Decades later, I can still recall exactly where I was sitting when I first realized that the reigning psychological dogma of the day was bunk. As a graduate student taking a course in literary criticism, I’d been assigned Sigmund Freud’s 1928 essay “Dostoyevsky and Parricide.”
Basically, Freud treated the Russian novelist as a patient, his novels as raw material for therapeutic speculation. Dostoyevsky’s lifelong epileptic seizures, he deduced, were a hysterical reaction to his parents: demanding father; shrill, neurotic mother. A classic oedipal conflict. You know, kill the father, seduce the mother, a bisexual tangle.
At some point, it occurred to me — Eureka! — that if having a difficult mother caused such derangements, my brother and I would be odder than Liberace. Alas, we’re quite boring and conventional, Tommy and me, with close to a century of marriage between us.
Anyway, I’ve been suspicious of psychologists bearing theories ever since.
Today, Dostoyevsky’s epilepsy is understood as an entirely physical brain disorder, treatable with medication. Nothing to do with the Myth of Oedipus. Freud’s diagnosis of the novelist was on the level of blaming evil spirits for malaria. That other Russian, Vladimir Nabokov, was right. Freud was an erudite witch doctor.
That’s not to say I had the courage of my convictions. If so, I might have dissented from a similarly reductive diagnosis of my own literary hero Jonathan Swift, the brilliant Irish author of “Gulliver’s Travels.” My major professor Irvin Ehrenpreis’s four-volume Harvard University biography of Swift made him the reigning 18th century scholar of his generation.
A second Eureka moment came later that year when I had to beg off delivering a seminar paper. Having got my eye kicked shut in a rugby match, I was experiencing headaches, dizziness and double vision: classic concussion symptoms. Instead of bawling me out, as I’d feared, Ehrenpreis surprised me with warm memories of watching rugby at Oxford University. Why, he’d never imagined that Americans, much less University of Virginia students, played the game at all.
Relieved and grateful, I also wondered how he could possibly have missed the brightly illustrated 3-by-5-foot rugby recruiting poster on the wall directly across the hall from his office. It had been there for weeks. I remained in awe of his erudition, but I knew damn well I’d have noticed the poster.
It wasn’t until Harvard professor Leo Damrosch’s masterful new Swift biography appeared in 2013 that I learned something else my mentor hadn’t noticed. Contrary to Ehrenpreis’ didactic Freudian analysis of Swift as a sexual cripple, a posthumous child searching for his lost father and pathologically incapable of relations with adult women, the brilliant author clearly had a years long intimate relationship with a younger woman, whom he called “Vanessa.”
Her surviving letters to him — Swift’s executors destroyed many — are redolent with sexuality. “Nor is the love I bear you seated only in my soul,” Vanessa wrote “for there is not a single atom of my frame that is not blended with it.” His responses are playful, but equally passionate.
Swift was also almost certainly married — another secret.
As an Anglican priest and dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Swift’s writings defending the native Irish against English oppression made him a controversial, perennially endangered figure. Everybody in Dublin suspected he’d written the anonymous pamphlet “A Modest Proposal” recommending serving roasted Irish babies at elegant dinner parties — nobody else could have — but as long as the government couldn’t prove it, they couldn’t touch him.
So yes, Swift was careful to avoid even the appearance of scandal. But a gelding he was not. Blinded by Freudian theory, his late biographer — Ehrenpreis, who was always very kind to me — had basically bought the con.
Which brings us by an even more circuitous route than usual to the latest pronouncement from the American Psychological Association. According to today’s new dogmatists, “[t]raditional masculinity — marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression — is, on the whole, harmful.”
Uh-oh, Tommy, I think they’re coming for us.
According to the APA’s new “Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men,” all us white guys are basically Clint Eastwood characters. Not the real Clint, an actor, musician and film director, but Dirty Harry and Josey Wales. Fast with a quip, deadly with a gun. (A humorless lot, they appear to have missed all the jokes.) Black dudes are victims of “John Henryism” — essentially the view that somebody in the car needs to be able to change a damn tire.
“What is gender in the 2010s?” asks Ryon McDermott, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of South Alabama who also helped draft the men’s guidelines. “It’s no longer just this male-female binary.”
“If we can change men,” another APA savant says bravely, “we can change the world.”
George Orwell surely said it best:
“One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: No ordinary man could be such a fool.”