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Biography, it strikes me, is one of the more bizarre genres
of Western literary production. Biography requires the reader to accomplish two
contradictory operations. The reader is asked to believe in the veracity of the
tale, whilst suspending anxieties about how this is achieved. Yet is it really
possible to tell the true story of anothers life, let alone sustain the
grander ambition of psycho-biographys claims to have access to the inner life
of the subjects intentions, motivations and so on? And what happens when
attempting o deal with a life composed of fleeting and limited forays in the
public eye? What is biography aiming at?
Charles Strozier, with his biography of Heinz Kohut, one of
the giants of the American psychoanalytical scene, proffers two sorts of
responses to my quandary. What a biography is the imposition of a narrative
on an inchoate past cannot be separated from what a biography aims at. Namely
to discover, illuminate, and disclose how a significant life came about (p.xii).
Part of this daunting task of reconstructing the private and the public facets
of anothers life is made a little easier for Strozier because Kohut has left
behind a testimony, a collection of jottings of his inner life, in the guise of
a case study titled Mr Z. Unlike other forms of memoir, the case study of Mr
Z promises to offer the knowing biographer unique insights into Kohuts mind.
Yet for all that, troubling questions and objections come to mind. Is Mr Z
really Heinz Kohut? (Mr Z is never identified by name). And if Mr Z really is
Kohut (which Strozier seems fairly sure), are we really witnessing the inner
going-ons of another, or is it yet another version of a self, claiming weight
and legitimacy by employing the impressive sounding vocabulary of
psychoanalytical discourse? In other words is self-analysis possible? Even the
most famous self-analysis of the psychoanalytic movement, that of Sigmund
Freuds, had another playing the crucial role of interlocutor. Who plays
Kohuts Fleiss as it were?
To move past these interminable questions of biography, the
parallel with Freuds self-analysis and Kohuts is more than coincidental. To
bring us back to Stroziers title, this is the story of how one psychoanalyst
is made. Stroziers central thesis is clear enough. Kohut, after several false
starts, becomes a psychoanalyst in more than name when he discovers the courage
and, dare I say it, the humility, to think beyond his master. The master in
question is not Freud per se, but the deadweight of the psychoanalytic
institutions in North American, which had reduced psychoanalysis to a practice
more closely resembling a guild, with its rites of passage and mimetic
transmission of knowledge. Kohut, of course, was a major figure in initially
supporting and continuing this state of affairs in the American institutions.
To find out why this was so, and also the reasons behind Kohut breaking away,
Strozier gives us biography.
Kohut, we discover via Strozier, was a deeply unattractive
character. In fact, a difficulty in reading his biography, without the prism of
genius to sustain me, was having to grapple with a story of a man who
dedicates much of his long life in self-serving and status-seeking enterprises.
For example the Second World War seems for Kohut an event primarily aimed at
thwarting his burgeoning career. Particularly gruelling to take are Kohuts
complaints in regards to the displaced persons camp in Britain, and the
avoidance of national service once Kohut settles in the United States. True, if
Kohut didnt perceive himself as Jewish, it must have been terribly frustrating
to be bureaucratically processed and interned as one, but ones sympathy stretches
only so far, especially when most of Europes Jewry were being marked for
extermination. Strozier momentarily raises the issue of Kohuts war record as
an issue of concern and a marker of a certain character defect. Somehow, Kohut
missed the draft and the war, for which he later gave at least two mutually
But the lies are telling. On certain issues, Kohut, it
seemed, needed to deceive (, p.73-73.) But to deceive whom, and to what ends? Uncle Sam and the war
aims? One would have thought that Kohut, a person with extensive medical
training and who had already directly experienced the racial politics of Nazi
Germany, would have been strongly motivated to become involved. Yet Strozier,
who throws up the idea of Kohuts avoidance, doesnt take this line of
inquiry far enough. What does Strozier think lies at the heart of Kohuts
behaviour? Instead Strozier focuses on the start of Kohuts brilliant and
single-minded career in psychoanalysis at the Chicago Institute.
One is told repeatedly of Kohuts genius, coupled with his
determination and adroitness at playing the political games of psychoanalytic
a detailed and critical analysis of psychoanalytic institutions in North
America, Strozier refers us to Douglas Kirsners excellent book Unfree
But I must confess, I didnt really get a sense of why Kohut was driven by such
a large ambition, whilst retaining such a muted enthusiasm for psychoanalysis.
One gets the impression that psychoanalysis for Kohut is a practice to be
dutifully learned through the enactment of a series of rituals and techniques.
But this is precisely what psychoanalysis is not starting with the imperative
of the analysts own analysis.
Psychoanalysis, at this point in Stroziers narrative (the
1940s), is entering into a position of widespread clinical acceptance within
public institutions, accompanied by respectability and power. One suspects that
if Kohut were plotting his career today, it would be in the hegemonic field of
The low point of Stroziers biography coincides with his
description of a woman with whom Kohut has a relationship. She is described as
possessing high Anglo-Saxon cheekbones (this really is Iain Fleming terrain).
Yet, once past this point, Stroziers narrative steadily builds in interest and
importance. Kohut faces courageously both the death of his overbearing mother
(is there any other type in psycho-biography?), and his own mortality. Strozier
conveys skilfully the parallel between these biographical facts and the sea
change building in Kohuts professional life. Kohuts near pathological demand
to be loved, evidenced in this self-absorbed life of impressing yet conforming,
diminishes, opening (literally) a new chapter in his profession life that
centres on the concepts of self and empathy as the way forward for
psychoanalysis. (See in particular Stroziers account of Kohuts wooing of Anna Freud
in lobbying for the presidency of the International Psychoanalytical
Kohut, of course, does much more than emphasize the self and
empathy with his new orientation. Gone, for example, is the conceptual primacy
of the drives, overtaken by the primacy of self-forms and its selfobjects. This
turn away from Freudian concepts, from the formations of the unconscious to the
psychology of the self, is motivated by an absolutely crucial and key question:
What is the aim of psychoanalysis? Is it simply to reconcile one to the forces
beyond ones control, or should it hold larger ambitions for example, in
regards to its ability to change the course of others lives? This is a question
that needs to be approached beyond the commonplace either/or schema of
pessimism versus optimism, which Strozier characterises Kohuts innovation
vis-à-vis Freud. It is also a question that leads ultimately to a
sometimes-tiresome debate regarding the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis
and how far can one go in not adhering to them and still claim psychoanalysis as
an orientation. Yet ironically it is precisely this moment, when there is a
question mark over Kohuts theoretical fidelity that he seems to finally assume
the full symbolic function of the psychoanalyst.
For Strozier, concerns or questions such ass these are
glossed over in his assertion of Kohut as genius and saviour of the
psychoanalytic movement. The first assertion is carried through the book as an
unwavering article of faith, but from this distance, these claims seem both
overstated and a little silly (evidenced by titles such as The Making of a
Hero for example).
The strength of Stroziers book for me lies less in a
sterile debate over Kohuts status as genius or saviour, and more in Stroziers
rich detail, which captures well the rather strange life and history of an
analyst in North America, when psychoanalysis was king.
© 2002 Craig Smith
Craig Smith co-edited Female Sexuality:
The Early Psychoanalytic Controversies (1999) and is currently
completing his PhD at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.