Psychoanalytic fictions

29 January 2009 | , , ,

There is a genre called psychoanalytic fiction and I have recently read two examples. The first one was Jed Rubenfeld’s The interpretation of murder; the second Brenda Webster’s Vienna Triangle. These two are as far apart as the category of genre allows. Rubenfeld’s is a skillful whodunit, with a rich ambiance, setting and narrative sense whereas Webster’s story surroundings are diluted by her masterful account of what psychoanalysis is (away from received ideas), and how it works. Freud appears in both, yet, it is quite a different Freud. The first reenacts a famous case history while dealing with a deranged Jung (to which the Viennese Freud resembles); the second is found in the middle of a seriously disturbing Oedipal drama (Tausk, Salome, Deutsch). Of course, psychoanalysis and its founder, lends itself to such narratives. When I asked my students to tell me why they had chosen my Psychoanalysis in Art and Culture course, to tell me what they wanted to learn, how I could help them, the whiteboard showed a list of topics focused on pathologies, dark sides, seediness. The myths persist in time as the abandonment of seduction or Tausk’s suicide (which Webster seeks to understand) show.

I must also thank Webster for answering a question I had asked myself many times during my analysis (and which I got a glimpse of at the APCS conference I attended in 2007): yes, analysts are also humans, despite my resistance to believe so. This also goes for Freud. We put them in the position of subject-supposed-to-know. Supposing to know is not knowing, however, and, as human beings, they have the same chances of being as flawed as us. In that sense, Webster’s is a truer account of the practice of analysis.

Another point in her favour is the mother-daughter relationship she depicts through Kate and Emily, and perhaps also through the Kate-Deutsch (as mother substitute) pairing. Many times, when reading before going to sleep, I had to put the book down perplexed at the accuracy of her description of encounters I had had with my own mother: the different standards within which I judge her, the guilt, the strange love towards her that gets manifested as aggression or exasperation. My anxiety rose at those moments to the point of having to find something else to read and to calm down with. Are these contradictory feelings for one’s mother, this cognitive dissonance, universal? And if so, why nobody had told me before?

Her unraveling of mystery is also psychoanalytic in construction, which is to say coherent. Not that Rubenfeld’s Frau K isn’t, but he maintains a comfortable distance, that of an author rather than one involved in a psychoanalytic encounter with narrative fiction. There is resistance in Rubenfeld. In Webster, there is an insight that can only be gained by actually engaging closely with the practice of analysis. I am not sure if this makes one of these books more appealing to the wider audience than the other but what I do know is that, in terms of psychoanalysis, one has to do it as well as talk about it with mastery.

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