Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology. By Alan C. Elms. 315 pp. New York: Oxford University Press. $25.
Few topics in the history of ideas are as provocative as psychobiography, and few are as vexing. Mindful of widespread popular opinion about psychobiography's notorious reductionism (the notion, say, that Shakespeare's psychosexual organization engendered the content of his plays), Alan C. Elms states without reservation that "psychobiography has become a dirty word." In Uncovering Lives he sets out to vindicate the practice with a series of his own psychobiographical portraits - of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, B.F. Skinner, Isaac Asimov, Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Saddam Hussein, Henry Kissinger, and Alexander Haig.
Mr. Elms, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, relies on a combination of ego psychology (modeled on the work of Erik Erikson) and academic psychology (based on the work of Gordon Allport, the personality psychologist, and on that of Allport's mentor, Henry Murray, who pioneered American personality theory). But while Mr. Elms's eclecticism is refreshing, his research rigorous and his portraits sometimes stimulating, his book Uncovering Lives throws psychobiography's difficulties into relief all over again.
Mr. Elms first looks at Freud's 1910 study of Leonardo da Vinci to find the classical source of historical psychobiography. The trouble is, he seems to expect that Freud, as a good scientist, would have been above it all. Mr. Elms, for instance, concludes that "Freud's 'Leonardo' is not representative of psychobiography in general because its crucial errors" - particularly Freud's identification with Leonardo - "derive from idiosyncratic factors bound up in Freud's personal conflicts." What else is new? Freud's errors only prove Mr. Elms's point - that it is impossible to write anything, even a psychobiography, without unconscious motivation.
Mr. Elms is nonetheless an admirable scholar. He impressively documents the history of what he calls "one of the autobiographical masterpieces of the 20th century," Jung's posthumous Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963). Paragraph by paragraph, he describes the changes made to Jung's original manuscript, and then elaborates the stories behind the changes, especially the reasons for the bowdlerizations by Jung's family and supporters even before Jung's death in 1961.
But it is Mr. Elms's chapter on the behaviorist B.F. Skinner that steals what show there is in Uncovering Lives. Mr. Elms not only provides intriguing biographical information (including Skinner's unfulfilled plan to write a book on the psychology of literature); he also gives a fascinating account of the psychological issues at work in Skinner's life and career. In Mr. Elms's telling, Walden Two, Skinner's 1948 utopian novel, was "Skinner's response to a major midlife crisis," and behaviorism itself was the resolution of Skinner's inner conflicts. Skinner's life work happens to be a superb example of what Mr. Elms (silently building on a notion from Melanie Klein) calls the "restitutive function" of work - the way that writing or scholarship, for instance, can provide the individual a psychological link to the objective world, the glue that allows him to put the elements of his life together.
Mr. Elms's chapters on the fantasy writers Isaac Asimov and L. Frank Baum (the author of the 1900 children's classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) are also rich with fresh biographical material, and they carry more psychoanalytic punch than the other psychobiographical readings in the book. Mr. Elms argues that the galactic spaces of Asimov's fiction are a well-wrought defense against his acrophobia, "a creative engagement between his talents and his fears." Elsewhere Mr. Elms posits that if one early Baum work - a manual on chicken breeding - signals an infantile fear of "maternal inattention," then Baum's invention of "Father Goose" in 1899 was a prescient and appropriate restitutive response to his childhood anxiety.
However, Mr. Elms's attempt at "applied political psychobiography" is far less effective. The "restitutive function" is apparently not at work in the careers of Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Henry Kissinger and (not surprisingly) Alexander Haig and Saddam Hussein.
One of the book's most serious problems is that it is not sensitive enough to the implications of its most cogent idea. Mr. Elms suggests that restitution provided by work may well carry a person "beyond defensiveness." But he leaves one important question unattended: how have writers and psychobiologists, for instance, restructured the fields in which they work? Mr. Elms seems to believe that psychobiography is designed to demonstrate psychological laws rather than to enrich the study of culture as a whole.
Can one assess Mr. Elms's book psychobiographically? Do the book's formal characteristics reveal anything about its author? Does Mr. Elms's studiously casual tone disguise anything troubling about his childhood? How can one test the validity of such claims? The question of whether or not the writing of psychobiography is a sufficiently restitutive enterprise for Mr. Elms himself is, of course, beyond the judgment of literary criticism.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, November 27, 1994