Brain Pickings

The Interpretation of Leonard Bernstein’s Dreams

by

Freud, Jung, sexual identity, and the creative process.

A friend — a rather rational and highly intelligent friend — recently shared with equal parts self-consciousness and delight that she had had her chart, as in astrological chart, done. (Done, no less, by a Buddhist-monk-turned-startup-entrepreneur who also happens to be a hobbyist astrologer — one of those details that captures our era’s peculiarity so poetically.) The incident stood out as a particularly poignant embodiment of the curious allure mysticism and pseudoscience hold for even the most intelligent among us — perhaps a testament to our restlessness and longing to resolve the burden of life’s ambiguities, however essential those might be to creativity, with concrete directives and tangible answers.

In fact, a number of history’s most celebrated minds succumbed to this very human tendency: George Eliot had her head cast taken by a leading phrenologist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fancied himself a psychic, and Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin spent a good portion of their lengthy love affair bonding over their shared obsession with astrology. But hardly any luminary demonstrates the deeper psychological needs people seek to address through such mystical pursuits than legendary composer Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990), who was intensely interested in the interpretation of his dreams, believing they held the answers to his deepest and most conflicted questions.

In the early 1940s, plagued by anxieties over his career and in a state of confusion over his sexual identity as he found himself falling in love with men at a time when homosexuality was classified as a mental illness and regarded as an offense as unamerican as communism, Bernstein started seeing a psychoanalyst named Marketa Morris, whom he nicknamed “The Frau.” A few years later, he turned to the Jungian psychoanalyst Renée Nell, who studied with Carl Jung himself, hoping the interpretation of his dreams would put his waking restlessness at peace. Bernstein’s correspondence with the two women is revealed in the magnificent and long-awaited anthology The Leonard Bernstein Letters (public library), for which editor Nigel Simeone painstakingly trawled through 10,000 letters to cull the 650 epistolary treasures included in the book.

Leonard Bernstein with Aaron Copland in Bernardsville, NJ

In June of 1942, Bernstein writes to Aaron Copland — by then one of the most popular voices in American classical music and young Bernstein’s greatest love — about his sessions with Marketa Morris and the opposing forces of his reluctant desire to “fix” his homosexuality and his irrepressible love for Copland:

The Frau-sessions have borne some fruit. Little green fruit, of course, but fruit. The main thing being that I can’t kid myself any more. Kid myself, that is, into thinking that I have a closeness with someone when it is all really wishful thinking, or induced, or imagined, or escape from being alone with myself, etc. And so, one by one, all the old relationships tend to fall away; and I find that I’m not at all interested in seeing anybody — really — whereas I used to run and see anybody at the drop of a hat. This all makes the trouble harder, of course; since I still hate being alone, and yet don’t want anyone in particular. And that’s where you come in; cause you’re the only one that persists and persists, come hell or high water. And I love you and miss you as much as I did the first month I knew you, and always will. Believe that, Earth-Scorcher, it’s so real. And then this wish for closeness always manifests itself in a sexual desire, the more promiscuous the better — giving rise to experiences like being taken (by Pfb [Bowles], of course) to a Bain Turc (or is it Turque?) and seeking out the 8th Street bars again. But I’m not attracted any more to any one I find there, and it’s just as horrible as if I hadn’t gone at all. One of those unpleasant stages forward.

In the 1930s and 1940s, many psychoanalysts believed that homosexuality was a disorder that could be “cured” with proper “treatment.” In this 1947 letter, “the Frau” responds to a dream Bernstein had sent her and touches on the subject, while reminding Bernstein of the vital difference between productivity and presence in one’s life and creative process:

Lenny,

I got your dream letter. You know that it is quite impossible to give a written interpretation to a dream — and more so a dream without interpretation.

Why am I living in Brooklyn?

Jimmy’s Restaurant in Greenwich Village

Why another cab to go to Brooklyn? What’s about 289?

It’s getting dark at four o’clock in the afternoon?

Switches putting on lights upstairs and not downstairs? What’s the difference between up and downstairs in this beautiful, big, expensive house?

