a novel in which this atmosphere of unknown terror and mystery is tapped; not known, or explained, or assimilated, but presented as such. So in at least one of its versions – and I think Eliot is right about this – psychoanalysis is too rational an account of irrationality. It displaces that atmosphere of unknown terror and mystery that is so precious to Eliot. It puts human authority – the authoritative descriptions of a man called Freud – where, in Eliot’s view, there is something else. And this something else, this unknown terror and mystery, we may remember, he found in the novels of Dostoevsky and D.H. Lawrence.

My paraphrase of Eliot’s remarks is: people who are psychoanalytically informed – people who have been convinced (if not converted) by Freudian explanations – are likely to understand things in a certain way, to phrase their accounts in a particular language. They will bring a confident assurance to whatever it is they find to be enigmatic and when this kind of conviction turns up in fiction it will make the fiction too knowing. It will be as though the language in which the fiction is written has fixed referents. Whereas the only conviction a Christian writer will bring to his work will be a conviction of mystery. As Augustine says in one of his sermons: ‘Since it is God we are speaking of, you do not understand it. If you could understand it, it would not be God.’ So the question in secular terms – and it would be a preposterous, presumptuous question to the Christian believer – is: how will our lives be better if we entrust ourselves to mystery, rather than to intelligibility and understanding?

God is presumably not a mystery to himself; so, for the believer, if God works in mysterious ways, at least God is there running his mystery. Someone, as it were, knows what’s going on, even if, by definition, we can’t be party to this knowledge. If we were to redescribe this crudely in psychoanalytic terms we might ask: is it better to believe in your mother or to understand her? And the answer would be: you only begin to do what we describe as ‘understanding’ your mother when your belief in her has been shaken (as it must be). Or we might ask: should we simply abide by the incest taboo or should we enquire into it, enhance our understanding of it so we might have a different apprehension of it, so forbidden desire would have a different place in our lives? I think the answer in this case would be merely another question: how would one go about being curious about the forbidden, and how could one be anything other than curious about what one is forbidden? From a psychoanalytic point of view, in other words, it is trauma that turns belief (or obedience, or faith) into a need for understanding. Both Freud and Eliot are trying to work out, in their different ways, where and why understanding comes in.

Neither Freud nor Eliot had fixed, formulated beliefs about the nature of understanding; their views evolved. But staging them – if not framing them – as antagonists allows us to review our options. Freud can be too narrowly knowing, too rhetorically persuasive in his explanations and in his belief in the value of understanding our lives (understanding our lives, that is, in the psychoanalytic way). Eliot, as a Christian, can perhaps be too knowing in his distrust of explanations, in his scepticism about our all too human accounts (either our lives belong to God, or they do not belong to anything). Freud and Eliot appeal to non-human forms of authority to make the human world intelligible. For Eliot, for Eliot’s Christian, there is, one might say, a destination, even if it is not within a person’s gift to secure it; for Freud, for Freudian souls, it is not clear whether there is a destination or only a direction.

No one can possibly blaspheme in any sense except that in which a parrot may be said to curse, unless he profoundly believes in that which he profanes.

After Strange Gods, T.S. Eliot

Eliot was always shrewdly allusive in his writing; so it is perhaps worth wondering why he might have yoked together Wilde and Freud – and indeed psychoanalysis and socialism – in his throwaway phrase ‘the soul of man under psychoanalysis’. Wilde’s famous essay of 1891 does not bear any obvious family resemblance to the psychoanalytic writing Eliot was referring to. In The Soul of Man under Socialism there is a radical critique of altruism and a paganising of Christ that is not what one would think of as Freudian. ‘What Jesus meant was this,’ Wilde writes. ‘He said to man: “You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself.”’ This, of course, would not be Eliot’s version of Christ, this would be Eliot’s version of play-acting with religion. Nor, one imagines, would Eliot have been impressed by Wilde’s ceding of all authority to the individual: ‘The true artist is a man who believes absolutely in himself, because he is absolutely himself.’ ‘All authority,’ Wilde writes, ‘is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised.’

