Lately, a lot of people in New York—why, I’m not entirely sure—have been sending me clippings about the decline and fall of psychoanalysis. Most of the reasons given for its disappearance make sense: people are happier, busier; the work done by the anti-Freudian skeptics has finally taken hold of the popular imagination, so that people have no time for analytic longueurs and no patience with its mystifications. Along with those decline-and-fall pieces, though, I’ve also been sent—and in this case I don’t entirely want to know why—a lot of hair-raising pieces about mental illness and its new therapies: about depressions, disasters, hidden urges suddenly (or brazenly) confessed and how you can cure them all with medicine. Talking is out, taking is in. When I go back to New York, some of my friends seem to be layered with drugs, from the top down, like a pousse-café: Rogaine on top, then Prozac, then Xanax, then Viagra. . . . In this context, my own experience in being doctored for mental illness seems paltry and vaguely absurd, and yet, in its way, memorable.
I was on the receiving end of what must have been one of the last, and easily one of the most unsuccessful, psychoanalyses that have ever been attempted—one of the last times a German-born analyst, with a direct laying on of hands from Freud, spent forty-five minutes twice a week for six years discussing, in a small room on Park Avenue decorated with Motherwell posters, the problems of a “creative” New York neurotic. It may therefore be worth recalling, if only in the way that it would be interesting to hear the experiences of the last man mesmerized or the last man to be bled with leeches. Or the last man—and there must have been such a man as the sixteenth century drew to a close and the modern age began—to bring an alchemist a lump of lead in the sincere belief that he would take it home as gold.
So it happened that on a night in October, 1990, I found myself sitting in a chair and looking at the couch in the office of one of the oldest, most patriarchal, most impressive-looking psychoanalysts in New York. He had been recommended to me by another patient, a twenty-year veteran of his couch. The choice now presents itself of whether to introduce him by name or by pseudonym, a choice that is more one of decorum than of legal necessity (he’s dead). To introduce him by name is, in a sense, to invade his privacy. On the other hand, not to introduce him by name is to allow him to disappear into the braid of literature in which he was caught—his patients liked to write about him, in masks, theirs and his—and from which, at the end, he was struggling to break free. He had, for instance, written a professional article about a well-known patient, in which the (let’s say) playwright who had inspired the article was turned into a painter. He had then seen this article, and the disputes it engendered, transformed into an episode in one of the playwright’s plays, with the playwright-painter now turned into a novelist, and then the entire pas de deux had been turned by a colleague into a further psychoanalytic study of the exchange, with the occupations altered yet again—the playwright-painter-novelist now becoming a poet—so that four layers of disguise (five, as I write this) gathered around one episode in his office. “Yes, but I received only one check” was his bland response when I pointed this out to him.
His name, I’ll say, was Max Grosskurth, and he had been practicing psychoanalysis for almost fifty years. He was a German Jew of a now vanishing type—not at all like the small, wisecracking, scared Mitteleuropean Jews that I had grown up among. He was tall, commanding, humorless. He liked large, blooming shirts, dark suits, heavy handmade shoes, club ties. He had a limp, which, in the years when I knew him, became a two-legged stutter and then left him immobile, so that our last year of analysis took place in his apartment, around the corner from the office. His roster of patients was drawn almost exclusively from among what he liked to call creative people, chiefly writers and painters and composers, and he talked about them so freely that I sometimes half expected him to put up autographed glossies around the office, like the ones on the wall at the Stage Deli. (“Max—Thanks for the most terrific transference in Gotham! Lenny”) When we began, he was eighty, and I had crossed thirty.
I’ve read that you’re not supposed to notice anything in the analyst’s office, but that first evening I noticed it all. There was the couch, a nice Charles Eames job. On one wall there was a Motherwell print—a quick ink jet—and, opposite, a framed poster of one of the Masaccio frescoes in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. I was instantly impressed. The two images seemed to position him (and me) between Italian humanism, in its first, rocky, realistic form, at one end, and postwar New York humanism, in its jumpy, anxiety-purging form, at the other. On a bookshelf beside him were nothing but bound volumes of a psychoanalytic journal, rising to the ceiling. (He had edited that journal for a time. “Let me give you some counsel,” he said to me much later. “Editing never means anything.”)
