It occurred to me to wonder the other day what Sigmund Freud would have thought of the Richard and Judy book club. It’s the UK’s equivalent of Oprah’s book club, and whilst it must shift a lot of copies of its chosen and highly publicised titles, it also highlights some of the worst traits in the book-buying public: it appeals to people who need some form of celebrity endorsement before risking their time on a work of fiction, and it stands in the way of other book buyers enjoying harmless novels because the involvement of Richard and Judy is anathema to them. I don’t quite know what to make of it, but there must be all kinds of tricky psychology at work. However, as proof that you should never judge a book by the sticker on its cover, I read Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder, a novel that cleverly combines the historical fact of Freud’s trip to America in 1909 and a murder mystery, and found it was an excellent read. Intelligent and gripping with an evocative historical setting, it brilliantly explores the early days of psychoanalysis and even manages to insert a rehash of Freud’s famous ‘Dora’ case into the chase to find a serial killer (well, sort of) with laudable dexterity.
It also stages the battle between Freudian psychoanalysis and neuroscience in a way that I found most intriguing. It is, of course, wonderfully easy to be prescient in a book set a century ago, but even so, I particularly enjoyed this speech by one of Freud’s medical rivals: ‘The problem is this: our knowledge of the human brain is incomplete. We don’t have medicines to change the way people think. To cure their delusions. To relieve their sexual desires while keeping them from overpopulating the world. To make them happy. It is all neurology, you know. It has to be. Psychoanalysis is going to set us back a hundred years. Its licentiousness will appeal to the masses. Its prurience will appeal to young scientific minds and even to some old ones. It will turn the masses into exhibitionists and physicians into mystics. But someday people will wake up to the fact that it is all the emperor’s new clothes. We will discover drugs to change the way people think, sooner or later. To control the way they feel.’ Ah, the harbingers of Prozac and other psychopharmaceuticals! Rubenfeld is clever to choose this moment in history for a return to the roots of the psychoanalytic movement, when neurobiology is in favour and psychoanalysis viewed with suspicion and mistrust. It’s part of the great ongoing debate between nature and nurture that will never reach closure but which raises such fascinating questions about how we want the world to be and what we are prepared to do to improve our fates in life.
I’ve always been a supporter of psychoanalytic literary criticism because it’s such an interesting way to look at narrative, and in consequence I’ve read a great deal of psychoanalytic theory in my working life. (If you’re wondering how this kind of criticism works, well, it’s what I do on this site when I analyse a book. In another post another day I’ll write more about it if you’re interested. Fundamentally this means I’m all for psychoanalysis, and this because it suggests a) we need never be victims of fate but b) such a happy state of affairs is going to require some hard work. What can I say? It appeals to my liberal anti-determinism and my work ethic, all in one neat package that assigns the most devastating power to words. But it is not at all at one with the spirit of the contemporary age, which favours science-based solutions. The psychoanalysis vs. neurobiology debate reminds me a lot of the genetics vs. experience and environment debate that has also been prominent of late. Interestingly enough, the genome project has ended up strengthening the case for nurture as much as for nature, although some argue that this is only because our understanding of DNA is at an early stage and research is already bringing to light a host of related biochemical structures that complicate each individual picture. I don’t pretend to understand the science: there’s an interesting article that favours nurture to be read here, and another that remains, on the whole, in the science camp here. I thought both very good and ultimately most sensible in their recognition that the human being is an entangled mix of nature and nurture. But one paragraph I read from this article interested me most of all:
‘The public view on the nature versus nurture argument tends to sway to both sides. People are ready to accept that it is genes that cause diseases and cancer, even obesity and homosexuality. Of course, this takes the blame off of human lifestyle. If it is written into their genes, there is nothing they can do about it. However, the public tends to favor the nurture side of the argument when it breaches sensitive topics such as aggression or intelligence. If people truly believed that intelligence was totally dependent upon genes, there would be no waiting lists to get into the best private schools, no SAT tutors, and no French lessons for three year olds. When the Columbine school shootings went on, it was the angry music, the video games, and the parents that were blamed. No one even brought up the fact that the two shooters genetic makeup could have had anything to do with it. Eminem and Double Dragon took the rap, and the parents were questioned as why they hadn’t known about it or prevented it.’
In a nutshell, this is why the nature vs. nurture debate fascinates me so much: as an unresolvable conflict it can be argued in any number of ways, all of which tell us more about our culture’s current attitude towards the perfectibility of the human race and our capacity for suffering than it does about the constitution of the individual. Where we stand on the nature/nurture question tells us instantly a great deal, I think, about our private relationship with such potent concepts as identity, change and fate. It says a lot whether we think science will save us, or whether we still believe in the ability of the subject to put some arduous effort into changing the circumstances of his or her life. As I write that sentence it’s easy to see my own view in it. Others would say that it’s unfair to put effort into situations that are dealt out to us at birth and which only the modern miracles of technology can hope to change. At the end of the day, it’s how we live with the hand that we’ve been dealt that makes the difference to our quality of life, and I suppose I would rather trust myself to make changes than trust others to alter me. Now I just need to work out whether that’s a genetic predisposition or the result of my education…