The Psyche and the Typewriter
Twenty years have passed since the Hiss case floated like a dark cloud across the American scene, yet the broody shadow lingers. “It stripped America of its political innocence, and it has neverbeen quite the same again,” writes Mr. Rees, a distinguished British novelist (THE SUMMER FLOOD, A BRIDGE TO DIVIDE THEM), translator (CONVERSATIONS WITH KAFKA),and editor (ENCOUNTER).In this instance, he discovers that even a bad reconstruction of the case, a psychoanalysis effort to portray Whittaker Chambers as evil incarnate and Alger Hiss as innocence raped, reactivates strange and sad memories.
AT THE close of his second trial for perjury, in November, 1949, Alger Hiss protested against the jury’s verdict of guilty in the following words: “I am confident that in future the full facts of how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter will be disclosed.” Hiss was right to emphasize in this way the importance of the famous Woodstock Number N230099. It had not been traced at the time of his first trial, when the jury failed to agree on a verdict. In the second trial, it was produced in evidence by the defense, though in fact it greatly strengthened tire case for the prosecution. Indeed, in the second trial the prosecution made a significant change in its presentation of the case. In the first trial, the deputy attorney general, Thomas Murphy, told the jury that everything depended on the word of Whittaker Chambers: “If you don’t believe Chambers then we don’t have a case”; now he rested his case on the material evidence before the court, on the “immutable documents” which Hiss was alleged to have typed on his battered old Woodstock.
More than seventeen years later, history has not yet disclosed the facts which would exonerate Hiss, though there are some whose faith in him is so strong that they believe it still will. But where history has failed, psychoanalysis has come to his rescue, in the shape of Friendship and Fratricide; An Analysis of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss (Viking, $8.95), by a practicing psychoanalyst, Myer A. Zeligs, M.D., of Los Angeles.
Over a period of six years Dr. Zeligs has reexamined all the evidence that was available at the time of the trial, and has supplemented it with new material which he has collected himself. He has interviewed a host of witnesses, whose evidence might throw new light on what was already known, and to this mass of material he has applied his own psychoanalytic techniques in order to arrive at an “analysis in depth” of both Hiss and Chambers.
The Hiss case was such an extraordinary historical phenomenon, and the personalities of Hiss and Chambers played such a decisive part in it, that Dr. Zeligs’ inquiry could not fail to be a fascinating one. No one, I think, could quarrel with the industry and devotion he has shown in carrying out his task. On the other hand, it would fie difficult not to criticize the use he has made of the material, or the standards he has applied in selecting from it, and in presenting and interpreting it. Partly this is the result of applying a conception of truth which is fundamental to psychoanalytic procedures. For the analyst, a lie is as significant as the truth; indeed, it is a truth which is struggling to express itself and has become distorted in the process, while the truth may be only a rationalization whose real meaning may be the exact opposite of what is intended. No doubt, this conception has its own validity in the interpretation of the subconscious motives which influence all our actions, yet it is a weapon which demands of the analyst the most scrupulous selfrestraint. This is not a quality which, is very apparent in Friendship and Fratricide. Dr. Zeligs tells us that he has conducted his inquiry in a spirit of “careful analytic neutrality.” His book, however, is about as neutral as an act of assassination.
THE two portraits which Dr. Zeligs offers for our inspection present a quite remarkable contrast in deepest black and unspotted white. 1 hat of Chambers is both somber and lurid, suffused by all the fires of hell, as if Hieronymus Bosch had taken to portraiture; that of Hiss glows with the gentle radiance of a chevalier sans pettr et sans reproche, something in the style of Watts. That two such creatures, one absolutely bad, one absolutely good, ever inhabited the same world, even if it were only a world of the imagination, taxes our credulity; that they lived in the real world, and confronted each other in the drab surroundings of a courtroom, quite defies belief. Even the psyche, to which all things are possible, does not embrace quite so wide a variation of types, which denies the humanity ol both.
