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.

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