Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
A cartoon of Woodrow Wilson from Punch, March 26, 1919

A cartoon of Woodrow Wilson from Punch, March 26, 1919

In 1968, Barry Goldwater sued Fact magazine for publishing a series of psychiatrists’ statements claiming he was “grossly psychotic” and “a mass-murderer at heart.” His victory prompted the American Psychiatric Association to adopt the so-called Goldwater Rule, which declared it unethical for doctors to offer diagnoses without an examination—as if any self-respecting office-seeker would consent to such. (“I have never talked to a psychiatrist in my life,” Goldwater said in his defense.) Thus was one of our nation’s great pastimes hobbled. From that day on, those of us who like to mouth off with the occasional “Bush II’s well-publicized penchant for clearing brush from his Texas ranch is proof of his narcissistic personality disorder” could no longer marshal evidence from actual MDs.

Fortunately, psychoanalysis gives us a loophole. The American Psychoanalytic Association has said that it “does not consider political commentary by its individual members an ethical matter.” Nor should it. The father of psychoanalysis himself, in an oft-ignored divagation, co-wrote an entire volume about our twenty-eighth president, whom he detested from afar. Patrick Weil, a political scientist, tells the story in The Madman in the White House: Sigmund Freud, Ambassador Bullitt, and the Lost Psychobiography of Woodrow Wilson (Harvard University Press, $35), and better yet, he’s ferreted out the original, unredacted manuscript. This is the hottest gossip about Freud or Wilson in decades. Long-dead celebs seldom spill the tea.

Freud regarded Wilson as a neurotic self-saboteur whose contradictions, especially during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, imperiled millions of lives and pushed Europe toward fascism. “As far as a single individual can be responsible for the misery of this part of the world, he surely is,” Freud wrote. Wilson, in his ambition to found the League of Nations and assure his place on the international stage, had completely watered down his ideals, making one concession after another and betraying his ignorance of Europe’s clashing cultures. Such a peace, brokered to within an inch of its life, had no chance of enduring without the participation of the United States. But when the Treaty of Versailles faced objections primarily from his Republican opponents in Congress, Wilson brooked no compromise, and the ratification failed. “Peace and goodwill among all nations abroad,” Winston Churchill later wrote, “but no truck with the Republican Party at home. That was . . . [Wilson’s] ruin and the ruin of much else as well.” John Maynard Keynes called the president a “blind and deaf Don Quixote.”

William Bullitt, one of Wilson’s diplomats, had watched the president choke at home and abroad, and became convinced that the global order was “far too reliant on the caprices of one person,” Weil writes. He hoped to abolish the presidency. This conviction was still in the back of his mind in 1926, when he arrived in Vienna to stretch out on the good doctor’s couch. Analysis electrified him. “I wrote you a very depressed letter three hours ago and now everything is gay again,” he told his wife. “All because I thought a thought!!!!” Freud became a friend; when they realized their mutual disdain for Wilson, Bullitt suggested they write a book together, as analyst and analysand so often do.

The pair collated information from Wilson’s biographers and confidants, and a psychomosaic emerged. Wilson had been excessively fond of his father, a stern but affectionate minister; the son, Weil writes, believed that God had “chosen him as an instrument to carry His designs” and dreamed of following his old man to the pulpit. He loved public speaking—the sure sign of a loose screw—and craved, nay, required the adulation of his male friends, yearning to crush anyone who opposed him. Women he kept under his thumb and otherwise ignored. He felt he was “too intense” and sometimes enjoyed “outbursts of high spirits when he would dance a hornpipe,” but he often succumbed to anhedonia. In sum, Bullitt argued, Wilson

wished at the same time to be the supreme male, all powerful, all commanding, all inflicting, and the complete female, all loving, all submissive, all suffering. Only one individual in history has successfully resolved that conflict.

Wilson wanted to be Christ.

“You and I know that Wilson was a passive homosexual,” Freud told Bullitt, “but we won’t dare say it.” They did, though. Much was made of a “handsome young blond man” with whom the president had shared a bed on a speaking tour. “Had he recognized this dimension of his inner life,” Weil writes, “he might have been able to sublimate it and thereby avoid the damage he inflicted on himself and the world by repressing it.”

