Toward the end of the play Freud’s Last Session, a fictional conversation about the meaning of human life between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis concludes, “How mad, to think we could untangle the world’s greatest mystery in one hour.” Freud responds, “The only thing more mad is to not think of it at all.” The combined sense of the limits to human knowledge and the unavoidability of the big questions is one of the many impressive features of this dramatic production, the remote origins of which are in a popular class of Dr. Armand Nicholi, professor of psychiatry in the Harvard Medical School. Nicholi penned a book, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, which the playwright Mark St. Germain turned into an off-Broadway play, now in its second year in New York and just beginning a run in Chicago.
I had a chance recently to see the successful New York production, directed by Tyler Marchant and starring George Morfogen as Freud and Jim Stanek as Lewis. The play is not perfect; some of the dialogue is wooden, the result of the attempt to squeeze elements from the major works of the two authors into their conversation. Nicholi does a better job of this in his book, largely because he is free from the dialogue form. But the theatrical revival of the dialogue is what stands out in this production. In this case, the theater is an arena for the contest of ideas. There is a healthy reminder that philosophy itself has taken on various dramatic and literary forms; indeed, philosophy as a theater of debate hearkens back to the very founding of philosophy in the Platonic dialogue. Something of that original sense of philosophy as a live debate between interlocutors whose views and lives are at stake is operative in Freud’s Last Session.
The play effectively blends the personalities, life stories, and philosophies of two of the towering figures of the 20th century. Unlike most treatments of intellectuals, the play resists the popular temptation to depict important thinkers as disordered freaks, and instead keeps the attention of viewers focused on the question of the truth of the matter about the ultimate meaning of human life. In contrast to the bleak tone of existentialist drama, for example in Beckett’s dialogical work, Freud’s Last Session leaves open the possibility of a successful quest.
In the production notes for the play, Nicholi suggests that a meeting between Lewis and Freud was not impossible. At the time in which he sets the dialogue (1939), Lewis was 40, while Freud was in his early 80s and in the late stages of mouth cancer. He writes: “After Freud immigrated to England, he lived in Hampstead, in northwest London, not far from Oxford. A young Oxford professor visited Freud during this time but has not been identified. Might it have been Lewis?” In the play, the occasion of the meeting is an invitation from Freud to Lewis, not, as Lewis supposes, because Freud is irked at Lewis’ dismissive comments about Freud in a recent book, but because he is puzzled that someone with as powerful an intellect as Lewis’ could opt for belief in God. He is baffled that Lewis could “embrace an insidious lie.” Although Freud spends a good bit of time mocking and cajoling Lewis, he recognizes that Lewis’ faith presents a tough case. A comfortable atheist from his youth, not even the horror of trench warfare in World War I led him to the faith. Instead, it was a series of intellectual conversions that led Lewis to embrace Christian orthodoxy.
As befits the gap in age and basic differences in character, Freud is domineering and loud, while Lewis is, for the most part, deferential and gentle. Two things (war and Freud’s ailing health) interrupt the conversation. Radio broadcasts concerning war with Hitler and air raid sirens signaling imminent attack take both men momentarily away from their debate. Freud’s oral cancer, which requires the wearing of a crude denture device, also distracts from the conversation. Of course, these two interruptions serve to heighten questions regarding justice, human suffering, death, and the afterlife.
On the issue of the Nazis, Lewis presses the thesis that without some sort of moral law, there can be no rational denunciation of what Hitler is doing. Freud counters that Lewis’ God would have the Jews turn the other cheek. Lewis is perhaps at his weakest in response to the question of pain, how a good God can allow suffering. After articulating more explicitly than Freud does the apparent contradiction between God’s power and goodness, on the one hand, and the existence of evil, on the other, Lewis admits that the existence of evil and suffering is a great mystery. But then he proceeds to offer an explanation, suggesting that pain is a “kind of tool.” If God whispers to us in pleasure, in pain he shouts by using a megaphone, Lewis says. In the context of the Holocaust, the idea that pain is a divine tool, a pedagogical method, might well fit Freud’s notion that the divine being is a monster. But of course, Lewis was no pacifist; he believed in the duty to defend the innocent, by force if necessary.
