My Head Gets Tooken Apart

Lawrence Lipton has a very funny poem called “I Was a Poet for the FBI.” I have never precisely been a poet for them, though I doubt not but what I have caused them sufficient annoy. However, I now feel I have really made it. Fame has arrived. I have been a poet for the IPAR, formerly the OS of the OSS.

Things have been dull here beside Frisco Bay. There was a UNESCO conference. No story there, or rather, exactly the same story as the Industrial Development thing I just finished. If you want to know what happened at the UNESCO sessions, just go back to the November 2 [1957] Nation and put in the new names. It was the same old story. Another installment in the serial, but a little closer to the denouement. The American system of world alliances is falling apart and the only answer the lads in power have is, “If getting tough hasn’t worked, get tougher.” Things are tough all over this winter. We must tighten our belts and get our own dog up.

So much for UNESCO. The best thing was the show of Asian and Western art at the San Francisco Museum, which really showed a lot of fruitful cross-fertilization. It is in the world of concrete things, objects, not profits and power blocs, that the slow and painful but absolutely essential marriage of the East and West is taking place. And now that India and China and Japan produce their own nuclear physicists and astronomers, there was not even a moderately long paragraph, let alone a story. And then I got the loveliest invitation.

What a pity it can’t be quoted in full, but the gist of it was that an outfit calling itself the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, which had started out in life as the Office of Selection of the OSS, with the job of ensuring that everybody in the Army brightened the corner where he were, had got a potful of gold from the Carnegie people and had transferred from the Army to that River Rouge of the intellect, the University of California, and had cut loose on the creative personality, which they were very busy assessing and researching, and now they had got to writers and would I please come and be assessed? “Our way of conducting research is to invite selected subjects to come to the Institute house for a period of two or three days; and there talk with members of our staff, participate in a series of experiments and psychological tests, and meet and interact with a number of other persons selected on a familiar basis.” Lady Ottoline Morrell used to do the same thing, but she had to use her own money, and to judge from Aldous Huxley’s novel [Point Counter Point] the interacting was more fun. Anyway — the novel made him famous. The IPAR née OS of OSS didn’t sound like quite such profitable literary material but it promised to be fun enough.

So I drove over to the remodeled fraternity house that sheltered this American politisolator of dreadfully civilized vivisection, across the bridge in the sunset under the dog and the cone and the still beeping balls, wondering if I really was ever going to escape from the lot of this hilariously sarcastic Russian movie I have been lost in for the past ten years. Everybody was so nice. I met people I knew, looking sheepish, and Jungians looking like séance addicts about to get a message from the Beyond, and clinical psychologists looking like Buick dealers, and psychiatrists fresh from the loony wards looking tired and worried, and professors looking like professors, and specialists in the creative personality (believe me, it is possible to make a living at this specialty) with the shy, happy, chummy look of specialists in the creative personality, and a couple of rugged sharpies who looked like they were in it for kicks, and several earnest and not very happy young women.

Cocktails. How I hate them. This social obligation to stick your tongue on a third rail before dinner — the only universally accepted Rite of Passage of modern civilization. They had cocktails at Yalta, cocktails at the coming out party of The Memoirs of an Escaped Nun, cocktails at weddings, at births, at gallery openings, maybe at hangings, and here we were being bucked up for our mental delousing with the things again. I had a little whiskey. It didn’t make the dinner taste any worse. I began to realize I was back in America, a place I try to keep away from. The conversation was all about children and television. It sounded awfully cooked and loaded, but I put that down to everybody being self-conscious — “a little paranoid” as they say. For what it was worth, they learned that I have never seen a complete TV program and my children don’t watch it. We don’t own a set or have any friends who do. I wasn’t aggressive about it; in fact, it all came out slowly and politely and reluctantly. After dinner everybody paired off for Rorschachs. I have become down the years a little fatigued with Rorschachs and my normal powers of fantasy always desert me, but I strung along — you can’t win. And then those terribly corny thematic pictures with which I have never been able to do anything whatever. And then some questionnaires, and I guess about then the Terman test, that tour de force of conformity. By this time everybody was weary and we called it a night.

