Monday, July 18, 2011

Ross Macdonald, amateur psychologist

I really did want to get back to more exotic climes for this post, but I got sidetracked by a sort-of Canadian.

An article called "The Second Generation of Hard-Boiled Writers" tells us that "Ross Macdonald brought Freudian analysis from the university, where millions of students were learning it, to explain to a mass public why good people do bad things."

In The Galton Case (1959) , some of the analysis is right out of a freshman class:
"But she held herself with adolescent awkwardness, immobilized by feelings she couldn't express."
or:
"She walked away from me and her fear."
How does the protagonist/narrator, Lew Archer, know this on first meetings with people he has never seen before?

Elsewhere, Macdonald, the eager amateur psychologist, shows, tells, and interprets what Macdonald the author would have been better off just showing:
"She tried to go on, but the words stuck in her throat. She plucked at the skin of her throat as if to dislodge them."
A laconic author in the Hammett mode would have let the reader guess the reason for the throat-plucking. So, I suspect, would a Macdonald more comfortable with psychoanalysis and more confident that his readers would be, as well.  Freudian psychology must have seemed more novel, more darkly exciting, in 1959 than it does today.

And how about "I had a delayed gestalt after I'd given up on the subject"? I think that's Macdonald's attempt to update the old something-bothered-me-but-I-couldn't-put-my-finger-on-it.-It-didn't-hit-me-till-later trope.  But delayed gestalt? Delayed-effing-gestalt?    

It may be significant that two of the wittier, less forced bits of psychological analysis in the book's first half come from characters other than Archer. Old Mrs. Galton "likes to dramatize herself. It's the only excitement she has left," the family lawyer says."She lives on emergencies," remarks a family servant.

But it's a hell of a story so far, and I can see why later crime writers worship Macdonald. Previous authors had made the long-buried family secret a motif. Macdonald made it the substance of this story, and he unfolds the suspense slowly and relentlessly.

This is my first real crack at a Macdonald novel, so my guesses could be dead wrong. But I suspect that his books got even better once he, er, internalized his psychological interests, got more comfortable with them, and learned how to have Archer express them more naturally and less like an enthusiastic recent convert.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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41 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

I haven't read Ross MacDonald in quite awhile. But I enjoyed his books at the time. I was surprised to learn in Down These Green Streets that Declan Hughes feeling of debt to MacDonald was quite so direct. I knew he'd given MacDonald the nod, but I didn't know that old Ross had been the central model.

July 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I finished The Galton Case last night, and it's a hell of a book. But it was marred by that psychology jargon almost to the very end. It's not about finding a missing a missing girl, though.

I wonder how long it took before Macdonald stopped having characters say things like "I had a delayed gestalt after I'd given up on the subject."

July 18, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

Macdonald is one of those writers I can read and appreciate why he's so highly regarded, but doesn't move or excite me. I've read several of his books, and left with the same feeling. Great story, but Macdonald seems to go out of his way at times to mkae sure I know how smart he is. Takes me out of the story.

July 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, the psychobabble in The Galton Case may be related to the intellectual braggadocio you detect in Macdonald, but it's hard for me to make a mental adjustment and allow for the possibiity that jargon like that might once have been taken seriously. That's why I see it as possible evidence of Macdonald's recent conversion to psychoanalysis rather than showing off.

The Thrilling Detective Web site calls The Galton Case a watershed. I have also read that Macdonald credited psychoanalysis for, among other things, helping him break free of Chandler's influence. Put those two facts together, and it's easy to imagine a breathless Macdonald spouting the language of Freudian analysis like an eager young adept.

The story's psychology rings true; its psychological jargon does not.

July 18, 2011  
Blogger Philip said...

Very astute stuff, Peter. Working out your relationship with Freud and Freudian psychology, which was half of Macdonald's life's work, is best not done in public, and that includes in crime novels. His early effort, The Three Roads, is probably the better for the fact that it is openly based on Oedipus Tyrannus a la Freud, so at least we know where we are. But that very same theme is the leitmotiv of perhaps all his novels, with their lurking family secrets and shocker denouements, and it is rather bewildering that he never achieved the sophistication to just let the Freudian concepts lie between the lines.

July 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, interesting that you say Macdonald never achieved the sophistication to show rather than tell in the matter of Freud. He wrote about ten novels after The Galton Case, and I speculated that he may have achieved such sophistication in later books.

The irony, at least in this book, is that the Freudian window dressing was the drag rather than the Freudian story. I thought he handled the family secrets and shocker denouement exceptionally well. I just wish he had done it without having the characters talk like sophomore psychology majors from time to time.

July 18, 2011  
Blogger Philip said...

