Ann Patchett's A State of Wonder - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reflects on Immortality




Ann Patchett packs big psychoanalytic and human themes into pages that don’t seem numerous enough to handle the load in this compelling and dream-like coming of middle-age novel (www.nytimes.com/2011/06/19/books/review/book-review-state-of-wonder-by-ann-patchett.html).  Her protagonist is a Minnesota born woman whose father returned after her birth and the completion of his graduate program to his native India, leaving her with her Minnesotan mother.  The girl grows up to be trained as an OB/GYN, but left her residency at Johns Hopkins after injuring a child she was delivering through C-section and instead of a physician she became a bench scientist.  She returned to Minnesota to work at a pharmaceutical company.  She is now having an affair with the president of the company, who is a widower many years her senior, and she is lovingly and, at least on the surface, Platonically attached to her lab partner, a happily married father of three boys. 

The lab partner is sent to the Amazon basin to make contact with a physician who is doing unspecified and potentially hugely lucrative research for the drug company, but the physician is not reporting on the progress she is making.  One of the twists is that the physician was the protagonist’s mentor and attending physician when she was a resident, the physician’s inattention was instrumental in the botched C-section, and the president did not send the protagonist on the mission originally, even though he thought her best suited to it, to protect her.  When the lab partner comes up missing, the distraught protagonist agrees to go find the physician to find out what happened.

The psychoanalytic and, I think, human landscape that is than explored is the landscape of modern heroes – the driven, brilliant people who passionately and single-mindedly engage in their work – and their mentorees, who worship, fear, identify with and/or despise them, but it is also the landscape of ancient heroes - the protagonist sets out on a quest - one that she did not choose and, at least on the surface, is poorly prepared to successfully navigate.  This landscape is, then, also the landscape of immortality – the modern hero has the hope to achieve immortality both through the accomplishment of a goal that will win the hero fame and through generating paths for the mentoree to follow, developing the hero's ideas more fully.  The ancient heroic quest is related; the hero's actions are praised in poetry and remembered always, but the generativity is in encouraging others to engage in their own heroic quest.

The usual modern heroic interaction is between an accomplished and revered mentor and an ingénue, a young capable person who is hungry for guidance and latches onto a seemingly infallible source.  The central drama in this novel is between two people who have been in that type of relationship and have had a rupture, the idealization has been burnished, and yet when they cross paths again, they still feel pulled into the same orbit.  Patchett also introduces a gender specific twist into this interaction which is usually portrayed as being between two men, or a man and a woman, and she deliciously develops this theme in the secret quest of the modern hero: the project is to extend the fertility of women into their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond.  So, the issue of the ways that a woman traditionally achieves immortality, through childbearing, and the gender specific limits that are placed on that by menopause, are brought into the equation.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, then, the modern hero aspect makes this a book about narcissistic relationships.  Psychoanalysts view narcissistic relationships as occurring early in our lives – we are the apple of our mother’s eye when we are born, we rely on her for everything, and she, at least in our fantasy, provides for all of our needs.  In the normal course of things, we then move on to more complex types of relationships – relationships with teams of people, not just the coach, and relationships in which we both provide and receive nourishment.  But, especially if the original narcissistic relationship was less than perfect (and whose wasn’t), we continue to wish to return to it and to finally get it right – either as the ingénue, finally receiving the hoped for goodies that were meant for us, and/or as the all-powerful provider, providing perfectly for others what was imperfectly provided for us, though frequently in terms of what we wish for, not taking into account the particular needs of this ingenue.

Patchett provides numerous variations on the theme of narcissistic/hero-mentoree/immortality seeking pairs in the novel, and she illustrates the tension between this way of achieving immortality and the psychoanalytically more mature means of relating as a team member – not just by contrasting human relationships, but through the type of ecosystem she invents that produces the endless fertility of the Amazonian tribe the physician is studying.  The fertility occurs as the result of women chewing the bark of a tree that grows, as aspens do, in groves with a common root system linking them into one organism.  Similarly, there are psychedelic mushrooms, another communal plant, growing in the grove.  They somehow contribute to the properties of the bark, as does the chewing of the bark itself, which exposes the sap to a variety of butterfly whose nectar also contribute to these properties.  Further, the bark’s health giving properties extend beyond fertility into realms that will create a moral dilemma for the drug company – will it develop this drug to support the profitable narcissistic wish of wealthy women to extend their fertility or will it use this scarce and apparently non replicable resource to much less profitably protect the lives of citizens in the third world?

The choice between a stunted but narcotically powerful relationship with a powerful other and the less intense but perhaps more truly fertile relationship with a team or interdependent group posed in this novel ring true in real life, both within the political world of psychoanalysis itself – where two of Freud’s most devoted disciples, Melanie Klein and Heinz Kohut, broke with Freudian ideas in order to provide an alternative vision, ironically about narcissism itself, at great personal and institutional cost, and with my own experience of living with and through the relationships with two powerful mentors in graduate school.  Patchett is pointing us toward an alternate way of relating. but one that is achieved at great cost and one that does not promise the same kind of certainty.  She hopes for a more generative, a more broadly connected relational basis for our actions, but the outcome of this vision is less familiar and therefore produces more anxiety.  She sees personal maturity as an important element in providing the ability to more broadly relate and she sees, I believe, a cultural and social maturity that could pave the way for these kinds of relationships, though I also think that she sees a feminine sensibility as essential to establishing them.  On the other hand, she nicely portrays some of the pitfalls of feminine relatedness and does not naively or stridently praise all things feminine.

The conclusion of this novel is swift.  Many loose ends are tied up quickly.  Some are left dangling, but there is a sense of abruptness to the conclusion.  The ending is like waking from a dream, a good and satisfying dream where the troubling themes have been set aright and we don’t have to worry any longer about them, but can get on with our day.  In fact, the issues that Patchett struggles with are, I think, deep and problematic themes that we as psychoanalysts, but as humanists more generally, must continue to struggle with as we strive to create a better world on both a personal and a societal level.   She suggests that the successful achievement of the ancient hero's quest, requires her to give up her narcissistic investment in being the perfect child and, for that matter the perfect parent, and the result of this, while satisfying on one level, leaves open many questions about the brave new worlds that we enter into, in both the novel and in life.  In the protagonist's nightmares, she is repeatedly separated from her father by the crowds of Indians that appear when she travels to see him.  We will, ironically, face the terror of being alone as we transition to a more broadly based relatedness.  Patchett points us in a direction, but she suggests that there will be great anxiety as we separate from those we love to chart our own course, and as we free those who depend on us to follow their own path.  Ultimately, we must each achieve whatever conclusion we do as the result of our own heroic quest and the resulting idiosyncratic engagement with the issues it exposes us to, an engagement that can be informed by such fine works of art as this novel.

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