This Sweet Sickness

Germs: A Memoir of Childhood by richard wollheim. new york: New york review books. 336 pages. $19.

The cover of Germs: A Memoir of Childhood

AMONG THE MANY ENTRIES in Edwin Frank’s increasingly encyclopedic New York Review Books Classics series is a genre of postwar European memoir: informed by psychoanalysis, ironic in tone or form, and of subject matter that’s both bourgeois and aristocratic—or at the intersections where upwardly moving middle classes and downwardly mobile inherited scions most resemble each other. Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, J. R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels: these books record their authors’ efforts to collect the pieces and resolve mysteries of their childhoods and adolescence—a task often complicated by the shattering impact of the Second World War—and have also become documents in their own right, testaments not only to a bygone world but to a bygone way of reckoning with privilege, secrets, desire, belonging, and money. Richard Wollheim’s Germs, first published posthumously in 2004, hits all these notes: his parents’ somewhat open marriage, his lower-class granny, his immersion in a milieu of genuine artists, appreciators, and pompous hucksters and hustlers, sometimes united in the same person. Wollheim was still fine-tuning the manuscript when he died in 2003, at eighty, and what we have is mostly organized around the childhood and adolescent years before he arrived at Oxford, though with occasional associative leaps forward and backward in time.

Known in his lifetime as a philosopher of aesthetics, Wollheim also belonged to a select group of mid-twentieth-century intellectuals who were exalted by their encounter with psychoanalysis. Much of his writing, including this memoir, testifies to the beneficent influence of that not-quite-science of human meaning-making that’s fallen into neglect and some disrepute.

“Exalted” is an admittedly strange word to use in connection with a philosophy of mind that puts as much emphasis on depths and descents as Freud’s. But it’s hard to imagine that the sickly, sheltered, anxious child, equally spoiled and neglected, that Wollheim depicts in Germs would have had anything close to the author’s full life without it. His father was an Ashkenazi émigré theater impresario (more USO revues than Royal Shakespeare Company), his mother an actress (the same applies). The illegitimate daughter of one of Britain’s first “speculative builders” of made-to-order pubs, she left the stage after marriage for a homemaker role to which she brought a Lady Macbeth–like intensity. In spite of her cleaning mania, she found time to socialize with a set Wollheim never quite names as “swingers.” Wollheim, remarkably, never judges his parents for their desires or their actions. They are never wrong, only people who put most of their effort into being people other than themselves. He doesn’t even blame them for seeming to use him as a sort of “anchor baby” for their dreams of bourgeois respectability and ascendancy.

Initially Wollheim seems destined to be one of those snubbed snobs, like a minor character in Anthony Powell or Evelyn Waugh, who flits disturbingly across the ken of the declining aristocracy at Oxford. Although he became an avowed socialist, Wollheim never attaches social-class labels to his experiences—he always writes from the inside out and from the recollection of the immediate sensations of things. Still, the distinction between the bourgeois and aristocratic can be caught in the efforts to answer certain questions, like why his family never owned real estate:

The truth was that there were only certain things that my father liked owning. He liked owning paintings, and, to a somewhat lesser degree, he liked owning books. . . . He liked owning the things that he turned out of his pockets at night and laid out on the dressing table. These were a gold pencil, and a gold case for a toothpick, a very thin Swiss pocket watch in a shagreen case, which, when pulled open, became a small bedside clock, a special key for opening first-class compartments on the Southern Railway, a silver cigarette-lighter, a few carefully folded five-pound notes, printed, as they were in those days, on the finest transparent paper and held in place by a gold clip, some spare coins, and a small pearl tie-pin, which smelt permanently of eau-de-cologne.

In the precise anatomy of these objects is a whole world of portable luxury, all readily convertible, in the event of emergency, to more of those finely printed cash notes. His parents live within a theater of both luxury and propriety into which their child is recruited: there are governesses and chauffeurs and large houses, but somehow too many of each to feel reassuring or enduringly feudal.