I have to think back many years to recover my reading of Macdonald, but I do know that I stopped reading his novels largely because he seemed at some point to be writing the same book over and over, and there is also the element in the book that can seem didactic: the Freudian references. It doesn't help in my case that I think Freudianism is humbug.

Macdonald wrote somewhere -- no recollection where -- that he was, indeed, writing the same book over and over, in each case delving into the workings of what would now be called 'dysfunctional' families and looking at them in the light of different manifestations of their pathology, exploring the variety of disguises adopted by pathological people bred out of pathological families.

But I also once read something that convinced me that the roots of all his books from The Doomsters on had their roots deep in events in Macdonald's life in 1956. He had been Freudian in his thinking at least since graduate school -- his doctoral dissertation on Coleridge argued that his criticism could only be understood by reading it in the light of Freudian concepts.

But he wrote that in 1956 he had a sort of visitation from his early life, a sudden understanding of the significance of his father's desertion, poverty, going with his mother to stay with endless female relatives. And then in that same year his daughter, 16 years old and drunk, ran down two children, one of whom died, and after she hit them, she ran. His daughter had constant problems, including drug addiction, until her death in 1970.

The point here is that it was in 1956 that Macdonald underwent Freudian analysis himself, although -- and this is a bit odd -- he apparently constantly skewed everything he said to his therapist so that he would emerge as the cause of all his daughter's woes. But this seems to have been the turning point and the start of a Freudian obsession.

It's interesting that we learn almost nothing about Archer. But then Archer is really himself a therapist posing as a P.I. What Macdonald failed to take from his own analysis was the fact that Freudian analysts at that time sat behind the patient and said almost nothing.

July 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Archer has little personality in The Galton Case, that's for sure. That makes the occasional flashes of violence in the hard-boiled manner -- reversion to the pre-Freudian Black Mask stage, one might say -- surprising. Once again, the odd thing is that Macdonald could write that kind of scene well. A beating scene in The Galton Case is one of the rare such scenes in crime writing that come within shouting distance of Ned Beaumont's beating in The Glass Key.

I could live with the same story over and over as long as the story is told well -- in this case, without the solemn Freudian declarations. That's why I'll have to read at least one more of Macdonald's later novels before I render a verdict (or diagnosis). Any recommendations?

July 18, 2011  
Blogger Philip said...

I think I would go for (and I actually may, to refresh my memory of the books) The Chill, published in 1964 and recipient of the CWA Silver Dagger. I do remember enjoying that one, especially as it has a vipers' tangle of a plot, perhaps rather Ellery Queenish, and the denouement is very satisfactory indeed, a considerable accomplishment.

It might also be interesting to read an earlier one, before the total immersion in Freud, and for that I'd have to choose The Drowning Pool. I remember that one quite well, and it's much in the nature of hard-boiled P.I. novels of the time.

A very stimulating post, as per usual, Peter. Thank you.

July 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome. I didn't get far with one of the earlier Lew Archer novels some time ago. I remember liking it at first, but perhaps wearying of the book's hyper-concentrated Chandlerism. The movie version of The Drowning Pool was for some reason set in Louisiana, and the accents were so grating, so obtrusive, and so studied that I couldn't take more than a few minutes.

July 18, 2011  
Blogger Philip said...

That movie has some claim to fame as the film adaptation bearing the least possible resemblance to the novel on which it's based. Awful. But I think you might, just might, like the book.

July 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The less the novel has to do with that unwatchable movie, the better. That's an endorsement of the novel. Thanks.

July 18, 2011  
Anonymous Martin said...

I like MacDonald but I don't love him, in the way that I love Chandler or Hammett. His best stuff is very good, but always missing that panache that Hammett and Chandler bring to the table. Also some of his earlier novels have the occasional cackhanded metaphor that spoils the otherwise smooth flow of his prose. Even his later, better, novels occasionally overdosed on metaphors. He was still a very good novelist though, and 'The Blue Hammer' is one novel I enjoyed enough to re-read not so long ago.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I try to avoid good people as much as possible.

They try to make the rest of us feel bad.

I think it's a form of passive aggressive behaviour, based on some condition or other that only Freud would have time and energy to study.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Martin, thanks for another recommendation. I wonder if the overdose on metaphors is what readers amd critics have in mind when they say Macdonald's earlier books were oversaturated with Chandler.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

The most interesting influence that Freud seems to have had is to allow for a less rigid understanding of human motivation and I doubt if there is a crime writer who has not consulted his work in some way or another.

I have not read the writers in question, but pastiche Freudianism must be really difficult to write.

