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.
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.