He was lit by a single shaded bulb, just to his left, in that kind of standing brass lamp with a long arcing neck. This put his face in a vaguely sinister half light, but, with his strong accent and the sounds of traffic out on Park Avenue and a headlight occasionally sweeping across the room, the scene had a comforting European melancholia, as though directed by Pabst.
Why was I there? Nothing interesting: the usual mixture of hurt feelings, confusion, and incomprehension that comes to early-arriving writers when the thirties hit. John Updike once wrote that, though the newcomer imagines that literary New York will be like a choir of angels, in fact it is like the Raft of the Medusa—and he was wrong about this only in that the people on the Raft of the Medusa still have hope. In New York, the raft has been adrift now for years, centuries, and there’s still no rescue boat in sight. The only thing left is to size up the others and wait for someone to become weak enough to eat.
I spilled out my troubles; told him of my sense of panic, anxiety; perhaps wept. He was silent for a minute—not a writer’s minute, a real one, a long time.
“Franz Marc was a draftsman of remarkable power,” he said at last: the first words of my analysis. His voice was deep and powerful, uncannily like Henry Kissinger’s: not quacky, pleading Viennese but booming, arrogant German.
The remark about Franz Marc was not quite apropos of nothing—he knew me to be an art critic—but very near. (Franz Marc was the less famous founder of the German Expressionist movement called Der Blaue Reiter; Kandinsky was the other.) He must have caught the alarmed look in my eyes, for he added, more softly, “There are many worth-while unexplored subjects in modern art.” Then he sat up in his chair—swallowed hard and pulled himself up—and for a moment I had a sense of just how aged he was.
“You put me in mind,” he said—and suddenly there was nothing the least old in the snap and expansive authority of his voice—“you put me in mind of Norman Mailer at a similar age.” (This was a reach, or raw flattery; there is nothing about me that would put anyone in mind of Norman Mailer.) “ ‘Barbary Shore,’ he thought, would be the end of him. What a terrible, terrible, terrible book it is. It was a great blow to his narcissism. I recall clearly attending dinner parties in this period with my wife, an extremely witty woman, where everyone was mocking poor Norman. My wife, an extremely witty woman . . .” He looked at me as though, despite the repetition, I had denied it; I tried to look immensely amused, as though reports of Mrs. Grosskurth’s wit had reached me in my crib. “Even my wife engaged in this banter. In the midst of it, however, I held my peace.” He rustled in his chair, and now I saw why he had sat up: he suddenly became a stiff, living pillar, his hands held before him, palms up—a man holding his peace in the middle of banter flying around the dinner table. A rock of imperturbable serenity! He cautiously settled back in his chair. “Now, of course, Norman has shown great resourcefulness and is receiving extremely large advances for his genre studies of various American criminals.”
From the six years of my analysis, or therapy, or whatever the hell it was, there are words that are as permanently etched in my brain as the words “E pluribus unum” are on the nickel. “Banter” and “genre studies” were the first two. I have never been so grateful for a mot juste as I was for the news that Mrs. Grosskurth had engaged in banter, and that Norman Mailer had made a resourceful turn toward genre studies. Banter, that was all it was: criticism, the essential competitive relations of writers in New York—all of it was banter, engaged in by extremely witty wives of analysts at dinner parties. And all you had to do was . . . refuse to engage in it! Hold your peace. Take no part! Like him—sit there like a rock and let it wash over you.
And then there was the wacky perfection of his description of the later Mailer, with its implications of knowing (not firsthand certainly; Mailer, as far as I know, had never been his patient) the inside story: he had, under stress, found appropriate genre subjects. American criminals. The whole speech, I thought, was so profound that it could be parsed and highlighted like one of those dog-eared assigned texts you find on the reserve shelf in undergraduate libraries: Artists suffered from narcissism, which made them susceptible to banter, which they could overcome by resourcefulness, which might lead them to—well, to take up genre studies. (“Genre studies,” I was to discover, was Grosskurthese for “journalism.” He often indulged in strangely Johnsonian periphrases: once, talking about Woody Allen, he remarked, “My wife, who was an extremely witty woman, was naturally curious to see such a celebrated wit. We saw him in a cabaret setting. I recall that he was reciting samples of his writings in a state of high anxiety.” It took me days of figuring—what kind of reading had it been? a kind of Weimar tribute evening?—to realize that Dr. and Mrs. Grosskurth had gone to a night club and heard the comedian’s monologue.)
