"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: a Brief Note on Donald Spence

I have been offering some ad hoc comments on here as I make my way through a number of new and other books that are helping me to think through what is going on when people continue ritualistically to invoke certain historical memories the details of which are either legitimately in dispute or even wholly and demonstrably disproven. Here I think, e.g., of groups such as ISIS and their absolutely endless and manifestly absurd invocations of "the Crusades."

One such book that has proven of some limited use has been out for a while, but I only had a chance to read it this spring: Donald P. Spence, Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: Meaning and Interpretation in Psychoanalysis (W.W. Norton, 1982).

Freud, Spence notes, was a master synthesizer, who took disparate parts of a patient's life and wove them into a compelling narrative whole via his celebrated case histories, which have "masterful control of style and content" (22). Indeed, Freud as stylist has long been commented upon, and in English his style was even said by some to have been improved by James Strachey's translations and editing of the official authorized English opera omnia. 

The problem with Freud, which can also bedevil other analysts and indeed those writing the history of controverted traumatic events--e.g., the Fourth Crusade--is that the impulse to control the narrative, to write it into a tidy or polished whole, especially for the benefit of others, can itself be distorting: "Both analyst and patient may collude in an attempt to prematurely streamline a chaotic life" (23) and this danger must be guarded against. It is not easy to resist such an impulse towards premature streamlining or tidying up because, as Spence recognizes, psychoanalysts (and also historians some of the time) are in a situation of conflict as writers of the "final" narrative, as it were, but also as keepers of the messier clinical (or other) records and archives. That conflict can become extremely acute if an analysis, or a cultural history (especially in the hands of apologists or ideological commentators whose consciences do not scruple over facts), ends up splitting off into two parts: a narrative truth within the context of the consulting room (or national or ecclesial "mythology," say), and then the historical truth or record so far as it may be fairly known and demonstrated.

Spence notes, and seems almost to condone at least in certain clinical settings, the splitting off of the two: the relationship of narrative truth to actual events of the past "may be of far less significance than creating a coherent and consistent account of a particular set of events" (28). In other words, sometimes the story an analysand tells the analyst may be only very loosely connected to the historical record, so far as it may be known, but that story may be helpful in allowing the analysand to come to some kind of coherence and perhaps even healing. Still, this does seem to invite rather troubling implications, which have been detailed by Jeffrey Prager in his fascinating and valuable study, Presenting the Past: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Misremembering.

Spence notes something else that is not often understood, at least in more "popular" attempts at portraying psychoanalysis: there is no such thing as fully "free association," and that is a good thing. For free association is not, and cannot be, like the passenger on the train describing everything seen out the window to a blind analyst. If this were so, it would be just a word salad--barely coherent, if at all. Thus the urge in both patient and analyst, in various forms and times, is to supply missing information to make a coherent whole--to move from writer to editor, as it were. That is inevitable, but it must be undertaken with great caution because of the aforementioned risk of introducing fresh distortions, tendentious deletions, or other problems. These are important cautions not only for clinicians, but also for historians and Christians telling our often dolorous, and sometimes traumatic, stories of past conflicts with and division from each other.

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