We Play the Fool
MICHAEL HUNTER was born in Berlin but was taken by his family to England in his early teens when the Nazis came to power. He graduated from the University of California in 1942 and since then has divided his time between documentary film work and journalism. He did movie reviews and minor editing for the San Francisco News, was on the editorial staff of the New Yorker for a short time, and then, after working on documentary films for the Signal Corps and the March of Time, he returned to the West Coast to free-lance in fiction.
by MICHAEL HUNTER
ONE of the more tiresome aspects of being the son of a psychoanalyst I have found to be the questions that people will put to you willy-nilly on learning of your father’s profession. A favorite among these is that of whether he is, or is not, a “Freudian.” A variation of this query, and a surprisingly frequent one, ignores the father once his occupation has been ascertained and asks instead whether you are a “Freudian,” the assumption being, I suppose, that adherence to a psychological school of thought is, like baldness or racial strain, largely a matter of heredity.
In my more mature years I have generally been content to answer the question with “Yes,”whatever form it was asked in, but during my late adolescence, as turbulent a time in its own way as that of any layman’s child, I’m sure, it used to provoke me to long and uneasy polemics. I would tell my inquirers, most of whom were fellow students of the social sciences, that I did accept the tenets of my father’s calling — to a degree, in fact, where I regarded the term “Freudian analyst” as purely tautological — but I also wanted it understood that this had nothing to do with his being my father. The obvious difficulties I faced in making this point tended to exasperate me and probably had much to do, now that I look back on it, with my first attempt at an overt breach with my father.
I suppose this really began — if random acts of filial defiance can be said to have a precise beginning - late one afternoon during my second year at UCLA. I had stopped in at the Students’ Employment Bureau, as I’d done regularly for some time in search of a part-time job, and was told that a doctor was looking for someone to translate psychoanalytical material from the German. I was to see him at his house the following afternoon.
The arrangement sounded like a happy one. I seemed qualified for the occupation almost by birthright, since our family was from Berlin and had lived there until the time of Hitler’s rise to power about a couple of years earlier, and I had heard the language of analysis bandied about for almost as long as I could remember. Likewise, the job impressed me as being ideally suited to what I considered my own urgent needs. Half way through my first semester I had dropped out of school in an illfated attempt at making my own living, and, having been preoccupied with one thing and another on my return, I’d made a rather poor scholastic showing when I completed the term later on. Now that I was more or less settled again in my studies, I was eager to prove myself capable of at least partial self-sufficiency as well and, since translating and tutoring paid incomparably more than any odd job I could have gotten, it was likely to provide me with an income without cutting too heavily into my time.
I was sitting in the bus, on my way home from school, pondering my good fortune, when I suddenly realized, with a good deal of amusement at the thought, that my prospective employer was a man I’d heard about. He was an analyst of a non-Freudian school - I forget which, but I believe it was one that is now almost entirely out of fashion — who had turned up once or twice at a lecture series my father had given shortly after our arrival in Los Angeles.
According to my father, this man had talked indefatigably during discussion periods, had frequently cornered him after an evening’s session was officially over, and had been a rather priceless fellow all around. At home, my father had often put on a kind of one-man farce in which he acted out his encounters with the defecting doctor to the delight of the family, especially my younger brother Albert, who, without following the arguments. I’m sure, would laugh uproariously at my father’s clowning. The chief basis of these antics had been my father’s contention that the doctor was against his will drawn toward my father’s kind of analysis, and since the ingredients of his name lent themselves to the heavy, Teutonic punning my father was given to, he had used them to express this theory by rechristening the man “Dr. Ampifflins,”a homemade word that differed negligibly from my father’s normal pronunciation of the psychological term that denotes a mixture of love and hate. In talking about the doctor he had seldom used his real name, and that, I dare say, was the reason I hadn’t recognized it sooner.
THE memory of these carryings-on made me look forward even more to my forthcoming assignment. I saw myself taking on my father’s role and regaling the family with impersonations of my own, and in a way I was sorry I hadn’t already met the doctor. It would have been pleasant, when I got home, to have been able to embellish the account of my prospects with a few firsthand quotations.