"http://www.custom-essay.net/essay-encyclopedia/Sigmund-Freud-Essay.htm"
It's now dismissed as psychobabble, but Freud is very much worth reading as he tends to be honest in his quest.

His last home in London is worth a visit. There I learned that the reason he sat behind his patients was because he did not enjoy being stared at all day.

His collection of strange totems makes his study look like the ideal setting for some eruption from the subconscious which may or not be of a criminal nature.
It might even be fun.

Freud's pragmatism is what I most admire.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Pastiche Freeudianism may be difficult to write, but littering a crime story with Freudian jargon is the easiest thing in the world.

Instead of writing, "She looked down when I asked her what happened," write, "She looked down, concealing her long-buried fears." Instead of "Something bothered me, but I didn't figure it out until later," write "I had a delayed gestalt after I'd given up on the subject."

Nah, that's too wild. No one would ever write a sentence like that.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like the idea of Freud returning from the dead to upbraid his followers who made a fetish of sitting behind their patients.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

My memories of Freud are rusty and I probably should have chosen the unconscious when it came to mentioning the source of crime.

I have not read "Criminality from a Sense of Guilt" published in
1916. I expect it may be seriously dated, given the understanding that contemporary sociology and psychology experts bring to the question.


However it might be a useful source when reading writers from the mid 20th century.

I found the ponderous nature of his system (with everything coming in threes in the best dissertation method) too neat, so I haven't read him for years.

Freudians are tough customers. I doubt they would be worried by a revenant who mocks their methodology.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What would they say? That mockers mock Freudianism only to get back at their fathers?

But hasn't Freudianism fallen out of favor in recent decades, at least as a cultural phenomenon, if not as a clinical practice? That might make this a good time to read and discuss Freud.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Analysis is about interpretation, not accusation. I don't know what the current state of play is, but Freud and Jung were much discussed in the 1980's. Derrida and Foucault were very influential then.

I have a very haphazard understanding of any of these writers and I tended to read their work as literature rather than as a personal handbook.

Perhaps it would be useful to invite a Freudian to post here? It would certainly clear up a lot of popular misconceptions.

Freud was very insightful on the subject of humour and other defense mechanisms.

"http://www.4therapy.com/life-topics/therapists-perspectives/use-humor-psychoanalysis-2593"

Feminists used take his theories very seriously indeed and get very angry. I found them hilarious... doubtless expressing some deep founded defense mechanism, if one follows the logic of the system.

It can wear thin after a while, I guarantee you.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I read some Foucault within the last year or two (mostly interviews with him) and found him surprisingly commonsensical and even yearningly humane. I'd say reading these folks as literature is a fine idea. If they can't write, they can't think.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

He was also a quick touchstone for lazy anthropology. I attended a conference in Dublin where just mentioning his name seemed to be a replacement for thinking.

"http://foucault.info/documents/parrhesia/"

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Intellectual celebrities are liable to that sort of thing.

I forgot to mention that apropos of your suggestion that these folks be read as literature, some of Foucault's essays on historical questions are marvelously imaginative and provocative but frustratingly devoid of historical evidence.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, I think PIs are, almost by definition, psychologists, amateur or otherwise. They necessarily have to be, given the life-threatening business they involve themselves in.
They gradually should become expert at not only detecting lies, but also interpreting body language.

Which is not to say that they'd always be right,but then neither are professional psychologists.

Novelists can over-use it as an observational tool though.

I think what I've most loved about the Macdonalds I've read to date is their often labyrinthine plotting, particularly my favourite, 'The Zebra Striped Hearse'.

Hammett is still Numero Uno for me, though

July 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Psychologists, maybe, but Freudians? Archer, or rather, Macdonald, was in this book an amateur assuming the trappings of a professional, and not always gracefully.

I'm with you on the plotting. I'm in awe of how smoothly he handled all kinds of complicated plotting in The Galton Case.

July 29, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Perhaps Freud was the 'vogue' for amateur psychologists, back then.
In which case the worst you can accuse Macdonald of is being dated.

Haven't read 'The Galton Case', though I may have it somewhere
I've got about five unread Macds in my possession

July 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Someone thought I didn't care for The Galton Case. In fact, it was a fascinating book, and I plan to read more Macdonald. I always liked the title Zebra-Striped Hearse. Maybe I'll read that next.

July 29, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

It takes a long time for you to figure out why that should be the title, - or for him to provide you with sufficient hints to appreciate why, - as it seemed to be only a trivial detail in the plot, but once you do realise why, it all makes such beautiful sense

July 29, 2011  
Blogger The Passing Tramp said...

