Issue 15 — 15 May 2019


Strange Meeting

In the early 1970s I was busy as an “editor at large” (as Ruth dubbed me) or as a “jack of all literary and writing trades” (as I regarded myself). I organized literary and poetry readings (including an attention-getting, late-afternoon series at the Royal Ontario Museum which included readings by Douglas LePan, Michael Ondaatje, and Robertson Davies) and had a reputation as a poet on the move. I was also the literary manager of The Bohemian Embassy, the country’s iconic literary and musical café.

I held positions with or was consulted by various arts and cultural organizations, including the Department of the Secretary of State, the Canadian Council for the Arts, the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council, the City of North York Arts Council, and various other advisory bodies or granting organizations. I was also the unpaid managing editor of The Tamarack Review, the country’s leading literary quarterly, as well as a frequent reviewer for periodicals like The Canadian Forum and Canadian Literature. I wrote reviews for The Globe and Mail and columns for The Toronto Star, and I occasionally appeared on CBC Radio and TV programs. Indeed, I scripted and hosted two dominion-wide series of six, half-hour programs, one on quotations and another on mysteries. In addition, I was a senior advisory editor at McClelland & Stewart, then the country’s leading book publisher.

It was a busy life and I thrived on such fare for two decades, honing my editorial and writing skills. I was in no position to decline an assignment or commission, a request or consideration; most but not all of it was paid work, but it was not that well-paid work. I continued this way until the publication of Colombo’s Canadian Quotations and Colombo’s Canadian References in the mid-1970s, when I cut back on occasional work, hack work. I used to quip that “Grub Street” rhymes with “Yonge Street,” Toronto’s main thoroughfare.

Throughout the 1980s I concentrated on my own writing. The decade of the 1990s was a lean period, both for me and for the country, as both of us went through a mild recession. The decades of the 2000s offered promise of better conditions ahead, but the times never really delivered, at least for me.

Until her early retirement from Centennial College, where she was a Teaching Master and later a Professor, Ruth had a regular income, so mine, somewhat chancy, was sometimes the primary income, sometimes the supplemental income. We did not suffer, but from time to time money was in short supply, particularly when we for a few years we had two of our children in private schools and the third in university.

What I liked about the 1970s was that during this decade for me interesting things were happening and the future seemed boundless. In point of fact, the events were sometimes pointless, sometimes enthralling. I felt that if I stayed in Canada, the world would come to me. Here is one instance of an experience that was at once pointless and enthralling.

The phone rang and a young man with a strong American accent introduced himself as a good friend of Terry Tweed Alter, a foxy actress and stage director. He had moved to the city to take up an appointment “teaching Sanskrit,” as he expressed it, at the University of Toronto. Terry had suggested that we should meet because he had some poems that he had translated from that ancient language and he thought that I might have a suggestion or two about publishing them.

“Of course, let’s meet. Come over. Visit me.”

Later that day he arrived in Terry’s car. We sat for an hour in my study and discussed the project. It turned out he had plans to translate a selection of ancient Sanskrit love poems but had not yet completed the manuscript. He was very personable, quick-witted, knowledgeable, and observant. He was dashingly handsome and youngish and his intelligence was apparent, though I found his manner to be somewhat laid back, somewhat withholding, when not slightly calculated. His attention was caught by my shelves of books, especially those on the shelf nearest to him, where he spied the spines of books written by Ouspensky, Bucke, Tarte, Cirlot, Blavatsky, Saurat, etc. Most people would ignore them, but not this visitor. He stared at them, squinted at their spines, as if looking for a book that was not there. In fact, in doing so, he splashed some coffee from a mug on the dust jackets of a set of books by written by Maurice Nicoll.

“Do you have any books by Paul Brunton?” he asked.

