The Clare Spark Blog

November 16, 2009

When lobotomies cured the Romantic agony….

This blog begins with an eighteenth-century prescription for neoclassical “balance,”  the collage continues, my commentary ends with the victory of Jung over Freud. Has our society been lobotomized since the late 1930s?

Image (93)

Walter Freeman’s “cases” and a lonely American princess

[Lessing, quoting Winckelmann, Laocoön, p.7]  “As the depths of the sea always remain calm, however much the surface may be agitated, so does the expression in the figures of the Greeks reveal a great and composed soul in the midst of passions.  Such a soul is depicted in Laocoön’s face–and  not only in his face–under the most violent suffering….However, this pain expresses itself without any sign of rage either in his face or in his posture.  He does not raise his voice in a terrible scream, which Virgil was doing; the way in which his mouth is open does not permit it.  Rather he emits the anxious and subdued sigh described by Sadolet.  The pain of body and nobility of soul are distributed and weighed out, as it were, over the entire body with equal intensity.  Laocoön suffers, but he suffers like the Philoctetes of Sophocles; his anguish pierces our very soul, but at the same time we wish that we were able to endure our suffering as well as this great man does.

Expressing so noble a soul goes far beyond the formation of a beautiful body.  This artist must have felt within himself that strength of spirit which he imparted to his marble.  In Greece artists and philosophers were united in one person…Philosophy extended its hand to art and breathed into its figures more than common souls….”

[Eleanor Melville Metcalf, writing to boys and girls and published by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union: The Horn Book, 1927:]  “My grandfather was a pilgrim by land and sea–not an adventurer gone out to see the world, but a pilgrim in search of the Regal Soul.”

[TIME mag, 1936:] SOUTHERN DOCTORS The night after the Southern Medical Association began its annual meeting in Baltimore last week there was not a respectable hotel room for rent in the city. Doctors with pocketbooks filled and minds agog commuted from Washington 40 miles away. No medical meeting had been so well attended since the 1920s.

Well rewarded were the troubled Southern doctors by two medical diversions at the convention: 1) an operation by which Drs. Walter Freeman & James Winston Watts of Washington actually cut the ability to worry out of the brain; 2) operations by which Dr. Hugh Hampton Young of Baltimore remodels anal, urinary and genital defects. Psychiatrists and brain surgeons stormed at each other concerning the good sense of Drs. Freeman and Watts’s work.

  Lobotomy. Dr. Freeman, a poetaster in his spare time, was nervous when he rose to tell a fascinated audience how he and Dr. Watts ameliorated chronic anxiety, insomnia, and nervous tension in six patients during the past two months. In addition the patients were relieved of various “disorientations, confusions, phobias, hallucinations, and delusions.” …All six Freeman-Watts “patients have become more placid, more content, more easily cared for by their relatives.”…Dr. Freeman withstood all heckling, asserted: “Our patients were treated by seasoned psychiatrists.  Then they came to us. The results are permanent, apparently, and not temporary…We have not removed the idea by this operation.  The idea is still there, but it has no emotional drive…I think we have drawn the string, as it were, of the psychosis or neurosis.” [1]

MOBY DICK A Reflection EARL HENDLER The pure and sacred evil that was Ahab/ split up the snapping seas. So absolute/ his pride, from pole to pole no whale could hide./ Another’s commerce, full of oil and drab,/ would never play his line strung like a lute/ with notes of harpoons struck in the whale’s white side.

A spout from Moby’s brow spilled some salt tunes/ that jarred his metaphysics to the point/ where God Himself could speak but in typhoons./ His world, lopsided, hobbled on one joint./ A lunatic’s integrity that fails/ on fish must justify itself to whales/ of meaning larger than the simple quest,/ and so his Pequod sailed abstractly West. [2]

 [NYT editorial, 1949:] EXPLORERS OF THE BRAIN  Quackish as their system of feeling bumps on the head and thus judging human capabilities, F.J. Gall and J.C. Spurheim, founders of phrenology, had the sound conception of a brain in which traits of ability and what we call character were realized. Since their time, every nook and cranny of the brain have been poked into, dissected, examined. The brains of animals have been electrically stimulated in spots and the areas and centers thus discovered that control movement, seeing, hearing, swallowing, winking, breathing, sweating and other functions. One of the bold explorers who discovered some of the brain’s correlations with bodily functions and explained why some of the functions are supposedly instinctive is Prof. Walter Rudolf Hess, director of the Physiological Institute at the University of Zurich.

