“Personality and Autobiography”

“Personality and Autobiography”

The Forum, February 1935

As one reads Dr. Charles Macfie Campbell’s book, , and comprehends all that goes to make up a human being — the inheritance, the original endowment, the environments — psychic, physical, chemical, social, and cultural — one cannot help wondering if all formal biography is not really folly. For what can any biographer know of his subject? If we are formed at one level by glands and nervous secretions and at another by influences from all the people we meet and know, how can any outside mind ever comprehend the mystery of personality or understand anybody’s motives for anything? If a biographer is thoroughly equipped to understand the psychic environment of his subject it is of no great avail unless he can also understand the physico-chemical environment and the myriad secrets of education and personal relationships. And taking all these into account there is the further mystery that nobody born of woman seems yet to have achieved complete consciousness. A really conscious man would be the greatest portent we could at present imagine — he would be either a monster or a demi-god.

Nevertheless, not so long ago there were few men who would have thought of questioning their own consciousness. Now some knowledge of modern discoveries in psychology is so widespread that probably no educated man believes himself to be wholly conscious. In everyday existence we meet some people who seem to be more conscious than others, some who seem to have advanced a long way towards complete consciousness, and some who have only the dim consciousness of an intelligent domestic animal. Perhaps a future age will decide that this spreading awareness of the unconscious was what, more than anything else, upset the world in the twentieth century. Perhaps it will be agreed that the old, secure world ended not with the war, but began its disintegration with Dr. Charcot’s investigation into hidden personality and conscious and unconscious mind in the middle of the nineteenth century at the Salpêtrière near Paris. For up to that time civilization was really built round the idea of the conscious man: all our codes of ethics and manners and morals had him for center. But when Charcot, that great investigator described by Axel Munthe in as having the head of a Cæsar and the eyes of an eagle, discovered that one apparently normal being could be turned into another apparently normal human being by an illness, the second personage having no memory of the first, a rent was made in the fabric of ideas concerning the mind and personality. When to Charcot and the Salpêtrière came as pupils Sigmund Freud and Pierre Janet it was not long until most of what remained of the illusions about consciousness was torn away.

It was Janet who discovered how several personalities could exist in the same individual at the same time, each now and again bursting through to the conscious self, and it was Freud who showed that the direction of our thoughts, instincts, and desires is decided by psychic forces which are below consciousness. It was he who developed the technique by which the unconscious or subconscious personality could be brought to the surface. Whether all human beings are as unconscious of their motives as so many of Freud’s disciples maintain that they are, or as little of free agents, is open to question. Some people, especially a certain type of literary artist, seem to be very well aware of their own motives and to have made a vast conquest of their psychic life; in others little or nothing has made its way to consciousness. There are persons living on the instinctive level who have no more consciousness than a plant has, and the same invincible egoism.

But granting that, beginning with Charcot, the exploration of the mind has gone ahead, it would be a mistake to think that any single psychologist has discovered any large and self-contained tract of the mind: some have mapped out certain bits; some, others. Even the great investigators, the men of high creative genius, have been hampered in their investigations by the make-up of their own personalities and by the influences of their special environments. The human mind that Freud surveys is not the one that Janet surveys or the one that Jung surveys. We cannot help approaching a conclusion that the man Janet envisages in his investigations is a French Catholic whose first disturbances in consciousness came at his first confession, that the man Jung envisages is a mystical Teutonic Protestant with a potent race-memory, and that the man envisaged by Freud is a Jew with a complexity of sex emotions and social reactions unknown to the Anglo-Saxon.

Are Œdipus complexes, inferiority complexes, and mother fixations familiar to people of the northern races? ” I believe,” says Wells in his , “that the children who furnished material for the first psychoanalysts were the people of children racially different and different in their conceptions of permissible caresses and endearments from my family. What they say may be true of Austrian Jews and Levantines and yet not true of English or Irish. I cannot detect any mother fixation, any Œdipus complex, or any of that stuff in my make-up.”

