Remembering Paul Roazen: Role Model, Mentor, Teacher, and Critic

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Daniel Burston, Duquesne University

Thirty years ago, when I was but twenty, I read a book that—quite literally—changed my life.  It was Paul Roazen’s Brother Animal (1986).  During the previous two years, I had struggled with a series of books by and about Freud, C.G. Jung, the Glover brothers, Erich Fromm, and Erik Erikson.  The impressions I had gleaned of Freud’s personality from these disparate sources did not create a clear or consistent impression.  Freud doubtlessly was a major thinker of the twentieth century, but Freud the man was a mystery to me, rendered all the more elusive by the dense controversies that swirled around him.

By a fortunate coincidence, before reading Brother Animal, I had read Erich Fromm, Sigmund Freud’s Mission: An Analysis of His Personality and Influence (NY: Harper & Row, 1959).  Fromm had argued that there was a strong authoritarian streak in Freud, a trait that manifested itself in a certain emotional coldness in his dealings with others.  I was still mulling this argument over when Brother Animal came to my attention.  Fromm had used fragments of Freud’s dreams and a few tidbits of correspondence to make his case.  Initially, I found this approach quite original.  When I read Roazen’s gloss on the correspondence between Lou Salome and Sigmund Freud with respect to Tausk’s analysis and suicide, I was completely blown away.  Even now, I remember being struck by the convergence between Fromm and Roazen’s perspectives, though Roazen’s reflections were more powerfully persuasive.  Thirteen years later, while researching The Legacy of Erich Fromm (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991),I discovered that, like myself, Fromm had initially greeted Roazen’s revelations with considerable shock, but in due course, had only praise for Paul’s clarity and courage.  I soon discovered Fromm warmly recommended Brother Animal to all his students in Mexico and the United States, most of whom read the book with considerable appreciation.

Meanwhile, having read Brother Animal, I quickly acquired a copy of Roazen’s first book, entitled Freud: Political and Social Thought (1968), which was stimulating but dense.  Freud and his Followers, which I read next, was thoroughly engrossing—an absolutely riveting read (1971).  I finished it in two days, and wanted more.  Together with Henri Ellenberger’s book, The Discovery of the Unconscious (NY: Basic Books, 1970), another monumental eye-opener, these glorious discoveries prompted me to devote myself to studying the politics and history of psychoanalysis, and the applications of psychoanalysis to the study of politics, history, and religion.  Since Roazen taught at York University in my hometown of Toronto, I resolved to study with him, and during my undergraduate career, I majored in Political Science, which was Paul’s primary discipline.

In retrospect, I suppose my exposure to Paul’s ideas and personality was fairly intensive.  Much of my second and third years centered around my course work with him.  I was dazzled and occasionally confused by his richly stimulating, but poorly organized, lectures on Freud and his followers.  These were leavened with lengthy reflections on Norman O. Brown, Phillip Rieff, John Stuart Mill, Isaiah Berlin, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Thoreau, T.E. Lawrence, Rilke, Frost, Alexis de Tocqueville, William Bullitt, Harold Laswell, Walter Lippmann, and Herbert Marcuse.  It was quite an education! Though I already entertained some strong suspicions on this score, Paul made it crystal clear to me that Freud’s overall sensibility was profoundly undemocratic, anti-American and utterly disdainful of the experimental method.  I also remember an illuminating exchange when Paul noted my stubborn misconception of Freud as some kind of blunt, Germanic truth teller.  He pointed out that Freud was Viennese, after all, and furnished me and my classmates with several vignettes of sugar-coated and strategic insincerity on Freud’s part that left some of us in stitches.

Thus far, it may seem as if Paul only dwelt on Freud’s less admirable qualities, but that is not the case.  While perfectly candid about these features of Freud’s personality, Paul also had boundless admiration for Freud’s courage and originality, his willingness to transgress normal disciplinary boundaries to reach profound or illuminating insights into human nature and society, and his stubborn unwillingness to compromise when fundamentals were at stake.  He was also quite tolerant of Freud’s contradictions and made the point that notable inconsistencies between theory and practice are not always evidence of base hypocrisy, but sometimes operate for the better, rather than the worse.

