Playing, Wild Thoughts, and a Novel’s Underground
This is a short piece about the novel and psychoanalysis that I did for the Lyon literary festival.
Psychoanalysis proposes that we are strangers to ourselves. There were precursors to Freud’s idea of a psychic unconscious in both philosophy and science. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche each had a version of it, as did the scientists, William Benjamin Carpenter in nineteenth century England and Gustav Fechner and Hermann von Helmholtz in Germany. All of them believed that much of what we are is hidden from us, not only our automatic biological processes but also memories, thoughts, and ideas. Pierre Janet, Jean Martin Charcot’s younger colleague at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, pursued a psychobiological notion of the self. Ideas, he argued, can split off from consciousness, travel elsewhere, and appear as hysterical symptoms. Theories never bloom in nothingness. What is certain is that Sigmund Freud and his followers, both the faithful and the revisionist, have altered the way we think of ourselves. But the question here is about the novel. Has psychoanalysis changed the novel? Does putting a psychoanalyst in a novel affect its form, its sense of time, its essence?
The novel is a chameleon. That is its glory as a genre. It can be an enormous waddling monster or a fast, lean sprite. It can take everything in or leave most things out. It is Tolstoy and Beckett. There are no rules for writing novels. Those who believe there are rules are pedants and poseurs and do not deserve a minute of our time. Modes of writing and various schools come and go: Grub Street, Naturalism, the nouveau roman, magical realism. The novel remains. The modern novel was born a hybrid, to borrow the Russian theorist M.M. Bakhtin’s word for the genre’s mingling, contradictory voices that shout and murmur from every level and corner of society. When psychoanalysis appeared on the horizon, the novel welcomed it into itself as it welcomes all discourses. “I am the doctor occasionally mentioned in this story, in unflattering terms,” Italo Svevo’s mind doctor tells the reader in his “preface” to Zeno’s Conscience. “Anyone familiar with psychoanalysis knows how to assess the patient’s obvious hostility to me.” The book was published in 1923. Since then, fictional analysts have played their roles, large and small, as villains and heroes and anti-heroes. They have been charlatans, seducers, weaklings, pretentious twits, saviors, and healers. Some, like Philip Roth’s Viennese doctor in Portnoy’s Complaint, are merely sounding boards for a narrator’s fulminations, characters that remain mostly off-stage.
And when the “I” of the book is an analyst, does it fundamentally alter the way the novel works? Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759) has a structure far more radical and, I would say, more akin to the associative workings of the human mind and memory, than Simone de Beauvoir’s far more conventional book The Mandarins (1954), which has a narrating analyst, Anne. But to address this question, I cannot remain outside it, looking down at it from a third-person view. In life there is no omniscient narrator. Making a work of fiction is playing, playing in deadly earnest perhaps, but playing nevertheless. D.W. Winnicott, the English psychoanalyst and pediatrician, argued that play is universal, part of every human being’s creativity and the source of a meaningful life. Sometimes people go to psychoanalysis because they can’t play. They have to learn through the back and forth that goes on in a room where trust is possible, because, as Winnicott says, play is “neither inside nor outside” a person; it happens in “a potential space” between a person and the environment. Making art is a form of play, and it, too, takes place in the Land of Between.
I have discovered that a novel can be written only in play: an open, relaxed, responsive, permissive state of being that allows a work to grow in potential space. The Sorrows of an American was generated by an unbidden mental image that came to me while I was daydreaming. In a room that looked very much like the tiny living room in my grandparents’ farmhouse, I saw a table. On the table was an open coffin, and in the coffin lay a girl. Then, as I watched, she sat up. My father was dying then, and despite the familiar setting—my father grew up in that house—and the undisguised wish to wake the dead that must have been at the heart of the fantasy, I did not interpret it. Not long afterwards, my father died. There are no miracles in the book, but the farmhouse is there, and a girl child who wakes up, and all through it, the dead return to the living. Sections of the book came directly from a memoir my father had written at the end of his life for his family and friends. I now know I used those passages as a way to revive him, if only as a ghost.
And where did my storyteller come from, my forty-seven year old, divorced, lonely, grieving psychiatrist/psychoanalyst, Erik Davidsen? Sometime in the early eighties, I saw a drawing by Willem de Kooning called “Self-Portrait with Imaginary Brother” at the Whitney Museum in New York. I love de Kooning’s work, but in this case it was the artist’s title, the idea of an imaginary brother, that hit me. When I was a child I used to wonder what it would be like to have a brother in my family. I had three sisters. Later, I wondered what it would have been like to be a son, not a daughter, to be a man, not a woman. After I finished my PhD in 1986, I considered training to earn my living as an analyst, but I was too poor for more schooling. Nevertheless, when I began writing the story, my imaginary brother-self was waiting for me. And I began to play.
The truth about unconscious processes is that the book can know more than the writer knows, a knowing that comes in part from the body, rising up from a preverbal, rhythmic, motor place in the self, what Maurice Merleau-Ponty called schema corporel. When I cannot find words, a walk helps. My feet jog the sentence loose from that secret underground. Images lurk in that cellar, too, along with half-formed phrases, and whole sentences that belong to no one. Wilfred Bion, the English psychoanalyst, said, “If a thought without a thinker comes along, it may be what is a stray thought, or it could be a thought with the owner’s name and address upon it, or it could be a ‘wild thought.’” Sometimes when I’m writing, wild thoughts appear. They fly ahead of me. I have to run after them to understand what is happening. It became clear after a while that Erik and I were writing a fugue, themes chasing themes: telling and not telling, hearing and deafness, wholes and fragments, present and absent fathers, burial and resurrection.
I discovered the novel’s music as I went along, as well as its gaps and silences. There are always things that are unsaid—significant holes. I was aware that I was writing about memory. Freud’s notion of Nachträglichkeit haunted the book. We remember, and we tell ourselves a story, but the meanings of what we remember are reconfigured over time. Memory and imagination cannot be separated. Remembering is always also a form of imagining. And yet some memories remain outside sequence, story, and felt human time: the involuntary flashbacks of trauma. These timeless bits and pieces of images and sensory shocks subvert and interrupt narration. They resist plot. The real secrets of this particular novel are not revealed through the plot. Many of them never come to light at all.
Surely, what I have learned about psychoanalysis over the years has shaped my work because it has altered my thoughts, both wild and tame. But so have philosophy, linguistics, neurobiology, paintings, poems, and other novels, not to speak of my lived experiences, both remembered and forgotten. As Winnicott knew, long before there was psychoanalysis, there was play.