I came away from that first session in a state of blissful suspended confusion. Surely this wasn’t the way psychoanalysis was supposed to proceed. On the other hand, it was much more useful—and interesting, too—to hear that Norman Mailer had rebounded by writing genre studies than it was to hear that my family was weird, for that I knew already. I felt a giddy sense of relief, especially when he added, sardonically, “Your problems remind me of”—and here he named one of the heroes of the New York School. “Fortunately, you suffer neither from impotence nor alcoholism. That is in your favor.” And that set the pattern of our twice- and sometimes thrice-weekly encounters for the next five years. He was touchy, prejudiced, opinionated, impatient, often bored, usually high-handed, brutally bigoted. I could never decide whether to sue for malpractice or fall to my knees in gratitude for such an original healer.
Our exchanges hardened into a routine. I would take the subway uptown at six-thirty; I would get out at Seventy-seventh Street, walk a couple of blocks uptown, and enter his little office, at the corner of Park Avenue, where I would join three or four people sitting on a bench. Then the door opened, another neurotic—sometimes a well-known neurotic, who looked as though he wanted to hide his face with his coat, like an indicted stockbroker—came out, and I went in. There was the smell of the air-conditioner.
“So,” he would say. “How are you?”
“Terrible,” I would say, sometimes sincerely, sometimes to play along.
“I expected no less,” he would say, and then I would begin to stumble out the previous three or four days’ problems, worries, gossip. He would clear his throat and begin a monologue, a kind of roundabout discussion of major twentieth-century figures (Freud, Einstein, and, above all, Thomas Mann were his touchstones), broken confidences of the confessional, episodes from his own life, finally snaking around to an abrupt “So you see . . .” and some thunderously obvious maxim, which he would apply to my problems—or, rather, to the nonexistence of my problems, compared with real problems, of which he’d heard a few, you should have been here then.
For instance: I raised, as a problem, my difficulty in finishing my book, in writing without a deadline. I raised it at length, circuitously, with emotion. He cleared his throat. “It is commonplace among writers to need extreme arousal. For instance, Martin Buber.” I riffled through my card catalogue: wasn’t he the theologian? “He kept pornography on the lecture stand with him, in order to excite him to a greater performance as a lecturer. He would be talking about ‘I and thou,’ and there he would be, shuffling through his papers, looking at explicit photographs of naked women.” He shook his head. “This was really going very far. And yet Buber was a very great scholar. It was appropriate for his approach. It would not be appropriate for you, for it would increase your extreme overestimation of your own role.”
Mostly, he talked about what he thought it took to survive in the warfare of New York. He talked about the major figures of New York literary life—not necessarily his own patients but writers and artists whose careers he followed admiringly—as though they were that chain of forts upstate, around Lake George, left over from the French and Indian War: the ones you visited as a kid, where they gave you bumper stickers. There was Fort Sontag, Fort Frankenthaler, Fort Mailer. “She is very well defended.” “Yes, I admire her defenses.” “Admirably well defended.” Once, I mentioned a famous woman intellectual who had recently got into legal trouble: hadn’t she been well defended? “Yes, but the trouble is that the guns were pointing the wrong way, like the British at Singapore.” You were wrung out with gratitude for a remark like that. I was, anyway.
It was his theory, in essence, that “creative” people were inherently in a rage, and that this rage came from their disappointed narcissism. The narcissism could take a negative, paranoid form or a positive, defiant, arrogant form. His job was not to cure the narcissism (which was inseparable from the creativity) but, instead, to fortify it—to get the drawbridge up and the gate down and leave the Indians circling outside, with nothing to do but shoot flaming arrows harmlessly over the stockade.
He had come of age as a professional in the forties and fifties, treating the great battlers of the golden age of New York intellectuals, an age that, seen on the couch—a seething mass of resentments, jealousies, and needs—appeared somewhat less golden than it did otherwise. “How well I recall,” he would begin, “when I was treating”—and here he named two famous art critics of the period. “They went to war with each other. One came in at ten o’clock. ‘I must reply,’ he said. Then at four-thirty the other one would come in. ‘I must reply,’ he would say. ‘No,’ I told them both. ‘Wait six months and see if anyone recalls the source of this argument.’ They agreed to wait. Six months later, my wife, that witty, witty woman, held a dinner party and offered some pleasantry about their quarrel. No one understood; no one even remembered it. And this was in the days when ARTnews was something. I recall what Thomas Mann said. . . .” Eventually, abruptly, as the clock on the wall turned toward seven-thirty, he would say, “So you see . . . this demonstrates again what I always try to tell you about debates among intellectuals.”
