Strangers Working in Strange Lands

freud-and-other-analysis-pic Photo Credit: Freud with some of his followers. Otto Rank is standing behind Freud’s chair. 1922. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: Prosopee/Wikimedia Commons/PD EU no author disclosure

“[I]f we want to catch glimpses of the truths that govern human culture and behavior, we must open ourselves to the wisdom, no matter how surprising or counterintuitive, of strangers working in strange lands.” (Bernstein, par. 12)

Not long ago, I wrote a guest post for Lorna Holland’s The Writing Greyhound blog about why I write psychological fiction. The kind of psychological fiction I write explores emotional realities of characters in their situation and incorporates those “beneath the iceberg” realities that realistic fiction ignores.

In her article “Why Literature Needs Psychology: Two Disciplines Wrestling With The Same Big Questions”, Jennifer R. Bernstein points out that fiction and psychology are intertwined. She states “both traditions [are] organized around that fact of human experience that [summons] art and philosophy into being: pain, the disharmony in the tune of all human endeavor” (Bernstein, par. 6). Literature and psychology are about complex human emotions, as “[a]n essential mission of literary and [psychology] is to construct a taxonomy of pain in order to extract meaning from it—because if pain means nothing, then it cannot be borne” (Bernstein, par. 6; emphasis added). I think this is the crux of all fiction and psychology – to understand what to do about the pain, despair, sadness, and other negative emotions and why they exist.

Bernstein makes the point that “literature gestures at this mission obliquely [while] psychology features it front and center” (par. 6). In other words, psychology tackles the “mission” of making meaning out of pain directly and fiction indirectly through characters, story, setting, description, and narrative. This doesn’t make fiction any less useful a tool for understanding human emotion. An interesting point that Bernstein makes about modern therapy is that “[it] is not about cure, but connection. It’s about cultivating a relationship within preset boundaries, and then trying out healthier styles of connection within the safety of that relationship” (par. 18; emphasis added). For Bernstein, the “safe” relationship between professional therapist and patient gives ground to draw meaning from pain in a less threatening environment. I would argue that, in a way, psychological fiction does the same thing in a different way. Characters that suffer as people do offer a safe boundary between the reader who is experiencing them and the emotions. I recently read a book that opened with a woman dealing with the pain of her mother just dying in the hospital in the room next to her. The scene brought back emotions of grief and pain for me as I remembered the exact moments when both my grandparents died within six weeks of one another. The scene brought back the emotions but filtered through the experience of the character I was reading so that I did not feel overwhelmed.

It’s exactly this search for experience or, rather, validation of experience that leads some writers to seek out psychological fiction. Bernstein discovered psychological fiction when she was in college and suffering from depression. In a similar way, Nin sought therapy (psychoanalysis in the 1930’s) with a protégée of Freud’s, Otto Rank. Her experience with Rank drew her to lyrical prose and psychological reality, as she “began to perceive a new order which lies in the choice of events, an order made by memory, by a chronology of emotion, not of dates” (Nin, Chap. 3, location 904). Later, reading one of Rank’s books, she was inspired to write her novella A Spy in the House of Love.

Similarly, when I found Nin’s book Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories, I was looking for fiction that went beyond story, that would map out an emotional path that I had been experiencing that lay under the surface but was never talked about in my family. Nin’s book led me to other books by psychological fiction writers and lyrical prose writers who explored the emotional realities of character in the tapestry of story. These included Jane Bowles’ My Sister’s Hand In Mine, Marguerite Young’s Miss Macintosh, My Darling, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and Anna Kavan’s Asylum Piece. These works, esoteric and complex as they are, were the safe place where I could explore the kind of painful emotions I had never been allowed to speak of or even feel in my past.

Psychological fiction, like science fiction, offers new perspectives in different ways. As Bernstein says, “[i]f we want literature to inhabit the full measure of human experience, it must stretch to accommodate new ways of knowing the world.” (Bernstein, par. 11). Psychology is just one of those ways.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Jennifer R. “Why Literature Needs Psychology: Two Disciplines Wrestling With The Same Big Questions.” Literary Hub. Grove Atlantic and Electric Literature, 2015. 2 May 2016. Web. 1 February 2017.

Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.

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