Should we be suspicious of the idea that fiction can help us to live meaningful lives? After all, as Plato observed (via a fictionalised Socrates), Homer’s stories were composed to stir and entertain rather than to instruct us. They may be a lot of fun, but they have nothing to tell us about living well. How could fictional characters, shadowy beings who exist only in words, offer any meaningful purchase on the all too solid problems of our daily lives?
If we try to enlist the help of novels by extracting rules and hacks and counsel from them, we will probably prove Plato right. Novels, or at least the ones worth reading, draw us in not by offering moral instruction or practical guidance, but by helping us to see ourselves in all our strangeness and complexity.
Having spent a large portion of my life reading fiction and practising psychotherapy, this strikes me as the essential overlap between the two. Each gets us to listen to the nuances and rhythms of human experience, to make ourselves available to the unsuspected thoughts, feelings and desires murmuring below the surface. Listening is the engine of curiosity, and so of change and growth.
Like the psychoanalyst, the novelist can’t cure us of error and illusion and shouldn’t try. To cite Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, “That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.” But psychoanalysis and literature can help us to experience those errors and illusions from the inside rather than view them from on high, to enter deeply enough into the world of the person who made them to begin to understand why.
As my virtual consulting room reminds me hourly, listening feels like a precious commodity at the moment, when our curiosity is perpetually drowned by fear. When the first lockdown began, it struck me that the new restrictions on our physical freedom were being mirrored in a kind of psychic restriction. The people I listened to would often sound locked down imaginatively, pinned to the spot by the force and immediacy of their worries.
And the pandemic hasn’t been the only thing menacing our capacity to listen. Toxic political divisions, stoked by demagogues and amplified in media bubbles, have turned those who think differently to us into the deadliest of enemies. The willingness and courage to listen to other voices can rarely have seemed in such short supply.
This may be one way in which fiction can help. Think of Alice, wandering through the anarchic and disturbing dream worlds of Wonderland and Looking-Glass with such easy curiosity. However violently the laws of physics and language and logic may bend and break, Alice’s level of perturbation never seems to go beyond mild surprise or impatience. The White Queen can metamorphose into a sheep who doubles as the clerk of a shop whose sale items float away the moment Alice looks at them; “Things flow about so here!” she remarks, as though she’s strolled into the park on an unexpectedly blowy day.
The boundary separating reality from illusion is much more porous for a child than an adult. A child’s imaginative life seeps into the reality around her; even in waking life, Alice’s kitten plays chess. Her favourite phrase, “Let’s pretend!”, is one most of us abandon somewhere on the road to adulthood, and that some are deprived of the chance to utter in the first place. For the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, this is a source of many of the malaises of adult life; if we’ve not known what it is to pretend, to experience the permeability of real and imaginary worlds, we cannot feel properly alive.
Alice offers us a kind of masterclass in aliveness. Ambling through the monstrous landscapes of her dreaming mind’s creation, she never shrinks in horror or cries in fear, but greets whoever and whatever she meets in a spirit of generous acceptance. Caterpillars who smoke hookahs, oversized talking eggs who argue semantics: other bodies and voices are never so other that she declines to open her curious ears to them.
An expansive imaginative life like Alice’s is rooted in the inner security that comes from being loved from birth, as another great fictional girl, Jane Eyre, confirms. At the point Jane Eyre begins, Jane has been stranded in the hostile confines of her Aunt Reed’s home. Charlotte Brontë takes pains to let us know that this hasn’t been her only emotional experience, that baby Jane’s arrival was received with joy by her birth parents before they succumbed to typhus, that she had been “a great favourite” of her adoptive Uncle Reed.
Jane’s subjection to the loveless regimes of Gateshead Hall and Lowood School has been preceded by the love of her earliest carers, implanting in her a belief in her right to life and selfhood and a fierce protectiveness towards her own imaginative freedom. In fact, she spends much of her young life yearning and fighting to regain the love she received in infancy.