As it turned out, during dinner that night, it was as well that I lacked this more dramatic material. When I brought up the subject, my father was unable to see the humor in it.
“You are not serious, no?" he said as my mother and Albert had been about to offer their good wishes and then stopped to look at him. “About accepting this work?” He paused between the two parts of the question, keeping his soupspoon poised in midair, and looked at me with the expression of one who is being held at gun point.
“Why not?” I said, completely taken aback by his attitude.
“I see,”he said, raising the spoon to his mouth. “We wish to play the fool!”
My father often adopted this didactic tone in a kind of amiable self-mockery of a long-abandoned authoritarianism, but this time he seemed to be in earnest. The others must have thought so too, because for the next few minutes we all behaved as though the act of eating pea soup called for our utmost powers of concentration.
“Your father is right,” my mother said finally, guessing at his objections at the same time that she was offering him support. “You do better to stick to your schoolwork this term.”
“We will discuss it later,” my father said, indicating that the guess was wrong and that he wanted no support.
“ What is all this?” I demanded, beginning to get an inkling of what my father was driving at. “You don’t mean, surely, that because this man isn’t a Freudian, I - ”
“Aha!” my father said, in spite of his resolve to postpone the discussion. “We wish to play the fool no longer,” and when I apparently continued to look at him blankly, he added, “I believe I have told you often enough what these people stand for.”
“Sure,” I said and rather mechanically gave a condensed version of the answer I’d gotten from my father when I’d first asked him about the subject. “They’ve got a mild form of short psychotherapy. It’s all right as far as it goes, only it doesn’t go very far, and you can’t really call it analysis. This is the first I’ve heard of them as your out-and-out enemies, though.”
My father leaned forward and grasped the edge of the table as though fighting an impulse to hurl himself across it. “Do not be childish,” he said. “They call what they are doing analysis. And as a practitioner and teacher of this science I do not intend to encourage this kind of imposture by associating with them personally — or to have it known that my son does.”
There was another pause, which was broken by Albert when he asked my father, in a tone of exhausted patience, to pass the butter. I felt this wasn’t helping matters any and hurriedly reached across the table for it myself. “ Who exactly is going to know it?” I asked sourly as I passed the butter to my brother.
My father took several quick swallows of water before replying. “What is the urgency about this work, may I ask?" he said crisply. “You are not being cared for properly at home? You have pressing financial obligations? Your studies leave you with too much time on your hands?" He picked up a roll and tore rather than broke it in half.
“If you must know,” I said, somewhat bitterly remembering one of my worthier intentions, “I was planning to save some of the money for a birthday present for you.”
“I appreciate the thought,”my father said, a degree of good-naturedness creeping into the irony of his tone. “But I would prefer that when you sell my life’s principles, you do not make me a gift from the proceeds.”
“For Christ’s sake!" said Albert suddenly, “He hasn’t even got the job yet.”
Albert’s impertinence on my behalf embarrassed me, but I saw that he had a point. “That’s right, Dad, I said in what I hoped was a placating tone. “And even if ‘Ampifflins’ does take me, I’ll probably take the work home and see him only once or twice.”
“Yes, Manfred,”my mother added. “Perhaps you exaggerate a little.”
“The united front!” my father exclaimed. He raised his hand and then dropped it heavily on the table. “For years, in Germany, I fight for it — against fascism. Now I have it — against me!”
“What I mean is,” I said, attempting some irony of my own, “he’s not asking me to open up a clinic with him.”
“ Schluss davon!” my father said and shook out his napkin as though he were cracking a whip. “If you insist on causing me embarrassment, I shall find a way to stop you.”
IT WAS only after my father and Albert had left the room and my mother had started to clear off the table that she brought up the subject once more. “See here, now,”she said. “You give up this thing. You get another job, yes?”
I answered with some astonishment that I’d thought she was on my side. My mother put down a stack of dessert plates she had just picked up and placed her hand on my shoulder. “There’s so little your father asks of you,”she said. “Why not do him this favor?”