Wollheim is a great noticer and maker of lists—the passage about his father’s possessions is exemplary—and another of Germs’s frequent pleasures comes from its psychogeography of suburbanism in the early days of that phenomenon. The first chapter of the memoir is titled “My Land,” framed as a much-belated, only semi-ironic response to one of his Oxford aristocratic friends who rejects the idea that there could be anything specifically suburban about experiences at all. Wollheim, however, understands intuitively that his early consciousness was formed by the peculiar distortion of gentility offered by the London suburbs where he grew up:

There would be two or three parades of shops, built around the turn of the century, which took the form either of a low stucco terrace surmounted with a white-washed parapet or of a row of shop windows above which there would be a half-timbered expanse of pale plaster, rising to tall fretted gables. Incised on the stone or on the timbers would be the name of some distant imperial victory, fought under a blazing sky. The name itself would generally be familiar to me . . . but I had no one in my life, an older relation, the father of a boy, a friend of a friend, who could remember the glories of that day, or of any similar day.

Everything is here, the signs that testify to the separation between what they say and what they are, the mock-Tudor and the ghost of empire scrubbed of any actual history or nastiness. Wollheim never accounts for the clarity of his recall, but the work is saturated with the sense that something has saved him from all this rootless philistinism.

Perhaps that thing was actual illness. After a bad case of pleurisy when he was about five years old, Wollheim was kept out of school for three years and plunged into a world of convalescence, doctors, overheard adult conversations about sex and death, boredom. He experiences a recurring fear “that, while I was sitting in the dentist’s chair, the drill would fall from its cradle, and, describing a parabola that I could see drawn in the air, would land, the point or bit uppermost, on my genitals.” His analyst points out that to be bored has a literal meaning of being drilled into.

Hiroko Momii, Seeds, 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas, 30 x 36".
Hiroko Momii, Seeds, 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas, 30 x 36". Courtesy the artist

Prolonged periods of convalescence, of boredom, turn out to be one of the great incubators of literary modernism; the work of Proust, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, and Robert Walser are inconceivable without them. Wollheim’s titular “germs” are mainly intended to mean seeds, the beginnings of a growth process. He leaves it to the reader to state the obvious: that the germs that grew into the freedom-loving, art-loving philosopher began with other literal germs. Without them, he would have been unable to grow apart from the bewildering conformist world that he begins thinking about at the moment he was forcibly separated from it. The contrast with our own moment of medically mandated inactivity and mutual isolation is stark. Bombarded by stimuli, digital viruses, voices and images from all of our screens, we lack the perverse freedom of the convalescent and the late-bourgeois faith in the healing inviolability of the organism left to its privacy.

Wollheim explicitly links interiority and autonomy when he recalls the end of his convalescence: “Much though I loved the condition of being delicate, it was from out of these years that there was born a certain fierce love of freedom.” That love of freedom is also connected to emancipation from performances of what’s expected of him: sent for lessons in “manly skills” with one of the family’s chauffeurs—carpentry, boxing—the reluctant Richard is told he’ll regret his lack of enthusiasm when he’s “grown.” “The appeal fell on deaf ears,” Wollheim writes dryly. “I did not particularly want to grow up, and even less to grow up to be a man.” A similar reluctance takes hold when he “lost [his] virginity” with a young French prostitute in wartime London. In the act, he comments, “my freedom had suddenly evaporated. . . . I knew that what I wanted, and wanted inordinately, was, not so much to have her, though I also wanted that, as to be her.”

That sentence, that sentiment—along with many others in this remarkable book—owes its existence to the way the best psychoanalysis teaches us to listen to our most absurd thoughts and mind-spun theories and find autonomy in the meanings we weave from them. Wollheim takes issue with much of Freud’s genital reductionism, but a lengthy section on his own childhood theories of sexual difference (it’s about recognizing faces) exemplifies the creativity psychoanalysis permits even if an orthodox analyst might classify it as “resistance.” A certain “Dr. S” appears early in the manuscript as an interlocutor and prompter—he gets credited with the “boring=drilling” insight—but then diminishes over the course of the nearly two hundred pages that follow.

Dr. S’s fate in Germs is cruelly if instructively symptomatic: for the freedom gained through analysis to feel like freedom, the analyst must also be disowned as the cogenitor of insights yielded by the analytic work. Perhaps this dynamic also helps account for the partial eclipse of psychoanalysis in our age: it’s tempting to believe we don’t need Freud, or Wollheim, for that matter. We have our own germs. Even so, Wollheim’s effort to notice as much as possible while judging rarely can still be a fruitful example, and inoculating against all kinds of routine drill.

Marco Roth is the author of The Scientists (2012, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and a founding coeditor of n+1.