Bullitt kept the manuscript under lock for decades, fearing it might derail his career. Only toward the end of his life did he entertain its publication. By then, Freud was dead and Wilson’s reputation had been considerably rehabilitated. Delusionally, Bullitt imagined that the book would fetch a half-million-dollar advance and become a movie. Instead, upon its release in late 1966, it met with scathing reviews (“Freudulence”) and a complete disavowal from Freud’s daughter Anna. Consulting the original manuscript, Weil found that Bullitt had expunged much of the good stuff: any mention of a castration complex, and also some theorizing about Wilson’s masturbation—a habit dimly responsible, in Freud’s estimation, for the president’s style of statesmanship. Weil is right to call the psychobiography “vindictive,” and it’s not terribly readable, either. But its contention that Wilson’s daddy issues had a white-knuckle grip on the fate of Europe—that it was his idealism, vanity, obstinacy, and servility that scuttled the Treaty of Versailles, qualities that grew like tentacles from his father’s long shadow—is persuasive enough, and more than a little timely. After all, Wilson had only a fraction of the derangement that’s now a fixture of the executive branch, where power is ever more concentrated.

The Celebrated Couch of Sigmund Freud, by Helen Frank © The artist. Courtesy Fine Leaf, South Hero, Vermont

The Celebrated Couch of Sigmund Freud, by Helen Frank © The artist. Courtesy Fine Leaf, South Hero, Vermont

Freud would’ve made short work of the sixteenth-century astronomer Tycho Brahe, what with his prosthetic nose (the real one was disfigured in a duel; hello, castration complex) and his fixation on his twin brother, who died in the womb, unblemished by sin. If it’s prima facie crazy to seek the highest office in the land, it’s even crazier to make one’s living by the stars. How frustrating it must’ve been to survey the night sky before the telescope came along. The moon is the oldest TV, as Nam June Paik put it, and binge-watching it feels just as empty as binge-watching anything else. It takes a certain fortitude to focus on this emptiness, as the Danish writer Harald Voetmann has in his novel Sublunar (New Directions, $15.95), something of a psychobiography in its own right: a wonderfully acrid study of Brahe, his cohort of astronomers manqués, and all the negative space that surrounds discovery.

As its title suggests, Sublunar is more concerned with terrestrial bodies than celestial ones; what Dane needs brave o’erhanging firmament when there are foul and pestilent vapors to be had? Voetmann peoples the book with the Renaissance riffraff who fell out with posterity. Jesters, bellfounders, a masturbating dwarf. Much of the novel takes the form of meteorological journals written by Brahe’s assistants, but they dispense with their meteorology in a few brisk lines (“Southwest rather calm, sunshine at times”) and turn instead toward ennui, despair, and the pleasures of the flesh: “I would rather watch her globes tonight than icy stars.” Cooped up in a shambling island observatory—“an institute for botched and bungled learning,” as one visitor describes it—Brahe and company spend their nights making tedious measurements at the sextant and trying to turn stuff into gold. This leaves their days free for drinking, whoring, and slopping around Denmark, a place so oversexed that even the ripening apples blush “as though ashamed of their swell.” For these scholars, as for generations before and after them, there’s little to do other than be horny, relieve one’s horniness, and forswear all future acknowledgment of said horniness, for you are a creature of God, etc. Then rinse and repeat.

Actually, don’t rinse. No one in this novel does. It’s all soiled ruffs, greasy mustaches, blood and foam, bile and slime. At one point a guy cleans his nails with a dagger—probably the most hygienic act in the book. Voetmann has an eye for filth, a disquieting way of finding the life and death thrumming in it, and his translator, Johanne Sorgenfri Ottosen, has ably brought across every last effluvium from the Danish. Hence we encounter the “glistening marbled innards” of a pheasant tossed to the dogs, and a frosty corpse “squatting against the garden wall with breeches and hose around his ankles, and frozen excrement only halfway expelled from his bowels.” The assistants bring an armless, legless man to a prostitute for sport. And they clear phlegm from their passages constantly, eagerly, as if hoping to be applauded.

Voetmann is deft enough to make this comical, eerie, and affecting. His vision of foreboding soars while his characters remain inexorably earthbound. In a sense, Sublunar reads like an office novel. The stultifying workplace fuels the fears and yearnings of men who understand themselves as mere employees. One of them dreams of “the vitrifying flame” that will, come Judgment Day, turn everyone into “colorless, melted glass figures, eyes and mouths sealed shut. . . . Their souls like mist sequestered in the glass.”

“History is fascinating and we do need it to understand ourselves,” Voetmann said in an interview last year, “but looking back is inevitably also looking into a pit of pointless suffering.” Like Auden, he draws our attention to the banal part of the pit, “some untidy spot / Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”

Voetmann has struck a minor chord between brooding mysticism and coarse, deadpan humor that brings out all the dimensions of stargazing: the awe, the superstition, and, finally, the dread. “Do we really believe that it is ever not dark?” two of his characters say in a kind of refrain. “The Lord has lit a lamp which orbits us, but around it there is only darkness.” It resembles a haunting line from Thelonious Monk, used by Thomas Pynchon as the epigraph for Against the Day: “It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.”