I made a noncommittal grimace and sank back into my chair, as my mother took up her plates again and went off into the kitchen.
Lord knew, I said to myself, my father was making a lot of fuss about nothing, but, all the same, I couldn’t deny that there was some truth to my mother’s remark. Scenes like the one we had just been through were rare in our family. In fact, throughout most of the year that had just passed, my father’s tolerance had been a constant source of bewilderment to me. When I’d told him that I thought my best bet was to leave school and the parental household as well and get a job, he hadn’t greeted my decision with enthusiasm, but he had surprised me by offering to subsidize my venture at the start. I’d wound up as a salesman in a small jewelry store, a career that came to an end, two months later, after I’d handed a customer nineteen singles in exchange for a one-dollar bill; and when I’d returned to my father with the announcement that neither my lodgings nor my profession suited me, he’d merely said that he realized such vacillations were often necessary to a boy’s development. Again, when on re-entering school I’d let my grades drop to a dangerously low level, because I’d divided my time mainly between rehearsals of Pygmalion with the Drama Society and mimeographing handbills on behalf of some cause or other for a campus radical group, my father had had no words of censure.
That time, though, I remembered with a degree of discomfort, he had called me into his study and thrown some light on his continuing stand of leniency. It seemed that when he had first gone in for psychoanalysis he had made up his mind that his rather Prussian, disciplinarian treatment of me up to that time was bound to show up unfavorably in my personality later on, and that when it did, he would meet the problem with the utmost understanding. The unhappy prognosis had now been borne out — I was in no way to blame, he insisted — and the thing to do was to have myself analyzed.
Whatever my father’s intentions, it had been a trifle uncanny to find my misdeeds regarded as a preordained and, as it were, preforgiven destiny. Still, mostly in order to oblige him I had looked up an analyst, a fellow immigrant my father had recommended. Nothing, however, had come of this, since almost as soon as I’d set foot in his office, I’d been put off by the familiar trappings. There had been the couch with the heavy, upholstered chair behind it; the picture of Freud with its nearly illegible inscription; a bookcase such as I’d seen since my childhood with the brown, leather-bound volumes of Freud and innumerable other books in German, among them Shakespeares Gesammelte Werke; and, gazing at me from behind his massive, mahogany desk, a bald-headed German with thick, horn-rimmed glasses. I could see how an interview such as I was having might have brought unheard-of relief to someone else in my position; to someone who all his life had been upbraided for being wicked and useless and here at last had found an interest in his affairs that was sympathetic and clinically purged of all moral judgment. But to me it was just the old man all over again, and I’d begged off, even though I’d thought that my refusal might now bring an end to my father’s patience. Beyond saying, though, that he regretted my decision and adding, to himself more than to me, that one cannot treat a patient against his will, he had done nothing.
I sat at the deserted dinner table, morosely giving my father credit for his generosity towards me, but this did little to reduce my desire for the pleasant and totally innocuous-seeming job I’d been offered. Eventually I joined my mother in the kitchen and, reaching for a dish towel, I told her quite truthfully that I didn’t want to hurt my father, but that I’d certainly be foolish to cancel my appointment. I said I wouldn’t make a decision until I’d talked with the doctor, and when I’d found out the exact nature of the work, my father might be less intractable.
By the time I was back on the campus the following day, the vehemence with which my father had voiced his objections had begun to incline me towards some doubts of my own. Suppose, I said to myself, while listening with half an ear to a lecture on the open field system in feudal England, that I’m asked to translate German articles, some of my father’s among them, solely to enable this doctor to rail against the theories propounded in them. Would that not, after all, leave me in a vaguely compromising light ? On the other hand, what if the texts were mostly those of his own school? My psychoanalytic vocabulary, it occurred to me, was strictly a Freudian one and quite possibly inadequate for the task.
