Review of David Beisel and Irene Javors’ Genres of the Imagination (West Nyack, NY: Amazon Books, Circumstantial Productions, 2021), ISBN 978-0-578-24876-9, 52 pages, paperback, $11.95, Amazon Books Kindle version, $5.95.

This small book is a model for new ways to think about and write psychohistory. It is divided into three parts: an exploration of film noir, an examination of aspects of jazz, and a section called

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Riffs in which the authors comment on their essays, interweaving personal reflections on what they have written.

As I read the first part on film noir, I began to think about how technological innovation—particularly the camera and moving pictures—created a new visual world. The multiple resources found in the invention of cameras revolutionized creative processes where darkrooms performed magic and produced an audience of strangers huddled in darkened theaters, enabling them to release their emotions and validate visions of worlds both on a par with ours and worlds never dreamt of. This revolutionary medium produced modes of experience that continue to engage us.

In our jaded times, we will assume that film fixes reality by enthralling us and stimulating our latent creative responses. Our imaginations are awakened, given new opportunities for living and reliving, escaping and dreaming. The prospects seem inexhaustible. Understandably, we welcome such occasions for sharing our experience. Audiences may chuckle, smirk, giggle, cheer, scream, or laugh out loud. Such subjective interplays confirm our common humanity. They originated, of course, in Greek tragedy’s catharsis. The audience’s immersion in the hero’s enterprise awakened passions of destructive power. Look at what happened to Oedipus! The lessons were: Purge your system of such destructive urges and beware of incest’s fateful lure.

Our present authors evoke these principles when they cite Duke Ellington’s “You’ve got to find a way of saying it without saying it.” Beisel complies by creating his own spaces. His essay on the British film The Third Man (1947) distinguishes latent from manifest plots, as in Freud on dreams, while Irene Javors’ essay on the Billy Wilder film Ace in the Hole (1951) looks at the social and psychological causes and consequences of spectacle and spectacles within spectacles. The characters in The Third Man evoke parallels with and illuminate the historical aftermath of World War II. Hunger, rationing, and scarcity converge in the blighted career of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) who has invited his friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) to postwar Vienna.

Martins discovers upon arriving in Vienna that his friend has been “involved in a shady black market racket.” Martins embarks on a quest driven by an “idealized image¨ of Lime. He bonds with his friend’s former mistress and the two seek clues regarding a third man supposedly present at Harry’s death. The narrative exposes

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the “feelings of fragmentation, disorientation, and despair” that made up Europe and America’s postwar “hidden emotional underside” (p. 14).

Javors’ exploration of Ace in the Hole weaves together Wilder’s underlying critique of American culture with the director’s varied personal experiences before emigrating to the U.S. It shows how those psychological consequences are expressed in the film and the ways in which media—print and implicitly the film itself—carries deep social and psychological messages to audiences.

Beisel’s chapter on “Aspects of Jazz,” could serve, as could all of the essays, as a model for psychohistorical inquiry. At the essay’s outset, the subject matter is bracketed, covering the 120-year history of jazz. The range and complexity of the essay follow jazz’s “presumed pornographic origins” binding it to “bordellos, speakeasies, manic dancing [styles], out of control Id impulses released by wild ‘jungle’ music, illegal drugs, alcohol, black people.” Nowadays gentrified as “fine art” and “America’s vernacular music” it is associated with democracy, freedom, and liberation. Still, despite these honors and multiple adoptions, jazz has paradoxically been “bedeviled by its associations with its sordid and dangerous past,” comprising its distinctive aura. Aesthetic improvisations provide the hallmark of the chapter’s title: “Aspects of Jazz.” These invite daring-to-be different liberated feelings that offset the “down side of potential anxiety and depression” (p. 31) also embedded in the nature of the music.

Psychohistorical perspectives enter with jazz music, a sublimation like all music, but with over-determinants of “anger with a vengeance” (pp. 30-31). They inflame feelings of rejection and alienation from the dominant society. Jazz then enacts psychodynamic healing. It proffers a home for the outcast via a family romance of reparenting with a star-studded array of role models. The essay closes with a follow-up poem by lyricist and poet Fran Landesman titled “Jazz Aliens,” which explores a “special few” who “come from away” yet whose “music chooses you.” Their “haunting melodies can “touch our tender parts.” “Each has a mission/No other singer has/They bring us visions/Straight from planet Jazz.” Performers and participants are reborn on the planet of healing.

Irene Javors’ contribution to the jazz section is a detailed narrative of the role of a particular venue (and by implication, all jazz venues) with the opening of Barney Josephson’s nightclub

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Café Society in Greenwich Village in 1938. From the outset, the café was intended as part of a Popular Front effort to change society by concretizing social injustice through various means, including presenting racially integrated jazz music symbolized by Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” every night to a racially mixed audience. Javors points out that the lack of documents limits access to Josephson´s inner world, though his motives seem to have been driven by his Jewish background, the political affiliations of family members, and what he witnessed in the cabarets of Europe in the 1920s.

The book’s final section ties the authors’ essays together, providing coherence to the whole enterprise as their dialogue shows how their personal interests and experiences interacted with those earlier psychohistorical narratives. Throughout, each maintains their unique voices, yet the final section illustrates how enriching their collaboration has been as their writing works individually and collectively to encourage readers to bring their own memories and experiences to the journey.

Javors’ “On Psyche and Culture” is a case in point. It expands on this perspective by considering first how jazz can “bear witness to societal wrongs” and expresses “emotions from joy to anger to grieving for our disappointments and losses.” Likewise, noir films “reveal the savagery underlying so-called civilization and civilized behavior.” Javors includes a valuable psychohistorical dimension by exploring how her “childhood experiences could be characterized as pages out of a noir playbook.” Duke Ellington’s admonition to find “ways of saying it without saying it” (p. 41) is accomplished by inviting readers to make their own connections, thus pointing a new way to writing psychohistory.

The music and film of a particular time are historical documents that show the overt and hidden forces molding the zeitgeist of that time. Uniquely among the arts, movies explore how culture is shaped by the psyche and vice-versa, as we find that what’s out there also lives in here. The world we are busy making is also making us. This is the mysterious interplay addressed by psychohistory. When an enterprise such as the present book succeeds, we are all enriched.

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Authors:

Dan Dervin

Dan Dervin, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Mary Washington University. He has written essays and poetry on a wide variety of subjects. His most recent book is The Digital Child (2018). He can be reached at ddervin@umw.com.

How to Cite This:

Dervin, D. (2022). Beisel and Javors’ new visions of psychohistory. Review of the book Genres of the Imagination, by David Beisel. Clio’s Psyche, 28(3), 377-380.

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