Canada's King: An Essay in Political Psychology

Article excerpt

PAUL ROAZEN

Canada's King. An Essay in Political Psychology Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 1998, 177 pp. (ISBN 088962-667-7, Cdn$18.95, Paperback)

Reviewed by SCOTT GREER

Paul Roazen's latest book, Canada's King. An Essay in Political Psycholo, offers us an intriguing look at a set of psychiatric notes and files on Canada's longest-serving prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Roazen has certainly chosen a fascinating case, full of "sensationalistic" possibilities, yet this is a scholarly and cautious work. While not intended to be a full biography of King, Roazen does succeed in shedding light on a dark corner of this man's "dual" life. In the end, the reader is bound to come away wondering, if they do not already, just what is going on in Ottawa.

Roazen presents King as a man full of paradoxes, not the least of which is his distinguished but relatively unknown place in history. Roazen illustrates this quite well, when on a visit to King's gravesite, Roazen stopped by the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery office to ask for directions. Not only did they not know where the site was, but they could not find the name "Mackenzie King" on their computer system. Yet, according to one recent survey, King was voted by Canadian scholars to be the most successful prime minister in history. In fact, King served as prime minister for almost 22 years and as leader of the Liberal Darty for nearly 30.

During his lifetime, his visits to mediums, holdings of seances, and hosts of other supernatural predilections remained guarded secrets. King naturally portrayed himself as the dutiful "public servant," skillful negotiator, and polished professional, with his private, spiritual/mystical side tucked "in the closet." After his death, King's "other" side has slowly been revealed to the public. Roazen also recognizes this splitting of the public and private as artificial, and tries (very successfully, I believe) to unite these. In fact, one of the book's strongest points lies in the way the information is woven together, making sense out of how King the politician wac at the same time. also King the mystic.

In terms of historical method, Roazen is very thorough, and makes excellent use of his resources. The main focus of the text is on two key documents: King's diary and a set of psychiatric notes made by Adolph Meyer, an eminent and well-respected psychoanalyst, during sessions with King in 1916. Although it is not clear the exact number of sessions King and Meyer had, King's association with the doctors at Johns Hopkins (including Meyer) was relatively brief, lasting from late October to early November 1916. As Roazen later acknowledges, these are far from ideal sources: the notes from Meyer are incomplete and sometimes incoherent or undecipherable, while King's diary (as we find out) is often unreliable; King was apparently very adept at self-- deception.

Roazen also makes clear the limitations of his endeavor we cannot diagnose King's disorder, even with a first-hand account of his symptoms from an expert such as Meyer. Nor can we reach any firm conclusions about the cause of King's symptoms, although there are numerous plausible explanations ranging from simple fatigue to more severe mental disturbances that interfered with his contact with reality. Roazen also eschews any "presentism" in that we cannot use "contemporary wisdom" to "clarify," "elucidate," or, worse yet, "explain" a given historical or biographical subject. By looking at the state of psychiatry almost 85 years ago, where an infected tooth was seen as a plausible cause of mental disturbances, we might well find that in another 80 years our "contemporary science" may look like so many stone knives and bearskins.

One question that arises, however, is whether Roazen's book should be called a "psychobiography" or even a "psychological biography" (it is referred to as both on the cover), since he does not proffer the kind nor certainly the degree of psychological interpretation that is usually found in psychobiographies. …