As the morning wore on, I wondered whether this doctor was unaware of my heritage, and whether, if he had known of it, he would perhaps have disliked a connection with me as much as my father did. When I got to my third lecture that day, a discourse on the circulatory system of the frog, the discouraging thought entered my head that I’d probably been naïve to look on my forthcoming dealings with the man as a source of personal amusement for me. The doctor had been a guest at my father’s lectures, but here, after all, he would be the boss, and if he was the opinionated crank I imagined him to be, he was likely to make a rather difficult and highhanded one. The problems connected with the interview were becoming momentous enough to overshadow even the dreary fact that in two of my courses we had that morning been assigned term papers, an eventuality that ordinarily would have had first claim on my broodings, and whenever I’d thought I’d disposed of any of these questions, the one about my father and his personal views returned.
I WAS still groping in vain for some solid criterion that would enable me to choose, assuming that all went well, between my father’s idea of principles and my own of practicality, when I found myself, later that afternoon, in a sunlit study, seated across a desk from the man known to me as “Dr. Ampifflins.” I’d thought of him alternately as a shaggymaned faith-healer and as a kind of faceless abstraction of “the opposition,” or even, allowing for the possibility of a surprise, as the native facsimile of the elderly, stocky German I was accustomed to, but the doctor in the swivel, chair facing me resembled none of these. He was a blond giant, in his early thirties at the most, with tremendously muscular shoulders and an exceptionally heavy tan. The only qualities to offset his air of youthful athleticism were his posture, a kind of insouciant slouch, and a certain woeful sensitivity in his face. This last was emphasized by his eyebrows, the kind that, when drawn together as they were now, go up at the center rather than down — so far up, in his case, they gave the impression of sagging at the ends as though weighed down by an invisible curtain of sadness.
He looked at me silently for a minute or so and then swung his chair in a semicircle by pushing one of his feet against the side of the desk. His other leg was dangling over the armrest. When he spoke, it was with a kind of lugubrious affability that matched the expression of his face. “ Also, was ist? ” he said, using a kind of pidgin German. “ You really know this abominable language?”
“Yes, I — certainly do.”
His leisurely manner fitted in with my idea of the doctor as a deluded pedant no more than did his appearance, and the realization somehow made me self-conscious. So completely had I thought of him in terms of my father’s impersonations that for a second I had even been illogically startled to hear him speak without my father’s guttural accents. In an attempt to regain my composure I answered his question at some length. I told him how I happened to have a thorough command of German, that I had done some translating for various immigrants around town, and, apropos of the difficulties of the language, I mentioned the old Mark Twain joke about German newspaper articles going to press before their authors had gotten to the verb.
“Brother!" he said, when I had finished, and swung his chair back to its original position. “You can say that again! Here, take a look at this.”
Without removing his leg from the armrest, he leaned forward and pushed a book over to my side of the desk. It had been opened to a page somewhere near the middle, and my eye fell on a forbidding-looking question mark that had been heavily penciled into the margin and took up almost the entire length of the page. I began to read and, while I was at it, translated the sentences as I went along. They were involved all right and full of analytical jargon, but it was the kind I was familiar with and so gave me little trouble.
“Is that what that means? I had no idea!” the doctor said and, leaning back again, shook his head in amazement. “No idea!” he repeated, the look of sad perplexity returning to his face as he hoisted up his eyebrows.
He said nothing for the next few seconds and I wondered what it was about not knowing German, if that was the reason, that had such a discouraging effeet on this robust-looking young doctor.
“Here’s the thing,” he went on at last. “I want to write a paper for which I’ll have to go through a lot of this stuff. Now, I’m not quite sure what we ought to do. One thing I thought of was having you go over it here, the way you did just now, while I take notes. That’s probably too laborious. Another was to have you work on the relevant passages at home. That’ll lake a little longer, of course.” He threw back his head and squinted at a far-off point near the ceiling.
The doctor hadn’t said so, but I gathered that, as far as he was concerned, I was hired. He seemed to regard me as an authority to he consulted rather than as a job seeker, and I was beginning to fall in with this view. “Well,” I said, placing an elbow on the desk and stroking my chin, “I’d say it depends a good deal on how much material there is in each book —” and I outlined a plan by which I thought the two methods might be combined.