Yet, oddly enough, this unqualified contrast, as between an angel and a demon, raises a difficulty which Dr. Zeligs does not choose to discuss. For confronted by these two men, one a trusted servant of the state, with an impeccable record and friends and admirers in the highest spheres of American public life, the other a seedy ne’er-do-well, only recently re-arisen, as from the dead, from the murkiest depth of American society, it was the demon whom the jury finally came to believe and accepted as what he himself so improbably claimed to be, a witness of truth, and it was the angel they disbelieved; never was there a clearer case of the stone which the analyst rejected being made the head of the corner. Dr. Zeligs, of course, might well say that the jury were ordinary men and women who did not have the benefit of psychological insight, and that the court refused to listen to his friend and colleague Dr. Bingcr, who did. The question is, however, whether an analyst who never met Chambers is a better judge of his credibility than men and “women who had the opportunity of watching and listening to him under protracted and grueling cross-examination; after reading Dr. Zeligs’ book, one is less than ever inclined to think so.
What then is the portrait of Chambers which emerges from Friendship and Fratricide and which Dr. Zeligs considers such conclusive proof of guilt that if it conflicts with material evidence, the evidence must be discarded or explained away? It is a portrait of a psychopath, whose grasp upon reality has been so weakened that he can no longer distinguish between truth and falsehood, and constantly imposes his own fantasies on the external world; a congenital liar who is incapable of telling the truth. It follows that when he tells lies we must seek the truth they are intended to conceal; it follows equally that when he appears to tell the truth, we must be on our guard and look for the lie which it embodies, This is what is meant by exercising “careful analytic neutrality.”
The “psychical truth” behind Chambers’ lies was the love-hate relationship established in childhood, first with his parents and then with his younger brother. Chambers’ mother had rejected his love, and this made him wish for her death; indeed, in fantasy he killed her, by inventing a myth that she had almost died in childbirth owing to his monstrous physique. His death wish toward his mother inspired in him a profound sense of guilt, which was redoubled when his mother gave to Chambers’ younger brother the love which should rightly have been his, and directed to him the same wish to kill that Chambers had felt for her. And indeed, once again in fantasy, he did kill him, for when his brother committed suicide it was part of a death pact in which Chambers failed to carry out his share of the bargain. For Chambers loved his brother, with a love which was homosexual as well as fraternal; he wished to share his sufferings, and to join him in the death lie so profoundly desired for him.
Thus Chambers, as the murderer in fantasy of both his mother and his brother, bore a burden of guilt so intolerable as to make it impossible for him to face reality, and in particular the reality about himself, which was something in which love, hate, envy, the desire for revenge, the urge to destroy and kill were all compounded in a combination as explosive as a charge of dynamite. Hence the compelling need to lie, for to tell the truth would be to betray, to himself as well as others, the hateful thing that he was. Hence also the need to fabricate alternative identities, create aliases, surround himself with a cloak of mystery and secrecy, to make himself invisible, bury himself underground; all subterfuges which were a means both of protecting himself against the truth and of simulating the death he wished both for himself and those he loved and hated.
But most of all there was the irresistible compulsion to repeat the pattern which had shown itself in his relationship with his brother, the fundamental syndrome of homosexual love-hate which inexorably demanded the death or destruction of the loved one. It was irresistible because it “was founded on a sense of deprivation so vast and profound that it organized all Chambers’ immensely powerful psychic energies in its service, and the fantasies it inspired urgently and peremptorily demanded to be played, out in real life.
Thus, when, in the summer of 1934, Hiss first met Chambers, it was as his predestined victim; the clean-limbed all-American college boy, with a touch of both the puritan and the aristocrat in his character, was designed as if by nature to revive in all their ambivalence and violence the feelings which Chambers had once cherished for his brother; and when, inevitably, Hiss rejected Chambers’ love, there could be only one result. The shadow of death fell on him and his brilliant career, and with diabolic prescience and incomparable ingenuity Chambers set about collecting and fabricating the evidence with which, fifteen years later, he encompassed Hiss’s downfall. In this story, as Dr. Zeligs tells it, there are elements both of Greek tragedy and of Augustinian predestination, which give it a certain grandeur. Chambers, driven by the Furies and possessed by all the devils in hell, appears like some monstrous apparition out of a dark and terrible world in which nothing is what it seems and most things are their opposite and yet everything moves by mysterious laws to unavoidable catastrophe.
