Robert McAlmon’s Psychoanalyzed Girl and the Popularization of Psychoanalysis in America


Robert McAlmon’s “Psychoanalyzed Girl”

and the Popularization of Psychoanalysis in America

by Chase Dimock

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.


Image: Freud (far left seated) and Jung (far right, seated) at Clark University in 1909

The Cognitive Turn in Theory and Cultural Studies: A Review of Patrick Colm Hogan’s Understanding Nationalism

[The following review-essay was originally published in Inside Higher Education.]

The Cognitive Turn in Theory and Cultural Studies: A Review of Patrick Colm Hogan’s Understanding Nationalism

by Okla Elliott

1. Academic Triangulation: An Analysis of the Paratextual Aspects of Understanding Nationalism

In critical theory—or, perhaps, Theory with a capital “T” as some would have it—many scholars’ use of such thinkers as Marx, Freud, Lacan, etc (all thinkers whose fields have been heavily updated with empirical research since their contributions) can seem like an attempt to explain the movement of celestial bodies via Copernican mechanics. This of course is not to suggest that these thinkers are entirely non-productive or that they got everything wrong. After all, Copernicus’s model for equinoctial measurements is still used today (roughly putting March 21 as the marker of spring’s coming and September 23 as that of autumn’s), and his calculations of the Earth’s precessional period (a sort of wobbling on its axis) was within 99.9% of current astronomers’ calculations. Also, the so-called Copernican Revolution informs our current ideology much more than any contribution Niels Bohr made to the field of science. That said, Copernicus would not be able to get Verizon’s satellites into orbit, allowing me to email this review to my editor, so it is worth thinking of the advances that have been made.

In order to locate Patrick Colm Hogan’s book in the overall academic discourse, I propose we continue to borrow from the field of astronomy, this time the term “parallax shift”—which Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek has also made use of, though in a much more radical way than I propose we do here. A parallax shift is the apparent displacement of an object caused by actual change in the position of the point of observation; most importantly, the angular amount of such change in position. Using some basic geometry, these angular shifts can be used to triangulate the distances between various objects, thus locating them in space.

But what objects ought we to use to triangulate location within the academic cosmology? For a rudimentary location, we can use the paratextual aspects of a book to measure the parallax shift and thus triangulate its location. I offer here such a triangulation of Hogan’s Understanding Nationalism.

First off, we see that the book is part of Ohio State University’s Narrative Series, edited by James Phelan and Peter Rabinowitz. This lets us know certain things about the book. It will be concerned with the structures of narrative and with cognitive psychology. It also lets us know it will be first-rate overall (even if one happens to disagree with all or part of the book), given that series’ excellent reputation.

Secondly, the Index to the book tells us volumes alone. Number of references to Derrida: 0. Number of references to Foucault: 0. Spivak: 0. Lacan: 0. Hegel: 1 (but only in passing). Antonio Negri: 1. Chomsky (both as linguist and political thinker): 5 (though my count has it at 7, if you include the Introduction, which the Index doesn’t). Judith Butler: 0. Freud: 3 (though the Index doesn’t list any of them, despite their being in the book’s main text). Benedict Anderson: 26 (and 1 more in the Intro). There are over a hundred references to various cognitive psychology experiments, papers, books, and theorists. And while Marx gets no direct mention, “Marxists” are mentioned 6 times.

And the last paratextual aspect we’ll consult is simply the author’s bio: Patrick Colm Hogan is a professor in the English Department, the Program in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, and the Program in Cognitive Science at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. From this, I think we can safely assume that we’ll get a comparative approach that incorporates several languages, literatures, and disciplines. And, indeed, we do.

As the final word I’ll offer on the book’s and its author’s location in the academic cosmology, I’ll say that the clarity of his writing style, his consistent use of cognitive psychology and analytic philosophical techniques, and the authorities he cites generally (though not dogmatically) locate Hogan on certain sides of current academic debates. He seems more sympathetic to the analytic philosophical tradition than to the so-called continental tradition—though he doesn’t have any axe to grind on this matter, since he happily makes use of the likes of Marx(ists), Freud, and Negri; but his methodology is clearly analytic. He also clearly falls on the Chomsky side of the Chomsky-Foucault debate about linguistics and human nature—that is, he believes that there are similarities between human languages and that these are due to neurobiological and cognitive psychological factors found across the species. I wish I could offer an unbiased assessment here, but Chomksy’s Universal Grammar model has been proven time and again to be as accurate as any scientific theory could hope to be. Foucault’s work on power and biopolitics is groundbreaking, and it is likely a (minor) flaw of Hogan’s book that Foucault’s talk of power and the mechanisms of biopolitics are not mentioned, but this reviewer at least is happy to see a more careful and scientific discussion of linguistics among literary theorists. Foucault was right about a lot of things, and his thinking has proven productive in several fields, but there is zero evidence that he was right about human language acquisition and composition, while there is and continues to be more and more overwhelming evidence that Chomsky is right, but perhaps more importantly, Foucault’s linguistic approach is all but totally nonproductive, especially if the task before us is understanding nationalism, which here it is. Also, given the total domination of the Foucauldian view in literature departments, it is heartening to see another approach taken. This is what I will refer to as the cognitive turn in theory and cultural studies (echoing the similar turn in the social sciences), and it’s a movement I would like to see carried further.