I leaned forward, really wanting to know. “What is that, Doctor?” I said.
“No one cares. People have troubles of their own. We have to stop now.” And that would be it.
I would leave the room in a state of vague, disconcerted disappointment. No one cares? No one cares about the hard-fought and brutally damaging fight for the right sentence, the irrefutable argument? And: People have troubles of their own? My great-aunt Hannah could have told me that. That was the result of half a century of presiding over the psyches of a major moment in cultural history? And then, fifteen minutes later, as I rode in a cab downtown my heart would lift—would fly. That’s right: No one cares! People have troubles of their own! It’s O.K. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it; it means you should do it, somehow, for its own sake, without illusions. Just write, just live, and don’t care too much yourself. No one cares. It’s just banter.
Sometimes his method of bringing me to awareness—if that was what he was doing—could be oblique, not to say bizarre. There was, for instance, the Volestein Digression. This involved a writer whose name was, shall we say, Moses Volestein. Dr. G. had once read something by him and been fascinated by his name. “What a terrible name,” he said. “Vole. Why would a man keep such a terrible name?” His name didn’t strike me as a burden, and I said so.
“You are underestimating the damage that this man’s name does to his psychic welfare,” he replied gravely. “It is intolerable.”
“I don’t think he finds it intolerable.”
“You are wrong.”
Then, at our next meeting: “Your resistance to my discussion of Volestein’s name at our last session is typical of your extreme narcissistic overestimation. You continue to underestimate the damage a name like that does to the human psyche.”
“Doctor, surely you overestimate the damage such a name does to the human psyche.”
“You are wrong. His family’s failure to change this name suggests a deep denial of reality.” He pursued Volestein’s name through that session and into the next, and finally I exploded.
“I can’t believe we’re spending another hour discussing Moses Volestein’s funny name!” I said. “I mean, for that matter, some people might think my own name is funny.”
He considered. “Yes. But your name is merely very ugly and unusual. It does not include a word meaning a shrewlike animal with unpleasant associations for so many people. It is merely very ugly.”
And then I wondered. My name— as natural to me as the sound of my own breathing? I had volunteered that it might be peculiar, out of some mixture of gallantry and point-scoring. But my hurt was enormous. My wife, who had kept her own name when we married—out of feminist principle, I had thought—said, “Yes, when we met I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t go out with you for a week because of it.” It was a shock as great as any I had received, and as salutary. Had he obsessed on Volestein with the intention of making me face Gopnik, in all its oddity, and then, having faced it, grasp some ironic wisdom? I had a funny name. And then the corollary: people could have funny names and go right on working. They might never even notice it. Years later, online, I found myself on a list of writers with extremely funny names—I suppose this is what people do with their time now that they are no longer in psychoanalysis—and I was, amazingly, happy to be there. So that was one score. Even your name could be absurd and you wouldn’t know it. And the crucial addition: it didn’t matter. Indifference and armor could get you through anything.
Sometimes Dr. Grosskurth would talk about his own history. He was born in Berlin before the First World War, at a time when German Jews were German above all. His mother had hoped that he would become a diplomat. But he had decided to study medicine instead, and particularly psychiatry; he was of that generation of German Jews who found in Freud’s doctrines what their physicist contemporaries found in Einstein’s. He had spoken out against the Nazis in 1933 and had been forced to flee the country at a moment’s notice. One of his professors had helped him get out. (He was notably unheroic in his description of this episode. “It was a lesson to me to keep my big mouth shut” was the way he put it.) He fled to Italy, where he completed medical school at the University of Padua.
He still loved Italy: he ate almost every night at Parma, a restaurant nearby, on Third Avenue, and spent every August in Venice, at the Cipriani. One spring, I recall, I announced that my wife and I had decided to go to Venice.
He looked at me tetchily. “And where will you stay?” he asked.
“At this pensione, the Accademia,” I said.