While doing my master’s degree, I switched from political science to an interdisciplinary program in social and political thought, but was still Paul’s teaching assistant for one year.  That, too, was an education, albeit of a different sort.  In person, Paul was warm and accessible.  He was a good listener, and generous with his time.  But in the classroom, Paul often overwhelmed undergraduates with the breadth and diversity of his historical allusions and references, expecting a depth and sophistication (and a familiarity with things American) that many graduate students did not yet possess.  Watching Paul lecture in an angry or vulnerable state of mind, teetering on the brink of rage or incoherence, as he did occasionally, taught me some valuable lessons about not idealizing one’s teachers and role models excessively.
Paul’s occasional lapses in the classroom were compounded by his recent divorce from Deborah Heller Roazen, which had left him reeling for several years afterwards.  He seldom spoke about these matters without becoming visibly distressed and offending some of his female listeners.

Hoping to follow in my teacher’s footsteps, I still cherished the illusion that someone who had written such lucid and engaging portraits of others must be completely “together.”  I eventually discovered that there is often a significant gap between the eloquent and composed authorial persona and the actual flesh and blood human being who is frail and fallible, and sometimes deeply disappointing.  Of course, this discovery was a gradual process, rather than a singular event, and Paul was neither the first nor the last role model to provoke reflections like these.  But the impression was deep and, initially, a little disconcerting.

It was around this time that our friendship was established, and I started to speak with Paul at length about my own research interests.  Among other things, I was interested in Fromm’s analysis of left-wing, as well as right-wing, authoritarianism.  In view of its Weimar origins, Fromm’s reflections on left-wing authoritarianism were quite relevant to the bourgeoning notion of “political correctness” sweeping North American campuses, a notion that was both silly and sinister and which did so much to provoke the powerful—and equally mindless—right-wing backlash that has engulfed our world today.  Though I leaned farther left than Paul, we both abhorred the conformist attitudes.  We also had some lively conversations about the Fromm-Marcuse debate that preoccupied left-wing Freudians of that era.  While Marcuse and his followers eclipsed Fromm and his followers in sheer numbers, and sometimes trounced them in spirited debates, I frequently defended Fromm’s ideas and reputation against Marcuse’s onslaught, both publicly, on the podium, and in print.  Paul listened sympathetically as I spelled out my complaints with Marcuse, and I flatter myself that some of my remarks may have colored Paul’s later reflections.

We did not agree on everything.  Being very proud of his American heritage, Paul spoke somewhat disparagingly about Canadian education, politics, and culture.  Being a proud Canadian, I resented this, and told him so—tactfully.  He would nod quietly and smile, but nothing would change, so I did not press the issue.  Our exchanges on other subjects were a little more spirited.  I found his biography of Helene Deutsch (1985) a little too sympathetic, and reproached her for taking some theoretical and political positions based on expediency, rather than genuine principle—for “playing along” with the Freudian establishment, and allowing Freud to appropriate her ideas without sufficient acknowledgement.  Though I never said so in so many words, I think Paul was a little infatuated with Deutsch, who granted him unusually generous access for a woman in her position, and that in exchange, he glossed over her husband, Felix Deutsch’s more egregious character flaws—at least in print.  (In person, he was more candid on this score.)  Conversely, I thought his study of Erikson (1976) was a little too harsh, and that he exaggerated the intensity of Erikson’s (ostensible) conservative agenda by a considerable margin.  In retrospect, I am relieved to say that, though he did not budge an inch, Paul was able to listen to my comments about Deutsch (and his book about her) with equanimity.  But his attitude toward Erikson was adamant, though it softened appreciably in the many articles and chapters he devoted to him.

The biggest disagreement I had with Paul took place in 1992, shortly before I left Toronto to take a job at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.  Paul sometimes hosted monthly dinners where the assembled guests discussed selected topics in the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis.  While featured speakers were mostly visiting luminaries, local guests could also present there, so I offered to discuss R.D. Laing.  I knew that Paul disliked Laing, but I was not prepared for just how deep and personal his dislike was.  His attitude towards me at dinner and afterwards, as I haltingly attempted to outline my work in progress in the face of his angry interruption, was simply scathing.

Paul’s visceral antipathy toward R.D. Laing is still a mystery to me.  Paul was always tolerably sympathetic toward the “bad boys” of psychoanalysis—Groddeck, Reich, Rado, and Szasz.  I never heard him trash or dismiss any of them out of hand for their personal or professional imperfections.  In fact, some of his remarks about Rado were positively glowing, and he always had a healthy respect for Szasz—a warmly reciprocated respect.  So why pick on Laing?  I guess that Laing made a very poor impression on some of Paul’s friends in Boston.  Perhaps, without actually saying so, these were people whose opinion he valued over mine.  It is also remotely possible that Paul’s antipathy was influenced or reinforced by the equally scalding appraisal of Thomas Szasz, who dismisses Laing as a posturing phony.

