In The Departed, a film by Martin Scorsese set in Boston, Matt Damon, protégé of the arch-villain played by Jack Nicholson, explains: “What Freud said about the Irish is we’re the only people impervious to psychoanalysis.” In fact, Freud was never that specific – about us, or any other ethnic group – but the enjoyable myth conjured up by screenwriter William Monahan has acquired marathon legs and romped around the world as a “factoid”.
Like all great factoids, our imaginary status as hopeless cases in Freudian remedial terms is as plausible as it’s irresistible. For the self-congratulators among us, it’s even mildly flattering. Ah now, they say, why would we be falling for the pricey hocus-pocus when we’re barely over the old-time religious repression? There’s nothing buried or unconscious about our anxieties. In fact and fiction, we’re rather inclined to flaunt our damages. And when we’re not pioneering new ways with misery, we’re fighting, drinking, smiling, weeping and talking to excess.
But this would be to protest too much. When the cartoon Irish start acting up, and out, the cartoon shrinks nod their bespectacled heads, and scribble in their little notebooks: “These peasants are sooo obvious…” Cartoons are fun and seldom fair. In true life there is nothing special about our immunity to Freudian-style psychoanalysis – so memorably put down by one of Freud’s own contemporaries as “the disease that purports to be its own cure”. One way or another we are all indebted to the father of the talking cure.
The Viennese Tweedledee
Freud’s life and works are more interesting than the Oedipal Schmeedipal, phallic-centred and anal-retentive clichés. It is too easy to forget how original, and liberating, his theories were in the days when sexuality was “unmentionable” and “dirty”. Nothing human disgusted Freud: “To turn human beings into gods, and the earth into heaven, would not be an aim of mine. We humans are too rooted in our animal nature and could never become godlike; the earth is a small planet and not suited to be a heaven.” Without seeing inside any living person’s brain, he had a great stab at understanding the roots and fruits of human unhappiness. He tried to reconcile the medical science of his day with pre-modern psychologies in the shape of mythology, literature and religion. There was, he insisted, method in our madness, telling patterns and reflexes in the traditional stories and symbols that have enabled us to stagger on through this vale of tears. A tidal wave of neuroscience has swept aside the Freudian “anatomy” of the mind, but the detritus is, still, of immense cultural and emotional value. Freud gave us a new way of expressing the urges, issues, phobias and defence mechanisms that we all have to deal with.
Like some other patriarchal ideologues I could mention – St Augustine, Rousseau, Marx – the Viennese pathfinder has been a victim of his own success, at the mercy of his least agile disciples, but he was lucky with his translators. He will always be worth reading, an irony he may not have appreciated in view of his own ambivalence towards artists and writers. In the case of Schnitzler (also Jewish, also Viennese, also trained as a doctor) it was an ambivalence tinged with envy: “I have often asked myself, wonderingly, whence you were able to draw that secret knowledge which I have had to acquire through laborious research into the subject; and in the end I have come to envy the poet whom earlier I had only admired.”
There was nothing ambivalent or envious about Joyce’s attitude towards psychoanalysis. Our James was scathing about “the Swiss Tweedledum (Jung) and the Viennese Tweedledee (Freud)”, so consistently scathing that he has to be the prime suspect as the inspiration behind the myth of Freud versus the Irish. It may be that his own techniques and interests as a writer were so similar to Freud’s that he felt the need to assert his own originality as a great spirit of the age. And the Freudian-Joycean parallels are no great coincidence, given their schooling in the classics of antiquity. In Dublin, Joyce kept a diary of dreams, sometimes entertaining his friends by interpreting their dreams as well as his own. He also experimented with word-associations, making connections in much the same way as Freudian therapy. Even so, he dismissed psychoanalysis as “nothing more nor less than blackmail”, adding, “Well, if we need it, let us at least keep it to the confession.”
The Box versus the Couch
Whenever confession comes up, as a forerunner, or a substitute, for psychotherapy, I feel mildly rueful, because I stopped going to confession before I had anything interesting to tell the man behind the grille. In my believing days, there were queues for confession and no one hogged the box for more than ten minutes. It was more like speed dating than therapy, though it’s possible that the proper sinners sneaked in just before closing time for heart-to-hearts with sophisticated priests who dispensed words of wisdom and reassurance along with penance and absolution. In any competition between the confession box and the couch, the couch would always win on humanitarian grounds. On the couch you’re not a sinner, you’re only human. Your darkest thoughts might make you feel guilty, but hell is all around us, not something in the offing.
My problem with classic Freudian attitudes is socio-economic. As such, it’s a problem shared by anyone who isn’t a man of Sigmund’s time and place. The terrain in which he practised what he preached was urban and bourgeois, a newly godless, newly prosperous world of corseted ladies and buttoned-up gentlemen. Most of his clients were educated, relatively well off Viennese. They had pianos, servants and holidays and they were unusually receptive to new ideas in art and science. Like all parvenus, they were acutely caste-conscious and in Vienna they were the objects of anti-Semitic prejudice, and worse, much worse. When this urbane world was blown apart by the Nazis, Freud himself became a refugee and the famous “couch” – actually, an old fashioned medical examination bed with a quality carpet on top – found a new home in Hampstead.