But again, I want to stress that Hogan does not have any axe to grind and never brings up these academic turf wars and even ought to be excluded from them, since he makes use of various competing traditions, using whatever tools will yield the most productive results and provide the strongest explanatory accounts of nationalism and its mechanics. I only mention these turf wars here for the purpose of locating him within these intellectual traditions.

2. Five Hierarchies and Four Metaphors

Hogan’s primary interest in this book is how in-group and out-group identities are formed and reinforced. He writes: “…each of us has countless identities. But these do not have equal importance to our self-concepts and they do not have equal motivational force. I have isolated five parameters governing the hierarchization of identity categories—salience, durability, functionality, opposability, and affectivity” (65). Let’s look briefly at his definitions of each of these five hierarchies.

His explanation of salience is thus:

…some conceptual categories and some objective properties are more salient than others. Suppose I look into a room. The room has some furniture, a few gum wrappers on the floor, a movie poster, and a corpse. If someone asks me what is in the room, I am likely to ignore the furniture, gum wrappers, and movie poster, mentioning only the dead body. This is because the corpse has a high degree of salience. Salience has two aspects. First, it involves the intrinsic properties of the object…For example, things that are smelly or loud tend to be highly salient. Second, salience involves relational characteristics. These are a matter of subjective propensities that link one to the object in attention-eliciting ways. (58)

Notice here that he claims objects have intrinsic aspects. This is the kind of thing scientists assume regularly, whereas most Theorists do not. But let’s set our triangulation aside for the moment and carry on with the terminology Hogan introduces.

Of durability Hogan writes:

Other things being equal, we prefer categories that refer to more durable properties. In connection with categorical identity, we need to distinguish two levels of durability. On the one hand, there is the degree to which an individual’s category status may change. On the other hand, there is the degree to which the social group isolated by the category is itself enduring…In the case of identity categories, then, high durability means that I am unlikely to leave the group and the group itself is unlikely to dissolve. With respect to both levels, nonelective identity categories, such as race, tend to have an advantage over elective categories, such as religion, nation, or class. (60)

And so, durability is key to the hierarchization of in-group/out-group considerations. There are racial tensions between, say, African-Americans and Irish-Americans, despite the their sharing the second half of that hyphenate; and the differences, even if they don’t lead to tensions, are more durable in regard to race. One can convert to Catholicism; converting to another race is, to say the least, slightly more difficult (though cosmetic surgical techniques are and will likely continue to change this fact). But durability alone is not enough to explain in-group/out-group divisions that are the undergirdings of nationalism.

Which brings us to functionality. Hogan writes:

But durability too is insufficient. Consider a very simple case. I am presented with a $100 bill in a plastic bag. Paper is not very durable. Plastic bags (I gather) are. However, I am very unlikely to categorize this gift as “plastic.” I am likely to say, “Wow! One hundred dollars!” The reason for this is straightforward: We also choose characterizations based on importance, usefulness, value. Not that this is not confined to positive value. A large credit card bill in a plastic bag would have the same consequences. In the case of identity categories, it not quite accurate to speak of value. Rather, we would say that categories have greater or lesser functionality. (60)

So, while there are many categories of varying durability, it is essential to look at the social functions of the categories as well.

That said, however, Hogan goes on to explain that “a very common property may be highly functional, durable, and salient. But it is unlikely to trigger categorization. When we are treating identity, one of our main concerns is distinctiveness” (61). But how do we get at distinctiveness? Hogan offers the following:

If a particular feature varies in slight increments from one person to another, then it is a less likely choice categorization than if a feature varies in large steps. The limiting case of this is bipolar division Thus, a sharp, bipolar division is more likely to be high in our hierarchy of categories than is a more smoothly graduated set of differences. I refer to this as opposability. (62)

This makes an immediate sort of sense, though I am immediately reminded of the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda who shared nearly every physical and cultural trait, except for the slightest of distinctions, and those largely made up and not even discernable to most. That said, Hogan’s theory is not without merit. One type of identity category scores very high in opposability—sex. And here we see distinctions of the broadest sort made across all cultures.

