‘Truth is real; it exists. Positivistic thinking has had such a strong influence on our basic assumptions that we tend to identify the real with what we can touch, taste, feel, see or hear. We need to ditch this preconception if we are to think psychologically. Most psychological realities do not have the property of extension or tangibility: a dream, a hallucination, a belief, a thought, a relationship, love, hatred or desire. But it is not true that these realities exist in some non-material sphere only. They are inextricably linked with the physical – this is so even of thought. Truth is a reality of this nature. It cannot be measured but it does exist; the fact that it is difficult to define does not detract from this. Truth does not exist though as some eternal idea, as Plato thought, but as a reality that exists in between: in between two persons seeking it, in between psychoanalysis, sociology, psychology, economics and religion. It will not be possessed by any one person or group. Someone who proclaims ‘I have the truth’ has lost it. For truth can be seen or glimpsed, not possessed. When I see the truth some change occurs in me. I can never be the same again. Something in my personality has altered; a previous preconception gives way to truth, but it is in the very nature of truth that each glimpse only emphasizes the degree to which truth still lies outside or beyond. This means that the individual is always in relation to truth and is in a state of potentia. By potentia I mean a state of movement towards.’
from Neville Symington, The Analytic Experience
I found this such an interesting paragraph, and it’s been playing around in my mind since I read it. I’m writing on Gabriel Josipovici’s work at the moment, and this struck me as pertinent for the way his books unfold into meaning, which could be described as: nothing happens and nothing happens and then everything happens, although it’s hard to say exactly what has happened. That makes him a real challenge to write about, although it’s the kind of itch I can’t help scratching. I’ve always felt that it’s the job of the literary critic to bring things out of the shadows on the page and into the light a bit more, to take what’s dimly but powerfully felt and give it form, say what it means and why. You certainly don’t have to have access to literary criticism to enjoy a book, or be moved by it, but good criticism can sharpen and enrich that reading experience. At least, that’s the definition of good criticism for me.
The more I think about it, the more I think that this process of formless, uncertain truth glimpsing lies at the heart of all literature, which is a good in between sort of location, between the words on the page and the mind that reads. I think that we read partly for the sensation of change that can happen inside us, the sensation of something being unblocked, or freed, or falling into place that stories can cause sometimes; not all stories, by any means, and not necessarily the stories that we expect to alter us. But sometimes it just happens, that a book gives us the words for something we never realised we longed to express, or it shows sympathy or understanding for something that touches us surprisingly deeply. And brief, but precious, peace descends. This is the process that Symington is describing as the point of therapy. Here, as in reading, it is no good simply being told what’s true, or handed meaning on a plate; the process involved in getting there is essential to the effect.
But there’s a passage further on in the Symington that keeps making me laugh. It’s where he describes how psychoanalysis hopes to effect change in the patient’s life for the better. But Freud, in order to curb reckless enthusiasm in his disciples, had ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of one of his patients on his desk. In the former, the man looked hopeful and well and contented, in the latter he looked dejected and downcast. I don’t know why this strikes me as so funny, but it does. I suppose it reminds me of my much-loved PhD student’s oft-quoted saying that the truth would set you free, but first it would piss you off. Or perhaps, joking aside, it reminds me of something else I read, that it takes tremendous courage to face the truth of our lives. Which is why, perhaps, truth is something we glimpse, out ahead of us, or through a glass darkly in fiction. Much like looking at the sun, we can’t take it directly. But I’d rather find the courage to face the truth than the energy it takes to fuel denial and resistance, to cultivate fantasies and to avoid inconvenient feelings. And then there is that curious sense of physical well-being, of rest, that comes when the jigsaw piece falls into place in the puzzle, and which is, in its own way, addictive.