After suffering public humiliation from the sadistic headmaster Brocklehurst, she tells her friend Helen Burns: “to gain some affection from you, or Miss Temple, or any other whom I truly love, I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken, or to let a bull toss me, or to stand behind a kicking horse, and let it dash its hoof at my chest – ”.
Jane is effectively saying that the worst imaginable pain is preferable to the void of lovelessness. She would rather be full of a pain she can feel than emptied of the basic conditions for feeling anything. Helen, who hushes her wild talk and counsels stoic endurance of her tormentors, eventually succumbs to the outbreak of typhus that Jane survives. Jane fights for the life Helen surrenders because, unlike Helen, she knows her life is worth fighting for, a knowledge that is the very meaning of resilience.
Jane carries in herself a kernel of parental love that grounds her determination and desire. She makes an interesting contrast in this regard with Frances, the protagonist of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. Both as a couple and as parents, Frances’s mother and father are defined by a kind of emotional evasiveness, an inability to show the love they feel, for one another and for their child. Their withholding tendencies come to shape Frances’s conception of herself as “emotionally cold”, too distant from herself to know how or what she feels.
From the beginning of the novel, Frances lets us know just how much energy she invests in not giving herself away. We meet her in the back of a taxi, “already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions to make myself seem charming”. A little later, watching a shirtless Nick, the older man soon to become her lover, act on stage, she feels “a sting of self-consciousness, as if the audience had all turned at this moment to observe my reaction”. In each of these moments, Frances can access her inner self only by way of a long-winded detour through the eyes of others: glimpsing Nick’s muscled torso, she feels not her eye on him, but their eyes on her on him.
Perpetually at war with her own feelings, Frances gives us insight into sexual love as a region of danger, raging with volatility and turbulence, violent and sudden fluctuations between joy and pain, affection and rage. Unable to bear the sheer intensity of her emotional life, she obfuscates her own feelings, deceiving herself as much as others. She hears messages from her interior but is unsure whether she can trust them. She is a fine companion for our own feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt.
In her portrayal of love as a kind of excess of feeling, too much for body and soul to bear, Rooney reads as an unlikely 21st-century companion to DH Lawrence, the literary high priest of emotional intensity.
Such ideas have been particularly on my mind lately, as I’ve listened to men and women tell me of their marital struggles in lockdown. How are they to bear the unbroken intimacy enforced by their confinement, they ask, channelling Dorothea Brooke’s lament in Middlemarch: “Marriage is so unlike anything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings.”
Our culture encourages us to think of coupledom as an expansion of our selfhood and our world; but at an everyday level, the proximity of another person can feel like a perpetually resented obstacle to self-fulfilment, a constriction of our possibilities. This experience of marriage is brought to distressing life in countless great novels: Middlemarch; Anna Karenina; or the experimental writer Chris Kraus’s 2006 contribution to the genre, aptly titled Torpor.
Torpor follows its couple – protagonist Sylvie and her partner Jerome – around Europe in 1991, as they bicker with a kind of genial sado-masochism about Jerome’s obsession with the Holocaust (and her failure to understand it), his teenage daughter’s hostility to Sylvie (and Sylvie’s desperate need for her acceptance ), and his refusal to let her take the odd cab (and her “American brat’s” sense of entitlement to one), all the while pursuing a doomed plan to adopt a Romanian orphan.
Kraus brings out the comedy of the “awful nearness” of coupledom, the way it traps its participants in torturous and oddly gratifying loops of the same arguments and resentments. Marriage sets the same trap as Yossarian’s Catch-22 – in marriage as in war, the way out is an illusion that pulls you right back in: “The only means of escaping from the torpor of their lives would have been to have a baby. A baby would have forced them into some momentum. But they’ll never have a child for exactly the same reasons that Jerome won’t let her take a taxi.”
The members of a couple, in other words, are liable to obtain obscure gratification from their awful nearness to one another, to relish getting stuck in the torpor of their life together. So what would it mean to make that nearness less awful?