I was surprised. Not many people knew about Brunton or were interested in him. “No,” I said. “But I have read him. As a teenager, I borrowed In Search of Secret India and In Search of Secret Egypt from the library and read them avidly, the way one reads novels. I also recall paging through The Secret Path and The Wisdom of the Oversoul, but these were not as engrossing as the “spiritual quest” travel titles. He said nothing, so I added, “That was a long time ago. I am not sure what I would think of them if I reread them today.” Again he said nothing. I concluded, “You mentioned him. You must be familiar with his books.” Once again he said nothing. The pause seemed odd at the time, and thinking about it the next day, and indeed some years later, it seemed inexplicable. After the pause we resumed our conversation about possible publishers, academic, trade, or literary, for his yet-to-be-completed collection of poems from the Sanskrit.

That was the first and the last time I met Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Thereafter I began to hear about him and to read about him. Then I began to read the amazing string of books that he had begun to publish.

Masson spent the years from 1969 to 1980 in Toronto, latterly as a full professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. He was well qualified, having a doctorate from Harvard and advanced work at the Ecole Normal Supérieure in Paris. I was not aware that he was a “leading light” on the U of T campus, but that might be because he was busy in other fields. He enrolled at the Toronto Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and qualified as a lay analyst. He did so under the none-too-protective wing of the psychiatrist and psychoanalysis Irvine Schiffer who conducted his analysis.

We knew Irvine socially (he and his wife Ellen were friends of Ellen and Dr. Edward Llewellyn Thomas, vice-dean of Medicine at the University of Toronto, as well as a fine science-fiction novelist, who also were also friends of ours) and I found Irvine to be immensely emphatic but also immensely insightful, for he had the knack of describing everything from the Freudian perspective and pontificating. His specialty was the subject of charisma, the characteristics of which he examined in a thought-provoking book devoted to the subject.

He acknowledged Freud’s work in the field and contrasted the projection of charisma with its opposite, the experience of the uncanny. He had his hands full with the youngish Masson, who for all his own charisma some years later recalled his analysis in print with devilish and uncanny glee, a no-no in Freudian circles on both Continents.

No doubt Schiffer recognized that Masson was not going to change, for he had the reputation for being a womanizer and someone who tilted at windmills. (The quip went that instead of teaching Sanskrit at the University, he taught “sans-skirt.”) Once he left Toronto he went to London and then New York, ingratiating himself with Anna Freud, who showed him formerly withheld documents, and inveigling himself into the Sigmund Freud Archives at Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead, London, where he became its project director. He had the instincts of a blood-hound; he took a scunner to the “seduction theory” and dedicated a book to the subject of Freud’s suppression of evidence of physical assault and called it The Assault on Truth.

This is not the time or place to recall Masson’s subsequent deeds. Janet Malcolm wrote about him and them in The New Yorker and then Masson took up with feminist theorist Catharine MacKinnon who lived and taught at the University in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then devoted himself to researching a series of interesting books, including a ground-breaking study of Kaspar Hauser, the foundling of Nuremberg.

What endears me to him or him to me was the appearance of one of his more autobiographical of books, the one called My Father’s Guru (1993). This is the title of his memoirs, subtitled “A Journey through Spirituality and Disillusion.” It is an account of his peripatetic childhood – Iran, France, United States, Uruguay – vagabond days! – and how a diminutive Englishman of Jewish descent named Raphael Hurst became an ex-official member of the Masson family in the 1940s and 1950s.

Hurst wrote a series of books which he published under the byline of Paul Brunton. The resident guru tied the family in knots. It might be argued that Hurst, as Brunton, inspired young Jeffrey to take an interest in Indian philosophy and Sanskrit in particular. The result was a fallout, Masson was able to show that his guru’s knowledge of the language was distinctly limited. I suppose it could be said that nobody living today knows as much about Hurst / Brunton as does Masson.

Looking back on our brief conversation, I regard Masson’s response – his silence – in the study of my house as the epitome of “coolth.” There was no reason for him to admit to a knowledge of Brunton or his books, though at the time, had the roles been reversed and Brunton been my family’s guru, I would have blurted out some of the domestic details! Today it is impossible for me to think about Brunton without Masson’s name coming to mind, or to think about Masson without Brunton’s name coming to mind. In a sense they are my North Pole and my South Pole: the need for the spiritual quest, the need to be critical of the spiritual quest.

