The Psychopathic God (2016)

Landfall 231 (Autumn 2016)

The Psychopathic God

Tim Corballis. R.H.I. ISBN 978-086473-982-7. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2015. 208 pp. RRP $NZ 30.00.

Tim Corballis: R.H.I. (2015)

It reminded me of the idea of a language game that the philosopher Wittgenstein used to talk about, not really meaning that language games were things that happened but that language is like a game, and that we play games with who we are and with our language, not real games but that it’s all make believe, even if it’s not. (pp.22-23)
In many ways it’s easier to say what Tim Corballis’s new book isn’t than what it is. It certainly doesn’t constitute a conventional novel, even by the most liberal definition. Nor, really, do its two discrete sections operate as independent (or even co-dependent) novellas. They’re much stranger and more fragmentary than that.

The author claims to detect in his own work “a history of the twentieth century,” – albeit an “incomplete” one, “produced by accident” – but working out precisely what he means by that is almost as complex as trying to make sense of the stories themselves (if they really are stories, sustained pieces of make believe, that is).
Having started I had to carry on. Doing what? … I had to admit that I was here mostly for a warm place to sit.
How true that is of so much research, particularly in those strange repositories of obsolete intellectual endeavour called archives. Corballis has clearly caught the archival bug with a vengeance, but the larger significance of the bits and pieces of information he unearthed in Berlin and London, and (later) back home in New Zealand, seems mostly to have emerged in retrospect.

There’s a revealing remark near the beginning of the second novella, “H”:
Did the sense of a PRESENCE simply grow out of my research? It should be clear that I absolutely do not believe in ghosts, or in any kind of special paranormal sensitivity on my part—these documents are the products of an ordinary person, and at times seem like simple diaries, at others like works of fiction, and at others still like the rough notes of a historian or biographer.
I share Corballis’s fascination with the early history of the psychoanalytical movement, and the curious texture of his prose – the almost Janet-and-John-like simplicity of alternating questions and answers – does have the effect of recreating something of the rather uncanny atmosphere surrounding these pioneers in the unmapped regions of the unconscious.

It’s hard, then, to believe that he means this disavowal of the reality of the “floating agents” (as he calls them: though he also refers to them as “ghosts”) to be taken entirely at face value. The idea that a too-vehement negation of any proposition is a clue that its author secretly suspects the opposite is one of the most familiar truisms in the Freudian lexicon, and it’s probably also the one that operates best as a rule of thumb in everyday life.

I take with a considerable grain of salt our author’s claim to be “an ordinary person”. I don’t think we would bother with these notes if they were purely the product of random gleanings in the archives. A considerable amount of shaping intelligence has been devoted to these twin stories, or assemblages, or collages, or whatever you want to call them.

Part One, “R,” about Joan R (or Joan Riviere) and her various experiences before and after the First World War, is probably the more approachable of the two. The territory it investigates is familiar enough from such works as Pat Barker’s Regeneration, or (to go back a bit further) D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel.

Naming these precedents does have the effect of isolating some of the oddness in Corballis’s method, however. The tales these two earlier authors tell are still, recognisably, novels: fictional recreations of the past – the compositions of true believers in the value of make-believe.

It’s hard to believe that Corballis is simply failing to carry out a similarly seamless act of retrieval and reconstruction. It seems far more probable to me that these roughnesses and jump-cuts and refusals to round off his narrative strands are due to a loss of faith in what Lallans poet Hugh MacDiarmid once referred to as “the haill clanjamfrie”.

And, if one accepts this hypothesis, the structure of his book begins at once to make more sense. Part Two, “H,” about the German architect Hermann Henselmann, takes us straight into the aftermath of another war, amid the ruins of post-war Berlin.

After the proclamation of the death of God by Nietzsche in the 1880s (whether you attribute the act itself to him, to Darwinism, or to Scientific Method itself), the two principal belief systems which have dominated the modern age are undoubtedly Marxism, the idea of history as a shaping force, interpreted by its own priesthood the Communist Party; and Psychoanalysis, the study of the unconscious, the shaping force behind the seemingly irrational and inexplicable acts that dominate human lives.

Joan R’s failed analysis with Ernest Jones, Freud’s biographer, and his first English disciple, dramatises her own conflict with the absolute faith required of adherents to the psychoanalytic cause (studded, like most dogmatic systems, with great heresies and expulsions from the pure stream of belief: Adler, Jung, Otto Rank …).

