Thoughts & Musings

“And Justifie the Wayes of God to Men”:
Mark St. Germain’s Freud’s Last Session (2009)

Discussion Sunday is June 15

© 2014 by Eileen Warburton

to us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion
under whom we conduct our different lives;
He quietly surrounds all our habits of growth *

I approach this essay, my friends, with much trepidation. No attempt on my part to boil down the belief systems of giants like Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) into the thimble of a thousand to fifteen hundred words can even come close to filling you in on the long, morally sincere, and intensely labored careers of these two men. Freud, on the date of this imagined meeting, was twenty days from his death by physician-assisted morphine. Behind him was a 53-year pioneering career in the invention of psychoanalysis and the examination of the human psyche. Twenty-two books like The Interpretation of Dreams, Totem and Taboo, Civilization and its Discontents, and Moses and Monotheism had reshaped the modern intellectual conversation. Lewis, on this date, was an Oxford don of 41. Ahead of him stretched another 24 years of ever more powerful writing, making him one of the great Christian apologists of the 20th century. While Freud examined the workings of the psyche, Lewis examined the workings of the soul. (Could they be the same?) He was one of the mightiest of medieval scholars but is best known for works like The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, The Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, etc.), the 9-volume Chronicles of Narnia, and his BBC broadcasts during the war. Be also aware, Dear Audience, that you are viewing a play with characters sketched in by a playwright, not a long careful documentary on the real-life figures who created so much of the mental atmosphere of our lives that we are, for the most part, unaware of it. However, the thoroughly fictitious debate of the riveting Freud’s Last Session by the elusive playwright, Mark St. Germain, can sharpen our understanding of the terms of this great argument, especially as the scene is played out at the moment of the beginning of World War II.

It is surely a signpost in this imagined meeting between these eloquent advocates of atheism and of belief in God that they begin with agreement. They are both deep admirers of John Milton’s great epic poem Paradise Lost. At the hour of their meeting, as witnessed by the announcements on the wireless and the scream of air-raid sirens, all we know of Eden is once more being lost to arrogant greed and violence as the Nazi war machine rolls over Poland and war is declared in Britain, “with hideous ruine and combustion down/To bottomless perdition, there to dwell”(PL,46,47).  It is good for us to remember, as we listen to these characters debate their opposing positions, that they are actually on the same side.  They both know that the problem of good and evil for mankind is the problem, the only real question worth debating. Everything else is trivial. While each takes a radically different approach to answering this ancient question, yet they seek the good, both of them. The enemy is out there, the “Dark Power” in Lewis’ words. At this moment in history, the enemy is the Nazis.  But, really, the Enemy is always the same, the selfish corrupt, the ignorant who use false God(s) or pseudo-science or whatever to justify to themselves the violation of the rest of the world. Both Freud and Lewis, veterans of the evils of the 20th century, instinctively fear death and find intellectual (and spiritual/psychological) ways to face that fear and neutralize its power to crush the spirit, for themselves and for the people who read them.

Both Freud and Lewis can be mythologized as great questing heroes whose journeys took them, both of them, into the dangerous past on a quest to bring wisdom and comfort to the present. The poet WH Auden, in his insightful elegy on Freud’s death, sees him as journeying “Down among the lost people, like Dante, down/To the stinking fosse where the injured/Lead the ugly life of the rejected…sees him as telling “the unhappy Present to recite the Past/like a poetry lesson till sooner or later it faltered at the line where/long ago the accusations had begun…”

The core idea of Freud’s work on religion is that belief in God can be explained through its function in society, not for its relation to the “truth.” Religious beliefs are, he wrote, “Illusions” and “insusceptible of proof.” It is an illusion that is “perhaps the most important item in the psychical inventory of a civilization.” Based on his readings in history and literature, as well as on his clinical experience, Freud held that the monotheistic God is an illusion based upon the infantile emotional need for a powerful, supernatural pater familias. Religion, Freud maintained, was once necessary to restrain man’s violent nature in the early stages of civilization. But today, we should set this aside in favor of reason and science, finding our way forward without the restraint of ancient rituals and taboos. However, he doubted whether, without the restraints of religious law, the uneducated and oppressed would refrain from murder and chaos. He gave religion credit for consoling people from their fear of the natural world and of death, even while asserting that religious training and belief weakened the intellect by closing off lines of inquiry.

