Bouger Freud: literary fiction is the best therapy | Books

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ohOne of my maxims as a professor of literature at the university was: “A great novel not only improves our understanding, but above all, it understands us. Later, when I trained as a psychoanalyst, I annoyed my teachers with my refrain that one could learn more about the intricacies of human psychology from literature than from the works of Freud, Adler or Jung. . This was not to decry the pioneering wisdoms of these great psychologists, but years of teaching literature have convinced me that fiction trumps theory in shedding light on the hidden recesses of our consciousness.

There is now good evidence for the therapeutic effects of reading. The shared reading project, organized by the Reader Organization, suggests group reading – in their case, they bring together groups of people with mental health issues for example, but the results also apply to the monthly meeting of the local book club with added wine – significantly “improves self-confidence and self-esteem, builds social networks, broadens horizons and gives people a sense of belonging, preserving the mental and physical health of those who are doing well and building mental resilience ”.

Chronic loneliness and isolation are now prevalent social issues, but it is not necessary to be part of a group reading project for a book to have a role to play in ameliorating this social unease. . As Shrewd and Insane Holden Caulfield puts it in JD Salinger’s The catcher in the rye: “What really strikes me is a book that, once you are done reading it, you wish the author who wrote it was a great friend of yours and you could call him on the phone. when you feel like it. ” I think many of us can count certain books as close friends (my special friends are those of Henry James The portrait of a lady and that of Patrick White Horsemen in the chariot). And it is by no means a trivial good that, at a fundamental level, reading confers an advantage by entertaining us. “To entertain” means “to admit, cherish, receive as a guest” and books can, and do, dissolve social isolation, as the distant and damaged Caulfield illustrates, by inviting the reader to become involved. an imaginary world. Immersion in a fictitious society appears to promote several of the rewards of immersion in real society: among other benefits, it encourages self-escape, not always escape. Stepping outside the limits of our individual ego is a liberating experience, and entering another universe, through the written word, may be a safer route, or more practically possible, for some – for the elderly, the elderly. incarcerated or emotionally fragile people, for example – only through a personal physical encounter. Among the success stories of Shared Reading is its work in mental hospitals and prisons.

“Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” … a scene from the film adaptation of Anna Karenina in 2012. Photography: Focus features.

I suspect that what is most fruitful about encountering a literary landscape is the intimate knowledge that it encourages other human beings, albeit fictitious, often surprisingly like us. It is here that the “understanding” granted by the great literature becomes therapeutic. Tolstoy’s opening speech Anna karenina, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way ”applies to more than families. All unhappy individuals are unhappy in their own way too. This is in part because self-disclosure is far from easy and self-understanding, and the vocabulary for it, is scarce. But it can often be usefully apprehended in stories of fictitious sensibilities.

Take that of Charlotte Brontë Villette, for example (a novel which in my opinion surpasses the most famous Jane eyre). Her emotionally suppressed hero Lucy Snowe – straightforward, lonely, angry and desperately trying to be self-sufficient – suffers a painful crisis following weeks of friendless loneliness during her time as a teacher. English in a Belgian school. In my professional knowledge of breakdowns, Brontë’s account is extremely precise and not only conveys a depth of experience (whether real or imagined) in its author, but acts as an objective correlative for those who suffered in a similar silence, conferring a lifeline criticism, in the sense of not being quite alone in the world. Likewise, anyone who has endured the hurtful experience of family discord and estrangement will find resonances in King Lear or that of Marilynne Robinson Homepage.

Perhaps more surprisingly and more radically, we can discover in the shadow of a book aspects of ourselves that we have failed to recognize or recognize. Few of us imagine ourselves to be potential murderers, yet few people read Crime and Punishment may fail to enter the tortured conscience of Raskolnikov, who believes he has committed a murder that he is acting rightly, or fail to understand his anguished punishment of guilt. Dostoevsky illuminates, through the example of his character, what we might be too defended to understand: that our civilized beings can hide a deadly armory, potentially capable of atrocities, and that those who justify killing in the name of ideology is not as foreign as one would like to believe.

Exploring Dark Psychology… the film adaptation of Lolita.
Exploring Dark Psychology… the film adaptation of Lolita. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archives / Ronald Grant Archives

Reading, then, is not simply a diversion or a distraction from the present pain; it is also an expansion of our universe, of our sympathies, of our wisdom and of our experience. The act of entering the consciousness of another being, of another sex, or of a sexual preference, of a social group, of a political perspective or of a religious belief, allows a respite from the private and parochial concerns. This broadening of our concerns may involve stepping into another place, or another period in history – or an arena we would otherwise be unaware of. Education, as we never tire of repeating, is an exit process, which suggests another advantage: that by being guided by reading in previously unknown territory, we learn.

Salley Vickers’ latest novel The cousins is published by Viking.

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