Personality Crisis

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

Which is precisely the Identity Club's modus operandi. If Adler junk-heaped the Freudian bio-engine, then Dennis replaced it with the motor purring inside every novelist, playwright, and poet.

Though Dennis called Adler his "master or 'father' " (his own dad was killed in World War I), his abundant enthusiasm for the Adlerian corpus never amounted to unequivocal admiration for the good doctor's field of expertise. One doubts that most analysts—or their clients—would appreciate their sessions being equated with a fiction-writing workshop, especially one in which the patient is less collaborator than conscript. Dennis explained, "Psychology itself is the final stage in the making of 'useful fictions' "—calling Dr. Jung—"and must consist largely in a skilled re-writing and editing of personal novels that have been misconstructed by their creators." Beyond the evident condescension toward psychology as a discipline, here we also detect a whiff of knowing disingenuousness, since much of Cards of Identity's frisson derives from the passivity and bewilderment displayed by the nominal owners of the rejiggered personalities. When the appropriately named Mrs. Mallet coos at one of her captives, "Our one and only Florence. Do you feel any more yourself?," the not-Florence in question can't have the faintest clue to the answer.

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

What's more, the psychological establishment as embodied by the Identity Club views patients as an inconvenience, even an irrelevance—their utility as ready-maids notwithstanding. The case studies presented at the colloquium are wholly invented concoctions, adhering only to what one cabalite calls "a perfected theory—by which I mean, a theory which no conflict with experience can ever alter or revise." Or, as Dennis wrote in his 1958 preface, "The diagnosis of the patient is thus performed before the patient appears."

Cards of Identity was the second of Dennis's three published novels, and his most shapely, mischievous, and exuberant. A vanished 1934 effort, Chalk and Cheese, was credited to the pseudonymous Richard Vaughan; his debut proper, Boys and Girls Come Out to Play (1949; issued in the U.S. as A Sea Change), finds an epileptic mama's boy and his intellectual-dilettante mentor vacationing in Poland on the eve of the Nazi invasion. In meticulously diagramming its protagonists' totalizing parental conflicts, Boys and Girls is as openly Adlerian a creation as Cards of Identity, though too long by half. Dennis's farewell to the novel was the ferociously concentrated parable A House in Order (1966), a terse account of a war prisoner's day-by-day survival during a bitter winter spent in a greenhouse. Hapless and timorous, the unnamed protagonist is only heroic in keeping himself and his plants alive, and stands as Dennis's rebuke to the action-at-all-costs imperative espoused by Eliot and Sartre (both eviscerated in the '58 preface).

A devoted horticulturalist himself, Dennis also published a book of poems and a well-received biography of Jonathan Swift, but the aesthetic proclivities of his New York Review contributions increasingly betrayed a fuddy-duddy conservatism. From a review of Jonas Barish's The Antitheatrical Prejudice: "It sounds as if Professor Barish has been reading too many contemporary books." On Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers: "The reader who finds himself dismayed and distressed by Mr. Burgess may take heart from the fact; it proves that there is still some good in him and that the times have not robbed him completely of his sensitivity." Dennis also spoke of finding for his beloved Waugh "a place in today's permissive and rebellious world" (in the same piece, Dennis's editor actually allowed him to point out that "good writing is good writing because it is good writing"). Like all us neurotics, Dennis tripped on the wires of his own guiding fiction—in his case, the fallible, distorted memory of a lost world far better than the one we find ourselves in now. Dr. Phil might compare this half-recalled utopia to that must-have, the Authentic Self: "the person you once were before life took its toll." Cards of Identity, however, labors under no such illusions—the title could well invoke the dog-eared pages of one's own internal autobiography, a palimpsest novel-in-progress in which the very notion of authenticity is a fiction, and fiction is life itself.

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