Sunday, September 13, 2015

Are You a Fictional Character?

Dr. Joy Bliss reminds us that:

It is often said that psychotherapy and psychoanalysis are about inventing comprehensible, presumably explanatory narratives. 

Quite true. Many psychotherapists and psychoanalysts believe in the therapeutic powers of insight. They pretend that the meaning of life is a well-constructed narrative.

For those who want to read a more fleshed-out discussion of this point, see my book The Last Psychoanalyst.

Dr. Bliss says that the narratives are “presumably” explanatory. That is the most salient point. The life narratives that therapists want their patients to concoct offer something that looks like an explanation. They believe that the more the narrative can explain psychopathology, the more likely patients are to overcome their symptoms. If they come to believe in it wholeheartedly. This is not really true, so the word “presumably” is quite correct.

In a fictional narrative, a novelist will make it appear as though some traumatic or abusive event in the past necessarily produced the character’s current condition.

The key here is “necessarily.” When a novel reveals the truth of a forgotten trauma it will tell you that the trauma solves the problem of the character’s motivation.  It does not tell you that the trauma might or might not be the cause. What would be the point of unearthing a trauma and then saying that, perhaps it did not produce the character's symptoms.

When we are dealing with human beings, things do not always work out this way. Some people are very resilient; a trauma that would have crushed their neighbor does not seem to affect them. It happens that two children, both brought up in horrific circumstances in a bad neighborhood, turn out quite differently. One child might become a psychopath, another might live a perfectly normal life. A bad childhood does not in itself explain the course of one’s life. Constructing a narrative out of the bad moments in your childhood does not release you from their hold; it allows them to define who you are.

The reason, as I argued in my book, is that human beings are not fictional characters and do not live their lives according to the terms of a narrative fiction.

And yet, many serious psychologists believe that we are fictional characters living in a narrative. Some even suggest that when we change the narrative, we can change who we are. Such is, of course, their way of pretending that they can produce change with insight-oriented therapy.

For some reason, these great thinkers prefer to say that we are stories, not characters in stories. They would do better to correct their imprecise, albeit synechdotal thinking.

Philosopher Galen Strawson summarizes the conventional wisdom:

Each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”,’ wrote the British neurologist Oliver Sacks, ‘this narrative is us’. Likewise the American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner: ‘Self is a perpetually rewritten story.’ And: ‘In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’ Or a fellow American psychologist, Dan P McAdams: ‘We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.’ And here’s the American moral philosopher J David Velleman: ‘We invent ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.’ And, for good measure, another American philosopher, Daniel Dennett: ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best “faces” on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’

Of course, the late and lamented Oliver Sachs was a neurologist. And yet, he underwent more than four decades of psychoanalysis, so we understand where he learned to function like a fictional character.

Strawson continues and shows how imprecise thinking leads to bad syntax:

So say the narrativists. We story ourselves and we are our stories. There’s a remarkably robust consensus about this claim, not only in the humanities but also in psychotherapy. It’s standardly linked with the idea that self-narration is a good thing, necessary for a full human life.

To make the best case for the narrativist argument, Strawson grants that there are some people who see themselves as fictional characters and who conduct their lives accordingly.

One understands that patients in Freudian psychoanalysis are taught that they are fictional characters, characters like Oedipus and Narcissus. They are then told to cherry-pick their memories in order to find data that affirms this assertion. After that, they are instructed to live their lives by doing what the fictional character would have done… within reason, of course. They are not expected to become incestuous like Oedipus, but they must find lovers who are forbidden. No to incest; yes to adultery.

Strawson writes:

What exactly do they mean? It’s extremely unclear. Nevertheless, it does seem that there are some deeply Narrative types among us, where to be Narrative with a capital ‘N’ is (here I offer a definition) to be naturally disposed to experience or conceive of one’s life, one’s existence in time, oneself, in a narrative way, as having the form of a story, or perhaps a collection of stories, and – in some manner – to live in and through this conception. The popularity of the narrativist view is prima facie evidence that there are such people.

The fact that such people exist does not necessarily mean that all human beings are trapped in storytelling:

It’s not just that the deliverances of memory are, for us, hopelessly piecemeal and disordered, even when we’re trying to remember a temporally extended sequence of events. The point is more general. It concerns all parts of life, life’s ‘great shambles’, in the American novelist Henry James’s expression. This seems a much better characterisation of the large-scale structure of human existence as we find it. Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.

Just because some people believe it does not mean that it’s a fact. It’s simply one of the ways people can choose to live their lives, and, dare I say, to live them dysfunctionally. Those who do not accept the standard-issue Freudian narratives often console themselves by thinking that they can control the narrative and make themselves into whomever they want.