Few writers have thought about this question more deeply than DH Lawrence. One chapter of The Rainbow begins with the extended, voluntary confinement of a young newlywed couple, Anna and Will Brangwen, in their cottage and, for the most part, their marital bed.
The problem is that the couple can’t be forever immune to the encroachments and pressures of the world outside, the need (as Will puts it to himself) “to get up in the morning and wash oneself and be a decent social being”. Anna feels a sudden and irresistible urge for “a real outburst of housework”, which transforms Will at a stroke from languid love-god to nuisance: “‘Can’t you do anything’ she said, as if to a child, impatiently. ‘Can’t you do your wood-work?’” leaving Will furious at his sudden superfluousness.
What could be more ordinary, banal even? Versions of this row are repeated in households everywhere, all the time: woman gets busy, man stands about uselessly, woman becomes irritable, man retreats into a bubble of self-pity and hurt pride. If you’re in a long-term partnership and don’t recognise some version of this dispute, your relationship is either a shining example of domestic cooperation or a ticking time-bomb.
Lawrence’s brilliance lies in his revelation of this little scene as a skirmish in an ongoing war of unconscious forces. Beneath the familiar surface of marital bickering is a violent revolt against the pressures of intimacy. Anna feels an irritation “beyond bearing”, unleashing in Will a rage of his own, “black and electric”: “He seemed a dark, almost evil thing, pursuing her, hanging on to her, burdening her … ‘Can’t you do something?’”
It’s not about the feet getting in the way of the vacuum cleaner. It’s more that the resulting twinge of irritation touches the edge of something bigger and much more frightening: all my external and internal space is shared with this person. Everything that happens to them happens to me. Everywhere I turn, they’re there. It’s not just the hallway carpet; they are always in the way.
But this is the essential paradox of intimacy: in intensifying our closeness to another, we not only make them more familiar to us; we come alive to their strangeness and irreducible difference. Real closeness must involve the recognition of the other’s need for separateness or else be mired in tragicomic torpor. This is the substance of Lawrence’s dark and risky optimism about love and marriage, and it strikes me as holding special resonance for couples living through lockdown.
Of course, there is more than one kind of marital problem. If some people complain of the claustrophobic intimacy of marriage, others, perhaps especially if they are older, will speak of a gulf in contact, of a loneliness that their partner’s presence only amplifies. How do we live with such emotional disappointment as we move into the second half of life?
Few novels offer a richer response to this question than Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, her account of a sunny day in the life of the disappointed wife of a Tory MP. Long past childbearing, celibate and cloistered in a single bedroom, Clarissa experiences “the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown”. She is fearfully attuned to “the dwindling of life”, a reference not only to the daily contracting lifespan, but to the draining away of its sensory vividness.
But the paradox of Mrs Dalloway is that it is in precisely this unpromising inner landscape that we can find remarkable experiential riches. The desperate, inchoate “unhappiness” Clarissa feels is only the warp to the weft of the overwhelming “love of life” that can just as easily overwhelm her. Even her loss of youthful energy and hope becomes an eerie kind of joy, as in this beautiful passage close to the end of the novel:
Odd, incredible: she had never been so happy. Nothing could be slow enough; nothing last too long. No pleasure could equal, she thought, straightening the chairs, pushing in one book on the shelf, this having done with the triumphs of youth, lost herself in the process of living, to find it, with a shock of delight, as the sun rose, as the day sank.
What Clarissa means by the joy of “having done with the triumphs of youth” is a sense of happiness no longer being projected into an endlessly deferred, elusive future; suddenly, fleetingly but unmistakably, it’s right here, waiting for us in the faces of the people and things around us.
This strikes me as a fitting wisdom for our indefinite confinement. There is no comfort for the lives and material security and freedom lost to the pandemic. But buried in these losses is a gain of sorts: the chance to stop searching frantically for meaning and pleasure everywhere else and find it where we are.
Novels can show us how to live not by instruction but by the example of the generous, expansive curiosity they extend to the world and everything in it.
How to Live. What to Do is published by Ebury Press.