I love Neville Symington. I really and truly love him. For the vast majority of people who will never have heard of him, he is an Australian psychoanalyst who spent formative years at the Tavistock Clinic in London. But for me, he’s one of those writers who reliably and consistently wakes my mind up and leaves me thrilled to the core with enlightenment. That doesn’t happen every day, you know.

Neville Symington: I love him, but not in ‘that’ way.

The thing that made me prick up my internal antennae this time was about trust. Symington was recounting his early training and the time he spent in infant observation. He noted that the baby, when he reached the stage of beginning to walk, could toddle between Symington and the mother without falling, but when he tried to cover the ground between two inanimate objects, he regularly stumbled. Symington writes: ‘He reminded me of St Peter walking on the water of Galilee. He was able to do so while looking confidently at Jesus, but as soon as his eyes strayed to the churning sea, he began to sink.’ It provided him with an early psychoanalytic truth: ‘the source of confidence lies in an act of trust directed towards another person.’

This struck me in so many ways. So much of what we have to do, the difficult things, leave us feeling isolated, when what we really need is the steady loving and containing gaze of another person. Perhaps the way to find confidence, when we lack it, is to imagine the eyes we trust upon us, or to dedicate our actions towards someone whom we trust completely.

But funnily enough, what this also made me think of was the function of plot in narrative. In Peter Brooks’ very accessible book, Reading for the Plot, he explains plot as akin to the Freudian fort-da game. Freud noticed his grandchild in his pram playing with a toy which he threw away from him, with the cry of ‘Fort!’, and then pulled back with the word ‘Da!’. Freud believed that in this way, the child was symbolically coming to terms with the absence of the mother. He could invest the toy with emotions towards the mother and make it go away (fort) and then bring it back at will (da), thus mastering the discomfort and anxiety he felt at the prospect of separation. Peter Brooks believed that plot worked in the same way. At the start of a novel, a problem is posed, something – truth, meaning – is posited as missing, and the plot works to resolve the enigma or the absence. We accept that our sense of significance (‘What does it all mean?’) will go away from us for a time, in the safe knowledge that it will be returned to us in a satisfying way at the end of the book.

In many ways, the fort-da game can be seen as the next level in the child’s ability to develop trust and confidence, as s/he transfers the need to have people right there in the flesh onto the imaginary plane. It shows as well the early and innate understanding we have that our imaginations can be the source of much strength, flexibility and comfort. If we go along with Brooks and see plot as the place where that sense of imagined mastery goes in later life, we can understand how good books are for allowing us to think about all sorts of things that might be unbearable in real life. When reading, plot can be the place where we put our trust in the author to steer us home safely. And in the meantime, we can think through all sorts of dangerous and sorrowful scenarios, we can entertain all kinds of difficult thoughts, because we have trust in the narrative to bring about a satisfactory resolution at the end. No wonder, also, that books that end ‘badly’ or in a dissatisfactory way can make the reader very upset or angry. We little realise how much we have invested in the right outcome.



18 thoughts on “Trust

  1. Great post. I really like that comment about trust and confidence. I think if I ever got to write a book I would do so with some trusted friends in mind. Writing in the face of an imagined critical audience would be crippling. And I also like what you said about the function of books being to explore difficult plot-lines and issues.

    • Pete, I think it’s really important to have someone particular in view when we write, or even a particular audience. It makes a huge difference, even if just at the level of thinking someone wants to hear what you have to say!

  2. Oh, one of those moments… I’d never heard of Neville Symington until a few days ago. After I read, and was shaken and moved by, Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, ‘Why be Happy when you could be Normal?’, I read some recent interviews and articles of hers and she mentioned somewhere how much his writing had meant to her, sending me off to google him. Now I shall definitely have to read something – recommendations?

    And the ‘fort-da’ plot theory is interesting. I’ve been thinking about deep – so deep they’re buried – motivations for reading because my own reading experience is changing so much lately. After more than fifity years of reliable escapism, plot-based narratives just don’t ‘do it’ for me any more and I have a feeling this may be irreversible… not that I’ll never enjoy a conventionally plotted novel again, but only if the plot is part of a much more complex web of engagement.

    • Symington’s Lectures from the Tavistock is where I began, but they take a wholly clinical path through the theorists, from Freud to Winnicott. I still found them completely accessible, though. Otherwise you could try A Healing Conversation; How Healing Happens, or Becoming a Person Through Psychoanalysis. As for your relation to the plot, it strikes me that the comforting belief of plot-driven fiction – that things will work out in the end in a meaningful way – is perhaps not where you are right now, and you need something more complex and sophisticated. But I am speculating wildly here and may be completely off the mark! Whatever lies at the basis of your feelings, I know you have the sensitivity to go with them and make something insightful out of them.