Wilde’s promotion of the flagrantly self-invented individual – his new religion of individualism – might have amused Freud (and even interested him); but the soul of man under psychoanalysis, the individual as Freud described him, was more driven than self-fashioned, more riven than whole, had dispensed with the notion of what Wilde calls ‘perfect harmony’. Man may have ‘sought to live intensely, fully, perfectly’ as Wilde says, but as Freud adds, he is too frightened of his own nature and desire to do so. What man seeks, according to Freud, is not any of the sovereign goods of traditional moral philosophy, nor the sovereign good of God’s love or grace or redemption. What Man, as Freud still calls us, seeks, is the forbidden object of incestuous desire. We seek a pleasure we cannot bear; because what we desire is forbidden – because we recognise the object of desire in our sense of mortal risk – we need to obscure it, to conceal it from ourselves. In Freud’s view it is essential to our psychic survival not to know what we desire: we must hide from ourselves what we are seeking and the fact that we are seeking it. And we must seek it. Wilde’s proposed new individual under socialism is – from both Freud’s and Eliot’s points of view – too jaunty in his freedom. He really seems to believe that his life is his own and that if he is sufficiently gifted he can make of it what he will. He is man on his own terms. His descriptions of himself can be referred to no higher or lower authority. Answerable to no one else, he is to his own taste (or he is nothing).

Eliot linked Freud and Wilde in a casual way; for all their differences, Eliot picked up a shared concern, he heard something in psychoanalysis that even the psychoanalysts themselves may not have wanted to hear. ‘Happiness,’ Freud wrote in Civilisation and Its Discontents, ‘is something entirely subjective.’ Not only is our pleasure idiosyncratic, it is revealing of our idiosyncrasy. If you want to find out who you are, recognise what makes you happy. Your subjectivity, Freud suggests, is in your happiness. In connecting the soul of man under psychoanalysis with The Soul of Man under (Wilde’s) Socialism, Eliot was, I think, locating something that troubled him and that preoccupied Freud and Wilde. This was the possibility that the individual realises himself – reveals himself – through his pleasure. ‘It is,’ Wilde writes, ‘mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure.’ Wilde is quite clear – or rather, quite insistent – in his essay that suffering is bad for us, that pain is a distraction, a sign that we are off the scent.

The Christ of medieval Christianity was, according to Wilde, ‘realising his perfection through pain . . . The injustice of men is great. It was necessary that pain should be put forward as a mode of self-realisation.’ But for Wilde this is all wrong: ‘pain is not the ultimate mode of perfection. It is merely provisional, and a protest . . . Pleasure is Nature’s test, her sign of approval.’ Suffering as a fascination, as a vocation, is just what Wilde wants to provoke us out of. It is not our suffering we need to understand, it is our happiness; we need only understand our pain so that we can get to our pleasure; and to get to our pleasure is to get to the eccentricity, the individualism, that defines us. Like Freud, Wilde has no truck with sin; it is through pleasure that what he calls ‘individualism’ becomes possible. The aim, in his view, of both socialism and science is ‘individualism expressing itself through joy’. The artist is the exemplary individualist: ‘Art is individualism and individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force’; if the artist ‘does not do it’ – art – ‘solely for his own pleasure, he is not an artist at all.’ This isn’t worlds apart from the view Freud takes 17 years later in his paper ‘Creative Writers and Daydreaming’ (1908) in which he privileges the artist because he is a more canny, tenacious hedonist than – in Freud’s phrase – the ‘ordinary person’. For Freud, as for Wilde in The Soul of Man under Socialism, what is to be understood, what is to be sponsored, is the way modern people – as ‘clever animals’ – safeguard and sustain their pleasure-seeking; and how it is that this pleasure-seeking is their lifeline to everything that matters most in life.