What about the two girls blocking the exit from behind your desk?

Write me if you feel like — besides the dreams! For instance why cannot you relax and just simply not compose? Remember, you had the idea that adjustment to homosexuality could facilitate heterosexuality! Couldn’t adjustment to relaxation constitute a capacity of creative work? Of course not pretending to relax only.

Bernstein also had his personality “read” by the noted harpsichordist and pianist Rosalyn Tureck who, like our Buddhist-entrepreneur friend, had a side-interest in astrology. While she presents it with the necessary grain of salt, she does make a special note of the g-word:

Dear Leonard,

At long last, here is your “personality analysis”. I cannot take these things seriously but they are wonderful fun especially since the person who did it does not know to whom the doodling belongs.

According to the analysis it looks as tho you must face the fact that you definitely fit into the genius category…

She then encloses Bernstein’s full personality profile, which makes it hard not to project onto these vague generalities the concrete biographical particularities of the composer’s life, such as the intertwining of his professional admirations and his love interests, his identity confusion, and his musical genius — the same trick that to this day keeps horoscopes in business:

This person’s character shows a peculiar and great singleness of purpose. The sex development is practically nil and the personality which might have started to assert itself at one stage in the man’s development has become completely absorbed by career.

The career is complex. Its division is almost geometric and the line of demarcation, very clear. For each phase of the career, there is a well thought-out and deliberate development. The dark areas indicate the creative and the white areas the mechanical. The mechanical seems to dominate the subject and he is more curious about the development of it at this stage than he is about his creative development. There is one point about the career, which seems to come early in the middle life, which indicates the great peak of success. The subject will have attained a very happy balance of creation and mechanics.

The sex symbol is interesting in that the line — the only line connecting it and the rest of the personality chart — extends right to the career symbol. This indicates that the subject’s development is completely concentrated in his career. His personality symbol shows the same direction. There is no embellishment, no additions to it, there is no sign that any development of self has been accomplished. The sign connecting it with the career is merely two extensions from the sex symbol.

It is interesting to note that, in spite of the fact that the sex symbol is not developed as a physical unit, it is present and the aesthetic aspects of it will be found in this man’s career creations later in life.

This man may not be a good mathematician, but he has an excellently organized mind. It is well disciplined as demonstrated by the complete lack of extraneous matter. It is also the mind of a purist.

This man has great ego-maniacal tendencies and will often go to bizarre ends to gain a point. By nature though, he is retiring and socially shy. His great ego, however, serves as a shield against society.

A fruitful creative life is indicated, but an extremely lonely social life will be his lot.

Leonard Bernstein seated at the piano, making annotations to musical score (Photograph by Al Ravenna courtesy of The Library of Congress)

In July of 1947, a few months after the composer announced his engagement to the Costa Rican actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre, Marketa Morris revisits the question of Bernstein’s conflicted sexual identity, still raging in his dreams:

Lenny,

Your letter stirred up lots of problems.

To go into them adequately would require an elaborate paper — and that does not agree with my vacations. I try a compromise. I have to be honest in the first place. Honest and short means usually: it hurts! I have to rely on your perspicacity and your English to translate my thoughts into a good, nice, considerate English. Will you?

[…]

Of course there is a chance that we may come to some essential clarification. No way to deny it. It’s fifty fifty — and you have to know it.

In your dreams there is confusion, you are not able to go where you have to go: two simultaneous engagements or dates and so on. You are seeing Felicia and the day she leaves you have to see a boy.

The same old pattern. You can’t give up. Very eager to resume analysis but the queer fish resistance is as big a fish as your drive to get well.

[…]

Remember that you wanted to challenge people and find out whether they would still love you. … Lenny, I hope very much that you understand what I really want to convey to you! Do you?

Bernstein did — at least for a time. His engagement with Felicia was broken off in September, but they eventually married four years later, in September of 1951. Felicia wrote Leonard shortly after they married, “You are a homosexual and may never change […] I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.” And yet, as the plethora of his letters to Felicia reveal, Bernstein really did love her profoundly — a testament to our irreconcilable, coexisting inner contradictions.