Details from pages 22, 26, 24, and 34 of Astronomiæ instauratæ mechanica, 1598, by Tycho Brahe. Courtesy the Royal Danish Library, LN 432 2°

Details from pages 22, 26, 24, and 34 of Astronomiæ instauratæ mechanica, 1598, by Tycho Brahe. Courtesy the Royal Danish Library, LN 432 2°

John Ackah Blay-Miezah promised to light a lamp for Ghana—growing up in a village with no electricity, his nickname was Kerosene Boy—but its rays never shone on the many investors in his Oman Ghana Trust Fund. Reader, he fleeced them.

Yepoka Yeebo isn’t exaggerating in Anansi’s Gold: The Man Who Looted the West, Outfoxed Washington, and Swindled the World (Bloomsbury, $29.99) when she calls him “one of the greatest con artists of all time.” Blay-Miezah claimed that Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister and president, had socked away millions (or was it billions?) of dollars in Switzerland, and, on his deathbed, made Blay-Miezah their sole custodian. But the money was wrapped in red tape. If investors sent him the capital he needed to fulfill a set of nebulous, ever-evolving “conditions,” they would share in his reward. This inheritance scam, implausible on its face, netted him eight figures in less than fifteen years, ensnaring destitute widows, captains of industry, and ostentatious career criminals; no FBI sting, scandalized headline, or urgent diplomatic cable could pluck the cigar from his mouth. Here was a man who—in a prison cell, hours after having been arrested at gunpoint—talked his way into receiving lunch on an actual silver platter.

In 1959, still a teenager, Blay-Miezah had hopped a boat to the United States, telling his family he’d won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania when he was actually working as a busboy. But he learned the school’s fight song, which passed as a diploma. For Americans, any knowledge of the Gold Coast began and ended with the gold, and Blay-Miezah found that, as a transplant with an Ivy League sheen, he could sell it without having it. He sketched a seductive, alien Africa that whetted Western appetites: part of his fortune, he said, derived from railroad ties “made of heavy African woods that blunt the teeth of American termites.” By the Seventies, having proclaimed himself a doctor and a diplomat, he’d blustered his way into Philadelphia’s luxe Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. The unpaid bills landed him in prison, where he learned about Nkrumah’s death and hatched his inheritance plot.

Ghana had seen such endemic corruption, instability, and unrest that men who might’ve known better—nightclub and brewery owners, lawyers, insurance men, Episcopal priests—thought it more than likely that a couple million had slipped through the cracks. They forked over their savings to a man in loafers and a white leisure suit who guaranteed a hundredfold return. Before long, Blay-Miezah was prevaricating among the jet set on several continents, leaving a trail of forged signatures on fake letterhead. He and his shadowy partners—including John Mitchell, Nixon’s onetime campaign manager and certified dirty trickster—assured black investors that the money would rocket Ghana into the developed world. “To Black people, they were selling liberation: a chance to repair the wounds of colonialism,” Yeebo writes. “To everyone else, they were selling the chance to loot an African country’s ancestral wealth—which is to say, they were selling colonialism.”

In the end, it was Shirley Temple Black, the child star turned U.S. ambassador to Ghana, who knew the score. She called Blay-Miezah a “bad penny, less, of course, 186 million dollars.” At home, some who recognized his deceit may well have admired it. “Ghanaians delight in the kind of man who can talk himself out of a bind or into a fortune,” Yeebo writes. They have a word, kalabule, for the artful con.

Shoes, by Taylor Simmons © The artist. Courtesy Public Gallery, London

Shoes, by Taylor Simmons © The artist. Courtesy Public Gallery, London

Reading Anansi’s Gold is like watching a heist movie in agonizing slow motion. It’s all about improvisation, unforced error, unlikely escape. (Blay-Miezah once eluded police by dropping into a latrine-style toilet and shimmying through the small door used to empty it.) Yeebo compares his marks, aptly, to the members of a millenarian cult; every deferred payday, like every false apocalypse, strengthened their faith. More perplexing than the investors’ psychology is Blay-Miezah’s own. He took himself in: he believed he could deliver all he’d lied about and more. A prison psychiatrist wrote, “I feel this man cannot distinguish reality from fantasy.” You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that he ran for president.

| View All Issues |

May 2024

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now