Wilde’s writing was a problem to Eliot – and particularly perhaps Wilde’s writing in The Soul of Man under Socialism – because it is an experiment in making no appeal to a non-human authority. You cannot ask God why you are unhappy, or start explaining and understanding your unhappiness by telling a story about human nature and its instinctual vicissitudes. Nor indeed, Wilde insists, is your unhappiness what makes you human. It is your pleasure that makes you what you really are, what you are at your best. Wilde says, in effect: we have nothing but our own ingenuity (which we might call wit), and it doesn’t much matter where, if anywhere, it comes from. For Eliot this would be play-acting as though one were writing the play oneself; for Freud it would be the apotheosis of egotism, of the ego’s illusion of autonomy. For both Freud and Eliot it’s a question of where you locate, how you describe, the non-human authority which, in their view, we cannot help but abide by. For Eliot there was what his biographer Lyndall Gordon called ‘a consuming search for salvation’; for Freud, there was no salvation, no redemptive myth, but the secular alternative: a realistic apprehension of one’s incestuous nature, a paradoxical acknowledgment of one’s unconsciousness to and for oneself.

The soul of man under psychoanalysis wants, knows what he wants, and doesn’t want to know that he knows what he wants. As Eliot intimates, we could live under psychoanalysis in the way we might experience life under socialism – under an imposed regime of descriptions of what we want, what we like, and what we are like. And, of course, of how we go about avoiding and evading such wants as we have. Life under psychoanalysis might feel as oppressive as under socialism. Eliot’s distaste for both systems is resonant in his phrasing of the question.

Yet Freud and Wilde and Eliot would all agree that we are inherently transgressive creatures; for Wilde this is the point, for Eliot this is the problem, and for Freud it is the point and the problem. And this is why, if there is a soul, and if it has to be under anything, I prefer the soul of men and women under psychoanalysis. Because psychoanalysis tells us a story about ourselves that both consoles and confounds us. It gives us a myth and a mystery, a coherent narrative and a disturbing incoherence simultaneously; at one fell swoop our lives seem to make perfect sense, and are perfectly senseless. We know ourselves, and we are always at our own unknowing. Not to mention our own undoing.

Psychoanalysis can tell us a reassuringly normative story: we begin by desiring (and wanting to murder) our parents; registering the horror, not to mention the impossibility of this project, we more or less relinquish it. We renounce our first desires and wait; and eventually, if all goes well, we will as adults find people who are sufficiently reminiscent of our parents to be exciting, but sufficiently different that we can consummate our desire. We want something; we realise the dangerous error of our ways; and we find the substitutes that can satisfy us. We can, in a sense, have what we want because it isn’t what we really want – which we could never have anyway. This is a story about human development as both possible and potentially satisfying. Good enough mothers and fathers facilitating good enough lives for their children.

But then there is the parallel text to this story – the other life that makes our lives double – and that is more akin to Eliot’s atmosphere of mystery and terror. In this life our desire is ineluctably, undistractedly transgressive and therefore unknown to us; in this life we are driven always to approach and avoid the objects of desire, and what makes us feel most alive makes us feel we are risking our lives. In this life the good enough mother is always a bad enough tantalisation. In this life uncanniness is way in excess of our canniness; we are at once intimate with and estranged from ourselves. Our actions feel inevitable and unintelligible (and so, as shorthand, we say we are in love, or we are tragic heroes, or we have made a Freudian slip). We do not know what we are doing and yet we feel ineluctably involved in our lives. Where once there were security operations, now there is risk; where once safety was virtually the be-all and end-all, now fear is preferred. A sense of aliveness displaces a sense of certainty as a paramount consideration. Surprise and dread are the order of the day. In our transgressive life it is as though there is something – or someone – we seem to value more than our lives, more than life itself.

‘Life is impoverished,’ Freud wrote in 1915, ‘it loses in interest, when the highest stake in the game of living, life itself, may not be risked.’ The essay from which this comes is entitled ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’; but the analogy Freud uses to illustrate his point makes a comparison with relations between the sexes. Life, he writes, ‘becomes as shallow and empty as, let us say, an American flirtation, in which it is understood from the first that nothing is to happen, as contrasted with a Continental love affair in which both partners must constantly bear its serious consequences in mind.’ The soul of man under psychoanalysis is about nothing more and nothing less than the relation between the sexes, about what it is to live with nothing to love and hate but each other. For the soul of man under psychoanalysis the ‘atmosphere of unknown terror and mystery’ emanates from nowhere but ourselves. And all we can go on doing is describing what it is like, in all its unlikeness.