“No,” he said. “You wish to stay at the Monaco, it is a very pleasant hotel, and you will have breakfast on the terrace. That is the correct hostel for you.”
I reached into my pockets, where I usually had a stubby pencil, and searched them for a stray bit of paper—an American Express receipt, the back of a bit of manuscript paper—to write on.
“No, no!” he said, with disgust. My disorderliness was anathema to his Teutonic soul. “Here, I will write it down. Oh, you are so chaotic. Hand me the telephone.” I offered him the phone, which was on a small table near his chair, and he consulted a little black book that he took from his inside right jacket pocket. He dialled some long number. Then, in a voice even deeper and more booming than usual—he was raised in a time when long-distance meant long-distance—he began to speak in Italian.
“Sì, sono Dottore Grosskurth.” He waited for a moment—genuinely apprehensive, I thought, for the first time in my acquaintance with him—and then a huge smile, almost a big-lug smile, broke across his face. They knew him.
“Sì, sì,” he said, and then, his voice lowering, said, “No,” and something I didn’t understand; obviously, he was explaining that Mrs. Grosskurth had died. “Pronto!” he began, and then came a long sentence beginning with my name and various dates in giugno. “Sì, sì.” He put his hand over the receiver. “You wish for a bath or a shower?” he demanded.
“Bath,” I said.
“Good choice,” he said. It was the nearest thing to praise he had ever given me. Finally, he hung up the phone. He looked at the paper in his hand and gave it to me.
“There,” he said. “You are reserved for five nights, the room has no view of the canal, but, actually, this is better, since the gondola station can be extremely disturbing. You will eat breakfast on the terrace, and there you will enjoy the view of the Salute. Do not eat dinner there, however. I will give you a list of places.” And, on an “Ask Your Doctor About Prozac” pad, he wrote out a list of restaurants in Venice for me. (They were mostly, I realized later, after I got to know Venice a bit, the big old, fifties-ish places that a New York analyst would love: Harry’s Bar, Da Fiore, the Madonna.)
“You will go to these places, order the spaghetti vongole, and then . . .”
“And then at last you will be happy,” he said flatly.
He was so far from being an orthodox Freudian, or an orthodox anything, that I was startled when I discovered how deep and passionate his attachment to psychoanalytic dogma was. One day, about three years in, I came into his office and saw that he had a copy of The New York Review of Books open. “It is very sad,” he began. “It is very sad indeed, to see a journal which was once respected by many people descend into a condition where it has lost the good opinion of all reasonable people.” After a few moments, I figured out that he was referring to one of several much discussed pieces that the literary critic Frederick Crews had written attacking Freud and Freudianism.
I read the pieces later myself and thought them incontrovertible. Then I sat down to read Freud, for the first time—“Civilization and Its Discontents,” “Totem and Taboo,” “The Interpretation of Dreams”—and was struck at once by the absurdity of the arguments as arguments and the impressive weight of humane culture marshalled in their support. One sensed that one was in the presence of a kind of showman, a brilliant essayist, leaping from fragmentary evidence to unsupported conclusion, and summoning up a whole body of psychological myth—the Id, the Libido, the Ego—with the confidence of a Disney cartoonist drawing bunnies and squirrels. I found myself, therefore, in the unusual position of being increasingly skeptical of the therapeutic approach to which I fled twice a week for comfort. I finally got up the courage to tell Grosskurth this.
“You therefore find a conflict between your strongest intellectual convictions and your deepest emotional gratification needs?” he asked.
He shrugged. “Apparently you are a Freudian.”
This seemed to me a first-rate exchange, honors to him, but I couldn’t let it go. My older sister, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, regarded Freud as a comic relic (I had told her about my adventures in psychoanalysis), and in the midst of the New York Review debate she wrote one of the most devastating of the anti-Freud letters to the editor. She even made a passing, dismissive reference to the appeal of “figures of great personal charisma”—I knew whatthat was about—and then stated, conclusively, that there was nothing to be said in defense of psychoanalysis that couldn’t also be said in defense of magic or astrology. (“She is very well defended, your sister,” Grosskurth said.)
