Monday, January 22, 2007

Masud Khan, a Psychoanalyst in Turmoil

Amy Bloom has a review of a new book about an Indian psychoanalyst named Masud Khan in this weekend's New York Times. Khan was born in Lahore in 1922, and moved to England to study at Oxford around 1944. He ended up having a successful career as a psychoanalyst, publishing several well-regarded books, and training extensively with the famous British psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott. But Khan also seems to have been seriously mentally unbalanced -- among other things, he was an alcoholic, slept with several of his patients, and seems also to have become rather anti-Semitic in his old age (which is especially strange, considering his choice of profession). Bloom wants Linda Hopkins's new biography of Khan to directly criticize him for these failings, and she faults Hopkins for failing to do so:

Hopkins, in her non-judgmental way, writes of this analysand only that it is “easy to assume she must be in denial about the harm done to her by Khan, but it is perhaps more honest to grope with the possibility that there may be some validity to her subjective experience.” It seems to me that it is not only his patients but his admirers, including his biographer, who may be struggling with some denial about the harm done by an alcoholic married analyst who initiated sex with female patients, encouraged affairs between patients, threatened patients who terminated treatment and abandoned those who did not meet his own emotional needs. (link)

Bloom certainly has a point when she insists that a person who was so abusive ought to be held to account -- but I gather that Hopkins's approach is to consider Khan himself as a patient, and as such, she wants to consider all the different aspects of his life symptomatically, which means one witholds judgment. Since it's impossible to decide where to stand simply from reading the review (and I haven't had a chance to read the book itself yet), I poked around and found some interesting articles relating to Masud Khan online. Masud Khan may well be the worst psychoanalyst ever, but perhaps that is itself kind of interesting. For those who are critical of psychoanalysis as a technique (i.e., as "pseudo-science"), there's ample material here; even Winnicott comes off badly. But ironically, Khan is equally intriguing for those who like psychoanalysis -- as he constitutes a particularly rich case study.

* * *
The best place to go online is the long article by Robert S. Boynton in the Boston Review on Khan's relationship with one of his male patients, Wynne Godley. (Yes, this is that Robert Boynton, but hear him out.) In 2001, Godley published a personal account of his bizarre experience being "treated" by Khan in the London Review of Books, and Boynton's article follows up on that revelation with a lunch interview with Godley as well as interviews with a number of others involved with British psychoanalysis. Boynton's account deepens the picture of Khan as a mess, but it also suggests that his influence on the field as a whole has not been a small one. One of the people who trained with him, Adam Phillips, is now a major voice -- someone whose books I find interesting if not always compelling:

I was stunned when I read Godley’s piece. Although skeptical about the scientific basis for and efficacy of psychoanalysis, I had always thought of the Winnicottian tradition that produced Khan as defined by its gentleness and empathy—much like Winnicott himself. Khan was especially popular among literary and creative people; he analyzed Christopher Bollas and Adam Phillips, analysts and prolific writers whose work explores what Phillips has called the “post-Freudian Freud,” or the “wild Freud” who champions creativity and the fully lived life over the stern “Enlightenment Freud” who prescribes rigorous interpretation and self-knowledge. I had previously written about Phillips, who, as one who was analyzed by Khan, and had authored an excellent monograph on Winnicott, clearly perceived himself as carrying on their tradition. “From Winnicott to Khan, to Bollas to Phillips, the move is toward finding and enlarging the self,” writes Linda Hopkins, a psychoanalyst who is writing Blessings and Humiliations, the first full-length biography of Khan. “The aim of the ‘new’ analysis is to help a person to feel alive, to be open to change, not to be cured of an illness. The analyst seeks to deepen and enlarge the scope of experience. It is better to be alive, real and ‘mad’ than to be living from a false self.” (link)

The Boynton piece also has a great anecdote about a crazy dinner party with Masud Khan and Frank Kermode, as well as a rather priceless anecdote about Masud Khan and Jacques Lacan:

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Khan’s behavior was that it usually went unchallenged. One reason, suggests Kermode, was Khan’s intelligence. He recalls a standing-room-only lecture by Lacan at London’s Institute Français in the mid-1960s, when the French analyst was at the height of his fame. “It was boring and went on for three hours. Finally, Masud strode up to the stage and interrupted him saying, ‘No, you’re explaining this incorrectly.’” Khan then proceeded to offer his own version of Lacanian theory while Lacan beamed with admiration. “He was obviously quite fond of Masud,” Kermode tells me. (link)

* * *

One of the things Bloom's review in the Times doesn't highlight is the question of Khan's South Asian background. Was it a factor in the rather spectacular mess Khan made of his personal life as well as his career (and often the two at once)? In the new biography, Linda Hopkins has taken a look at Khan's extensive unpublished notebooks, and seems to have come up with some revealing stories. Some long quotes from those notebooks are in an article she published in American Imago in 2004. Since the article is behind Project Muse (institutional subscribers can go here), I'll quote at length from some of the passages I thought were interesting:

I arrived at Bowlby's office, immaculately dressed. Was surprised to see how shabbily everyone was dressed. I had no idea what the war years had done to the English. I had read about the war, and my brothers had fought in it, but I had no image of what it had done to people.