The information that such explorers as Hess, Harvey Cushing, Walter Cannon and others clicked together about 1935, when the International Neurological Congress was held in London. Among those who attended was the Portuguese neurologist, Dr. Egas Moniz.  After listening to the papers that were read he decided on his return to Lisbon that the time had come to cut worry, phobias, and delusions out of the brain. He induced his surgical colleague, Dr. Almeida Lima, to bore through the skull and cut the connections of the prefrontal lobe with the thalamus, which is the seat of emotions and which lies deep in the head.  This sensational operation justified itself.  Hypochondriacs no longer thought they were going to die, would-be suicides found life acceptable, sufferers from persecution complexes forgot the machinations of imaginary conspirators. Prefrontal lobotomy, as the operation is called, was made possible by the localization of fears, hates and instincts.

It is fitting, then, that the Nobel Prize in Medicine should be shared by Hess and Moniz. Surgeons now think no more of operating on the brain than they do of removing an appendix. Hess, Moniz and Cushing before them taught us to look with less awe on the brain. It is just a big organ with very difficult and complicated functions to perform and no more sacred than the liver.[3]

[Political scientist/New Critic and 1960s hero, John Schaar; 1979:]  What does that balanced character and outlook look like: earlier…I suggested the formulation, “pessimism of intelligence, optimism of the will.”  It is something like the temperament of the person touched by grace, as the Puritans understood that: the one who has the almost divine or supernatural ability to hold incompatible qualities in harmony; the one who lives in the world fully and caringly, and yet with “weaned affections,” neither wildly raised up nor woefully cast down by victory or defeat but hewing to the middle line.  To try another formula, perhaps the right temperament for action is a stoicism blended of equal parts of self-assertiveness and self-denial: an assertiveness which gives one the resoluteness to act and accept responsibility; a self-denial which enables one to subdue one’s personal pain in a compassionate awareness of the general human lot, which is mainly a condition of shortage and failure.  If I read Melville correctly here, his real hero Jack Chase and his fictional hero Captain Vere most closely resemble this standard of the whole man and actor. Delano and Cereno represent crippled halves of the whole. (p.81.).

[Psychosurgeon Walter Freeman worries about excessive lobotomies:]  We are whittling down the ego-ideal.[4]  [end collage]

[Clare’s comments:]   ” No one pays to hear a bitter kvetch.” Man up!  Given the political context met by the academic Melvilleans, writing, like Melville, in an age of revolution and counter-revolution that was devastating man and nature alike, it would be surprising had Melville scholars not choked off the passionate curiosity of Ahab/Pierre and Isabel, elevating Captain Vere in their stead, for they were dependent upon institutions that had either caused wars or were impotent to stop the killing.  A Lessing-style Laocoön was needed in a postwar world shrieking with “shell shock” and other forms of human misery, with mutilated veterans demanding to be seen and heard, their sacrifices vindicated by the able-bodied.[5]  If Melville’s façade of classy stoicism (as Vere) were to prove only a false front, his usefulness to conservative nationalists wanting a solid monument linking democratic Greece and democratic post-war America would be negated.  As Lessing wrote of the need to suppress the scream in art,

” When a man of firmness and endurance cries out he does not do so unceasingly, and it is only the seeming perpetuity of such cries when represented in art that turns them into effeminate helplessness or childish petulance.  This at least, the artist of the Laocoön had to avoid, even if screaming had not been detrimental to beauty, and if his art had been allowed to express suffering without beauty.” [6]

[Clare, cont.]”I retch in private….”  With the exception of  Raymond Weaver, Melville’s revivers have generally minimized the permanence of his rage and suffering (the “insanity” read perhaps as a female complaint), generally limiting his spells to the mid-1850s, while contradictory textual facts and other inescapable biographical materials encroached upon their favored formulations.  It is an inside narrative.