  By contrast, I have always maintained that despite his many vivid shortcomings, both as a theorist and a simple human being, there is nonetheless a lucid, intelligible core to Laing’s work that is not trivial, and warrants continued study and reflection.  In composing my book, I worked very hard to eschew the twin evils of idealization and denigration, to present a balanced picture of Laing as a gifted but tormented human being.  While the book was in progress, I drew great solace from Rycroft, who repeatedly reassured me that I had got Laing’s character “just right.”  It was not until well after the book was published in 1996 that Paul moderated his opinion somewhat.  After the book was reviewed in The New York Times and his beloved New York Review of Books, Paul allowed that the book was reasonably good, but cautioned me against writing another book about Laing and committing “career suicide.”  I took this as an acknowledgment on his part that his behavior that evening several years ago had been completely over the top, but that his opinion of Laing was nevertheless unchanged.

Paul was an incredibly prolific writer, and as the years passed, I tried to follow the steady stream of publications that continued to flow from his pen.  All I know is that, despite our differences over the years, I remember Paul with affection and respect.  I remember his temper, but I also remember his impish, slightly goofy smile, his refreshing and unrestrained laughter, and his boundless enthusiasm for people and ideas.  I also remember his sense of mission and his palpable sense of relief when I decided, finally, not to train as an analyst.   Paul felt, as I do, that the history of psychoanalysis cannot be left entirely to the psychoanalysts themselves, who tend to divide and distort the record along sectarian lines.  Being a member of a psychoanalytic institute or referral network usually imposes invisible constraints or blinkers, and unless the historical writings of analysts are scrutinized and balanced by the efforts of professionally trained historians who have nothing to lose by being perfectly candid, all kinds of mythology and misconceptions will flourish freely.

Having said that, it is also the case that the history of psychoanalysis has changed a great deal since Paul began writing in the 1960s.  Problems persist on all sides, but for the most part, it has changed for the better, thanks to Paul’s effort and example.  Nevertheless, though he tried valiantly, Paul himself did not always get the “big picture,” and sometimes missed or glossed over important issues.  When it came to psychoanalysis and religion, or the epistemological dimension of analytic theory and therapy—realism versus relativism, positivism versus hermeneutics, etc.—Paul was often trite or simply lost.  Though it was usually evident to others who were versed in theology, comparative religion and the history and philosophy of science, he was too proud to admit when he was out of his depth in these controversial arenas.

When all is said and done, Paul’s limitations pale in comparison to his positive contributions.  More than any single author in the field, Paul transformed our understanding of Freud and his disciples repeatedly in the last four decades.  Like Fromm, Paul never wavered from his goal of celebrating Freud’s genius without succumbing to pitfalls of excessive or misplaced Freud piety.  In addition to reviving Tausk’s memory and contributions, he was the first to draw attention to Freud’s analysis of his daughter Anna, and to his curious and distasteful flirtation with Mussolini (via Eduardo Weismann).  He was among the first to give Adler, Jung, and Rank their due, and carefully refrained from the orthodox habit of dismissing every cogent objection to Freud’s theory as the derivative manifestation of unresolved Oedipal angst, thereby changing the climate of discussion, and raising the bar for scholarly objectivity.

Taken together, Paul Roazen’s work on the history of psychoanalysis constitutes an important contribution to twentieth century thought and letters.  Whether they know it or not, everyone working in this field nowadays is directly or indirectly in his debt.  Thank you, Paul.  You will be missed.

Daniel Burston, PhD, Chair Elect of the Psychology Department at Duquesne University, holds doctorates in psychology (1989) and in social and political thought (1985) from York University in Toronto.  He is also an Associate of the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, and on the Advisory Board of the C. G. Jung Analyst Training Program of Pittsburgh, the Advisory Board of Janus Head, and the Editorial Board of the Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis.  His books are The Legacy of Erich Fromm (1991), The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R. D. Laing (1996), and The Crucible of Experience: R. D. Laing and the Crisis of Psychotherapy (2000).  He was Erik Erikson Scholar at the Austin Riggs Center in 1999-2000.

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