False Self: The Life of Masud Khan (Book Review)

Author:  Hopkins, Linda
Publisher:  Other Press
Reviewed By:  Doug Davis, Winter 2008 (Volume XXVIII, No.1), pp. 29-33 

Citizen Khan

June 7, 1989. The old man is losing strength, his tortured speech a mere whisper. He utters a last sound, scarcely more than a sigh, something with "r-bud" or w-rda-" in it. The scene zooms slowly out and dims, as our POV drifts away from the sprawled body of Mohammed Masud Reza Khan: psychoanalyst, theoretician, socialite, seducer, poser, addict, depressive. We puzzle about the sound: a name, a fragment of a song or poem, a place, a position?

My made up scene, of course, quotes one of the most famous moments in cinema, from the opening of “Citizen Kane” (1941), in which the dying newspaper magnate utters the word that frames the drama of his life, in a little boy's tragic separation from the mother and the sled with the painted rosebud, the infantile part-object so long forgotten, called-for at the end. For knowing about that long-lost Rosebud, we think differently about the brilliant and tragic career of Charles Foster Kane, tortured self-made man, so great a manipulator and so unlucky in love.

We might imagine an Eastern rosebud for which the dying prince of psychoanalysis longs, the "warda" of Urdu and Farsi and Arabic song, she whose very being represents romance and sensuality. "Warda," whispers the dying Khan, as he tries for the last time to hear in his head the bit of Urdu love poetry his Mama taught him, before he lost her, as he was to lose all those he loved at crucial moments in his life. Perhaps our subject left in the Punjab an equally evocative image of a plaything or a bedtime song with which he was placated by his young, seductive, elusive young singer/dancer mother Kursheed when he was teased by the other children for his misshapen ear or his dubious relationship to the old man, Khan Bahadur Fazaldad Khan. Since the film of Masud Khan's life has not yet been made, however let's settle for what we do know, thanks to Linda Hopkins's fine biography.

Suddenly it's October, 1946, and a 22-year-old, aristocratic, handsome, brown-skinned man makes his way by rented chauffeured car through the crowded London streets. He steps carefully from the vehicle, swirling his perfectly tailored coat about him as he steps into the theater lobby, acknowledges the obsequious greeting of the ticket-taker he tips liberally every night, and finds his way once again to that seat in the center section from which he will await the appearance of old King Lear played by a young actor of chameleon emotion, Laurence Olivier. Young Masud Khan saw Olivier’s Lear 27 times in his first weeks in London and, like so much else, he failed to reveal clearly why.

In False Self: The Life of Masud Khan we read a triumphant and tragic story against the London Centre of late 20th century psychoanalysis. The small tempest of post-war British neo-Freudianism into which the naïve and promising young Indian gentleman fell that autumn in 1946 is long past. The Melanie Klein-Anna Freud wars, the new path represented by Winnicott and his colleagues, have now fallen into history, and it is into this history that Linda Hopkins’ biography topples us.

Masud Khan was clearly the most seductive of men, in the context in which he found himself: neo-Freudian London in the late 40s. He had early learned to please men and women with power, and he had learned to do it by the agile application of his fine intelligence and wide-ranging interests. He was an intriguing mixture of Orient and Oxford, and how he must've brightened the gray post-war lives of the analysts! He was passed around like a treasure, and he came to rest with one of the heroes: D.W. Winnicott. Winnicott was famous for untangling the puzzles of early childhood, but in this case (Winnicott’s clinical notes are still closed to scholars) it's unclear whether anything about his relationship with Masud Khan was "therapeutic" in the usual sense, and whether his clinical ministrations were curative or abetting for the disturbed young oriental gentleman.

Only a biographer who is a clinically informed expert on the neo-Freudian psychoanalysis of London in the post-World War II period could have plausibly undertaken such a project, and it has taken more than a decade of hard work to bring this project to successful conclusion. As a psychoanalytically-trained clinical psychologist and teacher, Linda Hopkins brings unique authority to this enterprise. She has produced a fully annotated and remarkably balanced account that will be an essential resource if a new generation is to comprehend the fascination Masud Khan excited in would-be mentors, friends, rivals, and patients during his 40 year British career.

The new "data" brought to scholars interested in Khan by Hopkins' biography is impressive indeed. She has interviewed a great many of Khan's friends, lovers, patients, and colleagues, and she has evoked frank and interesting reminiscences from them. She has also had access to the unpublished Khan Work Books, in which he recorded his experiences and spun his fantasies. While providing this intriguing, perplexing, dismaying information, Hopkins offers astute suggestions about how we might fit the pieces of Khan's life together, but hers is a gentle and open interpretive style. We are left to work toward our own conclusions. This seems, in short, the right biography for Masud Khan now, and perhaps the best we shall ever have. Because Linda Hopkins has been so careful in laying out the various ways one might understand both Khan's blessings and his humiliations (a working title of this biography), and because she has so scrupulously pointed us to the many Khan notebooks, archives of correspondents, and reminiscences of friends, it is possible to imagine a new academic micro-industry of Khan narratology as the rest of us try wild analysis in hopes of glimpsing the facets of Masud Khan lost to history.

Previously, Masud Khan has been known by his own many published works and by occasional glimpses of the misalliances of his personal and professional life. For many, it is Khan’s case histories that fascinate and seduce, even as we wonder where clinical truth becomes interpretive fiction. Khan's best clinical writing has a crisp intelligence, an attention to detail, a credibility (or credulity-inspiring quality) as an account of how someone else's ego is making its way through a drama as subtle and well-crafted as good fiction. He makes many of his mid-career patients real to us, and we slip both into their and his points of view as the tale unfolds. It's for this kind of thinking many of us academics came to clinical and qualitative psychology.

The Evil Contest

I want to illustrate the fascination of Khan’s writing at its best with an example from the increasingly troubled 1970s, as Khan was taking risks and raising eyebrows. Hopkins’ chapter on Khan’s brief and highly unorthodox "trial analysis" in late 1978 while he was a guest of Robert and Sybil Stoller offers a fascinating glimpse of the themes that might've guided a real therapeutic intervention: Khan’s "disillusionment with old men" (Hopkins, 2006, p. 314), his articulation of "exactly how one man fails, in spite of his personality and knowledge, to coordinate and harness affectivity into a relationship that he needs and dreads" (Hopkins, 2006, p. 319). It was informative to reread my own favorite Masud Khan case against the rich context provided by the biography.

I read "The Evil Contest" in a book I reviewed for Choice 25 years ago. As I recalled the case in thinking about this review, Khan writes that a man in early middle age, quiet and impeccably dressed, with a badly deformed right hand, sets up an appointment with him and begins the first consultation by saying "I am an evil man, and there is no cure for that." Then, against apparently great odds, Khan persuades the man to reenter a childhood in which a bicycle accident maimed his hand and set the stage for lustful pubescent fantasies about sisters and servant girls and classmates, centered on a fantasy of spanking a girl’s behind as she rides by on a bicycle. Somehow, Khan makes us understand, the pain and shame and depression produced by the boy’s long recuperation got sublimated into a successful career as a master wood-worker. The fantasies and compulsions of boyhood are well-subdued until, at a trade show, he meets a young woman reporter who is fascinated by his work and persuades him to show her his workshop, where she notices a beautiful wooden bicycle, and as if she senses its erotic importance for the artist, gets into a bantering conversation about its possible uses that leads to a sadomasochistic revel, from which our patient emerges shattered, depressed, unwilling to eat or to talk about what’s troubling him.

I assumed that the patient Masud Khan calls "Mr. X." was treated in the 1970s, and that the case was written up at the end of that decade. There are no Khan papers later than 1974 cited in the case history. This is the section of Kahn's life that Linda Hopkins titles "And Worse I May Be Yet." If this is an example of Masud Khan's mature therapeutic technique, it is impressive. Khan appears to have had a fine sense of his patient's readiness to divulge and engage key pieces of his secret life, and these are adduced in the analysis in a way that makes them convincing. The complexity of the personality/ego of the patient is readily apparent, and it was this complexity as much as the racy content (sadomasochism, guilt and shame, midlife crisis, complex etiology) that fascinated me when I read the case in the early 1980s.

This was one of the most fascinating case histories I had ever read, and I note from my diary that I was moved to make it the basis for one option in the take-home written examination for my Psychology 215, Culture and Personality, course, back in 1985. Here are the questions I posed for my students (and myself):

  • Consider the appended case history [Khan, 1984], and prepare a six to eight page paper discussing the following points and any others you consider equally important:

    • In what sense might the man who is the subject [or is he the object?] of the story be considered "evil," rather than merely neurotic?

    • How did he get to be that way (be as psychodynamic as you can)? {e.g., what role do the "girlie bikes" play? Is that an active or a passive role (cf. Rapaport)?}

    • What is the role of the young woman? Would he have had a depressive crisis had he not met her?

    • How did she get to be that way (this would be an appropriate time to start reading Chodorow, or at least to finish Erikson)?

As you can see, one working academic found Khan's ideas quite easy to integrate into the important issues in personality psychology 20 years ago: neo-Freudian ego psychology applied to lifespan development and gender. These were the fine years of Chodorow and Gilligan, and courses in "The Psychology of Women," and the sudden awareness that academe had opened itself to women's concerns, and to women themselves in the professoriate, even as postmodernism was getting us to re-read Freud on (counter)transference. There were, at the edge of psychoanalysis, a number of brilliant people telling us that this attempt to reconsider Freud for the postwar generation would force us to understand differently our ideas about the erotic: Susan Sontag, Jacques Lacan, Carol Gilligan, Jessica Benjamin. A little of The Tragic History of Masud Khan might frame a discussion of each of these.

So, get yourself a copy of Masud Khan, the biography, and let interlibrary loan find you a copy of The Privacy of the Self (Khan, 1974) or Hidden Selves (Khan, 1983), and read a couple of the "cases" (I am reluctant to call them case histories, since we are now skeptical about the possibility of "history," and since Khan was not the most literal of narrators) and ask yourself questions like the ones above. Then, if you want to see what the dying man left behind as he entered that last "Rosebud" moment, browse The Long Wait (1989), the final, crazy, text that ended Khan’s career. There are lessons here that take us well beyond psychoanalysis or therapy, and you'll be grateful to Linda Hopkins for having helped you along this path.

Masud Khan was both poser extraordinaire and a clinical writer of real brilliance. By the time Khan has terminated his practice, as documented in the tortured last book, The Long Wait, he's let us overhear all the nasty things that go through his mind as he's trying—with one lung, recurrent depression, and full-blown alcoholism at his elbow—to “treat” his dismaying and despised Jewish, homosexual, uncouth, disrespectful clients. There’s madness here, more than mere countertransferential anger, and it’s long past hope of supervision. Khan should have been long out of the business by this time, and he should have been much better trained and mentored throughout his career. What lay behind Khan’s many deceptive personae, and why he was, finally, so little helped by long association with some of the most brilliant therapists in the West, are questions we might now hope to address. It is the genius of this biography to let us see both the method and the madness clearly, and thus to re-engage rather than shun the strange case of Citizen Khan. It’s a case that clearly merits further study, and thanks to Linda Hopkins's 13 years of work, we have most of the information we need to undertake such study.

Terminal Questions

Masud Khan's many and vivid characterizations of his early childhood are wildly contradictory and implausible on the face of them. His mother was a teenage dancer (and whore?) whom his aged father brought into a crowded family where her arrival was controversial, banishing her illegitimate son (whom she visited regularly during Masud's childhood), and ignoring for four years then “recognizing” little Ibrahim (Khan’s birth name) at the age of four, renaming him Mohammed Masud and treating him (at least on Khan's account) as Little Prince. It seems fair to assume that, as one of Linda Hopkins's Pakistani informants told her, little Masud was "taunted" in the family because of his mother. In fact, I'll bet anyone who had served in such a household during that period could produce vivid accounts of the teasing and shaming atmosphere. What did little Masud Khan carry away with him of being the magic offspring of an aging country lord and a dancing girl? What fantasies about his parents and himself shaped his early experiences of English, Persian, and Urdu? How were these first self-stories shaped by the pleasures, longings, and embarrassments of his unusual childhood?
Surely young Masud Khan was not un-analyzable when he arrived in London. Had he encountered someone who (perhaps through having served long in the British colonial administration and become familiar with the grand families of India) knew what to look for in the self presentations of this precocious and half-Westernized child of a houri and a babu. Were Masud Khan to appear for therapy in London now, presumably he would easily find himself in discourse with another Pakistani-Brit, and some of the "white" therapists he might see would know a good deal about South Asian families and the young men they produced. But this was 60 years ago, just after the war—a war by which Masud Khan claimed himself largely untouched, in his princely Pakistani youth. How gray and tasteless everything seemed! But how satisfying to be able so easily to charm and impress these British shrinks, and then the most colorful of their patients and hangers-on.

What if Masud Khan had stayed longer in Pakistan and retained into adolescence a fascination with the Mogul Indian culture from which he sprang, mastering the rough dialect in which the women and children of this large family would have whispered and giggled among themselves, and moving on to fascination, say, with the ghazal poetry of the Punjab and with miniature paintings? And what shall we make of the troubled young man who comes to England to find an analyst who “must be English, well-bred, sensitive, kind, very patient and firm and well-read in literature”? In 1946 the 22-year-old Masud Khan was a young man already taken with imagining himself as an old, tragic, self-destroyed man (Lear), losing and being lost by the young woman—his daughter—who truly loves him. Could things have gone differently for Masud? What if he’d a different analyst, a different mentor, different friends? What if he had made his way to Oxford and done Modern Greats, becoming a gifted university lecturer and a fair writer of essays about Joyce, and having a carefully conducted grown up psychoanalysis on the side? What if he'd met a woman—or a man—while he was a student with whom he could have had an intense, average, love on the basis of which to become an adult? What if he’d told us himself what it was about Shakespear/Lear/Cordelia/Olivier that kept him coming back to the London stage that first autumn in 1946? So many questions left, so many puzzles.

At the end of Linda Hopkins's fine biography of Masud Khan there's still a lot we don't know about the man. It's what his psychoanalytic mentors, his therapist colleagues, his friends among the stars of stage and screen, his fascinating and peculiar clients, his rivals, his attentive readers didn't know. Where Khan came from and what were the dynamics of his early childhood and how did he experience love and loss, these are matters unresolved by the countless conversations all these people must have had about the fascinating Mr. Khan. "False Self" is indeed the right title for this book. ‘Tis the season of false selves. What a movie this would make!

References

Anthony, E.J. (1982). The comparable experience of a child and adult analyst. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 37: 339-366.
Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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Freud, A. (197l). The writings of Anna Freud: Problems of psychoanalytic training, and the technique of therapy. New York: International Universities Press.
Newman, C., Dember, C., & Krug, O. (1973). “He can but he won’t”: A psychodynamic study of so-called “gifted underachievers.” Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 28: 83-l29.
Piaget, J. (1964). The moral development of the child. New York: Free Press.
White, R.W. (1963). Ego and reality in psychoanalytic theory: A proposal regarding independent ego energies. Psychological Issues, 3: l-2l0.
Zelan, K. (1985). Thoughts on what children bring to reading. Prospects, XV, 49-56.
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Reviewer Note

Karen Zelan has written extensively on the psychology of children’s learning. She is the author of Between Their World and Ours:Breakthroughs with Autistic Children.

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