Leonard Bernstein with Felicia Bernstein and their children

But perhaps most poignant and insightful in addressing Bernstein’s dreams and his psychological tumults is this 1949 letter from Renée Nell, who relays the era’s theory of what happens while you sleep — more than half a century before modern science shed new light on the mystery — and in the process addresses the rivalry between Freud and Jung:

Dear Lenny,

Thank you for your nice letter and poem to which I have this to answer: “When the real animus and the real anima web, you can get married and take your wife to bed.”

Some short remarks on your dream: when you are unconscious (“taking a nap, sleeping”), you find that your rather undifferentiated feeling is playing tricks on you, bringing people into your psychology whom you do not want to have in there. Rather than finding out what these people really want from you, or why they were invited, you get angry at that side of yourself who played the trick on you. You get in touch with that side by hurting it, then you regret. You would know more if you would try to make her understand why you don’t want these people anymore. Then, when you do get away from the unwanted collective, you get into an even less desirable one, a very pedestrian collective (street). Being alone now, without anything but yourself, you are eager to make contact with some other side, contact in the usual average pedestrian way — sex — which is the substitute for human relationship. When you find that that is impossible you are caught in some very dull, past aspect of your own bourgeois-side. That shows very nicely why you are so eagerly seeking homosexual contact in reality, it seems the way out or the escape from the fear of being caught in bourgeois patterns, and seems to symbolize the free and non-bourgeois life. They talk about your work in the dream; your fear always seems to be that being a conductor and being set in a profession is the same as being dully married and leading a middle-class life. I am sure it could be that way, but must not be that way, and will stop to look to you that way the moment you get some real color into your life; then you can give up to the so-called “colorful life” you are leading.

Freud’s definition: Id — subconscious; Ego — conscious; Super-Ego — conscience. Ego is the whole of consciousness. Jung: has the same concept of the Ego, he terms it the center of consciousness, the difference between F[reud] and J[ung] is in the way [the] use and function of the Ego are seen. With F. it is the censor and adaptor to reality. With J. it is understood as the channel for the forces that want to flow from the inside to the outside, and vice versa, it has a consciously screening function and serves the forces of the Self or the unconscious. With F. it is supposed to master them. To F. the Ego is the human being as such, therefore it has a very high value; to J. it is an aspect of the human, subordinated to the Self, which means the unspoiled essence of the human being. The Self is to J. the highest value in a human being. I hope that does not confuse you more.

I wonder if you have enough contact with my way of analysis yet that the long distance dream-interpretation means anything to you. Generally it is difficult to get anything out of such answers in such an early stage of work; later when one is more attuned to each other it is easier. Let me know. I hope you have a fairly good time, not too many tensions.

Kindly, Renée

Bernstein soon dropped out of his sessions with Nell, but his subconscious summoned her in a dream he describes to his sister Shirley in April of the following year, noting how Nell helped shepherd his disjointed unease into a more unified direction of living:

Last night I dreamed at length that I had found her and solved our problems together. It was a hard dream, but full of richness. And, on awakening, I was desolate at the thousands of miles that still lay between us, and the grayness of doubt and not-knowing. My day-dreams are of her flying to Israel, and our being married in Jerusalem. Renée, of course, would be the uninvited fairy who would pronounce the curse. Strangely, though, I think she’d be delighted. I was not at all surprised at your news of Renée: I had always seen these things, but had always diminished their importance in the light of her values and of my affection for her. Of course, I have no intention of returning to her, or, I hope, to anyone, if I can begin really to live my life (as I can now) and not only live on the circumference of it. And, willy-nilly, Renée has helped to that point — a point where my world changes from one of abstractions and public-hungry performance to one of reality, a world of creativity, of Montealegre-Cohn, of Spanish & French and travel and rest and love and warmth and intimacy.

Leonard Bernstein conducting

Complement The Leonard Bernstein Letters, which peels away at layers upon layers of the beloved composer’s complex psychological constitution, with Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections and the science of dreams and why we have nightmares.

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