Literature in the consulting room

Jane Haynes
Opinion - Books Monday, 24 September 2018

Jane Haynes explains why literature is so important to her in her practice as a psychotherapist


Somehow, I cracked the reading code before I arrived at any school. I remember sitting in the back garden of my London home and watching my pet tortoise slowly munching through lettuce leaves as I tried to crunch letters. Heavens knows how I eventually translated random signs on the page into words, because I am useless at crosswords, Scrabble or jigsaws. It felt like magic. And it was.

By the time I was six I was tucked away, or forgotten, in a country boarding school, and reading had become my consolation. I can see myself reading The Wide Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell in dim torchlight and hoping that a day might come when I would escape into it and become a vet. For various reasons I was never fortunate enough to have a science lesson, and I left school without any academic qualifications. In my 30s I arrived as a mature student and mother of two at Bedford College's English Department in Regent's Park when it was still a stucco villa called The Holme, and my fees were paid for by the state. Among the most fulfilled days of my life were the three years I spent studying Chaucer, Shakespeare, Yeats and Eliot in The Holme's shabby, cardinal-red ballroom.

Having acquired postgraduate academic respectability, I went on to train as a Jungian psychoanalyst. One of the tenets of Jung's theory was his respect for symbolic amplification and the collective cultural unconscious of civilisation. I later discovered that being a psychoanalyst, whether Jungian or Freudian, was a bit like being a member of a cult, and I defected. Now I describe myself as a therapist who works through mutual relationship and dialogue. I have several internal supervisors who whisper wisdom, and among the more conventional theorists such as Jung, Freud, John Bowlby and the indepenently minded Adam Phillips are not only the iconoclastic RD Laing but also Proust, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Mann, and many others.

Who has ever described endurance better than Keats when he wrote to his brothers about "negative capability"? What better description of hitherto concealed narcissism (which has positive as well as its more notorious negative aspects) exists than Tolstoy's Prince Andrei when he believes hiimself to be mortally wounded on the battlefield and reminisces on his life. He says: "...if I want glory, want to be famous and beloved, it's not my fault that I want it, that it's the only thing I care for, the only thing I live for. Yes, the only thing! I shall never tell anyone, but, oh God, Prince, what am I to do if all I care for is fame and the affections of my fellow men?"

There are so many examples of psychological insights that precede Freud and Jung from literature, including Keats' letters and Coleridge's theory of mind, that illuminate the range of emotional states that I encounter in my consulting room. Whereas most theories are built out of personal preoccupations, literature tends to be more objective and more generous in its understanding of the human psyche. I am allergic to the pathology of personality or difference.

But unless I am to write a thesis – and taking into account the current zeitgeist of media interest in sexual abuse - I will limit myself to psychological issues concerning inappropriate or forensic sexual attraction to pubescent youth as explored in Mann's novella Death in Venice and Nabokov's Lolita, both of which ought to be compulsory reading for any specialists in the field. (It almost breaks my heart not to write about Proust's "anacoluthon", but if you want to know more about the psychology of that trickster noun you will have to read the chapter in my book.)

I maintain that there are two victims involved in every act of abuse. While not denying the victim's suffering, it is important to understand the motivation of the perpetrator. What kind of therapist would I be otherwise?

In the instance of Humbert Humbert, Nabokov - who incidentally is always sceptical about psychiatry - makes it clear in the opening pages of the book that his protagonist's hebephilia* is rooted in an experience of first love and loss in adolescence. The first page of the novel, which it is easy to forget as one is drawn (albeit by the end a bit wearily) into HH's obsessive and invasive sexual abuse, reveals that Lolita's precursor, the pubescent and idealised child Annabel, "a few months my junior", with whom Humbert fell consensually in love, died in a distant car accident shortly after their "consummation": "Did she [Lolita] have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea."

This information does not excuse the abuse, but it makes sense of its origin; and what else is therapy except making sense of our lives in a random and challenging world?

In Death in Venice, Mann does not provide a case history of Aschenbach's childhood but focuses on the artist protagonist as the victim of social convention, repression and his lifelong denial of the civil war that goes on in any sentient human being between the warring psychic gods Apollo and Dionysus. We witness the consequences of an artist who is venerated by bourgeois society tragically overthrown by his repressed "shadow"** of chaos, per-version (another version of reality), emotional flaying and the destruction of his rigid moral compass. I imagine these irreconcilable opposites of Order and Chaos as psychic deities, which are the irreconcilable elements of what it means to be a creative human being and which are responsible for almost every adult relationship "knot" or couple's emotional crisis that enters my consulting room.

* Hebephilia is sexual interest by adults of children between 11 and 14.
** Jung used the term "shadow" to represent the dark and unacknowledged or disavowed parts of an individual's personality.


Quartet publishes Jane Haynes' memoir If I Chance To Talk a Little Wild: A Memoir of Self and Other this week.

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