Melville’s wished for mastery over his feelings, the artist fully in control of his materials, attests to the legitimacy of ruling elites, in this case their superior endurance in the face of adversity or upsurges from below.  But his outbursts (veiled or not) on behalf of the unjustly imprisoned and oppressed call forth answering murmurs: As their own words have testified, Ivy League professors are not leisured aristocrats in an exclusive club but servants of powerful interests, operatives in “a badly run factory,” complained John Dewey in 1917; they were no less in thrall to the big money than their parents, the workers or small businessmen they had left behind.  They do not command their own labor; their virtue has been pasted on, not somaticized through battle with ignorance.  They tingle with Melville as he turns his back on commercial success and easy fame; he has lapsed into “silence” while the blazing eyes remain fixed on illegitimate authority; he is able to write without plaudits.  A crescendo of indignation has shattered the illusion of academic rectitude and self-mastery; parts of themselves love this artist, but they do not follow his example.  Shadowed by Pierre’s surveillance, a grand national monument morphs into Isabel; cornered sculptors perform a witch hunt energized by vulnerable positions in middle management: beneath brave and placid surfaces, their deepest feelings toward their subject and each other marry fear and resentment: they cannot merge with their subject, will not know something definite of that face.  For a period, Melville’s famous manliness shores up the ruins of class identity, recomposes the disintegrating helplessness and petulance of Melville’s academic readers as the facts of their limited autonomy inevitably return.

Locating the systematic censorship of crucial facts in Melville’s life and art, I have proposed that the deepest layer of repression responds to the ideological imperatives of postwar corporatist liberalism, the vital center yet to be understood fully and repudiated by New Left intellectuals.  Social psychologists disassociated childish “romantic yearning” and “sentimental culture” from the critical realism of eighteenth and nineteenth-century bourgeois art.  Though fascists and New Deal liberals similarly viewed themselves as progressives and centrists, “fascism” became synonymous with extremism as American “moderates” increasingly distanced themselves from “the Far Right” and from Hitler and Mussolini, figures who were acceptable to upper-class policy-makers in the West until the late 1930s.  We have seen that the Bad Mother directed the sentimental family ever leftward; her red consummations and her consumerism were diagnosed as the source of totalitarianism; pre-war and postwar Melville scholarship connected with the grandeur of the corporatist liberal project, as lobotomists, by disconnecting Melville along with the rest of the critical thinkers, cutting the ties that bound analytic thought to feeling, then to (appropriate) corrective action.  Melville’s conservative characters and the corporatist liberals I have studied speak with one voice as they evacuate materialist “exotics” in the name of wholeness and integration.  Of course the Melville who mocked such antics as Plotinus Plinlimmon-ish “virtuous expediency” remains at large.  I have summoned him, the deconstructive psychologist, to help me understand his own mental processes and those of his champions who, ironically, identify most strongly with the bound, unfeeling parts of himself that his better angel passionately rejected.

[Dr. Kik meets Jeannie, The Snake Pit (novel):]  There was a high table, like an operating table, and she knew she was supposed to get up on it.  She got on it and the woman with the silly voice fussed around her.  This woman was in an R.N. uniform and the room had somewhat the appearance of an operating room.  I’d forgotten I was to have an operation. You don’t eat before an operation, of course.  I should have remembered.  I wonder what I am being operated on for.  What haven’t I had removed?  I believe I still have my gall bladder.

“Well, Jeannie.  And how is Jeannie this morning?

It was he, the Indefatigable Examiner, come out of the bushes.  He was wearing a white coat.  He had blue eyes and a hawkish nose, and very slender face and his hair was fair and curly, like Grace’s, only shorter.

