An awfully long time ago I said I would write about psychoanalysis, and although I didn’t intend for there to be such a gap, it feels most appropriate to discuss it now when, after a period of imposed silence, I feel the gag is finally off and I’m trying to stem the flood of about two month’s backed up posts. My interest in psychoanalysis has always been inseparable from my fascination with our compulsion to talk and use stories to make sense of life, and from our general human reliance on language to do far more for us than we ever realize or acknowledge. Language is the thread that stitches us into the lives we lead, and without it we would be hopelessly alienated, not only from others but also from ourselves. I’ve long been academically intrigued by how we tick, how we use our strange and capricious limitations and flexibilities, how we transform suffering, how we negotiate with the obstacles of fate and our often paradoxical responses to them. But I wouldn’t be so interested if my heart weren’t touched by the intent of psychoanalysis to cure. It was born from the recognition that life is just too much for us. That there will inevitably be times when the task of existence will prove too burdensome, too unwieldy, and that we will need the listening strength of another person to pull us through the difficult days; and that it is likely to be those who most courageously try to be strong and swim against the currents who will find themselves drowning, not waving. There’s a depth of compassion for humanity in that motivation that exerts a powerful attraction on me, and at a certain level it corresponds to the voice that whispers through all great literary novels to reassure readers that they are not alone in the morass of their feelings and experiences. Both literature and psychoanalysis combine empathy with the redeeming creativity of mankind to find new ways out of age-old plights, and for that I salute and applaud them.
So how to sum up psychoanalysis? Essentially it’s a dialogue between two people who agree to open up their private, mental worlds to one another in order to look at existence differently, because the old frames of reference have become outdated or insufficient. Although it often feels rather like declaring the earth is round when the evidence of our eyes insists that it’s flat, we never experience life innocently. Instead it is always filtered to us through various veils of fantasy and assumption, and we couldn’t live without them. Life would be too concentrated, too harsh without the strategies we silently and rapidly use to make it both palatable and digestible. But as we grow, so those fantasies need to change; or sometimes events occur that challenge us beyond the capacity of our resources. The kind of events that make a great narrative are equally those that make for a nightmare period of existence, and stories are there not just to represent events in ways that bestow an odd beauty on even the worst of them, but most importantly they extract the meaning from them. Finding meaning is one of the ways in which we are most profoundly soothed. So literature and psychoanalysis both use story telling to create and recreate patterns of meaning that help us get a grip on ourselves and on the life we have been living. But how psychoanalysis uses the story as a tool has changed remarkably over the course of the last century.
When Freud first started talking to his hysterics he considered their gappy, inconsistent stories to be an indication of their fragmented states of mind. Mental health for Freud meant healing the story, sealing its raw and jagged edges, making it neat and coherent and watertight. His patients were like half written pieces of crime fiction: all the violence, with none of the skilful resolution. Freud talked them into telling themselves with order and discipline, and in this way they solved themselves and the problems they posed. Nowadays things are quite different. The existence of the unconscious has been taken to its logical conclusion and in the absence of tidy self-mastery we have to accept that there are parts of ourselves which will always be alien and incomprehensible. There is no cure for living, just as there is no solution to the riddle of our identities. Instead we have to recognize that we are creatures of the gap, inconsistent, paradoxical, lacking, and psychoanalysis is there to help us live better with our often awkward disjunctions.
Psychoanalytic literary criticism has made a very similar transformation over the years. In its rather inglorious early stages, it tended to be used to ‘solve’ the problems of a story, either identifying complexes in the author who wrote it or the characters who peopled it. Now, good literary critics stopped doing this kind of thing decades ago, but rather like the incautious remarks of a young marriage that endlessly return to haunt both parties, so this image of psychoanalytic criticism is dragged up every time a hostile critic seeks to discredit it as a strategy. Instead, in more recent approaches, the story is read as if it were (and as indeed it is) the imprint of a mind thinking, a mind that is its own world, with a full complement of fantasies and assumptions and a powerful unconscious. There is nothing to be fixed or cured here, rather everything in the story is perfect and exactly as it is supposed to be, but there will be all kinds of elements that intrude, inconsistencies, gaps, strange occurrences that are simply fascinating for the ambiguities they scatter across the tale. The knots and twists and odd, complicated parts of a story are where all the interesting things are happening, and it’s the critic’s job to pay careful, listening attention to them, to tease out the other side of the story, the one that hides in the shadows of the language. Obviously some stories respond better to this approach than others, but when I’m reading a novel and it starts to talk to me with two voices, one clear, shrill voice that tells the obvious tale and then a second, whispery, intermittent one that holds all the secrets, I get chills running down my inner critic’s spine. Something’s happening and I feel myself go still and quiet whilst I listen for it. It happens with people too, sometimes, when they are telling me one thing, but equally, unwillingly and also longingly saying something quite different, too. With people it’s tricky; they are quite likely to strenuously deny the existence of the other voice, but with stories it’s a moment to revel and delight in, and if I became sucked inextricably into the business of literary criticism, it was in response to the compelling fascination of those moments and their rich expression of human complexity.