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BIG BOOKS

by Robert M. Young

Being ill-read can have its compensations. One is that when you do get around to reading good books, there's an extra satisfaction of chipping away at what formerly seemed irredeemable ignorance. Even though this feeling has become less acute, I have found that my need to read big books on non-psychoanalytic topics has continued to grow as I have devoted more of my time to clinical work. This little essay is written to recommend it as a pastime and to introduce some of my favourites.

Where I grew up no one I knew read seriously. I can't think why, since there was a lovely woman in the children's library - Miss Childers - who did wonders in introducing us to books. But by adolescence that enthusiasm was overridden by preoccupation with motor-bikes, cars, movies, girls and dancing. With one exception, I cannot recall reading a single book during my years in secondary school. 'Book reports' for English Literature class were finessed by resorting to Classic Comics. The exception was The Bible. I did manage to read it all the way through, nearly twice, and it has stood me in good stead, in spite of the waning of the faith that inspired my uncharacteristic application in persevering with reading it.

At university I was so scared that I read only what was assigned. If there was spare time, I read it again. I vividly remember when I bought the first book that no one had told me to read: The Worldly Philosophers by Robert Heilbroner (an excellent, but not big, book). It seemed a risky thing to do - reaching out uncertainly into unknown space, without instruction.

I was a graduate before I discovered big books, and they have played an important role in my life ever since. My first one was The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E.. Lawrence. I was immersed in summer school, studying chemistry to prepare for medical school and didn't fancy reading those texts over and over. So I began - at first quite tentatively - to read for myself. What I found inspiring about that - and subsequent - big books was its rendering of human nature 'on the hoof', on a scale that gave people a setting, that placed them in a wider context of historical movements and forces and illuminated the social meaning of their activities. There is something about the spaciousness of the canvas on which a big book is laid out that invites reflection. The inner world and the outer can be related and their interrelations pondered over time and space. The various threads adding up to the causality and purposes of people's lives can be traced and the measure can be taken of their binding forces.

This is particularly true of 'Lawrence of Arabia', since the hero of his literary masterpiece was to a significant degree a fictional creation of his own pen, as its cruder version had been the creation of the romanticising American newspaper journalist, Lowell Thomas. When it subsequently emerged that Lawrence's heroism was part and parcel of his homosexuality and his masochism, the text of Seven Pillars became even more fascinating. One could search for links between the narcissism and omnipotence of the heroic account and the deeper motives which subsequently emerged. It is remarkable that a man with that particular mixture of motives led a breathtaking and admirable 'revolt in the desert' (the title of the popular version of his big book) which played a significant part in the First World War, in the demise of the Ottoman Empire and in the peace negotiations which set up the basic geographical boundaries of the Middle East, with which the world is so uncomfortably contending today.

My second big book was Norman Mailer's first and best novel, The Naked and the Dead, which gave me some insight into war as a desperate hell. I had been a boy during World War Two and had only a boy's own picture of it. His exposition of the intermixture of dignity and horror is powerful and rings perfectly true, as did his much later dissection of the mind and life of a gratuitous murderer who insisted on being executed, in the (even longer) Executioner's Song. Here, what Hanna Arendt dubbed (in the case of Eichmann) 'the banality of evil' was sympathetically but starkly laid bare. (I'm not inclined to read Mailer's recent dropsical novels, Ancient Nights or Harlot's Ghost.)

Victor Hugo's Les Miserables is my all-time favourite big book. It is a moving saga of the life-long struggle between Inspector Javert's relentless embodiment of the law as unforgiving superego, on the one hand, and Jean Valjean's equally life-long project to break free of the label 'convict' and to emulate the man who had saved him from returning to penal servitude by making reparation for his criminal impulses and acts, on the other. Though romantically overdrawn, these characters and the background of France in ferment strike me as evocative and uplifting. (I have not managed the musical for fear that I would find it tawdry.)

Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet is a single work, published in four volumes. It is an excellent rendition of the problem of viewpoint, since the first three volumes relate a series of Levantine events from the point of view, respectively, of each of three individuals, followed by a fourth which adds the dimension of time. It is delightfully crafted and provides a sobering lesson in the near-total relativity of subjectivities.

John Houseman was an emigrant from the Continent to England who went to Clifton, had a book accepted by Leonard Woolf's then-fledgling Hogarth Press (provided he'd pay for the printing), moved on to America and teamed up with Orson Welles in the young genius' most frenetic and creative period. Houseman's three-volume autobiography - Run-Through, Front and Center, Final Dress - is an amazing odyssey through the heights of radio, theatre and cinema in this century.

