Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Book Review: The Life of Gregory Zilboorg

The Life of Gregory Zilboorg, 1890-1959 (two volumes), by Caroline Zilboorg
Routledge, 2022

I'd never heard of Gregory Zilboorg until a few months ago. I encountered his name while reading about Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk and author of The Seven-Storey Mountain. Zilboorg played only a passing role in Merton's life, when Merton had developed a typically dilettantish interest in psychoanalysis and came to him for advice. However, the article where I came upon Zilboorg's name mentioned that he (like Merton) was a convert to Catholicism, and my antennae tingled.

Luckily for me, a comprehensive two-volume biography of Zilboorg has been published this very year, and I read it avidly.

I love conversion stories, and I've read quite a few books about Catholic converts. As far as I can remember, I've never seen Zilboorg mentioned in these books.

Who was he? He was a Russian-Jewish psychoanalyst who moved to America after the Russian Revolution, and who became a national figure, even appearing on magazine covers and in cartoons. He analysed various famous people, such as the composer George Gershwin and the author Lillian Hellman. He was a prolific writer, particularly noted for his History of Medical Psychology. He also translated Russian plays and novels into English (including We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a dystopian novel which predates both Brave New World and 1984).

And, of course, he was a Catholic convert. He was received into the Church late in life, just five years before his death, but he had been moving towards Catholicism for a long time before that. The break-up of his first marriage and his subsequent marriage to an Episcopalian, who had no intention of becoming Catholic, delayed his reception by many years.

In terms of conversion stories, Zilboorg's is somewhat unusual. As a young man he was a revolutionary, acting as a secretary for the Ministry of Labour in Kerensky's moderate government, which came to power in February of 1917 and was toppled by the Bolsheviks in October of that year. He fled from Russia in fear of his life.

This background, combined with the knowledge that he converted to Catholicism, might suggest that Zilboorg became a reactionary conservative, a Cold Warrior who renounced the utopianism of his youth and embraced a die-hard Republicanism. But this isn't what happened. Zilboorg remained a lifelong socialist, a humanist, and very much an Enlightenment thinker. He was an ardent opponent of the death penalty and something of a feminist, decrying the more misogynistic assumptions of early psychoanalysis.

He was also, however, a critic of scientism (as we would call it now), and a champion of the individual against the standardizing forces of modernity-- forces he saw operating in Western society as much as in the USSR. Like John Henry Newman, he rejected the notion that education, science, and "progress" would improve the human condition on their own.

In a lecture in Montreal, he said: "Ours is a civilization that spurns tradition and insists on pragmatic, mechanical routine, whereas the remedy in our civilization lies in restoring  the continuity of humanism, and of abolishing pragmatic, materialistic routine." 

The biography is a truly impressive piece of work, wonderfully researched but never sacrificing readability for a morass of detail. Although it's written by Zilboorg's daughter, it's definitely a biography rather than a memoir, aside from the occasional first-hand anecdote, and it doesn't idealize Zilboorg (who was often a controversial figure).

A picture emerges of a man who was driven, idealistic, epicurean, often high-handed, and weighed down with a sense of responsibility to the world, his profession, and his extended family.

Zilboorg was born in Kiev in 1890. Although the book mentions that Ukrainian nationalism was a force during his own lifetime, he never seemed to consider himself as anything other than Russian. Perhaps the pogroms he witnessed in his childhood inhibited any sense of Ukrainian patriotism. Ultimately, however, he seems to have been more an internationalist than anything else.

His father was a deeply religious man, but Zilboorg announced at an early age that he did not believe in the Torah and was not going to practice his childhood faith. Despite this, he continued to identify with his Jewish heritage. In 1938, he published a pamphlet entitled I Won't Apologize, taking his fellow Americans to task for not speaking out more decisively against Hitler's persecution of the Jews.

Zilboorg attended medical school in St. Petersburg, despite economic hardship and quotas against Jews in university education. The Russian Revolution broke out during his years there, and he found himself working as the secretary for the Ministry of Labour in Alexander Kerensky's provisional government. The history of the twentieth century, and even our own, might have been a much happier one if Kerensky had retained power, and if Lenin had been prevented from replacing him. Zilboorg worked energetically to this end. The account of the Russian Revolution is one of the most vivid and exciting parts of the book, and Zilboorg deserves great credit for his efforts to prevent the Bolshevik cataclysm.

Having failed in this, and realizing his life was in danger as an opponent of the Bolsheviks, he fled westward-- to Vienna, Germany, and the Netherlands, countries in ferment as World War One came to an end. He supported himself by lecturing and writing, and managed to live in high style even as he had no dependable income. Eventually, he got to New York in April 1919.

He stayed with his brother James who had emigrated to America years before. The relationship of Gregory and James is a running thread throughout the biography, as indeed is Gregory's relationship with his whole birth family, most of whom (including his parents) moved to Mexico between the wars. Gregory continued to send financial support from America. The passages featuring Zilboorg's birth family and in-laws have a certain flavour of situation comedy to them, with their domestic dramas serving as a sort of sub-plot to Zilboorg's career.

