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If C.S. Lewis met Sigmund Freud

Freud’s Last Session has its drawbacks, but it highlights the importance of duty

Matthew Goode stars as C.S. Lewis in Freud’s Last Session. Sony Pictures Classics/Photo by Sabrina Lantos

If C.S. Lewis met Sigmund Freud
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If you’ve ever seen boxing, wrestling, or perhaps mixed martial arts, you know that there is typically an opening period in which the two combatants warily circle each other as they look for an opening. The new film Freud’s Last Session advertises a collision between Freud and Lewis, but the opening is never really found by either thinker and viewers are left frustrated by what could have been.

We do not know if Freud ever really met C.S. Lewis. There is a suggestion that he had an encounter with some unnamed Oxford don in 1939, but that is all we have. Certainly, the idea is pregnant with possibility. Lewis had not yet come into his great fame as the author of Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, or The Chronicles of Narnia, but he had written The Pilgrim’s Regress, which presents a Freud-like character “Sigismund” as offering a wrong-headed materialism. The idea in the movie is that the book has led somehow to the encounter between the two men.

What we get, though, is no real crossing of swords. Early in their meeting, Freud and Lewis take shelter from an air raid in the basement of a church along with several other members of the community. Lewis, a wounded veteran of World War I, demonstrates signs of trauma related to his experience, which Freud notes and then later uses as evidence that Lewis’ faith is somewhat less strong than he portrays it. Lewis, on the other hand, observes Freud’s apparent need to control his daughter’s romantic life even though she is no longer young. That would seem to be an odd decision coming from a great liberator of man’s sex drive such as Freud.

Most of what we get from the long conversation that unfolds over the course of the film are these kinds of glancing blows. Freud seems to hint that Lewis at this time is still living with the mother of his friend who was killed in the war and is having some kind of illicit affair at odds with his declared faith. Lewis, very much against his character as we encounter it in his writings, bluntly states that his personal life is off-limits.

Is the film trying to tell us that our connections as human beings trying to survive in a hard world are the most important things?

It would have been possible to offer something more like a real debate between the two men. There is certainly time available in a film that is long given that most of it revolves around two thinkers in a den. But instead, it seems the director preferred to try and humanize the two. Though Freud will use Lewis’ combat trauma against him later, in the moment he rallies to Lewis’ side. When Freud experiences great pain from his cancer of the jaw, Lewis helps him remove an oral prosthetic. It is an intimate moment. Is the film trying to tell us that our connections as human beings trying to survive in a hard world are the most important things? Perhaps.

But then again, maybe there is something more. When we get a look inside Freud’s mind, what we get are dark, unsettling visions. People who resemble moving statues take on sexual poses. Lewis’ mind seems to offer an entirely different kind of imaginative landscape. He returns to something like a forest bigger and better than his brother Warnie’s diorama which is dominated by a powerful stag. A powerful light suffuses the whole scene and Lewis bathes in it. What’s the message? We make our own heaven or hell? It is impossible to draw a strong conclusion as to the intent of the story. That may be by design, but it is somewhat maddening.

By the end, I was able to put my finger on one conclusion that may not have represented the storyteller’s intent, but is perhaps unavoidable for the viewer familiar with Lewis’ work. Freud’s daughter, Anna, has an unswerving devotion to her father. We see in a flashback when she goes to jail to avoid a Nazi official taking him instead. Later, when he calls her in desperate pain seeking morphine for relief, she abandons an important lecture so she can visit pharmacist shops in succession so as to help him. One or her colleagues is annoyed and diagnoses her with attachment disorder. Another charges her with codependency.

These are modern charges. I noted her great determination to help the man who has raised her and instead of seeing some kind of psychological maladjustment saw something more like duty. It was the kind of duty Lewis would later write about in The Abolition of Man. Love and devotion to one’s parents is part of the Tao or natural law that he identified as part of what makes us truly human. The attempt by Anna Freud’s colleagues to pathologize her legitimate moral instinct is very much the kind of thing Lewis warned us against. In the end, this movie raises big questions, but leaves them unanswered.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the dean of the faculty and provost of North Greenville University.

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