“And did you enjoy being outside in the park yesterday? He said this with a heavy accent that you have never been able to place.  It wasn’t German, French, Italian or Scandinavian. Polish perhaps…Now the woman was putting clamps on your head, on the paste-smeared temples and here came another one, another nurse-garbed woman and she leaned on your feet as if in a minute you might rise up from the table and strike the ceiling.  Your hands tied down, your legs held down.  Three against one and the one entangled in machinery.

She opened her mouth to call for a lawyer and the silly woman thrust a gag into it and said, “Thank you, dear,” and the foreign devil with the angelic smile and the beautiful voice gave a conspiratorial nod.  Soon it would be over.  In a way she was glad. [7]

[Clare returns:]     After the second world war, Ahab returned as Freud, that foreign devil who looks like mother, the Indefatigable Examiner Dr. Kik; no longer the antipuritan libertine who, at times, had fascinated 1920s bohemians.  Freud’s ideal of autonomy and the critical awareness that never stops, made explicit in The Future of an Illusion (1928), and Moses and Monotheism (1939), was turned on its head by outraged aristocratic radicals; it is Jung’s concept of individuation that now informs moral relativists and multiculturalists. Why can’t Freudians and Jungians get along?    For Freudians, the neurotic in treatment retrieves and historicizes immemorial faces, becomes aware of the inflated primitive imagos that have unconsciously ruled his actions and made him anxious and overly defended; now consciously aware of his self-destructive impulses and, restoring proportion to parents and their mightily looming surrogates, he may be more self-possessed, his perceptions of other human beings are less distorted; he may evaluate ‘universalist’ ethics with less of an irrationalist undertow; he may imagine institutions and cultural practices that could uplift, instruct, and heal suffering humanity, that do not not merely serve the selfish interests of the golden few; as a tactician for change, he will think twice before he subordinates means to ends as an excuse to act out volcanic rage (rage which, at first glance, may look like sex); and most certainly will he not follow idealized leaders.  He is not perfectly free from suffering, perhaps he remains anxious, but he knows the multiple sources of his feelings, for he is an indefatigable self- and social examiner, separating objective from neurotic anxiety. Such nice distinctions confer balance.

But Jungians, for purely political reasons, adapting to amoral, pragmatic institutions, associate Freudian scrupulosity with the repressive Mosaic code, with “pathological puritanism” and “narcism” (Murray) and it is Jung, not Freud, whose archetypes inform the cultural histories of “the New Left.”  For Jungians, the restored son escapes Amerika (the switching mother’s Hebraic influence, embodied in Freud or the Mother State, healthy only in war) to merge with the racial group and its particularistic interests: he finds golden nuggets of creativity and liberation in the racially-specific unconscious: he finds out “who he really is.”  That individuated face is definitely not Hitler’s. [8]

[1] Time, Nov. 30, 1936, 66, 68.

[2] Commentary, Jan. 1949, p.44.

[3] Editorial, New York Times, Oct.30, 1949, IV, p.8.

[4] Quoted by Jack Pressman, UCLA, Nov.4, 1989.

[5] Bromberg, Psychiatry Between The Wars, 1918-1945, pp.5-7, makes the overly simplistic but not uninteresting claim that the millions of “insanities” created on the battlefields of the Great War were the impetus for the mental hygiene movement which followed and which shaped the course of twentieth century psychiatry.

[6] Lessing, p.20.

[7] Mary Jane Ward, The Snake Pit, 1946, 42-44. Is Dr. Kik[e], the Indefatigable Examiner, Moses/Freud, and is Jeannie the genius of Christianity?

[8] Academics should reassess their professional responsibilities, putting emancipation from unnecessary mental illness and other forms of preventable suffering on the academic agenda as professional objectives and standards of performance.  See Peter Loewenberg, De-Coding the Past (New York: Knopf, 1982) on graduate education, specifically the pretense that students and professors are “equals.” Cf. Pierre’s mother has mystified authority by encouraging the conceit that she and Pierre are brother and sister; this seems more illuminating than talk of an “Oedipus Complex.”


    • These collages are great!

      Comment by memory_trace — January 20, 2015 @ 3:42 am | Reply

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