Soon after his arrival in America, Zilboorg worked as a guest lecturer with a kind of intellectual roadshow, the Chautauqua, a "travelling tent" company which took educational lectures, drama and music around the country. (It's always chastening to read about the popularity of public lectures and public meetings in the days before we all became glued to the television and, later, the internet. Zilboorg himself was quite withering about pop culture such as the music hall and the cinema, much preferring the theatre. He was, however, a big fan of boxing.)

Eventually Zilboorg gained admittance to Columbia University's medical school. This took some effort, as his Russian qualifications didn't translate directly to the American academic system. His enemies in the psychoanalytic profession would later use this fact against him. Columbia University at this time required every student to pass a swimming test; indeed, it still does. Zilboorg got a friend to pass this on his behalf. He was never hesitant about asking favours.

Even before going to Columbia-- indeed, only seven months after arriving in America-- Zilboorg married Ray Liebow, a Jewish-Russian emigré herself. The marriage never seems to have been a happy one, although they did have two children together.

After Columbia, Zilboorg went to work in Bloomingdale, a psychiatric hospital in New York. Before long, however, he was drawn to the burgeoning psychoanalytic movement, and indeed became an official in the New York Psychoanalytic Society, setting up its library and bookshop. Controversy dogged him here, too: at one point he resigned from the Society because of questions about his account-keeping. The controversy, which seems to have been a storm in a teacup, eventually passed. The psychoanalytic profession seems to have been plagued by petty internecine quarrels, and this was not the only time Zilboorg would fall victim to them.

It would prolong this review unduly to follow Zilboorg's subsequent career in detail. He went into private practice as a psychoanalyst, but he continued to act as a part-time lecturer for various institutions (some of them Catholic, in his later years). He also wrote books (including a history of psychiatry which occupied him for many years, and was very well received), translated books and plays, gave lectures, involved himself in various professional organizations, and much more. Indeed, reading the biography, I found myself astonished at how much Zilboorg managed to accomplish. How did he find the time, never mind the energy? It's true social media had not been invented yet, but that only goes so far in explaining it.

And he still found time for hobbies. Learning the hobbies and past-times of the great is one of my favourite parts of biographies. Zilboorg's hobbies included boxing, photography, and cooking. There are many charming accounts of his "cooking retreats" with his friend Henry Siegerest, and indeed reproductions of the handwritten and hand-decorated menus they would make on such occasions.

Controversy hit Zilboorg again when some of his psychoanalytic colleagues became convinced he had acted unethically with a particular patient: accepting gifts (which he didn't deny) and making a business proposition (which he did). As the biography explains, the ethics of analyst-patient relations were much looser in those days, and psychotherapists would often accept gifts from patients, and even go on holiday with them. The account of the professional enquiry into this episode occupies many pages, but is quite gripping, with many of the sessions lasting well past midnight. Eventually, Zilboorg was acquitted by the vast majority of his colleagues.

In 1940, Zilboorg hired a secretary named Margaret Stone (nicknamed "Peg"), with whom he fell in love and began an affair. In 1946 he divorced his first wife and remarried Stone, with whom he had three children (including his future biographer). Neither Zilboorg nor his first wife had been baptised at the time of his marriage, and his second wife was an Episcopalian who had no intention of becoming a Catholic. This complicated his eventual reception into the Church for many years.

In the 1920's, Zilboorg had begun to attend Quaker meetings, although he doesn't seem to have regarded himself as a Quaker. In the mid-forties, he made the acquaintance of Noel Mailloux, a Dominican priest and psychology professor in the University of Montreal. After this, he began to move in Catholic circles, particularly those of the Dominican Order in Canada. He read Jacques Maritain and Thomas Aquinas. At one point he had a ten-minute audience with Pope Pius XII, and he became a friend of Archbishop Montini of Milan, later Pope Paul VI.

Zilboorg wrote frequently on the subject of psychoanalysis and faith. He became something of an intermediary between the two, defending psychoanalysis to his Catholic friends and defending religious faith to his psychoanalytic colleagues. "The spiritual level cannot be taken away from the human being", he wrote, "any more than you can take the human mind away from him and leave him still a human being". Psychoanalysis, he insisted, was not a replacement for sacramental confession. Nor was psychoanalysis a philosophy of the world or of life, it was simply a scientific theory of the human mind. It did not argue against free will, nor did it read sex into everything. (Zilboorg insisted that Freud's "eros" was more the equivalent of Aquinas's "sensuality" than it was "sex".)

Zilboorg was eventually received into the Catholic Church in 1954, by the Archbishop of Montreal Paul-Émile Léger. As the biography puts it: "During the service, he and Peg were then married and he was confirmed at the altar where the took his first communion. They day managed to include five of the seven holy sacraments, and there was surely immeasurable joy in everyone's hearts at the final 'ite, Missa est.' "
In the same year, he came to Dublin to receive an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland. There is a photograph of the ceremony in the biography. My eye quickly picked out the austere features of our own Dr. John Charles McQuaid. J.R.R. Tolkien was similarly honoured on the same day.

Zilboorg was to die five years after his reception into the Church, and so sadly never lived to see the Second Vatican Council, which would surely have been a welcome development to a convert so steeped in the Catholic humanist tradition.

The Life of Gregory Zilboorg is highly recommended. It's perfectly accessible to the ordinary reader who has (like me) no knowledge of psychoanalysis, and will be of special interest to those (also like me) who are interested in stories of Catholic converts.

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