I’m no stranger to Freud’s world because I married into its lower echelons. My in-laws were secular Jewish refugees from Vienna. As a toddler, my father-in-law was taken to see a psychiatrist on account of his habit of repeatedly kicking the bar between the legs of his chair legs. This is a typical toddler’s exercise and it says something about bourgeois family meals – multi-course events involving lots of dedicated silver cutlery – that it wasn’t recognized as such. Taking the child to see a psychiatrist was kinder, maybe, than roaring at him to stop, or forcibly removing him from the table, which is what would have happened to him in an Irish household, but in any case there was no need to worry: he grew out of it.
But if it comes down to a simple question of class, how did Freud’s American heirs come to rule the hearts and minds of so many twentieth-century New Yorkers? My guess is that it’s something to do with the shared Jewish heritage. Many of the Woody Allen New Yorkers were the children and grandchildren of the huddled masses who fled, in the first instance, from the persecutions of the Tsarist empire. More often than not, these immigrants came to America as families, and the stereotypical Jewish mother is (understandably!) anxious for her children to keep the traditional show on the road. But Irish-Americans weren’t like that. On the whole, Irish immigrants were single and young, and the unlovable rogue played by Jack Nicholson in The Departed is one of their fictional descendants.
Common people, common readers
Until recently, in our world, success and survival were synonymous; to survive you had to move away, or have relations abroad. For exam-passing peasants, like my grandparents, upward social mobility meant a steady job with a pension. But the beds were crowded and the food was cooked by at least one of the people who ate it. Children were “reared” like small animals and there were more of them, so the older girls often “functioned” as auxiliary mothers. For our parents, sibling strife was more of a thing than it seems to have been in Freudian families, and they moved from childhood to adulthood without ever knowing themselves as teenagers. Of course it’s different now that we are all adolescents at heart for as long as we like. But it’s not that different. And for consolation and escape from what Graham Greene called “the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in a human situation” we still resort to stories.
Religion has never been the only opium of the people. Fiction works too, and the supernatural characters of the great religious epics are as recognizable as their mortal companions, and victims. The great thing about great stories is that, no matter how fantastic they are in terms of time and place, they are always “relevant” because human beings made them up. I would have been a stranger in Alice Munro’s Canada and Balzac’s Paris, but as a reader I’m completely at home.
There are a lot of theories about the origins of the Irish susceptibility to words, written and spoken. One explanation harks back to tribal, pastoral times, when people didn’t live as long but they had more spare time. Necessity is the mother of invention, and so is boredom. When winters were dark and cold, our soul doctors – accidental psychotherapists – came in the guise of musicians and storytellers. And these ancient proclivities were subsumed into our “take” on the English language. The real “luck of the Irish” derives from the fact that the language we acquired at the behest of our political masters became a global language. As such, English has enabled us to travel, in more ways than one.
Damaged but not undone
Every Irish person knows of at least one person with the surname of Morrissy, with or without an “e” at the end, and some of them are great travellers of the mind. In the wider world the name is synonymous with a Mancunian master of fear and loathing and laughter. If this Morrissey’s interviewers are to be believed, he hates Freud because he “just made people feel so neurotic about their lives”. He prefers to embrace his neuroses, and make an art of them: “There’s more to life than books, you know. But not much more.”
One of the moreish things about Mary Morrissy’s latest book is that, while it seems to be anchored in a 1960s Dublin suburb – the eponymous Prosperity Drive – its characters are lost and found all over the world, from Arkansas to Australia. Like many another post-war suburban road, Prosperity Drive accommodates nuclear families. By day, the fathers are away at work, and the mothers are at home, “minding” the children and keeping up appearances. This being an Irish suburb, the only Spock in these children’s lives is an extra-terrestrial being, and for any reader who grew up in a similar time and place, there are flashes of temps perdu: the moss growing in the window crevices of a neglected car; the “dry whinge” of a pub door; the “introverted slump” of the lone drinker at the bar; the “arthritic roots” of a tree poking through paving slabs; the street games with more stoppage time than play because of disputes about the rules.
This Morrissy-land is a circumscribed place of “querulous misapprehensions” and “plaintive possibility”, which is not to say that there’s any shortage of the big beasts – love and death – in Prosperity Drive. I say “in” rather than “on” Prosperity Drive because that’s where the main threads of the stories are pulled from, but it’s a subtle and circuitous weave. As they wend their tragic-comic ways through swimming and typing pools, airports and hotels, department stores and shoe shops, ocean liners and piazzas, pubs and hospitals, none of the characters see the connections. Most of them are ordinary people, trying to keep their balance, chancing their luck, up to all kinds of mischief. Nothing is missed, and it helps. It helps.