Great discussion. You highlight my own problem with Macdonald. Personally, I prefer his earlier novels, like The Ivory Grin and The Way Some People Die to the later ones, where the psychiatric jargon obtrudes.

Archer in the later books doesn't sound at all like a PI. And I agree that one tends to feel one is reading the same family dysfunction novel over and over again. I find my self missing the bite of Chandler and Hammett. Sometimes the metaphors and similes overshoot their marks also.

It's clear that psychiatry was important in Macdonald's life, to be sure, but its impact on the books was not a plus in my view.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I still have not read any more Macdonald, but I have just read a contemporary crime novel (Declan Burke's fine Slaughter's Hound) that has all Macdonald's emphasis on a rotten family but none of the cheesy psychology.

I wonder if Macdonald ever achieved a balance where he was no longer imitating Chandler but also had shed the sophomore psych majot's fascination with Freud.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger The Passing Tramp said...

I've still got to read your thread on this matter where there are 99 comments! Wish I had participated in these discussions at the time. I mentioned this psychiatry matter in my review of The Barbarous Coast last year.

http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2012/02/lifes-beach-then-you-die-barbarous.html

My next piece will be on another Macdonald book.

I found this page searching for the terms Macdonald and psychobable, lol. So far this Macdonald I'm reading doesn't suffer from the amateur psych, even though it's 1960.

I had started Black Money last year, which is 1966 I think, and was underlining the psych stuff, so he was still doing it then.

I don't recall so much from The Goodbye Look, but I didn't enjoy the book much (I'd gotten quite tired of the intergenerationally dysfunctional family with old sins casting long shadows plot by then).

The complex plotting of The Chill has been much praised, rightly so, but even there I mentioned elsewhere in 2009 that

"the psychiatrist is treated by the author with the deference and awe due a priest in the Middle Ages. Ross Macdonald's absolute faith in psychiatry answered a felt need in his own life but considerably dates his books."

I agree with you, somehow Chandler seems less dated to me than sixties Macdonald. Or maybe it's just that the style appeals to me more.

This sounds really negative about Macdonald; however, I do feel some of his earlier novels are hard-boiled masterpieces. and I have yet to read some of the later, highly praised ones.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like the photo you including with yout discussion of The Barbarous Coast. It was highly evocative ... of Chandler.

Needless to say, I find this observation dead on:

"the psychiatrist is treated by the author with the deference and awe due a priest in the Middle Ages. Ross Macdonald's absolute faith in psychiatry answered a felt need in his own life but considerably dates his books."

December 09, 2012  
Blogger The Passing Tramp said...

Yes, I like that photo too, it is like Chandler, or Macdonald, perhaps, when he was still under the Chandler influence to some extent.

I think what dates Macdonald is the belief that psychiatry might have all the answers to life's mysteries. In contrast with the 1960s, we live in an age now where we tend to be skeptical that there's any belief system that can provide all the answers.

On the other hand, the later Macdonald books still have very fervent admirers, so maybe I'm speaking too broadly. And, like I said, there's still late Macdonald I need to read.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The photo also evokes William Campbell Gault. And the most fervent Macdonald admirer among my friends also thinks Freud is one of the worst things that has ever happened to humanity. So, though Macdonald may have worshiped Freud with the naive credulity of a cultist, the man could write. The Galston Case is beautifully plotted from beginning to end.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger The Passing Tramp said...

It's also refreshing in the Macdonald books that the tec isn't constantly getting beaten up (both by crooks and cops)! Though he gets beaten up a good deal, still, in The Barbarous Coast.

Yes, Macdonald shows that plotting complexity is not incompatible with the hard-boiled style, as many people seem to think.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

It's been a long time since I've read Ross MacDonald, and the Freud stuff probably passed over my head. When I think of MacDonald, I think of his sense of distress over the oil derricks off the Santa Barbara coast, and a kind of fairytale overlay to the tales of wealthy Californians.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TPT, it was an odd sensation to be so repelled by the risible amateur Freudianizing and so in awe of the plotting at the same time. The plotting is enough to make me seek out more Macdonald. I don't remember ever being so impressed by plotting in a crime novel.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, it sounds as if you may have read Macdonald from when he was under Chandler's spell. I also suspect that if you read The Galton Case, it has slipped your mind (or, as the Macdonald of the period would have said, you're repressing it). There is no way anyone could miss the Freudianizing in that book. It hits the reader over the head repeatedly.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I certainly didn't read all of them, and I don't remember them by title, but you'd be surprised what I can miss despite an author's heavihandedness.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're giving yourself too little credit. I don't care how callow, youthful, inattentive, and beer-addled you may have been in your youth, if that's when you would have read the book. You would not have missed this.

December 09, 2012  

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