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.
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 creation—merely 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 edited—if new memories can be put in the place of old ones.
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.
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.