The doctor nodded. I thought he looked favorably impressed. “There’s a third possibility I’ve been thinking of more and more,” he said. “ I might put off this reading altogether till the summer and instead try to learn the language. In the fall I’ll be going to Europe anyway, and it’d come in pretty handy. The question is, d’you think you could teach me enough by then? If we had three two-hour sessions a week, let’s say. And — er — would you have the time?”
It took me some time to reply to this unexpected proposition. I realized, after a brief calculation, that six hours’ weekly tutoring at the official student rate would net me more than twice the amount of my allowance. I realized also that if I entered into such an arrangement, I couldn’t very well ask for my father’s approval on the basis that no personal contact was involved.
“I don’t see why not,”I said hesitatingly. “I could tell better, of course, if I knew just what kind of foundation you do have.”
“High school,” he said with a sudden briskness, and for the first time put both his legs under the desk. “And some of this reading with a dictionary. Tell you what. Let’s make this a sample lesson. Give you a better idea. I’ll pay you for it too. You’re not in a hurry, are you?”
I saw no reason to turn down this immediate offer and said I had plenty of time. He asked me to grab a chair and move around to his side of the desk, and as I did so, he opened a drawer, took out a battered and dog-eared grammar, and leafed through its yellowed pages until he came to Lesson XII. “Let’s go through some of this,” he said. “I tried it this morning, but you don’t get anywhere by yourself.”
We started a set of exercises, he translating, I supplying words he didn’t know and, wherever possible, linguistic explanations. The impromptu lesson proceeded slowly but, on the whole, quite effectively. The doctor was a willing and competent pupil and his eagerness in turn made me ambitious to be helpful as a teacher. We both put a lot of effort into our work and before long we had our coats off and were offering each other cigarettes.
“Der — Knabe — hat — ein —” the doctor was saying at the end of the third exercise, his finger tracing each word as he translated it, when he stopped abruptly and looked up with an air of exasperation. “Let me ask you something,”he said. “ I haven’t had occasion to use a pocket knife since I was a boy scout, let alone talk about one. Why does every grammar consider it the most important thing in the world ?”
I had to agree that our text was rather uninspiring and, emboldened by the doctor’s whimsy, I decided to add a little color to our lesson. “ Why don’t we do this —” I said; “use their sentences for the exercise but supply most of our own nouns, the kind you’re more likely to need? This Knabe, for instance, with his pocketknife. What he’s really got, I imagine, is a compulsion neurosis. Now, how would you say —”
“Very good,”the doctor said smiling. “Der Knabe hat einen Zwangsneurose.”
“Right. Except that it should be eine, feminine. In a compound noun it’s the last word that determines the gender.”
“ Leave it to the Germans to make neurosis something feminine,” he said, making a note. “What next ?”
We smoked more cigarettes and went through the remainder of the exercise in almost exuberant spirits, saddling the grammar’s population of exchange students and sightseers with all the miserable afflictions of the human psyche.
“Say, that’s all right,” the doctor said after a while. “ You’re a pretty good teacher.”
The compliment gave me a pang of uneasiness at the frivolous fashion in which I’d thrown out those terms. You don’t share a choice wood carving with a man who is going to use it for firewood is the way my father would have looked at it, and theoretically I tended to agree with him. But, oddly, this pang lasted only a moment. I liked this man, I realized, and what’s more I liked myself for liking him. The fact that I could feel amiably disposed toward someone I knew to be little more than a charlatan was new to me, and it gave me an altogether Christlike feeling of glowing tolerance.
“Listen,” the doctor said when we had gotten through one more exercise. “This is hard work. How about some coffee, huh? I think there’s some in the kitchen I can heat up. Be right back.”
THE doctor left the study, and I got up to stretch my legs and tried to consider my position. There was no question, 1 thought to myself as I paced up and down the room and let my eyes wander over its bright birch furniture, that I had landed with a most friendly employer. There was also no question that I was in a heretic’s office. I noted for the first time that it didn’t even contain a couch, and the lack of this elementary tool suddenly brought home to me the utter fruitlessness of hoping to convince my father, with some factual argument, of the innocence of my actions.
