Out of Eden
Henry Lawson’s Life and Works – a Psychoanalytical view
By Xavier Pons
Sirius Books   1984

Freud, Winnicott, Klien, Reich, Deleuze, West, Laing, Lacan, plus twelve or thirteen more. I stopped counting when I got past twenty names. That’s enough theorists for any psychoanalytic view of anybody. But no. Pons also serves up the common sense of biological determinism when he mis-informs us that “Violence is in man’s genes” which is perhaps why there are so many “narcissistic wounds” in his text?

I stopped counting the “narcissitic wounds” after the first dozen, but started again once I realised that there were six mentions of narcissism on the final two pages of the last concluding chapter. It is not clear from these usages what Pons means by a “narcissitic wound”.

His grab bag of psychologists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists makes it impossible to know if he is following Freud, or Freud’s opponents. The task of sorting gout Pons’s meaning is not made easier by his failure to index any of terminology. Thus, Oedipus is given as a person, but not as a complex.

Pons is worse than eclectic in his psychoanalysis. If he had taken ideas from different people and put them to work to make his own interpretation when we might have got a glimpse of Henry Lawson. Instead, Pons cites this or that theorists according to the twists of his own argument. Worse still, Pons concocts his account as if all psychoanalysts, psychiatrists and psychologists silent agreed with each other.

A third of the way into his book, Pons tells us that “Lawson had to resort to partial, borrowed identities to express a whole gamut of sentiments which his ago could hardly integrate”. How true that statement is of this book, where his failure to integrate theories with each other is equalled by his failure to integrate evidence with those theories.

The first two chapters are sub-headed ‘Mother and Son” and “father and Son”, they cite no psycho-writings at all. The theorising is saved up for chapter three which is appropriately sub-titled, “a pseudo-oedipal triangle”. These three chapters come under the general heading, ‘The Family Constellation” which is a promising idea but one which Pons never sets in motion. Instead of a constellation, we get diagonals; couples, never a family. Nor do we get any reference to the founder of constellation analysis, Alfred Adler.

Pons’s version of Lawson’s family constellation would be unconvincing even if he did not contradict himself. Well into the story we are told that the father was discouraging and the mother supporter which is the direct opposite to the thesis in the opening chapters. The two versions need not exclude each other. To account for them both, it would be necessary to welcome complexity.

Pons’s incapacity to think about more than one thing at a time means that he remains blind to the irony in Lawson’s writing. Lawson said that he was a realist and that statement tells Pons that what he sees at first glace is all that there is to read.

The division between generalisation and evidence reappear in the later chapters where fair-to average literary criticism is followed by sections tacking on their psychoanalytical meaning.

Because Pons tries to keep everything in separate boxes, his literary criticism becomes psychological reductionism. Thus, Lawson’s concern with social issues and his political preoccupations were merely a pretext for his egoistic interests. Here to, Pons has made no effort towards complexity, complications or contradictions.

As a model of his simplification, there is pons’s treatment of homosexuality. Let me make it clear that Pons does not suggest that our Henry was gay. He refers to the consequences of “suppressed homosexuality”. Because Henry’s sexuality was all in his head, Pons does not mention similar tendencies n two of Lawson’s associates – Le Gay Brereton and Earl Beauchamp.

Although evidence and generalisation do not meet, the suppositions fall thick and flat:

One is led to surmise that Lawson did not experience the usual Oedipal situation, and thus could not surmount it, because the configuration of his family constellation did not allow it

Sixty pages later:

Lawson’s disembodied love for Hannah also reveals the writer’s lack of interest in heterosexual relations and, correlatively his homosexual leanings.

These sentences are not theoretical, or even hypothetical. They are fancies spun from under-informed guesses.

Before Pons rings down the curtain on these speculations, he spotlights mateship:

Mateship is indeed a form of love, whose homosexual connotations cannot be overlooked, and its prominence in Lawson’s works is significant of the writer’s unconscious preoccupations.

What are these “homosexual connotations’ of mateship that “cannot be overlooked”? Where have they been established, documented, explored. I know of no such scholarship.

There continues to be plenty of glib remarks on the topic, but no thorough investigation. We do not have a complete etymology of “mate” in Australian parlance. So what licence is there for assuming that homophilia is suppressed homosexuality. Because I fail to have sexual relations with my closest female friends, does that make a repressed heterosexual?

Pons’s treatment of homosexuality is as insensitive as it is judgemental. It never occurs to him to ask whether Lawson would have been happier had he been “un”-suppressed. Nor does Pons ponder whether Lawson the writer benefited in any way from his alleged condition. For Pons, the suppression is not the trouble with Harry. The problem is homosexuality itself, which Pons represents as an “anal-sadistic” disablement.

It is easy to pick holes in Pons’s “psychoanalytic view”, just as it is easy to poke fun at all such approaches. The fact remains that we do all love and hate, hope and despair, dread and desire. To leave those passions out of a life story is to depict objects, not to account for another human being.

Pons’s book is no worse than most biographical studies, which either ignore the emotional and subconscious, or dip into the vocabulary of analysis for a phrase or two. The effort must always be made and there are sound French achievements, such as Sartre on Baudelaire and Flaubert. Pons does not include Sartre in his round-up of big names.

Pons should cheer up cultural cringers since his failure shows that not all French scholars are Sartre. It is nonetheless depressing that Australian Studies abroad should achieve its greatest successes by attracting third-raters.

If we must have simplistic explanations for Henry Lawson, let us have ones as engaging as John Manifold’s version. The change in Lawson after 1900 took place, says Manifold, because Le Gay Brereton pushed Lawson overboard during the voyage to London and thereafter assumed his identity. That is one suppression that I am happy to accept.