Freud's Last Session

Freud’s Last Session

by Mark St. Germain

directed by Mary B. Robinson

C. S. Lewis: Jonathan Crombie

Sigmund Freud: David Wohl

Performed at the Pittsburgh Public Theater March 20, 2012


Children often play at imagining chance meetings of their favorite superheroes or fantasy characters. What if Batman faced off against the Human Torch, or the Incredible Hulk against a T-Rex? We chuckle inside as they spell out exactly which gadget or superpower would be relevant to defeat their opponent. My wife and I were entertained with the adult version of this scenario in Freud’s Last Session, a fictional meeting between two superheroes of the intellectual world, C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud.

The date is Sept. 3, 1939 when Lewis is 41 and Freud 83, on the eve of World War II—not irrelevant to the script as scenes are frequently interrupted by radio broadcasts and air raid warnings as the two converse inside Freud’s study in London. It is an imposing scene as you are immediately awed by the three story wall of books in the backdrop, warning anyone who enters that the man you are to face has the full weight of human learning with which to crush you. Nevertheless, Lewis spryly bounds in for his visit, leading you to anticipate a speedy and sophomoric end to his engagement with the learned doctor.

Lewis, wisely, recognizes the singular opportunity of this encounter and is persistent in his conversation. Lewis knows, Freud knows, and everyone in the audience knows that this is a David v. Goliath encounter, or, at least that is how the religionist hopes it will go. Our writer leaves that observer hopeful throughout the dialogue, though never allows the conflict to become so clear cut. A recent Post Gazette reviewer complained that the sparks never flew and the conflict was never really battled out. This can only be attributed to that reviewer’s own dull perception as a much more subtle engagement took place.

Freud’s greatest argument against Christianity is the stark reality of human suffering. This is most forcefully advocated by the environment of the war, its satanic promulgator, Hitler, and in a touching way throughout the play, Freud’s mouth cancer, which has left him with a painful and messy mouth prosthetic in his upper palate. Religion is a convenient myth, he argues to Lewis. Lewis tries his usual tactics, such as an appeal to conscience. We all have a conscience and does that not give some indication that there is a God with a moral will? Freud sees this as nothing but social determinism, even joking that he too cannot avoid phrases like, “God willing,” learned in his own childhood. Lewis’s repeated rational arguments are easily rebutted by Freud, either with further reasons or by wit alone. Yet, these are the staple of Lewis’s writings, appealing to our ideas about religion or God—what we say we believe about Christianity. Both Lewis and Freud are perfectly competent and could have continued back and forth in this way, offering reasons, one way or another. No progress is made in their conversation going this way. At one point, Lewis even attempts a quotation from the arch-rationalist St. Thomas Aquinas and is abruptly cut off by Freud.

This stalemate which we oft waste ourselves repeating in our own conversations, gives way to a more intriguing exchange. When the sound of war planes is heard overhead and a bombing is anticipated, the characters begin racing about, especially Lewis, in fearful preparation for disaster. When the supposed threat passes, they both reflect on their irrational actions, such as Lewis’s attempts to darken the room in midday. Despite the conflict we anticipate between these two giants of the religious and non-religious realms, the author presents them both with a dignified humility. When Freud presents Lewis with a plain question about the reason for suffering and pain, he says he does not know. He does offer that it is God’s way of perfecting us, though Freud cannot see that amidst the pain in his mouth and the death of a young child he knew. In fact, Lewis struggles to persuade Freud not to end his own life. While we expect Lewis to be the evangelist, we discover Freud attempting to make a disciple, to help Lewis see real pain and depart from the childish fantasies of religion. Lewis had been in the first war, graphically describing the death of his compatriot a few feet away, and Freud is left puzzled that this experience was not sufficient to turn him to his viewpoint.

The dramatic high point (spoiler, if you’re intending to see the play) is the moment when the antagonism of Freud’s mouth device becomes unbearable and must be removed. Previously, he had explained that only his daughter was allowed to deal with it, even calling her away from her teaching job to come home and help him. Yet, it becomes intolerable, and he begs Lewis to help him wrench it from his mouth. The scene is arranged with Freud seated with his back to the audience and Lewis standing over him (facing us), with his hand lodged in Freud’s mouth. Freud’s argument is loudest here as we observe Lewis contending with Freud’s pain and gory, struggling to be compassionate and not repulsed. He pulls the bloody mess free, much to Freud’s relief, and quickly moves to clean his hands on the fresh white towels nearby. Freud is forced by outside powers into a position of humility before Lewis, as Lewis takes on the blood and pain of his disease and then transfers it to the pure white towel. Lewis becomes the Christ in this scene, bearing Freud’s ills, but an imperfect one as he is reluctantly drawn into the task. We wonder if he helps him more out of the annoying English habit of avoiding the appearance of offense  or inconvenience (which Crombie portrays perfectly), rather than Christian charity. Lewis is a reluctant savior and seems more changed himself by the encounter than Freud who also was thrust into the situation.