The night, at their expense, was to be spent in the Hotel Claremont. This is a curious place. It is an immense, flamboyant wooden structure, built in Stanford White’s own “California style” either by him or by a close disciple, and worthy of the wildest moments of Barcelona’s wonderful lunatic [Gaudi]. It is just across the bridge from San Francisco, that notoriously cosmopolitan city, but it is, weekends, the hangout of Berkeley’s leading small merchants and their wives or stenographers — a more provincial lot than ever existed in Brooklyn’s innermost recesses in its most recessive days. Like Toynbee and Berenson, I have long struggled to devise a definition and etiology of provincialism. As the late evening drug away I had plenty of chance to ponder it. I felt like Edmund Wilson that time his plane got forced down in Miami and he was forced down into twenty-four hours of the Great American Mass Culture about which he had written often and learnedly and in innocent and utter ignorance.

This was it. What country was I in? Where was my passport? Suddenly I ran into the daughter of a leading libertarian intellectual, working like a dog as one of the institution’s better dressed menialities. We were both plenty startled. What was I doing here? When she asked, I realized the answer. I was making a fast buck allowing my head to be tooken apart by skilled representatives of precisely this world, here tonight disporting itself in ill-fitting lamé creations and Sears Roebuck tuxedos. Tonight they might buy me drinks or even dance with me. But tomorrow, off in the tortuous couloirs of a remodeled fraternity house, the billions of Mr. Carnegie and the penetrating insights of Drs. Jung and Terman were going to concentrate on my poor central nervous system and find out why I couldn’t mix in with a dinner dance in Fargo, North Dakota, and what it would mean to the OS of the OSS of the onrushing ICBM War III. Oh but I could. Only Mr. Luce thinks I’m like Rimbaud. I’m a great mixer . . . but I missed my wife and kids, so I went to bed.

All next day it went on. I made up a picture out of little bits of color. I had a long, chummy, deep-speaking-to-deep, sort of talk with the expert on the creative personality. I indicated my preferences in Scotch tartans. I chased the elusive gestalts through lines of bric-a-brac. I sought the still more elusive after-images of melodies like Humoresque and noises like something falling down. I sorted things and interpreted symbols. A rather frightened, puzzled, but very determined looking young woman took me in the attic, blindfolded me, led me into a dark room, and spent twenty minutes finding out if I could tell vertical from horizontal. Honest to God, cross my heart, hope to die. I could, pretty good.

Cocktails in the gloaming again and then some more of that exquisite cuisine institutionale Americaine, and then lots of questionnaires. One was by two Jungian ladies and was it something! It was probably the best autoanalysis of two Jungian ladies ever done. I wouldn’t like to know them. They were mortifyingly shy in mixed company. They said the wrong things when out socially and then regretted them bitterly in the wee hours. They didn’t like their complexions. They didn’t like men. Not even Carl Jung. They were real foul-ups. You could tell from the questionnaire. Fortunately they didn’t appear in the flesh, just their most distressing questionnaires. And then the long pink ones they give the kids at Cal. Very appropriate for middle-aged, successful authors. “Would you like to be a fireman?” “Do you ever doze off in class?” “Does your family object when you stay out late?” — as well as a number of subtly loaded questions which add up to, “Are you bothered much by the sin of impure touch?” By the time I got through I had a darn good notion to just up and bite my nails. The next day drug on with more of the same until afternoon when we got more cocktails and had a chummy little summing-up and were all very polite to each other. I think the term in these cats’ jive is “shared each other’s thinking.” Oh, yeah?

What did it all mean? Nothing. The sensory tests measured responses and faculties in ways open to subjective distortion both by the subject and the examiner. The very mild psychoanalytic probings were utterly superficial and, as far as I could judge, inspired entirely by the dubious occultism of the Swiss mahatma. All psychoanalysts I have ever known have struck me as being writers manqué to a man and most of them either hate and fear the creative artist, like Freud, or pay him the silly adulation of the amateur sorceresses of the menopause circuit, the swami and sonnet girls of the late Helen Hokinson — like Jung. The serious ones are far too busy in clinics and hospitals trying to help the really mentally ill to bother with nonsense like this. The vertical and horizontal girl was all right. You felt she had something there and was grimly resolved to find out if it meant anything. Seriously, though, she was testing a measurable, physical response; it was a poor thing, but science and her own. I would have felt much better all around if my reflexes had been hammered and they’d have found out if I was dermographic, if my irises responded properly to stimuli, if my feet sweat, if I swallowed air or was subject to fits of unmotivated itching. “Does your family object if you stay out late?” “Do you think your poems up, or do they just come to you?” Indeed!