The play somewhat overplays Freud’s oral cancer; one scene, in which Lewis helps him remove the bloody dentures, will repulse viewers. The real drawback to the repeated attention to his ailment is that each time Freud gets worked up about an issue and begins to rant at Lewis, Lewis is compelled to tend to his interlocutor’s discomfort. Argument, giving way to the demands of charity, is silenced and the viewers lose the benefit of knowing how Lewis might have responded.
As Nicholi underscores in his book, the basic disagreement between the two men can be put in terms of the challenges they present for the audience—Freud’s (in the play, angry) imperative, “Grow up!” and Lewis’s insistence that we need to “wake up.” In that context, the all-too-brief exchange on the nature and role of fantasy is crucial. Freud uses the term pejoratively; he is famous for dismissing religious belief as a form of wish-fulfillment, as sheer fantasy. Tutored by Tolkien, Lewis comes to believe that fantasy, at least of a certain sort, taps into the deepest truths about the human condition and the very shape of the cosmos. In the course of play, fantasy becomes connected with music—loved by Lewis and eschewed by Freud.
But Lewis is, of course, careful to combine reflections on fantasy and music with apologetic arguments that focus the mind on the truth-claim at the center of the Christian story. As I mentioned above, the focus on the question of truth is an admirable feature of the play. It sets this drama part from the recent film, A Dangerous Method, about the longstanding debate between Freud and Jung. Jung desperately wants to offer his patients something more, some means by which they can begin to refashion their lives, to become the persons they were meant to be. In contrast to Lewis’ willingness to argue on the basis of evidence, Jung’s counter to Freud actually looks like wish-fulfillment.
Of course the great temptation for someone in Freud’s position, evident in both the play and the film, is to allow one’s theory to close oneself off from further argument and, perhaps even more dangerously, to deploy the method as a mechanism for reducing the arguments of an opponent to evidence of psychological disorder. As they make their way around Freud’s study, from his desk to the psychiatrist’s couch and back to the desk, the men move back and forth between argument and psychological observations about personal life history. Things turn nasty only once, after Freud begins an analysis of Lewis’ affection for the mother of a friend of his, suggesting motives that Lewis finds repulsive. Moments later, after Freud returns—as he does frequently in the play—to his close relationship with his daughter Anna, Lewis returns the favor. The play here hints at the limitations to the reduction of argument to autobiography.
Freud is at once an advocate of science and enlightenment and someone who is set against the notion of progress. As he puts it at one point, human beings may evolve physically but not in terms of character. Indeed, Freud’s method reveals the ongoing hold the infantile and the primitive have on adult life. His demand to Lewis to “grow up” is in that sense paradoxical. For Freud, the reason most adults cannot face these truths is cowardice. He directly accuses Lewis of that vice at one point. Freud appeals here to a kind of Nietzschean hierarchy, in which persons are ranked according to their strength of soul, their ability to recognize and embrace the fact that all accounts of the meaning of life—whether from poets or philosophers and theologians—are tissues of lies.
But this raises a question that Freud never addresses in the play, namely, why one should be concerned about these questions at all, if one is already convinced there is no truth to be discovered. According to this view, Freud’s noble claim at the end that it is madness not to ponder the mystery of existence would ring hollow. Freud stands at a juncture between old and new conceptions of eros; in both the classical and his own view, desire contains the key to unraveling secrets about the human soul. We did not need Freud to tell us that human desire can be a dark and destructive force. Augustine well knew the power of the libido dominandi. And yet, for Augustine, human desire, no matter how perverse, retains some contact with the desire for the beautiful, with a longing for wholeness. In Freud, that contact is lost. The secret in Augustine opens a path to the transcendent; in Freud, it manifests the emptiness of any such aspiration.
Not surprisingly, the dark, heroic quest of Freud gives way to the easy-going nihilism with respect to human desire at work in so much of our popular music and in successful sitcoms like Seinfeld. If it is just in the end so much nothingness, then the travail and struggle to come to terms with the ugliness of existence itself comes to seem foolish and laughable. Freud’s Last Session never takes the discussion in this direction, perhaps prudently, as that would undermine the serious inquiry between the two interlocutors. In subtle ways, the play suggests that Freud may still be open to persuasion on the question of God. Whether that was the case or not, the play effectively issues an invitation to viewers to embark on their own quest. As both thinkers agree, neither reason nor faith offers the sort of “insurance” modern man seems to crave.