In her autobiography A Backward Glance, published in 1934, Edith Wharton sketches a portrait of herself as a young woman in the 1880s: "Much less pretty than many of the girls, and less quick at the up-take than the young men, I might have suffered from an inferiority complex had such ailments been known." For all its plainness, Wharton’s sentence marks a bold transition in the history of psychoanalysis and literature: it is the moment when the writer places the diagnosis and its symptoms side by side. Wharton assumes that the characterization of her younger self is incomplete without one modifying the other. Ten years earlier, she could only have been descriptive; the phrase "inferiority complex" wasn’t popularized in English until around 1926, when Alfred Adler used it in the New York Times. Ten years later, the phrase was all she would need.
T.S. Eliot had foreseen this coming change in his September 1922 "London Letter" for The Dial. There were now three major kinds of the English novel, Eliot claimed: "the old narrative method" on one end, the "dangerous" model of Dostoyevsky on the other and the "psychoanalytic" mode in between. The last type was newly born, but because its examination of life’s intricacies drew upon "a dubious and contentious branch of science," Eliot believed its chances of survival were low. He complained that the psychoanalytic model extracted "as much pity and terror as can be extracted from the materials: but because the material is so clearly defined (the soul of man under psychoanalysis) there is no possibility of tapping the atmosphere of unknown terror and mystery in which our life is passed and which psychoanalysis has not yet analysed." The psychoanalytic novel was bound to disappoint because it only posed questions to which it could supply neat answers, reducing the stuff of human affairs to "a theory of human relationships." Such a technique, said Eliot, cannot be the stuff of literature.
Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer, a novel written by the little-known Czech-Jewish writer Ernst Weiss and recently translated by Joel Rotenberg, reads as if it were intended to disprove Eliot. First published in German in 1931, three years before Wharton’s autobiography, Georg Letham incorporates aspects of the old narrative method and the dangerous Dostoyevsky model; but it proceeds mostly on a psychoanalytic path, determined to expand the possibilities of the novel, not diminish them. Writing in the voice of the titular narrator, Weiss details his ambitions in the preface:
Too weak to be of help and lost to faith from childhood; given over to all the antisocial urges of his heart (the original sin?); never understood by his fellows and thus always profoundly alone; tugged this way and that by internal contradictions, like a malaria patient who sweats and shivers as he oscillates between subnormal and supranormal temperatures; with scientific ideas in his mind, but no hope in his heart, a heart that ages year by year but never grows up; with a human life on his conscience, but no real conscience among his contradictory and self-canceling character traits—is all that my self? No, only part of it. Yes, to give an account of such a life—not just some of it, but all of it—this might be a task for the modern novel.
More than thirty years earlier, an account of man’s internal contradictions, antisocial urges and self-canceling traits had already been attempted; it just wasn’t a novel. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud advanced one of his central theories about the human psyche—that infantile experience is the dominant force in the determination of the ego’s formation—and sought to demonstrate it through self-analysis. The Interpretation of Dreams was in many ways Freud’s attempt to colonize his unconscious, mapping the territory of his dreams and memories. In the words of historian Carl Schorske, this project was akin to "St. Augustine weaving his Confessions into The City of God, or Rousseau integrating his Confessions as a subliminal plot into The Origins of Inequality." Where St. Augustine and Rousseau cleaved reflections that we would call "autobiographical" and "philosophical" into two parts, Freud made no division, since the way we narrate our autobiographies—to an analyst; in his case, himself—is the basis for philosophical reflection.