Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Book Review: The Untouched Key

Title: The Untouched Key (Der Gemiedene Schlüssel)
Author: Alice Miller

Memorial web site: http://www.alice-miller.com
Translators: Hildegarde and Hunter Hannum
Date: 1988 (German), 1991 (English)
Publisher: Suhrkamp Verlag am Main (German), Doubleday Anchor (English)
ISBN: 0-385-26764-9 (English paperback)
Length: 170 pages
Quote: “Whenever I leaf through a biography of a creative person, I find information on the first pages of the book that is especially helpful in my work.”
Alice Miller’s work had, at this stage, grown into a career of tracing possible subconscious links between the hard times in a famous person’s childhood and the painful images in the person’s mature work. In this volume, she looks for emotional “keys” in the work of Picasso, Kollwitz, Buster Keaton, Hitler (briefly), and Nietzsche (at length).
In The Untouched Key Miller is continuing the argument she began to present in The Drama of the Gifted Child, in which she seemed, incorrectly I think, to equate talent with trauma. That talented people had some sort of trauma, drama, or hard times in their childhood would be hard to disprove. That any person had some sort of trauma, drama, or hard times in childhood would be hard to dispute. What is hard to prove is any causal relationship between any particular kind of suffering and any particular talent. Miller apparently thought a belief that such a link exists would be comforting to psychiatric patients, and has worked hard to find points of emotional resonance between childhood traumas and adult work—but finding the emotional resonance does not prove a causal relationship. People who consciously create art often draw on their memories for inspiration, and people who use their talents, such as they are, for destructive purposes are often driven by their unhappiness...but not always. Nor can we find any consistent ratio between the enormity of the child’s sufferings and the success of the adult’s talents: people who spent time in prison camps, as children, are not consistently either more unhappy or more talented than people whose worst childhood memories involve teasing and tummy-aches.
What Miller actually shows, in these five mini-biographies, is that talented children whose loving parents aren’t able to protect them from disasters suffer about as much as talented children whose parents are abusive or neglectful. Nevertheless, she ends the book with another denunciation of child abuse. Since it’s unlikely that readers needed to be convinced that child abuse is a bad thing, the value of The Untouched Key will probably consist of its fun facts about this odd assortment of famous people.
It’s always interesting to learn that Picasso’s fractured images might have been inspired by his having seen streets and buildings fractured by an earthquake, that the years that were “always winter and never Christmas” in Narnia might have emotional roots in the adolescent years when C.S. Lewis was fascinated by winter landscapes, or that the poem “Ariel” probably reflects Sylvia Plath’s adult experience with cocaine (as prescribed by a doctor) more closely than her adolescent experience with horses. It is, however, difficult to compare the emotional qualities of different people’s experiences.
It’s especially difficult to guess the emotional weight of childhood experiences, because children view the world from a different angle than adults. Things that sound horrifying to an adult may be unnoticed by a child,  or seem funny to a child; things that seem trivial to an adult may seem very painful or frightening to a child. A young child is likely to perceive the destruction of the school building as an occasion for jolly holidays, and have screaming nightmares about an amusingly ugly toy.
In view of what we can learn by considering our own and our friends’ childhood memories, it seems particularly difficult to argue, as Miller seems to attempt, that Nietzsche’s relationship with his mother damaged his thinking more severely than the infection that destroyed his brain.  While Miller’s brief consideration of Hitler’s childhood has been accepted by thinkers and scholars, her study of Nietzsche is a weak point in The Untouched Key.
Then there’s a wildly speculative chapter about the biblical character Isaac, which diverges from the biblical narrative almost as far as the Islamic tradition does. (Muslims think the big adventure of Isaac’s childhood really happened to Ishmael...and if the point of the story is that Abraham opposed the custom of sacrificing firstborn sons, it’s not impossible that similar events were staged with the firstborn son of each of Abraham's three marriages.) The Bible story is not about an abusive father. It’s about a man who didn’t become a father until he’d reached the age at which men normally retired and depended on their sons for support, so was particularly reluctant to participate in the tribal custom of sacrificing his firstborn son to ensure the favor of the gods for subsequent sons. Abraham reported that God had called him to take his son out to the place of sacrifice, but when they got there God showed them an animal and directed the father and son to sacrifice the animal in the boy’s place. According to the version of the story Jews and Christians accept, Ishmael, the firstborn son of Abraham and Hagar, was banished from the family just for teasing Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah; if we accept this detail, the implication would be that Ishmael had had a comfortable childhood and Isaac had been positively pampered.
Why did Isaac not resist, when his father built a stone altar and solemnly laid him out on top of it? How many thirteen-year-old boys will allow themselves to be killed by hundred-year-old men? Isaac, why didn’t you run? An interpretation sometimes offered, in view of the stories about Isaac as an adult, is that Isaac just wasn’t very bright and didn’t understand what was going on. An interpretation that makes some sense, in view of the ages recorded in connection with each of the family’s adventures, is that the measurement of age was not actually years, but “seasons,” and Isaac was only six or seven years old. An interpretation that makes better sense, in view of both Abraham’s and Isaac’s reputations as religious leaders, is that Isaac knew his lying on the altar was mere melodrama; the Bible does mention that he had asked about the sacrificial animal, and Abraham had assured him that God would provide one. Isaac may have been a slow deep thinker and a pacifist, but he wouldn’t have been remembered as a Hebrew prophet if he’d been a fool. He had learned to trust his father.
Whether Isaac is better understood as a hapless little child or as a teenaged initiate into a more enlightened religion than the one his other relatives practiced, Miller’s long chapter, “When Isaac Arises from the Sacrificial Altar,” betrays a very eisegetic, idiosyncratic, one might even say careless reading of the story, and The Untouched Key would have been a better book without it. There is a detailed study of a dysfunctional, abusive, finally violently insane father in the Bible. Why Miller not only misread the story of Abraham and Isaac, but also ignored the story of Saul and Jonathan, is a question the editors of The Untouched Key really ought to have asked. People who feel that their parents were inadequate, perhaps due to mental or emotional problems of their own, can learn a great deal from the way Jonathan, and also David, Merab, and Michal, showed honor to the mad king Saul. 
Nevertheless, Miller has studied the primary historical documents about four well-known, recent European celebrities, several of which were not available in English, so The Untouched Key is a valuable source of biographical material so far as Picasso, Kollwitz, and Hitler are concerned...does this review need to include samples of information about them, or have my objections to Miller's views of Nietzsche and Isaac made this review long enough?

At the time when this review was written, The Untouched Key would have been a Fair Trade Book, but now that it's being uploaded I see that Miller no longer has any use for a dollar. To buy a copy here, send salolianigodagewi @ yahoo.com $5 for the book + $5 per package for shipping. Actually, if you're not buying a Fair Trade Book and tucking this one into the package, feel free to buy a copy of The Untouched Key cheaper from some other web site.