Psychobiography is a very specialized and much maligned literary genre. Attempting to assess the psychological intricacies of an individual ‘remotely’, that is removed from the sanctity and free-associations of the psychoanalyst’s couch, is controversial. Nonetheless, if done well, it makes for fascinating reading.
I’ve recently finished reading a couple of political psychobiographies, a task that has taken me many months and generated a plethora of often conflicting emotions, from sympathy with the subject, to sheer frustration and incredulity at the author’s audacity in making sweeping assertions based on conjecture and an ill-thought through application of theory.
The first of these psychobiographies – Tony Blair: The Man who Lost his Smile, by stalwart Labour politician, lawyer and maverick, Leo Abse. An easy target in many ways for a psychobiographical ‘hatchet job’, Blair is presented by Abse as the flawed survivor of the psychological wreckage created by a promiscuous grandmother and an authoritative father cruelly thwarted in his ambitions by serious ill-health. A tendency to irrelevance (for example Abse’s curious venture in to the detailed out-workings of George Thomas’ suppressed homosexuality) and a thinly disguised personal agenda that loathed the ‘New Labour’ project in general and Tony Blair in particular, makes for what is, at least in my opinion, a skewed and deeply flawed book. Moreover, Abse seems to utilize theory at the expense of hard-won clinical insight – I don’t think that he was ever formally trained in, or indeed has ever practised as, a psychoanalytic psyschotherapist. Where he excels however, is in his writing skills – he writes beautifully and his use of the English language is at time mesmeric.
Moving on from Tony Blair to another political figure that has polarized public opinion – Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the USA and the only incumbent ever to have resigned his post. The wake of the Watergate Scandal has been felt globally and the trauma it generated among the American people still reverberates to this day. And behind it all is the deeply complex character of Nixon, a character that is skillfully and forensically dissected, analysed and reconstructed in Richard Nixon: A Psychobiography byVolkan, Itzkowitz and Dod.
Using their extensive and divergent experience of psychoanalytic theory and practice, the authors utilize the available data from interviews with Nixon intimates, together with published and archived materials, to paint a complex picture of a man who was riven with contradictions. In reconstructing the development of Nixon’s complex psyche, the reader is presented with a compelling insight into his unconscious motivations and how they impacted on his political actions. In exploring the familial dynamics behind Nixon’s often difficult and traumatic upbringing, the authors present a well-balanced and objective portrait of a man who was destined for controversy. The end result is an insightful, impeccably researched and brilliantly constructed investigation that challenges preconceived ideas an unthinking judgement of a towering figure in world history.
A tale of two political psychobiographies indeed.