Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Peter Brooks' The Enigma of Identity

In Psychoanalysis and Storytelling (1994) Peter Brooks wrote of “..that desired place where literature and life converge, and where literary criticism becomes the discourse of something anthropologically important-where it teaches us something about the nature of human fiction making, of both the banal everyday kind and the artistic sort” .

It seems like a strikingly old fashioned idea if you’ve been wading through “modern” ‘theoretical’ versions of literary criticism. The idea that literature has something to say about human anything seems dodgy…and yet Brooks’ latest book “The Enigma of Identity” inhabits “that desired place” and does it very convincingly.

His basic premise is that the problem of identity is in some ways the defining characteristic of modernity. On the one hand a deeply personal inward search for self; on the other a self viewed from the outside “as merely the point of intersection of impoverished data”. Identity vs identification, with what Brooks calls The Identity Paradigm as crucially important throughout modern Culture.

Although the book reaches no fixed conclusion other than that, it explores the contours of that paradigm. Brooks writes in a relaxed informal style, which again feels almost old fashioned. A writer with ideas he wants to share. How quaint. Nor do you have to agree with everything he says, or accept everything he claims, but at least in this book, you’re going to understand his argument well enough to feel confident of negotiating your way through it.

Because his basic premise is that identity is something that is created in narration, it is logical that he looks at literary examples. The evidence he uses and the examples he discusses are drawn from fiction, autobiography, law and psychoanalysis. His main sources are Rousseau, Proust and Freud, though along the way he uses Stendhal, Balzac, Conan-Doyle Joyce, Yeats and others. The depth of his critical engagement with Freud’s work provides a ground for the discussion.

But in an odd way, Brooks' treatment invites or suggests a different reading of Freud. Although I suspect he might not agree, it challenges the status of Psychoanalysis as a privileged, non-literary discourse and reinserts Freud and his writing and thinking into what might loosely be described as the humanist tradition. Privilege revoked, Freud becomes another writer, but a far more fascinating provocative writer.

What makes the book so entertaining is its range. Along the way one picks up fascinating bits of information: fingerprinting has been challenged as a reliable source of identification in American courts: narrative theory is inexorably creeping into legal discussions of evidence.

The book is thought provoking and entertaining. And like most good literary discussions an incentive to go back and reread, or read for the first time, some of the authors he uses as examples.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The car story

Rural Ireland in the 1930s.

Late at night, or early in the morning two brothers walking home from a party, they decide to take the short cut over the fields rather than the long way by the winding cart track someone’s tried to dignify by calling a road.

So over the fields by moonlight, not drunk, perhaps not entirely sober, they come to a place where they have to choose: the short short cut leads directly to their farm through a copse of trees, but the elder brother had seen something in there, once, on his way home late at night, and though he arrived home white as a sheet he never told anyone what he saw and he refuses to go through it. So they take the longer short cut, which takes them over hill and through the fields.

And they hear the unmistakable, (because still rare) sound of a car. Intrigued they follow the noise til they get to the “Top Field”, and there is a car, driving very slowly round the field.

Later, they will argue over the colour: one says white, the other says silver…both agree it was too dark to see the driver or if
there were any passengers.

Spooked, they skirt the field and hurry home. Next morning, over breakfast, they tell their father, who laughs at them. He points out that you couldn’t get a car into the top field, it’s only accessible on foot through the field below it and the only entrance is small and kept locked to keep the cattle and the horses out.

The brothers do their work then agree to go back, and when they return to the Top Field, they realise their father is right. It would be impossible to drive a car into that field.

But when they go closer, they see the unmistakable sign of car tires, making a circle inside the field, with no break for entrance or exit.

Just that image: a pale car, in the dark, slowly circling the field.

They refused to work the Top Field near dark for years afterwards.