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History of Political Economy 32.4 (2000) 1036-1037
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Keynes: A Critical Life
Keynes: A Critical Life. By David Felix. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1999. xvii; 344 pp. $69.95.
Any new biography of Maynard Keynes must have a special hook. Recently, we have had Donald Moggridge's nuanced treatment of Keynes's life in the policy arena; we have had Robert Skidelsky's extravagant focus on Keynes as a cultural icon; and we have had Charles Hessions's interest in what he termed Keynes's androgyny. Now we have David Felix, whose “critical life” includes several novel interpretations.
Felix's first novelty is Maynard Keynes as abused child. While most biographers have pictured the family influence on Keynes as either positive or benign, Felix finds a child who was struck, slapped, and whipped. According to Felix, Keynes became subject to depression because he was “humiliated” (24–25) by his father and because of “insufficient maternal loving” (24). But this is not just an unhappy boy. “Surely Maynard got a sense of orgasmic action that was more than punishment, surely Neville felt something more pleasurable than the satisfaction of doing his disagreeable duty” (25). But this is not all. His “monster” father also made him undergo a circumcision at age eight. This “castrationlike bloody attack” (28) may have made Keynes see himself as ugly and, together with the whippings, made him into an angry man with deep, suppressed anger. Felix argues that the abuse also explains Keynes's left-leaning desire to redistribute income later in his life (27).
One might think that all of this was a bit tenuous given that Felix can only document four spankings, all between age 2 ½ and 5 ½, but in Felix's Freudian constructionthey were four “life forming” spankings.
But even if your sensibilities carry you through all this, you undoubtedly will be pulled up short by another novelty, Felix's economic analysis. For, unfortunately, Felix has not heeded the critics of his previous book, Biography of an Idea: John Maynard Keynes and the General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1995). That book was a straightforward, but misinformed, critique of Keynes's magnum opus. Thus, for instance, when Keynes qualifies his statement of the consumption function in The General Theory to say that it might be curvilinear, rather than a straight line (i.e., to say that the proportion of savings may change as income increases), Felix takes him to be admitting that the whole concept is mistaken and comments that “his reasoning aborts itself on its own terms” (246). This kind of misunderstanding is endemic to Felix's book and will make it difficult for economists to give him much credence.
Which is not to say that the book is completely without merit. Felix has the genuine virtue of not being overly fond of his subject. Thus, the tendency to hagiography that colors so much of contemporary scholarship on Keynes is completely absent. [End Page 1036] Likewise, Felix has a critical eye for Bloomsbury and lays bare certain aspects of its worldview as ludicrous, rather than laudatory. The Keynesian literature needs more, not less, treatment of Keynes from a critical perspective. But this attempt falls short of what we ultimately need to better balance the picture.
Bradley W. Bateman, Grinnell College
Felix, David. 1995. Biography of an Idea: John Maynard Keynes and the General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.