Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Life After Life - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reflects on Kate Atkinson's Novel About Reincarnation

A Palimpsest is a document that has been written on a surface - usually vellum - that has been previously written on - and erased.   Occasionally scholars discover that what has been erased is more interesting than the most recent thing written on the page.  In her book Life After Life, Kate Atkinson lets us look, with her protagonist Ursula, at a life - a life that Ursula lives over and over until she gets it right.  We get to see the things that Ursula "knows" and that lead her to head off various bad things that occur (frequently death, often her own but sometimes others) in her next life ant the life after that.

Ursula is born into upper middle class paradise; Fox Corners, a home in suburban London, in 1910.  Her entry into life is precarious.  She is born with an umbilical cord around her neck in the middle of a snowstorm and sometimes things happen so that she survives, and sometimes not.  From this precarious start, she grows up with a boorish older brother - in every iteration he is boorish - and a lovely older sister, an Irish housekeeper and, eventually, younger brothers.  Her father disappears to fight the First World War and her mother raises her as an independent woman, creating a joyful and safe bubble for the family to live in.

Ursula is bothered by the intimations she has of former lives, but they are annoyances rather than something that sets her apart as a different sort of person.  She has deja vu experiences that are more potent than most.  And she has memories. usually vague, of previous lives that powerfully determine her behaviors - perhaps because, in some lives, she states that her primary job is to be a witness.  And witness she does.  She sees the horror of the Second World War - particularly the experience of living, time after time, in London, and in one life in Berlin - during the horrific bombing that took place - in London, at night - in Berlin, around the clock.

This story, then, is an interesting twist on the psychoanalytic paradigm.  In psychoanalysis, the analysand visits parts of their lives, and then revisits them. And frequently each visit reveals differences.  Sometimes the differences are subtle and sometimes they are profound. The different perspectives might be an important part of the "curative" quality of analysis.  We are able, from increasingly mature and sophisticated perspectives, to view what happened to us - and to what we did in return.  We are able to be more accepting of our own culpability - and to come to terms with what we have done to ourselves and others.  We are also able to come to terms with the complexity of others' motives - and we come to have a richer appreciation of them and what was occurring - or may have been occurring - at the time.

It is a truism of analysis that with trauma, the memories tend to be more crystallized.  There is a sense that this - this particular thing - happened, and the different angles are hard won - if they are achieved at all.  One of the things that is remarkable about Nelson Mandela is that he was able to survive brutal treatment - and to acknowledge his own brutal treatment of others - and to create a position from which to engage with others that was overly determined neither by the trauma nor by his aggression.

So the analytic question is: How do I learn to better live with this life that I have lived - how do I use that as a platform, not to keep doing things as I have done them - not to keep banging my head against the wall - but to acquire, slowly and gently because giving up my way of making sense of the world leaves me vulnerable to disorientation and worse; new ways of seeing things and understanding them.  Kate Atkinson's question dovetails with it: if I could live this life over, how would I do things differently?

Her answer, and here there is a spoiler alert, is that the changes would, in their final iteration, be small rather than large.  Much would remain.  Major changes, changes that would prevent horror - the holocaust, the bombings of London and Berlin - require violence that prevents viewing the results - Ursula must die in order to achieve these ends, and she can never know what the result will be.

So, Ursula chooses a world that is very much like the world that we live in - it is our world.  Indeed, many of the iterations that seem wildly different end up with specific elements that seem to have a different place and different meaning, but are the same. So, in many of these stories, Ursula chooses to go to the same shorthand and typing school.  Sometimes she is more aware of the lechery of the owner and lead teacher, sometimes things happen differently within the school, but the school, something that she goes to at different points in her life and with different support and for different reasons, keeps showing up.  As do some horrific images.  They keep being there, even though they are seen from the perspective of very different life experiences.  And they keep being horrific.

What Ursula chooses - Ursula who is named a bear - like Ursa Major - the constellation that points to true north - what she works iteratively and consistently towards is the preservation of a life and a relationship.  She cares, deeply and powerfully, about two other people and about their relationship with each other.  Enough that, given the power to literally create different universes, she focuses on supporting a particular relationship.

This is not like the movie Groundhog Day.  She doesn't live life over until she gets everything right.  There is still a great deal that is very very wrong.  And she, and people around her, somewhat annoyingly, defend against the horror of what they have seen and smelled and floated in by having a stiff upper lip - by using a distinctly British sense of humor - at times this reads more like the screen play to a Hugh Grant movie than a serious exploration of horrendous trauma; but the humor - the need to defend against the horror - is very real and a very real part of surviving and, in so far as we can, transcending it.  It both transcends and preserves it.  And within what is a horrible assault, we choose, Kate Atkinson proposes, to find some goodness - and to do every thing that we can to protect and preserve it.

An interesting twist on this is that, in addition to Ursula having the gift to relive, it seems that her mother does.  And one of her mother's choices is to live a life with Ursula in it.  She,in turn, chooses to keep two particular others in this world - to believe that the world will be a better place - that things are as they should be - because these people will be here and will be together.

The opportunity that our life affords us, I think Atkinson is maintaining, or at least she is as I understand her, is the chance, amidst all that goes wrong, to do something good and noble.  Not necessarily something heroic or history altering, but something small but profound - to recognize goodness and to help it spread.  This is a very different idea than, for instance, waging a war on drugs or terrorism or whatever we may be at war with at a given moment.  It is the lesson that gets learned being raised in an idyllic corner of the world - and nearly all of the corners of the world contain idyllic elements - the lesson that building a better world is important.

In the palimpsest of our lives - the one we discover analytically rather than through reincarnation - part of the task is to discover interactional elements that are desired, useful and growth promoting.  Our lives - and our analyses - are filled with difficult moments.  People misunderstand, sometimes violently.  But the positive moments also exist in all of our lives - and hopefully in the interactions with our analysts - those moments that serve as the cornerstone to recognize the beauty that living with others can bring.

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