Personality Crisis

••• British Author Nigel Dennis Gets Lost in the Shuffle

 Formerly, he thinks to himself, an artist took real people and transformed them into painted ones: how much finer and more satisfying is the modern method of assuming that people are not real at all, only self-painted, and of proceeding to make them real by giving them new selves based on the best-available theories of human nature. . . . it is incredible to think how well the open ear responds to a little love and chronological falsification. —Nigel Dennis, Cards of Identity

The human personality is so much dough to be kneaded according to the whims of one's analyst in Cards of Identity, and suitably enough, Nigel Dennis's dizzying 1955 novel itself shape-shifts at will. What begins as a dry mockery of English class covetousness switches gears to become an ivory-tower-toppling satire of depth psychology—perhaps an oxymoron to Dennis—and backbiting academics, the latter caricatured as the philosophers of the innocuously named Identity Club. This secret society descends upon a vacant countryside manor and subjects the pliant neighbors to what might be termed identity reassignment, the better to assemble docile servants for the club's imminent annual conference. As likely to plunge inside a Clubber's dead-serious paper topic ("The Case of the Co-Warden of the Badgeries," on badger worship) as a Shakespeare-manqué play (performed by the brainwashed staff), and back again, Cards of Identity constantly reshuffles the narrative deck. An avowed disciple of Evelyn Waugh, Dennis implicitly celebrates the art of self-(re)invention while keeping a disdainful eye out for any pedant he thinks might attempt to corral the psyche inside rigid theory. His book also achieves precognitive parody of contemporary self-help gurus and their interchangeable gospels of auto-transformation. At a moment when an Oprah minion can turn the alleged dichotomy between the "authentic self" and the "fictional self" into a millions-served commodity and a Newsweek cover, Dennis's sardonic mutability canto (recently reissued by Dalkey Archive) is as timely as ever.

Memories can't wait: Nigel Dennis washes your brain.
photo: Vanguard Press
Memories can't wait: Nigel Dennis washes your brain.

All but forgotten today, Cards of Identity met with wide praise upon its publication in the year of Lolita, Lord of the Rings, and Marcuse's Eros and Civilization. W.H. Auden blurbably declared, "I have read no novel published during the last fifteen years with greater pleasure and admiration." The following summer of 1956, Dennis adapted Cards for the stage—only fitting for a dialogue-drenched comedy on the performance of self. The theatrical rendition, boasting a cast that included Alan Bates and Joan Plowright, hit the London boards to mixed notices during the epochal first season of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre, where it suffered the misfortune of premiering directly behind John Osborne's explosive Look Back in Anger. A dense, absurdist play of ideas wearing the familiar drag of parlor farce, Cards seemed out of step with Beckett's no-exit fantasia Waiting for Godot (which had caused a sensation in Blighty the previous August) and Osborne's stripped, strapping working-class vernacular. At 44, Dennis was no Angry Young Man. He penned just two more productions (the overtly anti-religion tract The Making of Moo in 1957 and a grim indictment of post-war Britain starring Rex Harrison, August for the People, in 1961) before limiting his theatrical forays to criticism for Encounter (where he also served a stint as co-editor), The New York Review of Books, and elsewhere.

Born in England, Nigel Dennis (1912-1989) spent his early years in Rhodesia, Austria, and Germany; in 1934, he moved to New York, where he eventually landed at The New Republic as an assistant editor and book reviewer. He also discovered a friend and mentor in a fellow expatriate, the Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler. In 1911, Adler and a dozen-odd allies had broken with the identity club known as the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, objecting to Freud's interpretation of the mind as a nexus of near automated drives in favor of Adler's less essentialist theory of "individual psychology," which focused on the influences and circumstances of childhood. In The Neurotic Constitution (1912), Adler discounted Freud's fixation on the libido as the prime mover, and instead posited a "guiding fiction" summarized as "I wish to be a complete man"—a goal that, by its very impossibility, becomes the wellspring of neuroses. As an approving Dennis later wrote, Adler "could no longer stomach the thought of so many vertical, mechanical Invisibles in the human psyche." Dennis translated several of Adler's works, which he went on to "paraphrase" (the novelist's own words) in Cards of Identity. (Adler's voice reverberates in Dennis's nonfiction, too; in a 1971 New York Review essay on Brecht, he opines, "I think we should study his environment and upbringing first of all and not be too ready to let his blood run away with us.")

Of course, the childhood vectors so important to Adler's methodology can only be accessed from a distance of many years; thus, as Dennis wrote in the 1958 preface to the play of Cards:

Personal identity is, indeed, the creation of memory, and because memory is fallible and subject to infinite distortion, so is the personal identity always a false creationmerely the self-portrait of a biased, cunning artist. . . . The prime, demonstrable point of this discovery is that a man so rests upon his memories that he can be changed almost out of recognition if these memories can be editedif new memories can be put in the place of old ones.

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