Masson subsequently published a selection of his translations of Sanskrit love poems with W.S. Merwin, the American poet, who died in March 2019, depriving the English language of more original poems and translations from the Romance languages (and perhaps from Sanskrit as well).

All this came to mind because last week I came upon a reference to Masson’s book on the nature of “the oceanic feeling” in which he argues that this feeling or sensation is the basis of Indian spirituality. A reference to it appeared, in passing, in Jeffrey Kripal’s Kali’s Child. I read it and thought, “Lost Prince, the last book of Masson’s that I heard about, is the one that discusses Kaspar Hauser, “the Man from Nowhere.” I wonder what else he has been writing these days.” I found he had a relaxed website that featured a photograph of himself with his wife and two young children in the market town of St. Heliers, Auckland, New Zealand.

I described the site as “relaxed,” and indeed he invited correspondence, so I sent him an email recalling our brief meeting. He responded right away, such are the wonders of email, in a characteristically appealing way. He asked me, in particular, about his one-time psychoanalytic mentor, Irvine Schiffer. I obliged him on this account, reporting in subsequent emails about the agonizing last years of the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst some years earlier.

Obviously, from one brief meeting, I cannot say I know Masson. But I found him to possess considerable charm as well as formidable inner resources and intellectual reserves. He said in his email, “Strange, I was just talking to my old friend Stella Sandahi, who teaches Sanskrit at the U of T, a few minutes ago, and your message arrived! Do tell me what you do know. As I remember, you were a distinguished poet at the time. I have changed directions, and write about animals (When Elephants Weep, etc.). I miss Toronto! N.Z. is VERY boring, but safe, and pleasant. If Obama wins, I want to return with my family to Berkeley, my true home.”

I guess Masson will be returning to California.

4 June 2008

P.S. I assume that Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson returned to California, if only for a visit, following the electoral success of Barack Obama, who was inaugurated on January 20, 2009. Perhaps with the victory of Donald J. Trump, in January 20, 2017, he returned to Auckland, N.Z. The truth is that I have not followed his later peregrinations. I wish him well wherever he resides and writes his challenging books.

Masson was born in 1941 into a Bukharan Jewish family in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a Harvard Ph.D. in Sanskrit studies and was appointed a full Professor at the University of Toronto. For some years in the 1940s and 1950s, the family’s semi-permanent houseguest was Paul Brunton.

Paul Brunton (1898-1981) was an English-born Spiritualist and Theosophist whose travels throughout India in the 1930s, visiting yogis in one ashram after another, led him to write a series of well-selling books about gurus and chelas. Thereafter Brunton was a semi-permanent houseguest of the Masson household. In a misplaced prediction, he encouraged the family to move to Montevideo in Uruguay to avoid a predicted atomic catastrophe, which they did.

Masson concludes his book on his one-time guru with these words: “PB was less than he thought, but also more. He knew little, but he had a zest for life that was contagious and worth emulating. It was exciting to be in his presence, and it would have been just as exciting without all the hocus pocus and mumbo-jumbo, though he probably felt he could make no mark in the world without it. He brought solace and joy to many by making claims that were not true. I can fault him. I cannot forget him.”

Irvine Schiffer was a Toronto-based psychiatrist and author and President of the Toronto Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. He oversaw the five-year-long training program of Masson as a lay analyst. The unorthodox training is the subject of Mason’s semi-scandalous account titled Final Analysis: The Making and Unmaking of a Psychoanalyst. Schiffer is the author of two fine books, one on the characteristics of charisma, the other on the notion of time.

Masson is remembered for The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory. I especially like his book on Kaspar Hauser, the foundling of Nuremberg. He has written ten or so books devoted to the emotional lives of animals. Along the way he had run-ins with Anna Freud, Catharine MacKinnon, and Janet Malcolm. Oh yes, he was once married Terri Tweed Alter, the CBC producer in Toronto who mentioned my name to him so many decades ago.

6-7 April 2019