  3. Your photo caption made me laugh 🙂 Interesting observations about trust. What happens though when a plot doesn’t wrap up neatly, leaves things inconclusive? I’ve read plenty of books where this happens and I have loved them for their willingness to not come around to a conclusion.

    • I just cannot restrain myself when it comes to captions! As for your question, I was rather hoping someone would answer it for me. 🙂 I suppose the simple response is that you are not someone who ‘reads for the plot’ in the way Brooks describes. He isn’t suggesting that all novels are plot-driven, or that all readers are the same, only having a think about why plot should be so satisfying sometimes. You are of course a very sophisticated reader, Stefanie, who appreciates all sorts of different kinds of literature!

  4. This is so interesting! (And hello you — you have pictures!! and a new header!!! BUT you are the same litlove, naturally.)

    Your post raises an interesting question — an “unsatisfactory” ending is not the same thing as a tragic ending. If that was true, Hamlet and King Lear would be terrible reads, which they are not. It’s in the resolution — in some way — of something that’s awry that we’re satisfied by a story. And although
    the world contains so much that is tragic, it is nevertheless one of the most satisfying of experiences to see something about ourselves and the world we had not known before.


    • Bloglily! Yay, it’s lovely to see you! Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head here, it’s the appropriateness of the ending, the sense that nothing else could have happened, or the feeling of being in the presence of a truth that makes the ‘right’ ending. That being said, I personally felt Othello ended appallingly. It took everyone SO LONG to die, and I thought we would miss the train home. It’s funny how that can ruin a person’s perspective on aesthetic beauty!

  5. Great post as usual! I don’t have anything to add other than the fact that your observations explain why you are a literary critic and I am not! Oh, and I have to let you know that I decided to purchase the Brooks’ book after your mention of it in this post! I have several books about how to read fiction in a critical manner, and this book will now be part of my collection.

    • Ali, I will be so interested to hear how you get on with the Brooks. I think he’s one of the more accessible and straightforwardly interesting critics to work with theory. We can discuss it when you are reading it if you like (she says hopefully! 🙂 ).

      • Yes, I would love to discuss it! I will let you know if I have started to read it when I email you next. Which leads me to add here that some of the names in this post are now familiar to me because they are mentioned in Siri Hustvedt’s new collection of essays called Living, Thinking, Loving. Do check them out if you have a chance as i think they might be up your alley. I thought of you as I read them because she has a serious interest in psychoanalysis about which she writes. And there is a wonderful essay on reading in the collection. I just started the book, and I think Hustvedt is a seriously brilliant woman! I want her intelligence when I grow up! She is so learned in many areas. Okay… This comment is a bit off topic, and typically refrain from making irrelevant comments, but I couldn’t resist in this case!

  6. Yet another thought-provoking post, Litlove!

    I like the idea of the reader trusting the author to give a book the ‘right’ ending. It’s not even about plot resolution, I think, ‘just’ an ending that is in keeping with the characters and tone of the rest of the book.

    As a reader, we might not be able to say what the ‘right’ ending should have been, but we certainly know when it’s ‘wrong’!

    • Karen, I think that’s so true – the ‘wrong’ ending is so evident – I suppose its evident-ness is all part of its wrong-ness! I agree that the right ending doesn’t have to be a happy one, but it does need to provide closure, that precious quality so missing from life!

  7. I’m not sure I ever thought of trusting the autor when reading but what you say about the “right” ending strikes me. And especially that right doesn’t equal happy. Difficult to put into words.
    I haven’t read Symington as I’m not so interested in psychoanalysis at the moment. Other psychological approaches, yes

  8. I like a happy ending, but I detest a happy ending that is just tacked on after an inexorable arc toward a tragic one. I always feel then that I’ve been denied both an appropriate ending and a happy one, because the happy one is so unbelievable it implies that there ought to have been the tragic one. That reminds me of Villette and how Bronte says, well reader at this point I’d like to tell you that the ship arrived safely despite the terrible sea storm but well…

  9. Once again I’m learning new things here! I don’t have anything to add other than I agree that not getting a satisfying ending (which doesn’t necessarily mean ‘happy’) ending is always jarring in a book–and now I know why! 🙂

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