I was told to go up a poky little staircase and sat in a dingy room. I was punctual, Bowlby was late. Some twenty minutes later a middle-aged, red-faced, pug-nosed man wearing a crumpled tweed suit, stained tie and a home-washed shirt poorly ironed, introduced himself as Dr. Bowlby. He rather embarrassedly told me he was busy and could I wait till l2 o'clock and then he would see me. I asked for some book to read meantime as there was nothing but newspapers in the room. He showed surprise at this request but acquiesced.

He arrived around l2:30 and I was peeved by now. He invited me to lunch. We walked out and he collected a drab and dirty raincoat en route. "We will make a dash for the restaurant, it is only round the corner," Bowlby explained. It was drizzling so I said, "Why not use my car?" "You have a car, already?" "No Sir, I have hired one." "You have a license?" "No Sir, I never drive myself." He refused my chauffeur-driven Rolls and we walked our distance. I had by this time a distinct feeling that Dr. Bowlby thought he had a lunatic on his hands.

We got into the restaurant and it was crowded. We squeezed in and sat in a corner at a table for two. A typed menu was presented where the choice was between mushroom omelette and roast duck. Bowlby asked me what I would have and I replied: "You choose, Sir. I am your guest."

The food that arrived was simply awful. I ate a few mouthfuls politely. Alongside Bowlby made the most inane sort of conversation. Quite irrelevant and meaningless, punctuated by huge and heavy silences. When coffee was served, he asked me whether I had any references because I had sent one and it was customary to have two references. I didn't quite understand and Bowlby explained ponderously that he needed the names of two persons whom he could write to and ask about me. I thought for a while and said the two people who would perhaps serve his purposes best were Field Marshal Lord Wavell, Governor General of India, and Sir Bertrand Glancy, Governor of Punjab. Bowlby shuffled awkwardly and asked: "Do they know you personally?" [End Page 485] "Yes Sir, very well indeed, and they also know the family well." There was a most uncanny atmosphere following this little conversation. (cited in Linda Hopkins, "How Masud Khan Fell Into Psycho-Analysis")

You definitely get a sense of Khan's strangeness here -- but also an acute sense of the culture clash he experienced coming to an England decimated by war. He himself was from a very wealthy background. His father, Rajah Khan, was a powerful land-owner in Punjab. His mother, interestingly, was a dancing girl, who was seventeen when she became Rajah Khan's fourth wife. Clearly, there is a lot to work with if the goal is to psychoanalyze Masud Khan's strange life. (On the other hand, if he was really bipolar, as Hopkins apparently argues in the new book, the familial story is arguably irrelevant -- the best treatment is not Winicottian psychoanalysis but medication.)

* * *

It's perhaps not surprising that Khan originally came to Oxford to study literature, only to end up in psychoanalysis. In some sense the two are allied pursuits -- both literary criticism and psychoanalysis are driven by the analysis of character. Psychoanalysis attempts to define itself, with arguable success, as a "science," and literary criticism has always been closer to "art," but the guild-like structure of the two disciplines is remarkably similar.

Along those lines, here is another quote from Hopkins's 2004 article on Khan:

Next day when I arrived at Dr. Payne's I felt both confident and relaxed. She asked me about my education and I told her I had a B.A.(Hons.) degree in Political Science and an M.A. in English Literature. She then enquired about my plans and my answer was: my family wants me to go to Oxford and do Modern Greats and after that study for Barrister-at-Law and return home and be a politician. I told her that I had no intention of going back home to become a politician as we, the Feudalists, had had our day and what was to follow was corruption, demagogy and chaos. I was looking for a profession which would enable me to earn my living anywhere in the world. I would like to go to Oxford, as I was registered there, and do Law, perhaps International Law. But first of all I would like to have a good analysis. She asked me what I meant by "a good analysis." I said I didn't quite know. She then asked me what sort of an analyst I had in mind. I told her he or she must be English, well-bred, sensitive, kind, very patient and firm and well-read in literature. She was amused. She had, she said, given my situation a lot of thought and her suggestion was I should go to Miss Ella Sharpe for analysis. That Miss Sharpe was one of their best, most sensitive and experienced training analysts. She had talked to Miss Sharpe personally last night and Miss Sharpe was willing to take me on.