YET in fact Chambers not only inhabited the private world of the subconscious; he also was a creature of flesh and blood, who lived in the ordinary world of common experience —that is to say, in the United States as it was in the first half of this century, exercising upon both Chambers and Hiss, like everyone else, immense social and political pressures which had quite as much influence on their relationship as any of the motives Dr. Zeligs has dredged up from the dead sea bottom of depth analysis. It does not seem to have occurred to Dr. Zeligs that the relationship between the psyche, which is the object of his special study, and the objective world, which is not, is one of infinite complexity, invok ing philosophical, and even metaphysical, problems which, until they are resolved, should make an analyst hesitate before tracing a direct causal connection between the emotional disturbances arising out of the suicide of a younger brother and, nearly twenty-five years later, a conviction for perjury in a court of law.
For the Hiss case was not merely, or even primarily, a struggle between the demons in Chambers’ breast. It was also a legal conflict in which the due processes of law were applied to discovering which of two men was telling the truth; and because the issues involved were far larger than either of the two individuals concerned, it also became a political conflict in which millions of Americans felt that somehow their own destiny was at stake. Chambers was certainly, by any standard, an extraordinary person, though one should add that Dr. Zeligs’ portrait of him depends on suppressing or ignoring the evidence of those who knew him best and on denying any kind of validity to the process of religious conversion, which for Chambers was the most important event in his life. Hiss was altogether less extraordinary, but he also achieved a symbolic importance because, for many people, he seemed to typify everything that was best in the Age of Roosevelt. But it was not the personality of Hiss or Chambers which gave the case its importance, any more than it was the personality of Dreyfus or Esterhazy which gave importance to the great Affair. The Affair shook France to its foundations, forced Frenchmen of all parties, opinions, classes to examine where their loyalties really lay. To Charles Maurras this was so much its most important aspect, so much more significant than the fate of any individual, that he did not hesitate to say that the conviction of Dreyfus should be Maintained even if he were proved to be innocent. Not many Americans would apply the same shameless logic as Maurras; yet many of those who believed, and continue to believe, in Hiss’s innocence were influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the sense that to convict him was to convict an entire generation which, under the New Deal, had deserved well of the Republic.
But the forces which gave significance to the Hiss case also helped to shape the life and character of its two protagonists; Hiss and Chambers became the men they were just as much, or more, because of the great economic depression of 1929 to 1933 as because of the suicide of Chambers’ brother or of Hiss’s father. Dr. Zeligs achieves the astonishing feat of representing Bliss and Chambers as if they played their part in a social vacuum, as if, indeed, the case were only a shadow play projected by Chambers’ fantasies. But the awkward thing about Chambers’ fantasies was that they were repeatedly being verified in reality. When he claimed to have known Hiss, and Hiss denied it, he really had known Hiss. When he said that Hiss had seen a prothonotary warbler on the banks of the Potomac. Hiss really had seen a prothonotary warbler on the banks of the Potomac. And when he said that Hiss had copied State Department documents on his old Woodstock typewriter, there, fifteen years later, as if conjured up out of thin air, were the documents and Woodstock Number N230099 to prove that it was so.
it began to dawn on people that the psychopath and congenital liar was capable of telling the truth, and that the man with an almost exaggerated respect for truth was also capable of lying. But for depth analysis this is too great a paradox to swallow.
So far as the personal issue was concerned this was the crux of the case. What Dr. Zeligs calls Hiss’s pedantic and legalistic insistence on the exact truth began to look to others like evasion, and on occasion Hiss had to suffer the mortification of having them laugh in his face. But the Hiss case was not merely a personal issue. Chambers was not merely saying that Bliss was a Communist agent; he was also testifying that there existed a vast, secret, and criminal conspiracy organized by the Communist Party to subvert the government of the United States and that the Communist Party had successfully infiltrated its agents into the United States government. Moreover, Chambers specifically related the growth of this conspiracy to the progress of the New Deal, which was, he said, “a genuine revolution, whose deepest purpose was . . . a basic change in the social and, above all, the power relationships within the nation.”
