Saturday, October 11, 2008

Making Meaning (Books - Eclipse by John Banville and Attachment, Play and Authenticity by Steven Tuber)

Both Attachment, Play and Authenticity, a book about the work of child psychologist D. W. Winnicott written by a professor of mine - Steven Tuber, and Eclipse, a novel by John Banville, dwell in the land of how the past builds our experience of the present. Each chapter of the Winnicott book begins with an energetic opening featuring a story or artistic example.

I don't know whether Winnicott had a penchant for rhythm and blues, but I feel quite sure that he would have made a link between a song entitled "Give Me One Reason to Stay Here" by Tracy Chapman and his article "Primitive Emotional Development" (1945). Chapman's soulful distinction between the deadly engulfment cause by an overly intrusive squeeze versus the soothing, repetitive holding that gets her through the night highlights the life-or-death importance of early mothering in a manner that Winnicott would have certainly resonated with.

Infancy, rather than Freud's mythic Oedipal stage (3-5 years old), is where Winnicott places the most fundamental period in the development of a healthy or pathological psychology. The origin of one's style of relating to self and other, discerning reality and fantasy, and, as the Tracy Chapman song suggsts, the difference between being cared for and being smothered begins in the formative relationship between mother and infant, and the rituals they create. As is my wont, I also think of the narrative construction that accompanies these rituals. The flow of words naming and describing what they are doing, and how indelibly that narrative becomes established along with whatever actions are performed and, as this chapter's heading says, makes meaning for the participants. Tuber's enthusiasm for the ideas of Winnicott and their usefulness to a meaningful therapeutic process is readily communicated in the easy style of this book.

In Eclipse Alex Cleave, an actor who wakes up one day to find himself broken, revisits those rituals and retells those narratives by returning to his childhood home, now in as great a state of disrepair as he is.

Memories crowd in on me, irresistibly, threatning to overwhelm my thoughts entirely, and I might be a child again, and this arid present no more than a troubled foreglimpse of the future. I dare not go up to the garret for fear I might see my father again...

But am I rightly remembering that night? Am I remembering anything rightly? I may be embellishing, inventing, I may be mixing everything up. Perhaps it was another night entirely that he brought me home on the bar of his bicyicle, under his coat. And how did his bicycle come to be threre, at the station, anyway, if he was arriving by train? These are the telltale threads on which memory snags her nails.

Here I am, a grown man in a haunted house, obsessing on the past.

It is to those formative relationships that Alex returns to try to find himself again. Perhaps it is not so important whether the memory is 'right,' I want to tell him, as it is to listen to the narrative you now give those events. That is the meaning you are making of them. That's what we're all reading, isn't it? Constructed narrative, a made meaning. Reading a novel gives me a way to try out the possibility of narratives other than my own. That is, they say, a value of reading stories as we form ourselves in childhood and adolescence. But that view assumes that we ever stop forming ourselves and I don't think we do. There is a certain stability, sure. But the world changes and a healthy self adapts right along with it. Books give us source material as we write and re-write that narrative.

2 comments:

Matt said...

Interesting thoughts. I have shied away from the book after the dreamy scenes and spectral visions at the beginning. As usual, his writing is so dense and rich that it overwhelms me. I'll pick it up again thanks to your redeeming of it! :)

Pete said...

Ted, that Winnicott books sounds really interesting and am happy to have re-found your blog (with interesting comments on one of my favourite psychologists). Such a good point about the difference between smothering and mothering. Can easily be taken for granted but very helpful when pointed out.