He was the producer of many of the finest in cultural events of his era, e.g., The Mercury Theatre, The (early) Voice of America, 'The Blue Dahlia', 'Sorry, Wrong Number', 'Lust for Life', The American Shakespeare Festival, Playhouse 90 (quality drama on American television), innumerable distinguished stage plays, The Julliard School of Drama. His career was crowned with an Oscar for his first major screen role as an actor and then a successful television series in the same role: Kingsfield, the daunting Harvard Law School Professor in 'Paper Chase'.

What is continually apparent in his account of innumerable productions is that a good producer is a container, the one who can still think and be civil under fire, while all about him are losing their heads and blaming all and sundry. This talent was tested to the limit and beyond in his relationship with Orson Welles, which takes up a large chunk of volume one. It was exhilarating and ultimately impossible. On top of all this, Houseman weathered the persecutions of McCarthyism and had the bliss of being the lover of Joan Fontaine.

Harrison Salisbury's Nine Hundred Days is an account of the German siege of Leningrad in the Second World War. The mixture of fortitude and depravity depicted in his meticulously researched chronicle conveys the best and the worst in human suffering and endurance. There was every reason to give up; food was exhausted; there was a huge black market; cannibalism occurred; supplies were carried across the frozen River Neva. The city survived, profoundly proud, and has reclaimed its pre-revolutionary name, St. Petersberg.

A similar story of human dignity, sorely tried in the midst of violence, is Donald Morris' The Washing of the Spears, a history of the Zulu Nation on the eve of the Boer War. If one knows something of the saga of Southern Africa from the viewpoints of the Boers and the British, this perspective is sobering and captures the humanity of a justly proud people. If one also knows something of the current dreadful degradation of the Zulu tribal tradition in black-on-black struggles between the African National Congress and Chief Buthelezi's present-day Zulus, another facet of the white man's responsibility for sundering dignity is even more apparent. It is as sad a tale as Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the history of white American betrayal and genocide of the Native American 'Red Man'.

 

The Power Broker is a biography of the man who built more public works than any other in history: Robert Moses, the chief architect and administrator of most of the great achievements of construction of public works in New York City and New York State in this century. He was a veritable colossus - responsible for innumerable dams, bridges, freeways, beaches, state and local parks and the citing of the United Nations Building in Manhattan. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Robert Caro traces Moses' rise and rise, showing in detail how his ability to get things done drew on and fed arrogance, manipulation and contempt for ordinary people which are breathtaking. Moses got his comeuppance at the very end of his life, having got away with his system of control by knowledge of grant-getting and by threat of catastrophe, until that point. The intimate intermingling of this public service motives with his elitism, bullying and corrupt patronage is a nonpareil story of the mixture of attributes that makes up even the most 'constructive' character. To this day, Moses' carefully designed parkway system around New York City has dozens of bridges, deliberately made too low for public transport to pass beneath them, so wedded was Moses to the middle class motor car and so despising of the busses and trains of public transport.

Caro has gone on to produce another highly-acclaimed biography, which is still in progress. The two volumes of his magnum opus, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, provide the most merciless account of a public figure ever written in the tradition of Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, the literary fountainhead of expose biography. Johnson's undoubted ability to 'get things done' for the common people is most evident in the chapter entitled 'The Sad Irons', which refers to the travail involved in ironing clothes before rural electrification in The Texas Hill Country, where Johnson grew up and which he represented in Congress. Before electricity came, the water had to be fetched from a stream, the wood cut and carried, the cooker tended, the washing done by hand. The irons had to be repeatedly reheated and left scars on housewives arms. After Johnson had corruptly awarded the construction contracts and got the dams built and the power lines strung, many, many children were named 'Lyndon' by their grateful parents.

At the same time, the foundations were laid for a system of bribery and patronage in national politics which has further undermined American democracy. Volume two contains equally revealing accounts of Johnson's wildly overblown 'war record' and the winning of his Senate seat by ballot-rigging. Yet this same man was the author of the most progressive civil rights legislation since Lincoln. Which is the by-product - the good works or the corrupt means and abuse of power and patronage?

Can the erotic and the thanatic aspects of his character be teased apart?

Mention of Abraham Lincoln brings me to Carl Sandberg's six-volume biography of the man whose name graces our organisation. Appropriately so, in my opinion, since he is my candidate for history's most remarkable embodiment of the depressive position. Sandberg, a noted poet, lovingly tells the story of the boyhood, self-education, law practice, failure, and rise to the Presidency of 'Honest Abe'. He endured the American Civil War, which of all wars in history took the lives of the largest percentage of the populations on both sides. Throughout this genuinely impossible situation, Lincoln sought honourable compromises, balanced contending considerations and tried to preserve the Union, his own notion of human dignity and the value of human souls. At the hour of triumph and potential healing of the nation, he was assassinated. The story of his life - public and private (his wife was psychotic - see J. & L. Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln) - is as inspiring and full of stoical endurance as that of his current counterpart in a comparably impossible historical situation, (with, some say, a comparably impossible wife), Nelson Mandela.