She then produced a form and said, "I think you should apply to the Institute for training. I cannot promise they will accept you. You are very young. Anyhow, I shall strongly recommend you." . . . There was a happy, kind, benevolent, protective look on her face when we shook hands to part and I had not felt so safe and cared-for since my father's death.

When I reached my room I wanted to celebrate but I knew no one. Then I felt very dismal suddenly. Got up, washed, changed and went and saw King Lear again. I was to see it for twenty-seven consecutive evenings that month.

Here is a guy who, at age 23, saw the same version of King Lear (with Lawrence Olivier in it) twenty-seven times in a single month! How fascinating; how strange. Hopkins suggests the obsession had to do with Khan's own status in his father's household: though he was his mother's second son, and had half-brothers who were already middle-aged when he was born, his father decided, Lear-like, to bequeath everything to him. And as with the play, being selected as a favorite turned out not to be a good thing at all.


Ruchira Paul said...

I am curious to know what you mean by:
" the question of Khan's South Asian background. Was it a factor in the rather spectacular mess Khan made of his personal life as well as his career (and often the two at once)?"

He seems to fit a certain kind of profile. The super rich kid from a feudal background. His aberrant behavior (sexual aggressiveness, boorish behavior in public) at home, would have most probably gone unnoticed or indulged as the special way of a princeling. It came under more cold eyed scrutiny in the west. I am sure he faced racism in Britain as did a host of other brilliant Indian men and women (and now Shilpa Shetty) without cracking up.

Gosh, the boy went to see King Lear twenty seven times even before anyone said "boo" to him!

7:56 PM  
Amardeep said...

Hi Ruchira,

Some late colonial intellectuals came to the 'center' and used it to their advantage, but a few people kind of lost it when they couldn't quite resolve the problem of being so radically different. In some ways G.V. Desani is one of those. Naipaul might be another.

One question for me is whether Masud Khan was already in some ways "off," or whether the surreal quality of life in England helped push a promising and ambitious person to become this destructive persona.

I'm actually not sure whether "racism" quite applied in the contemporary sense -- because so many of the Indians to reach British shores before independence were actually the super-privileged (i.e., "exotic" nawabs).

10:02 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

I have wanted to read G.V. Desani for a long time, ever since Sukrita alerted me to "All About H. Hatterr." But the book seems out of print and the only available copies are exorbitantly priced. Was Desani one of those who got "race whacked" or did he transcend it? I couldn't quite understand what you said about him and Naipaul.

I have often wondered about the effects of racism (or other forms of oppression) on a sharp and promising mind - whether it sharpens it further or messes it up. I guess it can work both ways, depending on the individual. Gandhi's case is illuminating. His own exposure to racism in S. Africa (where he was quite harsh in the characterization of the native Africans) made him aware of the plight of the untouchables in India.

The fact that India had such an amazing profusion of larger than life figures in the political/ philosophical fields in pre-independence India was very much due to European racism at home. Compare that pantheon of great and courageous minds with the flaccid counterparts today. I am of course not advocating that we stay oppressed continually to keep our sensibilities well honed. As a child of post independence India, I am grateful for the confidence of identity I enjoyed. But I think that it just works that way - social adversity (not to be confused with economic adversity) contributes to sharpening analytic faculties useful for political, social philosophy. Which is why, some of the best Indian minds in those days came from the privileged class. They were well off enough to be confident and aware enough to know that their superior social standing still did not afford them the full autonomy of an independent citizen. I am just hazarding a guess - I have little empirical data to back up the assertions. The exceptional contributions of European Jewish intellectuals is another case in point about adversity breeding fine minds.

But that said, Masud Khan, I think was destined to fall apart. In Pakistan, it would have been kept in check perhaps for a while because he would have been surrounded by people who would have catered to his needs. But if he indeed suffered from bipolar disorder, no amount of comfort or confidence would have arrested the trajectory of the disease which is rooted in brain chemistry and not external circumstances.

11:00 PM  
Teju said...

Naipaul "lost it"? How? He might have peculiar opinions, but he's "found it" (whatever one goes looking for in the colonial capital) than most of his contemporaries.

Khan is an utterly fascinating figure--thanks for bringing my attention to this. I went to the times and read the article too.

7:37 AM  

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