Robert McAlmon’s Psychoanalyzed Girl and the Popularization of Psychoanalysis in America
by Chase Dimock
(This article first appeared on The Qouch)
Last fall, I wrote an article for this journal that argued for renewed interest in the life and works of American expatriate author Robert McAlmon. As a writer, publisher, and connoisseur of the Parisian nightlife and artistic community, McAlmon was at the center of most of the lives and works of the now romanticized era of the Lost Generation in Paris. Yet, for those of you who (like I) enjoyed Woody Allen’s nostalgic ode to these artists in Midnight in Paris, you will notice that McAlmon does not make an appearance in the film. While Woody Allen’s vision of the expatriate community gilds the bars and bistros of Montparnasse as a golden age, McAlmon’s own contemporaneous literary renditions of the era are pessimistic, dark, and cynical. For McAlmon, the Lost Generation was truly lost–morally, psychologically, philosophically, sexually lost artists who managed to brilliantly wring out their despair onto canvases and into novels between bouts of boozing, fighting, and crying.
Early in his period of expatriation, McAlmon wrote “The Psychoanalyzed Girl” as one of several collected vignettes on the characters he met on the streets of Montparnasse. The story below comes from McAlmon’s first book of fiction, A Hasty Bunch. James Joyce himself suggested the title to McAlmon, commenting on the speed with which he wrote the stories and their roughness. By reading just a few sentences of the story, it is apparent that Joyce’s judgment is well justified. “The Psychoanalyzed Girl” should be considered part of McAlmon’s juvenilia as its awkward phrasings search for the more polished voice of ironic detachment and sardonic wit that would come with his later, more mature work.
Nonetheless what I find fascinating about this piece is its place as a cultural artifact of the influence of psychoanalysis on the Lost Generation of American writers. McAlmon’s opinion in this story is none too favorable. He satirizes the hyperawareness and self-centeredness that psychoanalytic therapy causes in his friend Dania, depicting her as perpetually self-analyzing and becoming progressively more alienated from her own reality as she obsesses over self-knowledge at the expense of self-experience.
Written in 1922, McAlmon’s short story testifies to the sudden rise in popularity of psychoanalysis in America in the 20’s. Freud made his first visit to America along with Carl Jung and others in 1909 and gave a series of five lectures at Clark University to both academic and lay audiences. The fact that psychoanalysis would become widely adopted in America in just over a decade after his visit wildly exceeded what Freud and his contemporaries thought was possible. As Sanford Gifford writes:
“Freud had an abiding distaste for America and a mistrust of Americans. He attributed this, half whimsically, to the effect of American food on his digestion. But his real fears were based on the American propensity for popularization, for the dilution of analysis with the base metal of psychotherapy and for American opposition to lay analysis.” (631)
Furthermore, Freud initially doubted that psychoanalysis would catch on in America due to its lingering history of Puritanism. In January of 1909, Freud wrote to Jung in a letter “I also think that once [the Americans] discover the sexual core of our psychological theories they will drop us. Their prudery and their material dependence on the public are too great.” (as cited by Benjamin 124)
What Freud could not have predicted back in 1909 was the great cultural shift that would take place in America shortly after World War One that would produce the Jazz Age and the Lost Generation of the 20s. Nathan Hale explains:
“In America, rebellious intellectuals supplied an important sustaining agent in the spread of psychoanalysis—an enthusiastic clientele. The writers in the group were the first to publicize psychoanalysis…the Great War provoked a disillusioned turn to their rebellion against traditional American culture…[they] launched attacks on the entrenched American faith in morality and the superiority of Anglo-Saxon race and culture… [and emphasized] the importance of the sexual instinct and the evils of repression” (Hale as quoted by Benjamin 124).
In the wake of a devastating war that killed millions, the young artists and intellectuals of the 20s questioned the traditional values of nationalism, capitalism, and religion that led to such bloodshed. Psychoanalysis’ anti-moralistic penetration into the repressed regions of the human psyche proved to be a valuable method for understanding the en masse brutality of WWI and imagining alternative social and political structures. Cultural revolution could come from a revolution of the self.
Yet, while some thinkers and writers explored Freud’s theories for the sake of these more noble pursuits, for the majority of Americans, Freud’s scandalous discovery of the sexual libido as the root of all human endeavors was met with a sensationalism that overshadowed the intricacies of his method. Not only did Freud’s fear of American popularization come true by the mid-20s, but he himself became a part of the American popular culture as well. Daniel Akst writes:
“During the 1924 murder trial of Leopold and Loeb, Chicago Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormack cabled Freud with an offer of $25,000 or, as he put it in telegraphese, “anything he name,” to come to Chicago and psychoanalyze the killers. Later that year the movie producer Samuel Goldwyn (who called Freud “the greatest love specialist in the world”) offered him $100,000 to write for the screen or work as a consultant in Hollywood.”
Freud rapidly became known as the guru of all things sexual at a time when American popular culture was entering an age of sexual liberation. These attempts to commodify psychoanalysis for popular entertainment only served to reinforce Freud’s conviction that America was savagely materialistic and that its people sublimated their libido through money.
Beyond the fascination with the scandalous, psychoanalysis also gained popularity because its individualizing attention catered to the focus on the self that the rebels of the Jazz Age wished to cultivate. This revolution of the self with an infinitely explorable unconscious gave the individual’s naturally narcissistic sense of self-involvement a wholly new dimension of self to devote attention to that could be justified as the noble pursuit of mental health. There was now more self to fixate upon with varying degrees of fascinated self-love or loathing. McAlmon’s story mocks the results of the American popularization of psychoanalysis with Dania’s claim that she has “the mother, and brother complex.” This phrasing suggests the dilution of the psychoanalytic method that Freud feared where structural analysis of the psyche is replaced with the unqualified diagnosis of a few “complexes” that sound clinical, but ultimately mean nothing.