Basic Books has just published a book in which a similar bunch of clinical psychologists have tested three groups, the normal (?), the neurotic (?), the psychotic (?), in a similar way. What did they discover after spending a lot of foundation money? That the normal were normal, the psychotics weren’t, and the neurotics were nervous. Really they did, I’m telling the truth. In other words, this unvarnished hokum with which our society intimidates itself is far less effective — far less scientific — than the varnished hokum of other days and peoples. Any Sioux medicine man, any kind and attentive priest, any properly aged grandmother, any Chinese herbalist, could have found out more in a half hour than these people did in three days. And they, or people like them, could have any time in the past ten thousand years at least. I for one would, if I had my rathers, far rather trust myself to the boys in horns and bearskins who painted the Altamira cave.

It was all done so much more cheaply, too. That is the point. The whole point. These capers have been going on for years. The OS of the OSS and the IPAR are doing poets now only because they are scraping the bottom of their social barrel. They’ve already done just about every other category of human being. This has cost many large buckets of money. A foundation, no more than the government, is not a money bush. Once that money was somebody’s labor. As the old socialist teachers used to say in the Rand School when I was a child, “Who are the eaters of surplus value?” All this foundation jive is just a very fancy way of exploiting the working class. It has replaced the “Radical Movement” as the great source of interesting careers for the unemployable children of the middle and upper classes . . . like India or the Church in nineteenth-century England. America is full of Phi Beta Kappas in well-shined shoes who toil not, neither do they spin. They have projects. And the profits of the oil wells in Arabia and the automobile factories in Detroit and the steel mills in Pittsburgh feed them and clothe them and shelter them like the lilies of the field and the foxes of the earth. They are just another way of circumventing the falling rate of profit and about as socially useful as an intercontinental ballistic missile. All this sort of nonsense — production for social waste — has taken the place of colonialism in mid-twentieth-century economy. A clinical psychologist living on a steelworker’s unpaid wages is fulfilling exactly the same social function as one of Masefield’s famous “cheap tin trays” outward bound down the greasy Channel to the reluctant Fuzzy Wuzzys. No more, no less.

As for clinical psychology itself, and/or psychoanalysis, does experience substantiate any of their vast claims? The sick and troubled in this sick and troubled society need help desperately, and wise and loving people can help them. If their medicine bundles full of rats’ teeth and oddly shaped pebbles and bats’ dung give them the necessary confidence to inspire reciprocal confidence in their patients, well and good. But when Ernest Jones says that if he could have got Hitler and Mussolini and Stalin and Churchill and Roosevelt on his couch he could have changed history, we are dealing with a badly self-deluded thaumaturgist. As for an operation like the OS of the OSS, now called IPAR, it is posited on the assumption of the relative benignity of the society that will make use of its findings, granting that it will turn up bona fide findings. Theoretically this happy-go-lucky invasion of the sanctity of the person, this analysis of the sources of creativity and nonconformity, could be put to the most vicious uses. Not after some dictator has seized power — but simply in the due course of our obviously accelerating decay of liberty and respect for the person. As I pointed out to a well-known Irish novelist who was a fellow hamster, neither Thomas Paine nor Robert Emmett would have submitted to such indignities for an instant. We take them as a normal part of our society. This is all true, but one assumption is false. There is no evidence that all this stuff works. It doesn’t. There isn’t the slightest evidence that the puddler in Pittsburgh, the man on the line in River Rouge, is one iota happier for all the millions of his wages spent on industrial psychologists. And as for the other side of the coin, Stalin presumably had at his disposal the talents of some of the world’s finest clinical psychologists, trained in the most rigorous of schools, and yet, according to Khrushchev, when it came to a showdown in the cork-lined cellars, all the drugs and brainwashing and psychology proved ineffective and the confessions of the Moscow Trials were produced by techniques older far than those of medicine men or the Neanderthal witch doctors of the caves. Courage and common sense are the first of virtues, as Johnson said. A brave man can take a lot of punishment, a sensible man can see through a lot of fraud. I don’t really think we have much to fear from a dictatorship serviced by psychologists, and it is nice ours don’t even believe in hurting you, even to the extent of a back scratch or a tap on the knee, yet.



This essay originally appeared in The Nation (14 December 1957) and was reprinted in Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays (New Directions, 1959). Copyright 1957. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays