Book Review: Frank Lloyd Wright


Last summer I managed to read a number of novels I had wanted to read for some time (Frankenstein, Pompey the Little, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, Dracula) but amid of these various titles I also read Meryle Secrest’s eponymous biography of Frank Lloyd Wright. If I had chosen to read Wright’s autobiography, my summer reading would have consisted entirely of fiction.

Secrest’s book read like any other biography and excel in all the qualities we come to expect from good biographies: it’s thorough, insightful, and unafraid to present the reader with an unflattering portrait of the subject. To be fair, Wright’s poorer characteristics were never a secret and, much in the style of Quentin Crisp’s self-evident queerness, Wright set out early in life to make his greatness abundantly clear to the world. Even when he was a mere draftsman, he lied to prospective employers about other job offers, giving them the impression that he was in great demand, and managed to secure himself higher salaries because of it.

As an architect, he was notoriously difficult to work with and frequently underestimated the total cost of his projects, much to the dismay of his many frustrated clients. Nevertheless, he appears to lulled many of his clients’ worries with his charismatic personality and convinced the, to give him more money. However, this didn’t always work. His first concrete block house, the Millard house in Pasadena, CA, went well over budget and nothing Wright could say would convince his client to fund the project to completion. In the end, Wright had to finance it himself. Critics did not care much for the house but Wright was utterly pleased with himself, and today the house is much admired.

A lot is said about the power of his personality and he was indeed quite forceful but I suspect that many of his clients, though they admired his architecture very much, simply put up with his temper and egotism. After all, a complete house is better than an incomplete one. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop Aline Barnsdall, a wealthy oil heiress, from hiring to build her two home. Only the first of these properties, the Hollyhock house in Los Angeles, CA, still stands and is now a part of an art school designed in a fashion reflecting the aesthetic of Hollyhock. Barnsdale was unlike Wright’s other clients and did not easily submit to his decisions. Wright frequently became frustrated with her requirements because she would tell him she wanted a room to feel green but wouldn’t want the room to actually be green. The house was successfully built but Barnsdall did not live in it for very long until she gave it to the city.

Being Wright’s friend was just as frustrating as being his client but in some cases more devastating. Darwin D. Martin was a client and longstanding friend of Wrights. Throughout the course of their friendship, Martin loaned him substantial amounts of money to help fund Wright various project, very little of which was ever repaid to him; despite this and warnings from his family and friends, Martin continued to give him money until he had exhausted much of his life savings. Martin was spared during the 1929 market crash, losing everything overnight, and did not have any savings to depend on.

Not all of his relationships were as tragic but they were generally tumultuous. I was struck by just how dependent he was, throughout much of his life, on other people–his wives, children, and the various architects who worked for him at his Taliesin residences. From his own testimony, we are given the impression he was utterly independent but in actuality he benefit greatly from technical support and much of his success later in life was due to the tireless effort of his family and the Taliesin architects.

Few people today would doubt his talent, despite the various engineerings flaws that have plagued his more inventive designs. He was a deeply flawed man in numerous ways but he never gave up on his goals. Despite many serious setbacks, he never gave up in despair and managed to cement his legacy in American architecture over a nearly 70 year career. His work and influence have been and continue to be extensive. As much as I admire his work, from reading about him I am left with the realisation that I would have found his personality just as infuriating as his many clients did. From my own distance perspective, I can look back at his life and laugh at the excessives of his behavior, but only because I never had to know the man himself.

I would highly recommend Secrest’s book to anyone interested in Wright’s life or architecture. Though it covers the same territory as Ken Burns’ documentary, it goes well beyond it and is less sycophantic. My only complaint about the book are the uneven pages on the hardcover editions. Publishers only do it for some esoterically aesthetic purpose. In the case of this particular biography, this rather functionless decoration seems rather appropriate but frustrating all the same.

Book/Movie Review: A (Most) Dangerous Method

41h3GLZ1EHL._SX940_When I first saw the trailer for A Dangerous Method, I was both excited and worried. I was excited because I had read about the professional relationship between Freud and Jung in The Denial of Death and was thrilled to see it portrayed dramatically. However, I was worried because the trailer gave me the impression that the plot would focus overwhelmingly on the sexual relationship between Jung and Spielrein. As it happens to be, the film focuses on the relationship, both professional and romantic, between Freud, Jung, and Spielrein and how each contributed to the development of psychoanalytic theory.

I saw the film for the first time in a small theater in Los Angeles. Whenever I tell people about the film, my husband reminds me that I was as giddy as a child on Christmas morning when I saw Freud experience his first fainting spell. Though I am far from a Freudian or a Jungian, it nevertheless was a great moment for me as a student of psychology to see this on the silver screen.

Actually, I may have enjoyed the film a little too much. Not long after viewing it, I had an erotic dream in which I merged my husband, Freud, and Viggo Mortensen into one. Also, I was physically female. Moments like these make me glad dream analysis is no longer a primary mode of psychotherapeutic inquiry.

Anyway, I digress.

AMDMSeeing the film inspired me to learn more about the film and what went into its making. A Dangerous Method was based on a stage play of the same name, which was based on an history by John Kerr called A Most Dangerous Method. (The title comes from a letter penned by William James, wherein he described psychoanalysis as a “most dangerous method.”) When I watch historical films, I frequently wonder how accurate they are and how much was creatively filled in. While the film and play leave many details out, it captures the essence of the book very well. Aspects of the sexual relationship between Jung and Spielrein were filled in. Existing letters don’t make any explicit reference to sexual intimacy but the content clearly suggest that their relationship was romantic and likely sexual. Whether they ever engaged in BDSM is not known and probably a dramatic interpretation of their relationship and its relevance to the life and death instinct theory.

Some have questioned the manner in which Jung’s personality was characterised, as shy and rather prudish, Kerr’s history is fairly consistent with the film in this respect–even down to Jung rather greedy consumption of food at Freud’s family home. This does not mean that it is entirely fair or accurate but, unfortunately, my knowledge of Jung begins and ends with Kerr’s work.

The book is considerably more detailed than the film and is roughly 512 pages long. Kerr’s narrative follows not only the careers of Spielrein, Jung, and Freud but the development of psychoanalytic theory within the psychological community at the time. Kerr paints a vivid portrait of the early twentieth century, a time at which psychologists were beginning to abandon nineteenth century materialism for a psychology informed by more subjective concerns. The “talking cure,” the forerunner to what is now known simply as psychotherapy, emerged as a solution to an ever growing awareness that the aggressive curative techniques of the previous century weren’t working as well as they were supposed to. People may malign Freud and psychoanalysis now but it was an important step towards contemporary theories and techniques. It was the first time psychiatrists used conversation as a curative method. Prior to this, psychiatrists would talk to their clients primarily as a means of understanding the symptoms and for giving directions.

Kerr’s book also does something else. It verifies the important role Spielrein played in shaping the life and death instinct. At the time, women weren’t easily welcomed into the sciences and those who were have been largely forgotten. Spielrein might have been entirely forgotten if it had not been for the the discovery of her private correspondence in the 1970’s and now, with the help of historians like Kerr, we can confirm her place in the history of psychology.

A (Most) Dangerous Method is both an excellent film and book. For those who are not familiar with psychoanalytic theory, Kerr’s book might be difficult to follow, He goes into detail regarding how psychoanalytic theory developed in its early years and this could be daunting to some. In addition, the details he includes about the state of psychiatry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries might come off dull but I found these details both interesting and highly rewarding overall. It is a relatively long book but one that pays the reader back in the end. For those who are not keen on reading detailed histories, I would highly recommend the film as an alternative. Otherwise, I would highly recommend both.

Book Review: The Castle of Otranto and The Old English Baron

The front cover of a hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1964.

The front cover of a hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1964.

Horace Walpole The Castle of Otranto and Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron are both seminal works in the history of the gothic novel but while they approach the same subjects (even in regards to plot) they diverge in interesting ways.

Walpole’s novel has fared better in the public memory than Reeve’s, though it reputations is primarily based on it being the first gothic novel. Nevertheless, both address the problems of social justice and virtue; both evoke the imagination through supernatural terror and suspense. However, how they portrayed and dealt with the supernatural elements are very different and perfectly represent a problem that was, in the 18th century, known as “probability.”

Eighteenth century authors were concerned with the notion of probability and whether or not the depiction of the supernatural could be seen as more likely than another. In other words, if ghost truly did exist, some depictions were considered to be more realistic and therefore more probable.

Walpole was deliberately fanciful in The Castle Otranto and accepted the melodramatic qualities of his story as he accepted the equally melodramatic conventions of opera and ballet. Reeve wanted to portray ghosts more realistically and restrained her ghosts considerably, to the point of making them seem rather dull  and too proper to many readers.

The front cover of a hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1967.

The front cover of a hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1967.

The notion of a probable ghost is rather difficult to define and I tend to believe that neither attempt is necessarily more probable than the other. After all, we have no model to judge it against other than fictional portrayals, which are primarily and appropriately poetic, and the personal testimonies we hear on the many ghost hunting programs on television today, which are sincere but rather mundane in contrast. If we want to be as realistic and probable as possible, we would be forced to rely on the latter model. The result would likely resemble the Paranormal Activity films. While films like these more closely approximate alleged encounters with ghosts and other supernatural entities, they lack the poetic elements that give stories of the supernatural element their dramatic power.

Overall, I personally found The Castle of Otranto more entertaining than The Old English Baron. Of course, neither of these evoke the same kind of tension and suspense as Radcliffes achieved so well in The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italien. Dialogue tends to run line after line, instead of being indented into new paragraphs, which I found to be rather tedious on the eyes. Nevertheless, I found both book interesting in their own ways and will provide any reader invested in the history of the gothic in literature some knowledge regarding its development.