Relations between black and white in a rural setting are also an important issue in another fine political biography, Huey Long by T. Harry Williams. Long was the man who came nearest (not very near, as it turned out) to becoming a right-wing dictator in America. His strength lay in his appeal to the working class and those below then - the 'rednecks' (sunburned from working as sharecroppers in the fields). He pandered to their prejudices, as do all populists, including Hitler. But he somehow managed to get quite a lot of good works done along the way, a saving clause in his otherwise opportunist treaty with the people. He got the schools, the roads and the bridges built, where no Louisiana Governor had done before, on anything remotely approaching the same scale. When an appeal was made to him to find jobs for blacks, he said he would, but they mustn't criticise his method, which was to say that our white ladies shouldn't do this or that task. It was beneath them: 'Let the negroes do it.' So they got the job of cleaning out slops in the hospitals, etc. His laconic but successful ways led him to be called (and to relish being called) 'Kingfish', after a popular blackface radio comedian of the time.

Long was assassinated by a jealous husband. At the time he was thought a real threat to Franklin Roosevelt's administration. He was the model for Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren's best novel, All the King's Men, a morality tale on the theme: 'Power corrupts...' It became one of America's best-known rendering of this homily when the film version and the stars, Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge (whose autobiography, The Quality of Mercy, is lovely) got Academy Awards.

Lest this story seem merely a quaint tale from the past, relevant only to a bayou state in another era, it is worth recalling that current hopes for decency and equality have recently been under threat in that same state and beyond. A virulent racist, David Duke, who was a Klansman and has recently promoted Nazi literature, is attempting to build a national platform for a form of populism far more intolerant and zealous than Long's. He has failed to win election as Governor, but his following - an alliance of disgruntled middle-class and poor whites - was alarmingly large for such an indecent candidate. Louisiana has some of the worst statistics for per capita income and unemployment among American states, but these figures are attained or approached in other regions. The kind of backlash Duke represents must be watched closely, and the unsolved problems that provoke it had better be addressed - or else.

I'll conclude on a more pleasant note. Lonesome Dove won Larry McMurtry a Pulitzer Prize. It's the story of a friendship. Most of his sixteen novels are about eccentrics, and his great talent lies in his ability to get you inside the assumptive world of a person you'd ordinarily just find weird. Once there, it is hard not to feel compassion, McMurtry's precious gift to the reader. You probably won't have heard of him, but you may have seen some films of his books: 'The Last Picture Show', 'Terms of Endearment', 'Texasville'. Each has unforgettable 'characters', and there are many more in the other novels.

The two friends in Lonesome Dove are retired Texas Rangers. One of them gets it into his head to drive their cattle north to Montana, for no better reason than that he was bored hanging around their ranch, Lonesome Dove. It's a gripping adventure, full of incident and hilarious irony (as are his subsequent books on Billy the Kid and on Calamity Jane), but what holds one is the quality of the love between two irascible old coots who grate like hell on each other but stick together - to the point that the surviving one has to travel the length of the country on horseback with the corpse of the other, because his friend's dying wish was to be buried by a pond where he felt nice one day. Where are the friendships of yesteryear?

You may wonder what all this has to do with psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Well, what it has to do with it is that we need to look up from our armchair settings from time to time and take in the broad sweep of humanity and see it set in culture, in movements, in causes and attached to beliefs for which people live and die. Surely we need reminding of the point of it all as seen from the outer world, as well as the inner? I have a psychotherapist friend who claims that the work requires such sensitivity that watching the news on television is too much to bear. My view is that some movement back and forth between the consulting room and the wider world is essential to a sense of proportion.

If that still seems too far from our work, then read Peter Gay's magnificent historical biography: Freud: A Life for Our Time, and you'll see what we do in the capacious frame of history which I am advocating. Then you'll certainly see the point of the rest. I hope so, anyway. Have a look, for example, at what life was like for the Freuds during and after The Great War (ch. 8), and Civilisation and Its Discontents will make a lot more sense. I suppose your list will have very different books on it, but I trust that the goal of widened horizons will be a shared one.

I confess that there is another reason I read big books. When I am sad, they comfort and enfold me like transitional objects. Their scope and extent provide a space within which to dwell, while ruminative and reparative processes simmer away at another level. They have a containing and detoxifying role in my life, in addition to their function in providing perspective and enlightenment.

An abbreviated version of this essay was published in The Lincoln Newsletter in 1992

Copyright: The Author

Address for Correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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