The young McAlmon recognizes the roots of pop-psychology, in which psychoanalysis would be progressively reduced to a few simple, memorable phrases for one’s own self-diagnosis and self-fascination. This was the “selling” of psychoanalysis in America via the reification of method and analysis into portable vocabulary. Under the belief that constant self-analysis is helping her to know herself intimately, Dania is instead presented as becoming more estranged from herself. Replying to Dania’s complaint that she cannot compel herself to pursue a handsome man that she sees everyday, the narrator states, “Why stand on the threshold of ‘experience’ eternally saying that you don’t live, but merely exist? You must set Rome afire if you’re going to sit watching the flames with enjoyment.” McAlmon calls attention to how constant self-analysis creates a substitute for one’s own existence. Instead of the risk of participating in her own life, she settles for the pleasure of commenting on herself from a distance. Pop-psychology satisfies the basic human will to knowledge, in which the satisfaction of having neatly identified and labeled our “complexes” is confused for the real benefit of actually working through them. She “enjoys her unhappiness”. McAlmon’s psychoanalyzed girl is the alienated subject of modernity who fetishizes her estrangement from her own existence at the expense of her ability to act upon it. Whether or not he knew it, McAlmon’s story in truth satirizes Freud’s nightmare of popularization and not the true psychoanalytic method itself.
The Psychoanalyzed Girl
By Robert McAlmon
Dania wasn’t in the room five minutes before she was telling whoever it was that sat near her that, “I am all tangled up psychologically. I have the mother, and brother complex.”
She was a strange girl, Dania, that is to a person not used to strange girls, and people who live in “Bohemian Quarters”. In Paris she could be seen walking about the Montparnasse district with a Paisley shawl thrown over her shoulders, a many-colored beribboned hat, mauve stockings, or pale green—some exotic colour always—and the skirt that showed beneath her coat made of Paisley shawl was generally a corded silk one with red, white, and green, broad and thread, stripes.
Needless to say people noticed her as she went by. They might have noticed her anyway, had she dressed quietly, because her eyes were soft brow, shaded with impossibly long eyelashes; her skin was bronze olive, and days when it might look sallow, Dania knew just how much rouge to put on to give her cheeks a warm glowing appearance. Very narrow shoulders she had drawn up within herself usually. She contradicted her own manner, giving alternately a quiet, mouselike impression, a hard embitteredly sophisticated one, and again an impression of confused, wounded naive childishness.
“I don’t know how to be happy, that’s me; don’t know how to have a good time, and when all these Americans here want me to go around I can’t find any pleasure in the noisy things they do”, she said, one day as I walked down the Boulevard Raspail with her. “There! That’s me. Analyzing myself again. Why can’t I leave myself alone?”
“You are suffering from life rather than from sickness, Dania”, I commented. “Don’t look so hard for happiness, and stay away from the Bohemians at the Rotonde who are neither labourers, artists, nor intelligent—only moping incompetents, scavengers of the art world.”
One day Dania hailed me from across the street, so we joined each other and when walking down the street together. It wasn’t till afterwards that I remembered how artfully Dania managed to stop and ask a direction of a young Frenchman, who was a helper about a piano van-wagon.
After talking about where a certain street was for five minutes, very conscious that his eyes were admiring her with open curiosity and desire in them, she came on saying: “Ain’t he the handsome devil though.”
“There you are, Dania; you say you want experience. He’ll take you on. Look back. His eyes are following you yet.”
The young Frenchman was a swarthy, black-eyed being; with lithe energy. He was wearing a red shirt, and had a red scarf bound about his waist making a corsage for him. Except for Dania, he’d simply have been part of the local colour of the quarter for me. Now I wondered whether he was from the South of France, or of Spanish or Italian descent. There’d been boldness, respect too, in his attitude towards Dania. He must have been Paris bred not to have had some shyness in him.
Another day I ran into Dania, and we passed the young Frenchman again, loading furniture into a van. He looked at Dania, and an expectant look came into his eyes. Dania was returning his glance from under her long eyelashes, and flickered a tiny smile at him, whereupon his entire set of straight teeth showed in a smile.
“He always smiles at me now”, Dania said.
“You pass him often do you?”
“O yes, I usually manage to come down this street at about the same time everyday, when he’s coming in on the van to the storage house to put up the truck…Isn’t it ridiculous though. He catches my fancy, but of course I couldn’t.”
“Rats, Dania, take a chance. Start something with him, if he doesn’t with you; and he will if you’ll bat your eye the right way. Why stand on the threshold of ‘experience’ eternally saying that you don’t live, but merely exist. You must set Rome afire if you’re going to sit watching the flames with enjoyment.”
It was useless for me to remark however. The last time I saw Dania, two months after that day, she said, “I’ll have to go back to New York and get psychoanalyzed. I must find out why I can’t have average emotions, and enjoy life just a little bit.”
“Tut, tut, woman. Some of them there will be telling you again that you’re setting out to hurt yourself because of perverse instinct in you when you slip on a wet floor because of new shoes.”
If one could be sure that Dania enjoyed her unhappiness as the only thing she dared permit to give importance to her egotism…But there she is—in Paris—Dania.