Posted by: thealienist | September 1, 2014

Freud’s Last Session

Abilene Christian University recently had several performances of Freud’s Last Session, a one-act play depicting what might have happened if Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis had a meeting shortly before Freud’s death at the outset of World War II.  The play is based, at least in part, on the book The Question of God by Armand Nicholi.  It is well-written and (at the performance I attended) well-acted.  The play, however, did bring certain thoughts to mind that I thought I might share here.

My first thought concerned the purpose of the play.  There seems to be two major contenders for this:  1) to present Freud’s and Lewis’ points of view on a variety of issues including psychoanalysis, religion, sex, death, etc. or 2) to present the personalities of Freud and Lewis.  Of course it could be that the author wanted to do both, but I don’t think that this was possible.  In the performance I saw, the actor playing Lewis, Jacob Alexander, did a wonderful job.  He expressed Lewis’ views clearly and compassionately.  He made his Lewis a very sympathetic, calm, and (though young and early in his career) wise character.  Adam Hester (who played Freud) on the other hand made his Freud to be of mercurial temperament.  At times he would be calm and considering, at other times sarcastic, or irritable, or jovial.  Hester’s Freud was the more deeply realized character in my opinion, though this may be been due to the writing more than in any deficiency in the actors — both of whom I thoroughly enjoyed.

However, if you see this play to examine the personalities of these two academic giants, then I suggest that you set aside consideration of the arguments that each is making.  In my opinion (though of course everyone is free to develop his own), the emotional instability of Freud in this play detracts from the power of his intellectual argument while the sympathetic and persistent tone of Lewis’ argument adds to the impact of his argument.  Now, to be clear, in this play Freud is in the final stages of an oral cancer that will soon claim his life.  He has recently been driven from his home in Austria by the Nazis.  Also, he has been involved in conflicts with others (including his intellectual son, Carl Jung) over the development of psychoanalysis.  It would be inconceivable to play Freud as anything but a man in turmoil.  It would also be improper to see him as a gentle man.  He was ruthless in trying to maintain the purity of psychoanalysis and in some ways was the tyrant that he denounced in the play.  The easiest way to receive this play is to see in it the intellectual and personal struggles of two men of genius.  Their characters (at this moment in their lives) are revealed for all to see.

On the other hand, if your interest is in the intellectual arguments made by Freud and Lewis, then you have a much more difficult task.  In fact, I would suggest that you read the original writings of each author.  I find both C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud to be great thinkers and likely to agree on most topics that they address.  Both advocated for acknowledging reality and not giving in to repression and denial.  I would expect that if Freud had been able to read Lewis’ later writings, he would have been impressed by his self-disclosure.  In fact, one of the greatest similarities between these two authors was the tendency of both to be honest about their thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and actions.  This is not to deny the human weaknesses of either man but to recognize that both felt and recognized the tendencies of people to hide parts of themselves and to present false fronts to society.  The fact that both strongly resisted these urges (Lewis to present a true face to Christianity; Freud to describe how such urges lead to the formation of the unconscious, symptom production, and unrecognized motives for behavior) leads me to believe that each would have been fascinated with the other and would have found in the other a worthy foil for his own beliefs.  Unfortunately, such an intellectual discussion of the similarities and differences between these great men would make for terrible theater, but a wonderful lecture.

Even so, in Armand Nicholi’s book (which I read long ago, so if I am mistaken in the following statements feel free to correct me), it seems that there are some misunderstandings.  For example, I recall it being pointed out that C.S. Lewis lived out his philosophy more consistently than did Sigmund Freud.  One example was in the sphere of sexuality.  C.S. Lewis followed church teaching as a Christian.  Freud, on the other hand, taught “free love” yet had a monogamous marriage with his wife.  This was seen as a form of hypocrisy on his part.  Nonsense!  Freud did not teach a moral ethic.  The only “sin” in psychoanalysis was to live an unreflective life and to lie to yourself about your true desires and the means you use to satisfy them.  If Freud acknowledged his sexual thoughts and feelings (and if Freud did not, then whoever has?) and still chose to live a monogamous life to satisfy his desires, how can be be faulted for this?  Freud would insist that people be conscious about what rules they choose to live by.  So would C.S. Lewis.  Freud and Lewis, I am sure, could have had a spirited debate about what rules and by what worldview it is best to live.  They would not have argued, however, about the need to choose it with open eyes.

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Responses

  1. Hi! Just wanted to keep in touch.

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