Strawson explains:

The tendency to attribute control to self is, as the American social psychologist Dan Wegner says, a personality trait, possessed by some and not others. There’s an experimentally well-attested distinction between human beings who have what he calls the ‘emotion of authorship’ with respect to their thoughts, and those who, like myself, have no such emotion, and feel that their thoughts are things that just happen. This could track the distinction between those who experience themselves as self-constituting and those who don’t but, whether it does or not, the experience of self-constituting self-authorship seems real enough. When it comes to the actual existence of self-authorship, however – the reality of some process of self-determination in or through life as life-writing – I’m skeptical.

Making your life into a narrative does not make it meaningful and does not reveal anything like a truth. It does tell you that if something goes wrong, you do not need to address the problem. You can simply retire to your cave and reconstruct your life story.

I would only add one point here, a point that I emphasized in my book. The alternative to seeing your life as a narrative and seeing yourself as a fictional character is to see life as a game with you as a player. You find yourself in a situation and you need to make a move. You might move your knight or your pawn or even your queen. You might think back on situations that resemble the one you are presently facing, but you do well to keep in mind that the situations are never really the same.

The difference between a game and a story is that a story has a predetermined outcome. A game has an indeterminate outcome. You do not know how a game ends until it ends. A fully written story has an ending. If you are living it you can play your role well or not well, but you cannot change the outcome. Thus, Freud was especially taken by the story of Oedipus because its outcome was predetermined; no matter what Oedipus did, his ending would necessarily follow from the curse that the god place on Laios.

Even if you rewrite your life story in order to pretend to find a different ending, Freud would have said: it is always and inevitably going to end badly. Even if you write one that ends well, you will then be obliged to live out your life by the terms of the narrative, to make it come true, thereby to convince yourself that you are really in control. The ancients would have called this notion that you are in control: hubris. Characters who suffer from it do not find happy endings.

One suspects that Freud, when he insisted that it always ends badly, was not just thinking about life. He might also have been thinking about psychoanalysis.

[Addendum: from the comments. David Foster of the Chicago Boyz blog offers a link to his excellent blog. I recommend it highly. Link here.]


Anonymous said...

Even if life is a game with unpredictable outcomes it would appear that human beings tell stories as part of the game. Stories appear in religion, mythology, history, law, and descriptions of personal history. Stories that put a spin on facts and events also appear frequently in this blog.

David Foster said...

OT---I have a link roundup at Chicago Boyz that may be of interest...Worthwhile Reading & Viewing, Special Love and Sex Edition

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for linking some of my pieces. I hope that everyone else will check out your blog.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: The difference between a game and a story is that a story has a predetermined outcome. A game has an indeterminate outcome. You do not know how a game ends until it ends. A fully written story has an ending. If you are living it you can play your role well or not well, but you cannot change the outcome.

In support for "Gamesmanship" I think of a quote by C.S. Lewis:
"It is one of the difficult and delightful subtleties of life that we must deeply acknowledge certain things to be serious and yet retain the power and will to treat them often as rightly as a game."

In that case I think his meaning was to avoid perfectionism, the idealistic narrative that says you can learn without making mistakes, without risking something important to you, and one key value of games is that there is a set of rules to work from, so as long as everyone knows there is a game being played, and that there are rules, then you're free to test the limits of that game and see what happens, or what can happen. So anyway, part of playing games must be identifying the stakes, and accepting you're responsible for your own failures.

Of course in that competitive world also imagines not only are there are rules, but often they are created biased someone else's favor, and not way to play. So once you "discover" that, then you're more tempted to be bolder with your own rationalizations like "All's fair in love and war" and explain why you can do things you don't approve of, but are necessary to advance your personal agendas, since everyone else is doing it too. So part of games means testing what happens when you break your perceived rules.

But in defense of Freud, or Jung, I'd say mainly what they were talking about wasn't constructing narratives, but deconstructing them, that is recognizing unconscious patterns that define habitual action, and identify a position above those reactions, and see points where a given narrative can be willingly followed or rejected, based on that higher perspective.

And Jung might call these narratives "archetypes", so when you're "caught" by an archetype, it rather demands a certain point of view, whether martyr or bully or whatever, and it "feels" like YOU when those instinctual voices arise, and when you have to act, they're probably got some good survival skills built in, but if you have time to reflect, then its possible to "take in" that voice, WITHOUT acting on it, and then holding the tension of INACTION, the fantasy action can be placed in discernment against other facts, or counter archetypal positions that exist in tension with each other.

Or most simply, as a bumper sticker I saw a few years ago "Don't believe everything you think." Wisedom might say its dangerous to question your own biases, but more dangerous to ignore them.