The truth of it is that all the investigators have, like all other men, been influenced by what is called their environment — that is, they have been influenced psycho-chemically by the food they ate, the clothes they wore, the houses they lived in, the people they knew; by the schools where they were educated, by their racial and family history, and by the religion or lack of religion in which they were brought up. And after these again, or perhaps because of these, each of their minds belongs to what Sainte-Beuve would have called “a family of minds.” Freud is the artist type, Jung the philosophic type, while Janet’s objectivity might be termed scientific. As an annex to these three types there is in America the business-man type, like Watson the behaviorist, with his own especial limitations in the artistic and philosophic lines: all psychologists, whether men of genius or ordinary practitioners, seem to belong to one of these four families of minds.

The book before me, for example, by Dr. Charles Macfie Campbell of Harvard, is obviously the product of the objective, scientific type of psychologist. This state of mind while it makes Human Personality and Environment convincing reading, gives a flatness to the style and renders even his striking information unexciting. We can probably learn from this important book all that is known at present about how a person is built up psychologically and physiologically but we are likely soon to forget where we learned it. He has nothing at all of the peculiarly artistic passion that enters into Freud’s writing and which makes Freud’s sentences march alive across the page. This artistic passion, which sometimes becomes personal passion, is part of the endowment of the born writer. Freud is a born writer, and writers were our first psychologists, our only psychologists before the doctors began their investigations. Stendhal knew about the unconscious and about mother fixations long before Charcot began his investigations and before Freud was born; he even foretold accurately when the psychology which interested him would become familiar to people—some time in the ‘eighties, he prophesied.


IF BIOGRAPHIES then are so difficult, are autobiographies any more likely to reveal the subject? I maintain that they are. I believe a man knows more about himself than any outsider does and when writing about himself reveals his personality by the very things he conceals, by the things he wants to believe about himself, and even by his very affectations. It is an odd fact that a fairly reserved, rather objective autobiography, like that by H. G. Wells, or even the conventional one by the , reveals more of the writer than an unreserved autobiography like that of . This book is really “confessions” rather than autobiography, and the author tries to attach unto himself most of the foibles and fancies, most of the strengths and the weaknesses, the sadisms, the lusts and neuroticisms that he has ever glimpsed in other confessions. He attaches to himself much that he has found in Rousseau, some that he has found in St. Augustine, some that he has found in the Marquis de Sade—although it has to be admitted that the tortures that he recounts are mental. The book is written in such a way that it is harder to believe the simple objective facts it relates, such as his brother’s habit of dipping his bread in his tea, than the fantastic things, such as his being a magician or the wrath of God seizing him like a whirlwind. One reason why this autobiography, taken as a whole, is so unrevealing, is that he is not a unified personality.

Wells, a much more simple person, is a unified personality, and consequently his book with the technique he uses succeeds in being a long way more revealing. We are convinced that, if Wells does not know himself wholly, what he does know about himself is exact—he has correct information about himself—but we feel that what Powys knows about his personality is from an unreliable witness. Resolved at all costs to make himself interesting to himself, he is prepared to seem a madman, a charlatan, a neurotic, a sadist, a poltroon, and a person of such lusts as can be found only in . One might be entertained by such fantasies from a man whom Providence evidently intended to be a novelist and a creator of a gallery of characters, if he were not so long-winded and repetitious about it all.

Wells’ autobiography is just as long, but there seems to be hardly an unnecessary sentence in it, and every page is convincing. Powys makes himself a composite of all the characters he might have created, and, like all composite pictures, this one is unrecognizable. He has what Wells seriously calls “an uneducated mind,” that is, the sort which Wells informs us he noticed in writers like Conrad, Henry James, and Stephen Crane—all the artist-writers, in fact. An educated mind, according to Wells, is a mind systematically unified, a mind free from complexes. It is doubtful if any real artist could ever have such a unity. With complete frankness and with that strong power of observation which he sometimes, though rarely, showed in his novels. Wells tells us how the artist-writers, James, Conrad, Crane, showed powerfully receptive minds, whereas his own perceptions were cold and flat; his mind, he informs us, was easy to educate, whereas theirs, with their abundant, luminous impressions, were difficult to subdue to a disciplined, co-ordinating relationship.

