It’s common to start the new year with goals and resolutions, but how often do these commitments prompt us to think about the big questions? Questions like: How to live. What to do. That’s the title of this month’s book, written by British scholar and psychoanalyst Josh Cohen.
I grabbed this from my library recently, drawn in part by the promise of the subtitle: Looking for ourselves in life and literature. As someone who has spent well over half a decade studying literature in various institutions and many more years reading fiction every day of my life, I have an immediate affinity with the general premise of the book: books, especially novels, can be mirrors for us to look inside and better understand our lives? Or, to turn it around, could it be that all the answers to our desires, failures, achievements and impulses are hidden in stories told by strangers?
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The short answer is, of course, yes. Every so often, one study or another will prompt you to read more fiction, for the sake of longevity, better mental health, leadership skills, romantic success, you name it. It’s not rocket science that reading fiction can make us emotionally intelligent, but Cohen takes the idea a step further. Like William Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” (from As you like), maps specific works of fiction which, according to him, illuminate different phases of our lives. In a sense, his is an emotional story masquerading as a literary story.
In eight sprawling chapters, Cohen covers the themes of childhood (“Game” and “School”), Adolescence (“Rebellion” and “First Love”), Adulthood (“Ambition”, “Marriage” and “Middle Life”) and, finally, “Old age and dying”. This lay of the land, while arresting itself, becomes all the more compelling when Cohen intersperses his literary explorations with glimpses of real case stories, stories of people who have walked into his studio to talk about their private hurts and pains.
‘How to live. What to Do: Finding Ourselves in Josh Cohen’s Life and Literature
To preserve confidentiality, Cohen changed his name and often merged multiple characters to create a composite personality. These are poetic licenses of a psychoanalyst who, quite expressly, takes his cue from the venerable Old Master, Sigmund Freud. It may seem redundant to read Freud in light of all the advances made in psychiatry and neuroscience in the 21st century, especially if he is looking for empirical knowledge. But reading the Austrian doctor to decode the mystery behind the workings of our minds – how one would read Shakespeare, or Rabindranath Tagore or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – is still very rewarding.
Cohen, who is also a professor of literature, adopts the classic mode of deep reading, inspired by his rich experience as a clinical physician. Combining two modes of analysis, literary and psychological, he brings fresh, often intriguing insights to familiar works. Alice In Wonderland, for example, is about the “ordinary madness of childhood,” in Cohen’s words. A subtle yet powerful phrase, it explains so many quirks of childhood behavior that the mind cannot fathom from the edge of adulthood.
Focusing on less familiar work—They came like swallows by William Maxwell—Cohen offers a nuanced reading of psychologist DW Winnicott’s theory of creativity and its relationship to “the maternal presence in our early lives.” One of the novels discussed in the “School” chapter is that of Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyrewhich may sound predictable, until Cohen strikes you with one of his cutting remarks: “The French psychoanalysts César and Sára Botella,” he writes, “have argued that our deepest unconscious fear — more than violence or physical pain – is the total abandonment, the emptiness of any human presence in our lives”. This observation leads to a passage on the tragic core of king Lear.
It is through such tortuous connections, the web that literature wraps around life, that Cohen creates a cartography of human emotions, from birth to death. Understandably, as a psychologist, his focus is squarely on the mind rather than the body, but, even so, I couldn’t help but wonder how fascinating it would be to read a history of the human body, from infancy to old age. age, through the lens of literature.
If Cohen’s reflections on depression (focusing on those of Goethe The Sorrows of Young Werther) and marriage (a nice comparison between Dorothea Brooke in that of George Eliot Middlemarch and Isabel Archer The portrait of a lady by Henry James) are wonderfully spot on, is the chapter on middle age, centered around that of Virginia Woolf Mrs Dallowaywhich moved me the most.
In retrospect, my answer seems a little strange because it is one of the few novels discussed by Cohen that I am intimately familiar with, having studied it as part of my postgraduate curriculum some 20 years ago. Yet in the past, despite my devoted attention to every nuance of the plot, the novel had not come to me as vividly as it recently did when I read Cohen’s analysis of it.
As a twenty-year-old, I had dutifully noted all the stylistic flourishes, the allusions to Woolf’s personal history and the richness of the prose, taking place on a summer’s day in London. I had struggled with the thin thread of melancholy that runs through Clarissa’s consciousness, a thread that connects, unbeknownst to her, to Septimus Warren Smith. But I hadn’t sensed the glimmer of hope and optimism that Cohen reads into the novel, the skill with which he finds in it a muted celebration of middle age.
The “point about midlife,” Cohen writes in this chapter, “is that being resolved—in character, place, habits, work, interests, loves and hates—can breed generativity as well as stagnation. ” This stage in life – when so many 40-year-olds (myself included) experience a waning of vitality, an impasse in our work, relationships or decision-making skills – “may be the platform for a renewed attention to people and things, a a sort of imaginative renaissance”.
I read this passage as an epiphany, an invitation to reframe how I see life and the possibilities that await us. In a way, it doesn’t matter if you haven’t read most of the novels Cohen writes about; what it offers you in the end is far more valuable and intangible than just a reading list. As Cohen writes in the conclusion, “We have a mysteriously abundant willingness to pursue what we don’t have, but not that ‘little willingness to see’ what is already there.” If psychoanalysis is a tool to open your eyes to the truth of your life, to help you pursue what is hidden in plain sight, so is a great novel.
Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer and editor.
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