Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

Freud (front row, far left) and some of his followers at Clark
The father of all psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, made a lone visit to the United States in 1909 to give a series of lectures at Clark University. In The Interpretation of Murder, Jed Rubenfeld weaves a story that posits why this visit was the only time Freud's feet touched American soil.  The book starts with these thought provoking words:  "There is no mystery to happiness.  Unhappy men are all alike.  Some wound they suffered long ago, some wish denied, some blow to pride, some kindling spark of love put out by scorn--or worse, indifference--cleaves to them, or they to it, and so they live each day within a shroud of yesterdays.  The happy man does not look back.  He doesn't look ahead.  He lives in the present.   But here's the rub.  The present can never deliver one thing:  meaning.  The ways of happiness and meaning are not the same.  To find happiness, a man need only live in the moment; he need only live for the moment.  But if he wants meaning--the meaning of his dreams, his secrets, his life--a man must reinhabit his past, however dark, and live for the future, however uncertain.  Thus nature dangles happiness and meaning before us all, insisting that we choose between them."  

This passage could certainly put off some readers--do I really want to spend my time contemplating Freudian theories AND the meaning of life?  Rest assured that while Freud's Oedipal theory is one element of the story, Rubenfeld also incorporates history, a significant amount of action and some strong writing into a book that is ultimately an intellectual thriller.  Take, for instance, the way that Rubenfeld sets the stage of New York in the early 1900s.  We are in a world where the horse drawn carriage competes for the road with the automobile and skyscrapers are a recent addition to the skyline.  When telling us about the apartment building where the to-be-interpreted murder occurs, we learn that it is a 17-story building, higher than any residential building previously constructed.    It is a time when the debutante season is an important part of society and the Astors and the Vanderbilts vie for recognition as the reigning royalty of New York, throwing lavish balls in the grand ballrooms in the hotels of New York.  We learn--in a dramatic fashion--about the pneumatic caisson, an invention that created space accommodating workmen at the bottom of the East River, enabling the construction of the suspension bridges connecting Manhattan with the outer boroughs and leading to the development of "caisson disease" or, as familiarly known to divers, the "bends." 

The cast of characters is chock full of historical figures, including Freud's heir apparent Carl Jung, the "Triumvirate" of neurologists who were staunchly opposed to Freud's theories, and Henry Kendall Thaw, the multi-millionaire industrialist who murdered the Beaux Arts architect Stanford White in a fit of jealousy.  (The trial is often referred to as the "Trial of the Century" and can be read about at .  Truly fascinating stuff.)    Many of the events and places in the book are historically accurate, including some pretty interesting conversations between Freud and Jung.  And for Shakespeare buffs, Rubenfeld throws in some serious consideration of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy.

The story itself is engaging, complicated and somewhat risque.  It has lots of twists and turns, and a true surprise ending.  Interpretation of Murder is a unique read that reflects the author's background.  Rubenfeld is a professor of constitutional law at Yale who wrote his senior thesis at Princeton on Freud.  He also studied Shakespeare at the Julliard School.  (I am wondering if this guy could actually have more impressive and varied credentials!)   All in all, a satisfying page turner.

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