My Life: Autobiography of Havelock Ellis

[Houghton Mifflin, $3.75]
MAUPASSANT may have been right when he stated that to the public should belong our works and not our faces, but even he succumbed to the demand of others and perhaps to an inner urge and published his own diary. Tolstoi’s great literary productivity, which gave him an inexhaustible outlet for self-expression, was not sufficient to assuage his burning need for open, penitential self-exposure. For reasons ostensibly different, Freud revealed the ‘shocking’ innermost of himself in his Interpretation of Dreams. This Augustinian literary trend of writers of the past fifteen centuries emerges as an informal but potent tradition rather than a fortuitous manifestation. From Saint Augustine to Rousseau and Havelock Ellis, almost all the great men who perceived a mission in their hearts and who felt the impact of the world’s resistance offered their De vita propria, their personal apologetics.
Whether avowedly penitential or under the guise of egocentric self-assertion, these self-revelations have one psychological goal in common: the author presents himself before the world in his full stature as if to say, ‘Here I stand; judge me as you please, but this is what I am and this is what I am going to remain.’ True as this attitude may appear, at the same time he pleads unawarely or covertly, ‘Judge me not, for this is what I was in my human frailty while striving to a loftier goal through my spiritual peregrinations; do not forget my works and forgive my face.’ This face may prove to be strikingly at variance with what was anticipated, and the contrast between face and work is at times so jarring, so dramatically unexpected, that the imprint the man leaves to history becomes doubly emphatic, though momentarily disappointing or unattractive.
This contrast is particularly apparent in the case of Havelock Ellis. His autobiography is an intensely interesting document, even though one may call it a human document only with many reservations, for he is at times too detached, as if far away from himself. Havelock Ellis here corroborates what a careful psychological study of his earlier works vaguely intimates: namely, that he was an artist and not a scientist. When he was twelve years old. he began to write and tried to publish, apparently with no stimulus or encouragement from his environment. His major work, the studies on the psychology of sex, represents a response to an inner need to gratify his curiosity about what happens rather than any scientific intent to understand how it happens. That is why he was a sexologist rather than a psychologist of sex.
To the uninitiated it might seem shockingly surprising, but to the medical psychologist it is clinically confirmatory, to find that all his life Ellis labored almost without any true insight under the pressure of a puritanic, mystic, disquieting, and confusing conflict between his instinctual impulses and what he inadvertently or with almost naïve deliberateness reveals as his ' inherited ecclesiasticism.’ There was bitterness and not a little bewilderment in this man, piety with anxious apostasy. He was reserved, self-sufficient, and secretive. He understood less about himself than a great many writers who never attempted to be scientists and psychologists. He established an emotional system of fortifications behind which he concealed from himself those many things he discovered in others. When he discovered them in himself with flagrant obviousness, he passed over them as insignificant.
Even in the last pages, written at the threshold of death when he was eighty, Ellis remained a sentimental, mystical, puzzled youngster. As before, he was still intensely and consciously attached to his mother, around whom all the mutually contradictory and syntonic trends of his infantile curiosity and self-denial converged in a mass of melancholy and yearning. Psychologically he found himself more at home with women than men. His wife, a fascinating, psychopathological individual, apparently became his substitutive mother, and she offered him a permissive glimpse into the things which had preoccupied him since he was a tot of four.
Unconsciously, he found solace in treating his wife, and afterwards her memory, as if she were his child (his marriage was without issue), as if he were the mother and she his feminine self, a restless and fearful spirit, torn by the dissonance between the assertion of his instincts and their total inhibition. Ellis suffered from a neurosis, but he miraculously converted a good part of it into a creative if somewhat one-sided quasi-scientific, artistic life.
My Life is a book worthy of study. Though it may appear to many as an outline of provoking justifications, fundamentally it remains, like its predecessors of the ages, an apologia pro domo sua. It offers a mass of valuable material which sheds light on the perennial question of the relationship between neurosis and creative work.