Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lawrence Durrell's Justine - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reads a Classic




     Justine is the first of four novels that make up the Alexandria quartet.  I must confess that I have not read the other three and don’t know when or if I will.  Justine stands on its own as an intensely disturbing meditation on love.  Told in a free form style where events are related in the first person based on “the order in which they first became significant for me” rather than in linear fashion, it has a very dream like quality – it is hard to keep track of characters and events but, just as in a good dream, this doesn’t seem to matter. 
     The title character is the object of intense desire – the narrator calls it love – of many people.  Centrally she is loved by her second husband, Nessim.  Her first husband’s novel about his love for her is quoted extensively throughout, and it is used to articulate the love of the narrator, who has an extensive affair with her and who is now also writing a novel about her, while maintaining powerfully attached relationships with his lover, Melissa, and with Nessim.  Indeed, Justine and the narrator himself maintain that Justine’s affair with him is a way of more fully expressing her love for Nessim.   Nessim, in turn, ultimately has an affair with Melissa and the love quadrangle thus becomes complete around the edges.
     Perhaps because of the intensity of the relationships between the four central characters, auxiliary characters abound.  The sharpness of the depiction of them stands in contrast to the amorphous, elusive, shifting quality of the four central characters and particularly of Justine.  It is as if the more you know and love someone the more ephemeral, translucent and unpredictable they become.
     Justine is, in many ways, the perfect object of desire.  Complexly, powerfully and intimately available, present to her lover physically, emotionally and historically, she is also elusive.  The author ties this to a childhood molestation and to Justine’s lingering feelings for the perpetrator.  These feelings are complex, poorly articulated, and we are left to conclude that they include multiple desires - even murderous ones.  I believe we are left to conclude this, rather than the narrator articulating them directly, because Justine does not, herself, know them and she can not articulate them, except, perhaps, through action.
     One of the problems with thinking about a book like this from a psychoanalytic perspective is that it is written under the influence of Freud.  The two epigraphs quote the Marquis de Sade (who also wrote a book titled Justine) and Freud.  Reviewers have stated that Durrell was intending to portray a quantum reality – a post Einsteinian and Freudian view of personality as malleable and essentially unknowable.  The question then becomes whether the analyst is seeing in the mirror simply a reflection of the ideas that come from his discipline to begin with.
     Books like Justine – in so far as they reflect aspects of the real world – are a big part of why I am a reluctant psychoanalyst.  I was raised in a world that promised a very different vision of love than the one presented here.  In the world I was led to believe existed, and the one I came to long for, people who were simple and true could find each other, know each other deeply and well, and live happily ever after.  This worldview, though, is dependent on a static view of human character.  Indeed, part of what made a personal analysis attractive to me was a comment someone once offered, “The well analyzed person never unintentionally insults someone.”  When one of my analytic teachers offered the opinion that the goal of analysis is to teach self-analysis, I vehemently objected.  My wish was to attain a post analytic state where my unconscious would be known and continued analysis would be unnecessary.  Freud’s dictum – where there was id, ego shall be – seemed to promise this was possible.  I wanted a refund!
     Justine, when she is rediscovered after having resolved her central dilemma, is dull.  Her hair is cut; she is living in a kibbutz, farming, and is no longer desirable.  Once her dilemma is resolved, Justine is flat, and no longer worthy of being an object of desire.  I am reminded of the vague dissatisfaction that I feel at the end of a romantic comedy when the boy finally does get the girl (or the other way around).  It is the chase, it is the hunt, it is the drama of the unknown and, at least from the perspective of this novel, the unknowable, that keeps our interest alive.
It is also the case that we prefer that the drama have a conclusion; that the conclusion should come in two to four hundred pages or, in a movie, play or opera, within 2-4 hours.  We can immerse ourselves in the chaos of the unknown for only so long.  Reading the other three books of the Alexandria quartet can wait.  I’m not sure that I want to re-immerse myself in this unsettling world from a different perspective.
     Psychoanalysis can provide some closure as well.  While it does not, in my experience, lead to the post-analytic state that I longed for; it does improve the dialogue between the conscious and unconscious states.  And while this does not eliminate conflict (nor does it, in my case, prevent unintentionally offending others), it does lead to having a stronger base from which to venture into the unknown and tools to better appreciate more and more of the terra incognita that lies both within myself and between myself and others.  It provides a narrative structure to the chaotic elements of my experience.  Strangely, then, and perhaps perversely, Justine (and the rest of the, as yet, unread Alexandria quartet), reassures me that, reluctant though I may be, I am on the right track.  There is always more to be known about the complexities of the human soul.  This, though, is a double-edged sword.  There are many times that I wish that I could turn off the analytic process and stand somewhere, anywhere, on a nice bit of solid ground, secure in the knowledge of something not contingent, not relative, but absolute, certain – like the speed of light.

Postscript:  I have just finished a post on The English Patient.  In it, there is a similarly enigmatic love object, though the focus of the book and movie is on the lover rather than the beloved.  I think - now years later - that the true focus of Justine may actually have been the author and that she is the object not of his love so much as his fear of love.  That actual contact - the somewhat naive kind of love contact that I refer to in the post above (and reference in terms of a reunion in the post on the English Patient) is an anathema to the more Gothic romantic view - a view of loving someone who must, necessarily, be unknown - because it would be terrifying to actually know her - and to be know by her.  I am reminded of Freud's callous disregard for Dora's inner life - including that she might want to actually be loved by Herr K. - not fondled by him - something that Freud was blind to in his work to get a handle on her and the complications of being present to someone else.  I suppose I am also a reluctant psychoanalyst because it turns out that actually making contact with someone else - being present to them and while being present to ourselves is much more difficult than we imagine it.  And it may be that sexually abused women - especially women who have been abused by people whom they trusted to love them - can sniff this out in us - can expose in us just how complex our best intentions are - including their base components.  This leads them to mistrust us - and we to mistrust them, but also ourselves in their presence.  This gives them a certain allure - a dangerous allure - as they, and we, try to discover something noble in a sea of desires, each of which seems to have a base component.

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