But Hogan adds one more category to his list—affectivity. He writes:

It is not, then, simply a matter of ideas. It is also a matter of motives. These motives derive their force from our emotional engagements or the category’s affectivity, our final parameter.

In order for nationalism to have concrete, practical effects, citizens must feel something about that national category. Our emotional response is in part a simple result of labeling, as we have already seen. It is a matter of categorical identification triggering responses in the amygdale or insula in the case of out-groups, and perhaps regions such as the basal ganglia (which are connected with trust; see King-Casas et al.), in the case of in-groups. (63)

Here is another strength of the book, one that my other quoted passages have not sufficiently illustrated. Hogan makes regular use of striking cognitive psychological and neurobiological experiments as evidence to back up his claims, and while he admits these experiments are not 100% accurate yet, they do at least offer excellent scientific guidelines for how the brain processes events and data of the sort pertinent to a discussion of nationalism. (Here I am again reminded of our friend, Copernicus, who did not get everything right, but who brought our thought and scientific accuracy centuries forward with his book Revolutions.)

Hogan also offers an interesting account of metaphors in order to set the groundwork for how metaphors work in the discussion of nationalism. What is admirable and most useful here is that he takes into account so many languages and finds the commonality among them. This is another place where Hogan strikes me as Chomskyian. One might even be tempted to say he is looking for a Universal Grammar of Metaphors.

It is via this work of metaphors that literature becomes particularly interesting in terms of nationalism—and I think we should define the term “literature” as broadly as possible.

Here are, in brief, his four categories of metaphors: “inferential (metaphors that guide our thought about a target), articulatory (metaphors that facilitate our communication of ideas about a target), emotional (metaphors that facilitate our communicative transferal of feelings regarding a target), and unmotivated (metaphors that express a spontaneous recognition of parallels, initially without further functions)” (130).

Hogan goes on to make a quite convincing schema of how these metaphors are used in both organized propaganda and organically arising nationalist sentiments. There isn’t space here to elaborate on his analysis, so you’ll simply have to read the book for this and other reasons.

3. Conclusion, In Which I Argue That This Book Matters and You Should Buy and/or Teach It

Nationalism is a force that has driven much of history—ranging from recent debates on the Iraq War or immigration here in the US to the India-Pakistan conflict to more distant phenomena such as Nazism and earlier ones going back as far as ancient Persia and Rome, and so on. It is, however, worth noting that while the word has taken on a generally negative connotation among activists and intellectuals, there are also anti-colonial nationalism(s) and pro-democracy nationalism(s), to name but two of the types of nationalisms many activists and intellectuals would likely feel at least some sympathy for, if not support outright. Nationalism might therefore be the single-most important point of cultural and historical study—that is, if we judge importance in terms of human lives (or deaths) and historical forces. It is for this reason that Patrick Colm Hogan’s Understanding Nationalism is such a necessary investigation.

It is not, however, merely the topic that makes the book valuable. Many books are published on the subject every year, and many smart and useful ones even. But what makes Understanding Nationalism unique is its methodology. Hogan attempts to explicate nationalism via an admirably interdisciplinary approach. He makes use of cognitive science as fluently as political science; quotes as freely from the Persian national epic, The Shanahmeh, as he does from Walt Whitman; imports the insights of Noam Chomsky the linguist as or more readily than Noam Chomsky the political thinker.

Understanding Nationalism is an excellent book, one that could (and should) be used in a variety of classrooms—e.g., political science, cultural studies/critical theory, literature, sociology, cognitive psychology, and even advanced rhetoric courses (depending on the class’s focus of course). It has been often said that all critical theory (or Theory) must be interdisciplinary, and that it must be productive and applicable in many fields. Despite going rather strongly against the stream of post- and anti-structuralist trends in critical theory and cultural studies today, Hogan’s Understanding Nationalism certainly qualifies as critical theory of the highest order.

In airing his frustrations with the task before him, Copernicus wrote in Revolutions that “the courses of the planets and the revolution of the stars cannot be determined by exact calculations and reduced to perfect knowledge.” This is the difficulty of doing careful evidence-based scientific analyses—the constant frustrations of failure—but the rewards of such inquiry are, if you’ll excuse the pun, astronomical. I applaud Hogan for his contribution and wish his book great success. I can only hope it receives the attention it deserves.