On behalf of his belief, Grosskurth would have said—did say, though over time, if not in these precise words—that while Freud may have been wrong in all the details, his central insight was right. His insight was that human life is shaped by a series of selfish, ineradicable urges, particularly sexual ones, and that all the other things that happen in life are ways of toning down these urges and giving them an “acceptable” outlet. An actual, undramatic but perilous world of real things existed, whose essential character was its indifference to human feelings: this world of real things included pain, death, and disease, but also many things unthreatening to our welfare. His project—the Freudian project, properly understood—was not to tell the story of our psyche, the curious drawing-room comedy of Id and Ego and Libido, but just the opposite: to drain the drama from all our stories. He believed that the only thing to do with the knowledge of the murderous rage within your breast was not to mythologize it but to put a necktie on it and heavy shoes and a dark-blue woollen suit. Only a man who knew that, given the choice, he would rape his mother and kill his father could order his spaghetti vongole in anything like peace.
There was, however, a catch in this argument, or so I insisted in the third year of my analysis, over several sessions and at great length. Weren’t the well-defended people he admired really the ones at the furthest imaginable remove from the real things, the reality, whose worth he praised so highly? Did Susan Sontag actually have a better grasp of things-as-they-are than anyone else? Would anybody point to Harold Brodkey as a model of calm appraisal of the scale of the world and the appropriate place of his ego in it? Wasn’t the “enormous narcissistic overestimation” of which he accused me inseparable from the “well-defended, internalized self-esteem” he wanted me to cultivate? The people who seemed best defended—well, the single most striking thing about them was how breathtakingly out of touch they were with the world, with other people’s feelings, with the general opinion of their work. You didn’t just have to be armored by your narcissism; you could be practically entombed in it, so that people came knocking, like Carter at King Tut’s tomb, and you’d still get by. Wasn’t that a problem for his system, or, anyway, for his therapy?
“Yes,” he said coldly.
“Oh,” I said, and we changed the subject.
My friends were all in therapy, too, of course—this was New York—and late at night, over a bottle of red wine, they would offer one “insight” or another that struck me as revelatory: “My analyst helped me face the recurring pattern in my life of an overprotectiveness that derives from my mother’s hidden alcoholism,” or “Mine helped me see more clearly how early my father’s depression shaped my fears,” or “Mine helped me see that my reluctance to publish my personal work is part of my reluctance to have a child.” What could I say? “Mine keeps falling asleep, except when we discuss Hannah Arendt’s sex life, about which he knows quite a lot.”
His falling asleep was a problem. The first few years I saw him, he still had a reasonably full schedule and our sessions were usually late in the day; the strain told on him. As I settled insistently (I had decided that if I was going to be analyzed I was going to be analyzed) into yet one more tiresome recital of grievances, injustices, anxieties, childhood memories, I could see his long, big, partly bald head nodding down toward the knot of his tie. His eyes would flutter shut, and he would begin to breathe deeply. I would drone on—“And so I think that it was my mother, really, who first gave me a sense of the grandiose. There was this birthday, I think my sixth, when I first sensed . . . ”—and his chin would nestle closer and closer to his chest, his head would drop farther, so that I was looking right at his bald spot. There was only one way, I learned, after a couple of disconcerting weeks of telling my troubles to a sleeping therapist, to revive him, and that was to gossip. “And so my mother’s relationship with my father reminds me—well, in certain ways it reminds me of what people have been saying about Philip Roth’s divorce from Claire Bloom,” I would say abruptly, raising my volume on the non sequitur.
Instantly, his head would jerk straight up, his eyes open, and he would shake himself all over like a Lab coming out of the water. “Yes, what are they saying about this divorce?” he would demand.
“Oh, nothing, really,” I would say, and then I would wing it for a minute, glad to have caught his attention.
Unfortunately, my supply of hot literary gossip was very small. So there were times (and I hope that this is the worst confession I will ever have to make) when I would invent literary gossip on the way uptown, just to have something in reserve if he fell asleep, like a Victorian doctor going off to a picnic with a bottle of smelling salts, just in case. (“Let’s see: what if I said that Kathy Acker had begun an affair with, oh, V. S. Pritchett—that would hold anybody’sinterest.”) I felt at once upset and protective about his sleeping. Upset because it was, after all, my nickel, and protective because I did think that he was a great man, in his way, and I hated to see him dwindling: I wondered how long he would go on if he sensed that he was dwindling.
Not long ago, I read, in a book about therapy, a reference to a distinguished older analyst who made a point of going to sleep in front of his patients. Apparently, Grosskurth—for who else could it have been?—was famous for his therapeutic skill in falling asleep as you talked. It was tactical, even strategic.