One of the most amusing strands in Hermann H’s story is his own series of on-again, off-again attempts to flee to West Berlin. He talks his girlfriend, Anita R, into coming with him, only to be swayed into staying by her counter-arguments, only to find that she’s now decided to go, leading him to decide to accompany her, only to find that she’s now been persuaded by his own misgivings to stay, and so on and so forth, the whole accompanied by ironic interpolations by Bertolt Brecht.

Faith, once again, is at the root of it all. As H makes his little compromises, deciding to go along with the purging of a colleague, to accept the (considerable) leg-up it offers him, we observe first hand his attempts to keep alive the flame of the new Utopia that might rise from these ruins: the architectural solution it might offer to the problem of man’s inhumanity to man.

There’s nothing here (except by implication) about the Stasi, no attempt to dramatise – as in Gunter Grass’s The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising – the irony of Brecht’s staging a play about proletarian revolt while the workers are literally fighting and dying in the streets outside his theatre. This is not that sort of story.

It’s hard, at times, to avoid a snort of contemptuous disbelief as the characters in Corballis’s story attribute the continuing disunity of Germany to the West’s callous refusal to accept Stalin’s grand proposal for re-unification. And yet that very scepticism is, I suppose, the point.

There’s nothing easier than to write po-faced books of “warnings from the past” like Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread. Harder, much harder, is to recreate that atmosphere of the true (albeit, at times, wavering) believer. Corballlis’s virtue is his refusal to editorialise, to put facts in their “true perspective”, to supply the party line on what we now “know” to be true.

What he’s created is, I suppose, a kind of anti-narrative: not so much a Freudian case-study, in which the details are all eventually supposed to cohere into a larger reading, or even a Marxist analysis of the economic and class relationships of the various “floating agents” whom we are forced by narrative convention (perhaps F. R. Leavis might provide a third member of his trinity, to set beside Freud and Marx) to regard as fictional “characters.”

Psychoanalysis took its emphasis from the devastation of the First World War. What was, before, an intellectual movement confined to the analysis of the neuroses of certain wealthy members of the middle classes in Mitteleuropa spread to England and America largely as an antidote to the shell-shock and despair of the lost generation.

The inability of psychoanalysts to diagnose Europe’s ills sufficiently to prevent yet another war, did rather put paid to that particular system of faith: What huge imago made / A psychopathic god, as W. H. Auden presciently asks in his poem “September 1, 1939”.

Marxism is treated in a rather more allusive way in Corballlis’s second section: partly, I suppose, due to its far greater longevity (“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism” is a statement that dates back to the Communist Manifesto of 1848). Also, perhaps, because it needs less fleshing out – and refutation – for contemporary readers.

Corballis’s book, then, part fiction, part history, part archival research, part imaginative projection is (at any rate in this reading) an attempt to analyse all these losses of faith: faith in ideologies that probably never deserved it in the first place, but which nevertheless started off as attempts to taxonomise and interpret the realities around us, only to end up as codified sets of dogmas, valuable only as control mechanisms for the masses.

It’s hard, too, to argue too vigorously with Corballis’s loss of faith in fiction itself. What is left, after all, of all those Leavisite claims about the English Department as the “natural centre of a university” – of the function of literature to promote alert, enquring minds within healthy, organic communities? Little enough, I fear.

“By their fruits ye shall know them,” says the Gospel of Matthew, of Jesus’s followers. I’m afraid that Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire put paid to any naïve notions we might have that the warring communities of the early church showed any greater charity to one another than was meted out to them by Emperors such as Commodus or Domitian.

“Great Marxist Humanitarians” – that was one of Kingsley Amis’s suggestions for world’s shortest book. I guess one could add "The Tolerance of Dissent within the Psychoanalytic Movement" and "Lives of the Saintly Literature Professors" as alternative candidates.

But even if these systems of faith now seem less compelling than absurd, what is one left with once they’re gone? The pen may still be moving across the paper in Corballis’s increasingly bleak and Beckettian universe, but one can’t help but wonder for how long?

And yet, is his dilemma so very different from that of Matthew Arnold in “Dover Beach”?
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Corballis has reminded us just how dark and inhospitable those “naked shingles of the world” can be, but also how fascinating and various. There’s always been something a bit unconvincing about the resolution of Arnold’s poem: “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another.” The despair in his poem speaks louder.

Corballis, a hundred years on, may have more ruins to survey, but his solution – to delve and to taxonomise – remains, I have to admit, the best we have.


Landfall 231 (2016): 182-85.

[1844 wds]

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