Such charges were heard at first with incredulity and derision. They were something so novel, so alien to the whole American tradition, so discordant with the American’s image of himself and of his fellow countrymen; the shock became all the greater as the Hiss case proceeded and it began to appear that Chambers had evidence to substantiate his charges; it was so profound indeed that the social philosophy of the New Deal, which is the social philosophy underlying the liberal and progressive movement in America, has never quite recovered from it. In this sense the Hiss case stripped America of its political innocence, and it has never been quite the same again, for if Hiss was guilty any American might be guilty. Perhaps indeed this was its most far-reaching effect. Without the Hiss case, McCarthyism would have been impossible; and if today many Americans see in the CIA another conspiracy whose influence pervades every branch of American life, it is partly because such a conception became familiar and credible to them, in another form, as a result of the revelations arising out of the Hiss case.
For in the larger context also, Chambers’ fantasies once again showed their uncanny capacity for imposing themselves on reality. The Communist underground was not simply a figment of Chambers’ imagination, or a means oi satisfying a paranoiac’s subconscious wish for revenge, for escape, for persecution, for death; it actually existed outside his dreams and was peopled not by ghosts but by men and women of flesh and blood, like the J. Peters (Chambers’ “alter-ego,” according to Dr. Zeligs) whom Chambers claimed to be the head of the Communist underground in America and whose physical existence we cannot doubt because he was deported by the United States government during the course of the Hiss case.
Dr. Zeligs makes no attempt to explain the extraordinary parallelism between events in Chambers’ psyche and events in the external world, except to suggest repeatedly either that the Communist underground did not exist in the form in which Chambers described it or that Chambers did not play the part in it which he claimed. Yet in the end, when confronted with Woodstock Number N230099, Dr. Zeligs himself seems to become confused about what was real and what was not. His explanation is that Chambers fabricated a replica of the typewriter in 1935 and either substituted it for the real thing, which he then destroyed, or replaced the real thing, destroying the replica, in the confident hope that the remaining machine would turn up in the hands of the Hiss defense fourteen years later. There is of course no evidence whatever that Chambers did this; there is only Dr. Zeligs’ assertion that he must have done it, for how else could Hiss be innocent, or Chambers guilty? Moreover, according to Dr. Zeligs, Chambers had the means to commit the fabrication, because he had at his disposal all the Communist apparatus technical machinery for forgery. Yet in that case Chambers must really have been what he claimed to be, and moreover, the Communist underground must have lent itself to his long-term plan for framing Hiss thirteen years after he had left the Communist Party. Thus once again Chambers’ fantasies displayed their magical powers of translating themselves into reality, this time in the shape of a Woodstock typewriter.
Dr. Zeligs’ book is a sad example of what follies a psychoanalyst can commit if he applies his specialist techniques to historical events without that scrupulous and impartial regard for objective fact which we have the right to expect of him. “Phis is unfortunate, because there can be little doubt that the insights into human nature which we owe to psychoanalysis can be of value to the historian, and may help to illuminate some of the darkest corners of his subject. But at best they can only be hypotheses, and it is by the facts themselves that they must be verified. Moreover, history is concerned not merely with individuals but the environment in which they live and work, and the immensely complicated interplay between the two provides the historian with many of his most difficult and delicate problems. To solve them, the historian has to call upon many skills as well as his own, and among these may well be that of the analyst, but in every case the historian’s duty will be to try and reconcile their results with the events of history as they actually occurred. This may be an unrealizable ideal, but it is the only ideal which the historian can legitimately follow. To suggest that specialist studies have the power not merely to illuminate or to add to the facts, but to manipulate or overrule them is to import into history yet another of those superstitions from which it has been so painfully released in the past. If we have to choose between the psyche and the typewriter, we must stick to the typewriter.