Or was he just an old man trying to keep a practice going for lack of anything better to do, and doing anything—sleeping, booking hotel rooms, gossiping, as old men do—so that he would not have to be alone? Either limitlessly shrewd or deeply pathetic: which was it? Trying to answer that question was one of the things that kept me going uptown.
As we went on into our fourth and fifth years, all the other problems that I had brought to him became one problem, the New York problem. Should my wife—should we—have a baby? We agonized over it, in the modern manner. Grosskurth listened, silently, for months, and finally pronounced.
“Yes, you must go ahead and have a child. You will enjoy it. The child will try your patience repeatedly, yet you will find that there are many pleasures in child-rearing.” He cleared his throat. “You will find, for instance, that the child will make many amusing mistakes in language.”
I looked at him, a little dumbfounded—that was the best of it?
“You see,” he went on, “at about the age of three, children begin to talk, and naturally their inexperience leads them to use language in surprising ways. These mistakes can really be extremely amusing. The child’s errors in language also provide the kinds of anecdotes that can be of value to the parents in a social setting.” It seemed an odd confidence on which to build a family—that the child would be your own, live-in Gracie Allen, and you could dine out on his errors—but I thought that perhaps he was only defining, so to speak, the minimal case.
So we did have the child. Overwhelmed with excitement, I brought him pictures of the baby at a week old. (“Yes,” he said dryly, peering at my Polaroids, “this strongly resembles a child.”) And, as my life was changing, I began to think that it was time to end, or anyway wind down, our relationship. It had been six years, and, for all that I had gained—and I thought that I had gained a lot: if not a cure, then at least enough material to go into business as a blackmailer—I knew that if I was to be “fully adult” I should break my dependence. And he was growing old. Already aged when we began, he was now, at eighty-five or six, becoming frail. Old age seems to be a series of lurches, rather than a gradual decline. One week he was his usual booming self, the next week there was a slow deliberateness in his gait as he came to the office door. Six months later, he could no longer get up reliably from his chair, and once fell down outside the office in my presence. His face, as I helped him up, was neither angry nor amused, just doughy and preoccupied, the face of a man getting ready for something. That was when we switched our sessions to his apartment, around the corner, on Seventy-ninth Street, where I would ring the bell and wait for him to call me in—he left the door open, or had it left open by his nurse, whom I never saw. Then I would go inside and find him—having been helped into a gray suit, blue shirt, dark tie—on his own sofa, surrounded by Hofmann and Miró engravings and two or three precious Kandinsky prints.
About a month into the new arrangement, I decided to move to Europe to write, and I told him this, in high spirits and with an almost breathless sense of advancement: I was going away, breaking free of New York, starting over. I thought he would be pleased.
To my shock, he was furious—his old self and then some. “Who would have thought of this idea? What a self-destructive regression.” Then I realized why he was so angry: despite all his efforts at fortification, I had decided to run away. Fort Gopnik was dropping its flag, dispersing its troops, surrendering its territory—all his work for nothing. Like General Gordon come to reinforce Khartoum, he had arrived too late, and failed through the unforgivable, disorganized passivity of the natives.
In our final sessions, we settled into a non-aggression pact. (“Have we stopped too soon, Doctor?” I asked. “Yes,” he said dully.) We talked neutrally, about art and family. Then, the day before I was to leave, I went uptown for our last session.
It was a five-thirty appointment, in the second week of October. We began to talk, amiably, like old friends, about the bits and pieces of going abroad, visas and vaccinations. Then, abruptly, he began to tell a long, meandering story about his wife’s illness and death, which we had never talked about before. He kept returning to a memory he had of her swimming back and forth in the hotel pool in Venice the last summer before her death.
“She had been ill, and the Cipriani, as you are not aware, has an excellent pool. She swam back and forth in this pool, back and forth, for hours. I was well aware that her illness was very likely to be terminal.” He shook his head, held his hands out, dealing with reality. “As soon as she had episodes of dizziness and poor balance, I made a very quick diagnosis. Still, back and forth she swam.”
He stopped; the room by now had become dark. The traffic on Seventy-ninth Street had thickened into a querulous, honking rush-hour crowd. He was, I knew, too shaky on his feet to get up and turn on the lights, and I thought that it would be indelicate for me to do it—they were his lights. So we sat there in the dark.