Freud himself, as the character admits in the play, found the experience of religion, the mystical desire for the divine, something foreign to him. Despite thorough exposure to religious teachings in childhood, he was an atheist all his life, although he embraced his Jewish identity. When a friend described religious feeling as “an oceanic sensation,” Freud dismissed it as wish fulfillment, yet admitted that he had never experienced that emotion.

For Clive Staples Lewis (always known as ‘Jack’), it is this very longing of the heart for the divine that is the intuitive proof of the existence of God. If the fulfillment of this immense spiritual desire did not exist in the universe, would there be such a hunger of the soul? Lewis names this calling of the spirit “Joy.” After an adolescence of falling away from any faith and after his unspeakably horrific experiences as an officer on the battlefields of France in World War I, he confirmed himself as an atheist. Unlike the “road to Damascus” experience dropped so casually in this play (“in the sidecar of my brother’s motorbike on our way to the zoo”), Lewis’ journey back to Christianity was long, slow, drenched in scholarship, and very resistant. But Lewis was guided by this “Joy” of his, this hunger for a God in whom he tried not to believe. In 1929, like a prodigal, “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape…the most reluctant convert in England,” he acknowledged himself as a theist, a believer. Only in 1931, under the influence of Oxford friends like JRR Tolkien, did he become a Christian. His Christianity, witnessed to his readers and listeners over the next 32 years, was a system of very core beliefs, very ecumenical, so that he pitched as broad and welcoming a tent of faith as he possibly could imagine.

Lewis’ journey into the past was so different from Freud’s because he was, by personality, so susceptible to the reality of other worlds. While Freud studied the past to understand how our individual biological natures might project upon it, Lewis studied the European medieval world with its penchant for the supernatural and a moral order buttressed by form and ritual. From childhood, he was addicted to fantasy, myth and fairy tales, and other imaginative other worlds. His mythopoeic imagination was fully capable of passing from our quotidian reality into the otherness of a fantasy or supernatural world as easily as, say, the four child evacuees of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe pass through the wardrobe into Narnia. For Freud, a fantasy world was like a dream, a repository of repressed desires that reshaped themselves into a new narrative. For Lewis, a fantasy world was an alternate reality, full of a truth that reflected on our own reality. Perhaps they were both right and it’s just a question of perspective.

In any case, while the characters argue through this play seemingly never to agree, it is worth noting that they begin in agreement and end with a respectful handshake.

Mark St. Germain, the playwright of this very popular piece, has emerged as a major off-Broadway playwright after a successful career as a television scriptwriter. Back in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s he was working on The Cosby Show and As the World Turns. His children’s book, The Three Cups, won awards. As early as 1983, he was writing the book of a musical (Johnny Pye and the Fool Killer) and, in 2001, the script for Stand by Your Man: The Tammy Wynette Story.  In only the past dozen years, however, St. Germain seems to have discovered his voice as a playwright. He is noted for his preference for historical fiction, bringing to life historical events and personalities, with vivid, imagined dialogue. Plays like Blanche and Her Joy Boys (2002), Freud’s Last Session (2009), The Best of Enemies (2011), Dr. Ruth, All the Way (2012), and Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah (2013) have attracted an enthusiastic audience. Presently, St. Germain lives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and is associated with the regional theatre, the Barrington Stage, where he has premiered almost all of his plays. In 2012, the troupe’s Stage 2 was renamed the “St. Germain Stage” in his honor.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

Op. Cit.

My title comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The epigraph is from In Memory of Sigmund Freud  (d. Sept. 1939) by W. H. Auden

The word “fosse” in the Auden quote means a defensive ditch filled with water—an obstacle to entry, like a moat around a castle. Yes, I had to look it up, too.

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