Stepping back to earlier in the play, Lewis does at points reach Freud, at least so far as he would admit. Freud describes an instance when he was in the hospital and was suffering from a potentially mortal ailment, perhaps not unlike the one above. There was no nurse or doctor around to help him. He is saved by his hospital roommate, “a hydrocephalic dwarf”. Freud viewed this as some kind of joke. Lewis replies, “Who’s joke?” Freud pauses and says that Lewis has made a point, “his first one.” It is in this sort of argument that Lewis succeeds in catching Freud’s attention, not in his many rational appeals. It reminds us of the Christian apologist and theologian Cornelius Van Til’s statement that there are no true atheists, that we all believe in God, but some of us (the self-proclaimed atheists) will simply not admit it. Lewis here catches Freud in his belief, that his hospital fiasco is comic only on a divine scale, from a heavenly perspective. Lewis does not need to spell it out for the perceptive Freud, but we should spell it out for ourselves. Freud, the competent scholar and physician had to be saved by a diseased dwarf, apparently intended as an image of incompetence. Freud perceived humor in it, as he said, as an antidote to pain. However, it is impossible to see humor in it unless you view it from a perspective entirely outside of his or the dwarf’s or even our viewpoint. Of course, there is humor in picturing the dwarf hopping down from his bed to save the distinguished doctor. That is what makes us laugh in the theater. But that is not the joke that Freud or Lewis has in mind. The telling of that joke is the creation of the narrative which is Freud’s real experience in the hospital. The creation of that narrative is not something that we do in repeating the event for a laugh. Only God can arrange history, telling a story with our lives, and even telling a joke with the most peculiar circumstances. When Freud calls it a joke, Lewis calls him out on the statement and Freud gets it. Freud sees that he has been trapped in an instance where he does believe that God orders all events for a purpose. Here, God ordered events in a fashion that would hopefully get his attention. I would say that God’s narrative in Freud’s life was analogous to a joke, but actually it is the other way around. Our jokes are an analogy of God’s way of challenging our expectations of life’s narrative. Van Til says that even Freud is not an atheist, and in his statement Lewis shows him how that is true.

After a news program on the radio, some music comes on and Freud switches it off. Lewis comments, since Freud has done it several times since his visit. Freud says, “Something in me retracts against being moved by something I don’t understand.” He did not say that he was not moved by music, but in his mind, to be consistent, he should not be since that is a childish quasi-religious type of feeling. It is a very rationalist position which would require a reason to be moved by music in order to allow oneself to be moved by it. Later, the play closes with Lewis’s departure and Freud in the quiet of his study. The lights dim as he listens to another speech about the war, a single lamp shining on Freud’s lonely soul. The news program ends and music begins playing through the radio. Freud reaches to turn it off…no, he turns it up. The scene closes with Freud serenely enjoying the music. The question remains, has Freud found a peace within himself, on his own terms, having faced off the Christian apologist? Or, has Lewis genuinely touched him at the deepest level and laid bare his hypocrisy and unwillingness to let in the God who is there?

All is left in peace, even if for just a moment, but the question of pain and suffering was not well answered by Lewis. Or, we could say that it was answered in Christ, in the moment when Lewis, as Christ, was required to take on the blood and pain of another. We know that to be the endpoint of suffering, the cross and our hope in resurrection, but we as Christians often do not do very well in answering the question of pain and suffering now to the world that questions us. The answer is really in Lewis’s moment with Freud’s mouth, but not taken so eternally. Lewis was called to be a Christ, not just as an image of a great theological truth, but as a humble man called to suffer and be in pain. Being a Christian is not just a future hope, but a present reality. Our present suffering is not so much something we look forward to escaping, but a truth we recognize about ourselves. When you become a Christian, your suffering in vain is exchanged for a sign of your identity with Christ. There are two kinds of suffering in this life, though we usually lump them all together. There is suffering which is the result of the Fall and sin, and there is the suffering which comes as a result of being a Christian, that is, like Jesus. The nature and purpose of our suffering differs based on the spiritual nature of the one who suffers. In fact, Christianity tends to bring more suffering than average, testifying further to the weight and burden which Christ truly took upon himself, being greater than that of any one individual person. We should not be surprised to find that our weight of suffering is more than one can bear.

In answer to the question, Lewis was only able to give the “refiner’s fire” reason for suffering. This is the rationalist response to the question of suffering. Our answer needs to give a historical response to a philosophical question. This history is that of redemption and our place in that narrative. Everyone, however much an atheist they may proclaim to be, already believes they are in the divine story of human history, sometimes tragic, sometimes humorous, as even Sigmund Freud admitted for a moment. Although approached by philosophical questions which pretend only to answer to reasons, we must appeal to the obscured but innate sense that the drama of our life is a book unfinished and there may yet be a twist of the plot with a different ending than one was previously led to believe.