“Naturally, this was to be the last summer that we spent in Venice. However, she had insisted that we make this trip. And she continued to swim.” He looked around the room, in the dark—the pictures, the drawings, the bound volumes, all that was left of two lives joined together, one closed, the other closing.
“She continued to swim. She had been an exceptional athlete, in addition to being, as you know, an extremely witty woman.” He seemed lost in memory for a moment, but then, regaining himself, he cleared his throat in the dark, professionally, as he had done so many times before.
“So you see,” he said, again trying to make the familiar turn toward home. And then he did something that I don’t think he had ever done before: he called me by my name. “So you see, Adam, in life, in life . . .” And I rose, thinking, Here at our final session—no hope of ever returning, my bag packed and my ticket bought to another country, far away—at last, the truth, the point, the thing to take away that we have been building toward all these years.
“So you see, Adam, in retrospect . . .” he went on, and stirred, rose, on the sofa, trying to force his full authority on his disobedient frame. “In retrospect, life has many worthwhile aspects,” he concluded quietly, and then we had to stop. He sat looking ahead, and a few minutes later, with a goodbye and a handshake, I left.
Now I was furious. I was trying to be moved, but I would have liked to be moved by something easier to be moved by. That was all he had to say to me,Life has many worthwhile aspects? For once, that first reaction of disappointment stuck with me for a long time, on the plane all the way to Paris. All these evenings, all that investment, all that humanism, all those Motherwell prints—yes, all that money, my money—for that? Life has many worthwhile aspects? Could there have been a more fatuous and arrhythmic and unmemorable conclusion to what had been, after all, my analysis, my only analysis?
Now, of course, it is more deeply engraved than any other of his words. In retrospect, life has many worthwhile aspects. Not all or even most aspects. And not beautiful or meaningful or even tolerable. Just worthwhile, with its double burden of labor and reward. Life has worth—value, importance—and it takes a while to get there.
I came back to New York about a year later and went to see him. A woman with a West Indian accent had answered when I called his number. I knew that I would find him declining, but still, I thought, I would find him himself. We expect our fathers to take as long a time dying as we take growing up. But he was falling away. He was lying on a hospital bed, propped up, his skin as gray as pavement, his body as thin and wasted as a tree on a New York street in winter. The television was on, low, tuned to a game show. He struggled for breath as he spoke.
He told me, very precisely, about the disease that he had. “The prognosis is most uncertain,” he said. “I could linger indefinitely.” He mentioned something controversial that I had written. “You showed independence of mind.” He turned away, in pain. “And, as always, very poor judgment.”
In New York again, five months later, I thought, I’ll just surprise him, squeeze his hand. I walked by his building, and asked the doorman if Dr. Grosskurth was in. He said that Dr. Grosskurth had died three months before. For a moment I thought, Someone should have called me, one of his children. Yet they could hardly have called all his patients. (“But I was special!” the child screams.) Then I stumbled over to Third Avenue and almost automatically into Parma, the restaurant that he had loved. I asked the owner if he knew that Dr. Grosskurth had died, and he said yes, of course: they had had a dinner, with his family and some of his friends, to remember him, and he invited me to have dinner, too, and drink to his memory.
I sat down and began an excellent, solitary dinner in honor of my dead psychoanalyst—seafood pasta, a Venetian dish, naturally—and, in his memory, chewed at the squid. (He liked squid.) The waiter brought me my bill, and I paid it. I still think that the owner should at least have bought the wine. Which shows, I suppose, that the treatment was incomplete. (“They should have paid for your wine?” “It would have been a nice gesture, yes. It would have happened in Paris.” “You are hopeless. I died too soon, and you left too early. The analysis was left unfinished.”) The transference wasn’t completed, I suppose, but something—a sort of implantation—did take place. He is inside me. In moments of crisis or panic, I sometimes think that I have his woollen suit draped around my shoulders, even in August. Sometimes in ordinary moments I almost think that I have become him. Though my patience is repeatedly tried by my child, I laugh at his many amusing mistakes in language—I have even been known to repeat these mistakes in social settings. I refer often to the sayings of my wife, that witty, witty woman. On the whole, I would say that my years in analysis had many worthwhile aspects. ♦