If I wanted to carry on these bantering man-toman lessons and enjoy the hourly rate and the refreshments that seemed to go with them, I would have to incur the stigma of disloyalty in my father’s eyes. The discovery of my personal feelings towards the doctor, a few moments ago, kept me from being disheartened, however. In fact, as I stopped in front of the only picture the room had — not the familiar photograph of Freud, of course; it was a cheery water color of a girl pouring water into a vase of flowers—a mood of downright serenity came over me.
None of the extracurricular ventures that my father had been so eager to condone — neither the store, the drama people, nor the radicals — had ever given me this sense of mild but uncomplicated fulfillment, and I realized that here in the dissenter’s place of business I had found a badly needed sanctuary from my father’s understanding. Here I could draw a clear line between his identity and mine and, on the strength of it, develop a principle of my own: I too recognized this doctor as an enemy of true psychoanalytic progress, but I was prepared, as enjoined by an earlier healer of the soul, to love mine enemy, or anyway to teach him German, which in this context seemed to be amounting to the same thing. I would inform my father of this attitude, I decided, and if he found it insupportable, by God, I would take the consequences, whatever they might be.
The doctor came back, carrying a tray with the coffee things in one hand and a plate with the remnants of a chocolate cake in the other. To make room for the tray on the desk, I pushed the grammar and a stack of papers to one side, and, as we took up our seats again, it occurred to me that perhaps, in my appraisal of his professional theories, I hadn’t really given him a fair hearing. After all, I knew my father’s views on the one side, and only that of the college students on the other, and it struck me that, now that I was embarking on a course of tolerance, I might do well to question a practitioner and broaden my outlook. Accordingly I told the doctor, when he started to sip his coffee, that I was fairly familiar with Freudian analysis but couldn’t say that I really knew much about his kind, and asked him whether he’d mind giving me a rough idea of how it worked.
The doctor’s face, which in the course of our lesson had lost some of its tender woefulness, became clouded once more. His eyebrows were pulled almost to the halfway point of his forehead and looked like two pennants dangling limply in a windless sky. “All right,”he said, taking an unenthusiastic bite out of his piece of cake. “Suppose you’re a patient. You’d be sitting in that chair, as you did when you first came in, and telling me what’s bothering you. Well, I’d sort of tell you that everybody’s got troubles like that, that I’ve got them too, and I’d be generally reassuring. There’s a little more to it than that, but not a hell of a lot. You can’t really call it analysis.”
“I don’t quite follow you,” I said, the familiarity of the last phrase having jarred me particularly. “You don’t sound as though you entirely approve of what you’re doing.”
“I don’t,”he said simply, dusting some cake crumbs off his hands. “I took this up a few years after I got out of med school. Thought it’d work. Thought it ought to, in fact. Told all my patients when I discharged them after three or four months thilt I’d treat them for free if their symptoms came back. Well, pretty soon I had more free patients on my hands than paying ones, and I didn’t know what to do with them, so I gave it up. I’m in analysis now, getting Freudian training. Want to read everything I can while I’m at it, do research, study some more in Austria" — his voice trailed off - “and that, young man, is what I need you for. All right now, where were we?" he said and peered over his coffee cup at the grammar. “Der — Bauer — hat — dem — Gärtner — die zehn —”
I was late getting home for dinner that night, and as I sat down at the table, my father delved into the subject of our recent dispute without any preliminaries. “Your mother tells me you have been this afternoon at ‘Dr. Ampifflins’,” he said
I said, “ Yes.”
“And what have you decided?”
I was on the point of making a remark I’d worked out on the way home — something to the effect that the joke had come to an end, that the doctor’s “ampifflins" had been successfully resolved, but somehow those weren’t the words that came out.
“I’ve thought it over,”I said without looking up. “I got a couple more term papers to do today. Can’t really afford the time.”
My father started to say something about knowing all along that he could trust me not to be unprincipled, but I soon stopped listening. I was staring into my soup, preoccupied with the gloomy thought that, little more than an hour after winning him, I’d lost a perfectly good enemy.