We can comprehend why this might have been so by reference to Dr. Campbell’s remarks on personality. “The personality may be represented as a federation of states in which the central control is variable, interstate conflict frequent, and actual secession not unknown.” In the case of Wells we might say that the federal control was secure because the federated states were not too numerous, not much in conflict with each other, and were in harmony with the leading authority. That federal authority for Wells remained the same for years and years; it was projected in his books under the name of Clissold or Britling or Remington or any of those heroes of his who had great vitality, simplicity, generosity, a strong sensual interest in sex, lively humanitarian sympathies, with a lack of comprehension bordering on contempt for the aesthetic personality and a provincially English way of looking at the world. All these characters, obviously a projection of Wells himself, might be classified as the type described in a quotation in Dr. Campbell’s book as preferring in all relations of life “utilitarian to other values; he sees everything as an aid in the natural struggle for existence and a possibility to render life pleasant.”


THE ARTIST-MIND could never be so simple, nor the chief control so perfect; for the federated states, to continue Campbell’s simile, would be too numerous, their conflicts too frequent; the artist’s mind in all its relations would be too open to new impressions — to the wind of strong emotion and exacting impersonal interests — so easily and simply to be unified. Candidly enough, Wells tries to catch the difference between the artist-writers and their products and himself and his product, and the result is a noteworthy lesson in literary criticism. “They were,” he acknowledges, “at an opposite pole from me as regards strength of reception.” ” I was disposed,” he says, “to regard a novel as about as much an art form as a market-place or a boulevard.” He thought of literature really in utilitarian terms and was unable to understand what abundance of life goes into lasting writing. Hence his worry about what he calls “the aesthetic mentality” and his opposition to the aesthetic valuation of literature. He wanted to put over certain modern ideas and opinions and for that he adopted the novel form. It was, as he named it himself, “sociology in fable.”

Readers of the early books of Wells tell us that in some of them he approached being an artist: this is certainly not the case in his later books, where he is simply the abundant and interesting trade writer, one who mirrors his times, not very profoundly but in such a way that what he writes is always news. There is an excellent little phrase in one of these pages of his autobiography — “impermanent values” — which exactly describes his own contributions: he wrote freshly and generally impressively about the “impermanent values,” evolving a style very well suited for his topics; he was one of the first examples in England, perhaps in Europe, of the world-famous trade writer. And how does a trade writer of this magnitude differ from the artist? A good trade writer is one who discovers the impermanent values and writes freshly and excitingly about them; a bad trade writer is, perhaps, one who writes stalely, academically, conventionally about the permanent values — whose mind is not vigorous enough to comprehend the outlying impermanent ones. But an artist is a man who creates anew the permanent values by adding his own discovery to them.

Wells, to the artist-writers of his day, was phenomenal. “My dear Wells,” Conrad said to him in unhumorous bewilderment, “what is this Love and Mr. Lewisham about?” And Yeats in humorous bewilderment could say in a conversation about The New Machiavelli, ” I looked into it and found it so full of things that a writer has no business in knowing anything about that I closed it again.” Henry James’ bewilderment, expressed in a letter to Wells about his novel , is worth recalling. for, while explaining that it is impossible to approach the book in any aesthetic or literary relation at all, what James writes is, at the same time, as fair an appreciation from the literary mentality as Wells is ever likely to receive. But the writer of An Experiment in Autobiography knows himself and his own value better than any outsider. “I am a journalist,” he declares, “and what I write goes now and will presently die.” He remarks that he seemed a Philistine to Conrad, with that peculiar English belief that there is something healthy about Philistinism and something feeble about art and aestheticism.

Dr. Campbell takes almost the same line and informs us that ” the male with the underactive glands has a greater tendency towards music, art, and literature than towards more virile occupations,” somehow equating virile occupations with those that have a fixed and steady economic value and falling under the illusion or delusion that the artistic activities do not demand virility or vitality. Those whom the distinguished Doctor must be regarding as artists are those mild and picturesque persons with a little accomplishment in the arts, the more anaemic appreciators rather than the creators. Imagine regarding great artists like Balzac or Tolstoy or Wagner as males with underactive glands! It would be hard to imagine the appreciators of their work having underactive glands, for that matter.


THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY of the Queen of Roumania is just as interesting reading as that of Mr. Wells, and in a great many ways this lady might be regarded as his female counterpart. Like him, the queen is a vigorous, unified personality without any obvious complexes, and like him she has got nearly as much of what she wants out of life as anybody can. She, too, has seen a great deal of the world and known a great many people of importance. But, as psychology has not invaded the royal and imperial circles in which she figured, she has not acquired anything like the same ability to give a disinterested valuation of herself or any valuation of herself and her activities. Nor would the world in its present stage take very seriously a disinterested valuation of her own personality from any woman. Essentially a cool-headed, sociable, and able woman, Marie of Roumania has had to adopt the convention that she was governed by emotions in what is regarded as the feminine, emotional way. A descendant of the conquerors and masters of Europe, she gives us the impression of being a large and generous personality, sufficiently intelligent and limber in her mind to understand the road the world is taking.

She has the same sort of power of portraiture in words that Wells has and gives vivid and memorable pictures of the royal figures of Europe, so that her book will be a storehouse for the historian. There is Ferdinand of Bulgaria, who saw himself in turn as a wily politician, as a debonair, polite, sarcastic man of the world, as an ardent lover of beauty: the picture she gives of him seated all by himself in a dimly lighted chamber, draped in a long black-velvet dressing gown, fingering his priceless gems, “his pale fingers covered with rings, a cross attached to a chain hidden beneath his coat,” is surely that of one of the most miraculously sophisticated personages in history. But she had relatives who contrasted with this sort of over-civilization. There was a fearful old grand-uncle, the Duke of Coburg, brother of Queen Victoria’s Albert the Good, who led an abandoned life in a court composed of adventurers married to second-rate actresses of compromised reputations and all sorts of nondescript semi-cultured, semi-respectable persons. The chapter dealing with this old debauchee and his nervous, blinking consort is as good journalism as anything Wells accomplishes.

There is an even more noteworthy trait that these two have in common. A well-instructed intelligence and a world fame have given this son of the English lower middle classes — as fine a stock as there is — the same freedom of mind, the same assurance, the same air of being at home in the world, and almost the same freedom from prejudice as long descent and high place and power have given Marie of Roumania. It is not precisely that neither has a sense of caste or a notion of superiority or inferiority: both know very well the levels on which they are surpassed by certain other personages. It is that they are incapable of the simple-minded snobbery conspicuous, for instance, in part of Frieda Lawrence’s , which makes her affix below her name on the cover “Geb. Freiin Von Richthoven.” This same naive snobbery was also in her husband, D. H. Lawrence, who seldom was able to get on with any book he was writing until he had first explained that his heroine was a lady. In justice to Frieda Lawrence, it should be said that all that is unconsciously revealed of her in her book is that she is a simple minded, highly sexed, reckless, spirited woman of simple tastes and that, if without strong feelings or high intelligence, she is also apparently without much egoism, so that she must have been a pleasant companion to an invalidish, non-unified writer who had a sort of Messiah complex.

When we recognize from Dr. Campbell’s book all that is contained in a personality, it has to be said of these autobiographies that they reveal comparatively little of the personalities of the writers. Wells is frankest about those things that people, and especially writers, are rarely frank about: their inferiority in personality and talent to other people of their environment. But of the actual happenings in his life he simply tells us what is public property; of the really intimate things that made his life there is barely a word. Of the four autobiographers, the one who is most intimate about her private life is the one who has no public life — Frieda Lawrence. Powys, the most unreserved about his mind and emotions, is about the incidents and happenings of his life the most reticent of all. None of them has revealed himself as Joyce has made Mrs. Bloom reveal herself in the last chapter of Ulysses. Would it not be possible for some experimenter in autobiography who wishes to know himself, who wishes the world to know him, who might wish to make a contribution to the science or the non-science of psychology — would it not be possible for him, by adopting the same train-of-consciousness method as Joyce has given Mrs. Bloom, to turn out the whole of his personality? It would be of the greatest value both to literature and psychology if someone really outstanding made a valiant attempt to produce an uncensored autobiography by making use of all the known methods in literature and all the discoveries in psychology to get at the conscious and unconscious personality.

H.G. Wells, 1934
The Country That I Love, 1925
Autobiography, 1934
Richard von Krafft-Ebbing, 1903
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