Sunday, March 3, 2013

Freud's Last Session - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Learns about Freud, C.S. Lewis and God at the Playhouse

First came the book, "The Question of God", by Armand Nicholi, then the PBS series, and then, in July 2010, the off-Broadway production of the play, "Freud's Last Session" by Mark St. Germain.  We did not go see it when we were in New York, though it was on the list of things that we might have seen.  But then it showed up locally, and has sprung  up around the country.  The premise, first proposed in the The Question of God, is that there is a last conversation between Freud, who has been exiled by the Nazis to England, and a young English Don, C.S. Lewis, who has written some important essays about faith, but not yet become the author of such works as The Screwtape Letters (Used by I.H. Paul as the basis for a book about how to do psychoanalysis reviewed here) and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Nicholi is a psychiatrist at Harvard who teaches a seminar annually in which he and his students read Lewis and Freud and wonder about the validity of their arguments - Freud's against religion and faith, stating that they are defensive efforts to ward off our anxieties, particularly about death; and Lewis, a man who was an avowed atheist who converts after a series of conversations with various people - including theologians and J.R.R. Tolkien, with whom he is an Inkling - on a motorcycle ride to the London Zoo (sort of like Paul on the road to Damascus, I guess).  Nicoli's book, then, is a comparison of Freud and Lewis - including description of their ideas and their lives, and Nicholi imagines a discussion between them about faith.  The book, and perhaps to a lesser extent the PBS series, feel unsatisfyingly and somewhat surprisingly corrupted by the author.  His proselytizing is apparent.  He Believes with a capital B, and he further believes that your life will be improved if you Believe as well, and so his look at these two people, their lives and writings, are slanted by his wish to convince you that the believer's life is the more satisfying one.

It is a relief, then, that the play is more balanced.  It, too, imagines a conversation between the two men.  If such a conversation ever did happen (there is apparently some evidence that Freud did meet with an unspecified Don from Oxford in the last months of his life), there is no record of it and this is a purely fictional rendition of what might have taken place.  So, the first question, to my mind, is whether such a conversation is plausible?

From the perspective that Freud, one of the great thinkers of his generation, and one who devoted his entire career to exploring something that is, by definition, unknown and unknowable - the unconscious mind - and as someone who was fascinated by religion, also the study of something that is essentially unknowable, even if he denied the particulars of religion as he understood it as a plausible explanation of the world, I think it reasonable to think that he might have summoned an academic - a bright young man - who had experienced a religious conversion - to engage in a conversation.  He might have been curious about the evidence that this man had of religion's validity, just as he produced evidence of the unconscious functions and functioning of the mind.

Might Freud, as portrayed in the play, have been more vulnerable than he appears at other points in his life as he faced death?   Perhaps somewhat.  I think that the play takes tremendous liberties with what would have likely occurred in a conversation in order to introduce drama into what is actually a rare thing these days - a prolonged civilized conversation between two men - almost a Socratic dialogue.  And I think the drama helps the audience stay engaged, though (and I am not a typical theatergoer I suppose) the dialogue, and just the fact of the dialogue, is pretty gripping.

Does Lewis present data that is convincing to Freud?  No.  He makes a series of arguments - first that moral codes betray an underlying moral order to the universe - pointing to a deity - then that our desire for God proves God's existence (we desire food and water, and they exist) - next that the life of Jesus is NOT a myth - in part because it is not constructed as a mythological narrative, so it must have been factual - and then they end by discussing the existence of evil in the world and the ways in which that is consistent or inconsistent with the existence of God.

The play portrays Lewis as having an impact - a subtle one, but an impact none the less - on Freud.  Freud does not miraculously convert, but he does become more open to aesthetic components of his own experience - to music concretely, but perhaps, from Lewis's perspective, to joy.  It is a satisfying, if circumscribed experience, and it certainly falls far short of answering the question of God's existence.  And that should come as no surprise to the viewer.

What it does do, though, is to portray these two men, Freud in particular, exposing them as individuals and their work, to new generations of theatergoers.  This does not mean that the theatergoers are young, at least based on the experience of seeing two performances locally, but none the less theatergoers are curious about Freud - who he was and how he has affected our lives.  He is known - as Einstein is known - as one of those people whose ideas have shaped the modern world.  But he is not known, at least to the members of these two audiences who stayed after to discuss the play in a talk back session - in any detail, either as a historical figure nor in terms of how he has directly contributed to what we know about the functioning of the human mind and how to help improve its functioning.  This play, which presents Freud at the end of his life and includes many historical elements about the man that are puzzling but also interesting, may help people become more familiar with a character who is, in fact, more important in their lives than they know.

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