:: Article

The Private Life

By Will Rees.

The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark, Josh Cohen, Granta, 2013

We are all of us politely held hostage to a culture of intrusion — one kept alive through an ‘unholy alliance of voyeurism and exhibitionism’; a culture botched and held together through a shared sense of curiosity, repulsion, sympathy, schadenfreude, arrogance, loneliness, jealousy, empathy, and a million other feelings that combine to make it, as Josh Cohen understatedly writes, ‘hard to opt out of’. And its watchword? Not simply, ‘I should know everything,’ but its inverse, its other, ‘Nothing should remain unknown to me.’ It is, after all, not a thirst for knowledge which keeps us flicking through magazines to see the parts of Kate Middleton’s anatomy she’d rather remained concealed, but the fear that we’ll be the only one who didn’t see them in a world where everyone did. It isn’t, writes Cohen, ‘a question of wanting to know so much as a fear of what might remain unknown, inaccessible, in the dark.’ Thus while public debates about privacy have become trite, reduced to a series of platitudes about what comprises an individual’s ‘private life’ — the part of their affairs that is most fully their own and whose discretion should be respected — in The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark (Granta, 2013) Cohen asks if there isn’t

another, more essential privacy, namely what I keep private even from myself—and in spite of myself? Drag every sordid secret into the light and something of yourself, perhaps the very thing that really matters, would remain in the dark.

It’s this dark remainder that Cohen turns his lens to. It goes by many names. For psychoanalysis, the work’s main theoretical framework, it’s called the unconscious. There is, at root, something fundamentally unknowable about us. ‘The Ego’ — to quote Freud, as Cohen often does — ‘is not master in its own house.’ Could it be the repulsion and anxiety this provokes that fuels our desire to broadcast everything about ourselves online? our sense of entitlement to know everything about others? the complicity, that is, that we each of us share in the culture of intrusion we claim to abhor?

Only when we better understand the uncanny stranger that we are, argues Cohen, might we be able to understand our contradictory responses to the contemporary assaults on privacy; assaults in which we are both assailant and victim. Thus Cohen aims to bring into focus what remains out of view, to illuminate that which remains in the dark, so that ‘a different relationship to our own and others’ privacy’ might be forged. Along the way he has much to say on topics as diverse as Samuel Beckett, Peter Andre, Maurice Blanchot, The Leveson Inquiry and X-Factor.

What’s striking throughout is the complicity between psychoanalysis and literature; a complicity to which Cohen — a professor of modern literary theory and a practising analyst — is particularly attuned. Asking how we should think about the private self, Cohen argues that it isn’t simply that which we become when we shut our door and close our curtains. Rather we should think of the self as idiom.

Your idiom is somehow both openly visible and strangely imperceptible . . . you’re revealed as at once the most self-evident fact and the most impenetrable secret. Your private self is diffused in all the ways you express yourself, and so isn’t reducible to any of them. It’s concealed, you could say, less behind than in the face you show the world. You are a secret that hides itself in plain sight.

Bringing this together with Freud’s early case studies, Cohen advances a theory of psychoanalysis’s relationship with literature that far exceeds the reductive confines of its usual place in criticism; those painfully boring essays that litter every ‘Companion to …’ guide to have been written in the last 30 years — the ones that tell us that Kafka’s Metamorphosis simply dramatizes an Oedipal struggle or worse, turn the microscope on the man himself. When the self is regarded as singularly idiomatic, it becomes clear that it’s ‘not just poetry that’s lost in translation. It’s you, too.’ What we see in Freud’s early case studies, argues Cohen, is a therapist’s struggle with what at once invites us in while leaving us out in the cold. There is a strange complicity between psychoanalysis and literature. Freud, we learn, was confounded that his case studies ‘looked unnervingly like works of literature.’ While remaining committed to scientific positivism, he nonetheless felt it incumbent on him to write in the way he did. Thus his highly literary texts are not an evasion of rigour, but precisely the opposite; they attempt to capture the self in all its manifold complexity and contradictoriness.

‘Literature’, writes Cohen ‘invades the scientific stage when the patient’s story can no longer be reduced to a known quantity.’ Psychoanalysis, as a literary form, can do justice to the fact we are always more than ourselves, always less; both double and incomplete. To the empirical sciences, this will always be an affront. And yet, writes Cohen: ‘Psychoanalysis and poetry are exact sciences precisely because they eschew the definitive answers demanded by so-called hard science to questions of who and why we are who we are, showing us instead the experience of being a self in all its inconsistency, strangeness and duplicity.’ The point is expressed beautifully — but, we might worry, a little too simply or calmly. As Cohen would certainly agree, literature isn’t just a more precise expression of a given quantity; it moves in the space where quantities are no longer given. Thus literature runs a risk. It isn’t precise, but ambiguous. It runs the fine line between the exact and the obscure, over a space without certain answers. Cohen is absolutely right that this puts literature in special contact with the unconscious, however he could do more to explore the risks such a proximity entails for psychoanalysis, which, I presume, he would not wish to completely unhinge from the empirical and measurable world — or to entirely submerge into the nocturnal space before the world that, Maurice Blanchot (to my mind, the book’s hero; often named, always present) tells us, defines literature. One ought always to be careful when one enlists the help of Blanchot, if one still has projects in mind …

Later Cohen asks why — in a golden age of self-analysis, where psychoanalytic terms have found their way into the mainstream, and where we are constantly encouraged to ‘be ourselves’ or to ‘get in touch with our feelings’ — are we more estranged than ever from the idyll of a private life? And why are we more determined than ever to close the space where it might exist? Exploring the various assaults on the privacy of the ‘inner self’ — self-inflicted and imposed — Cohen asks: ‘Is the inner self nurtured or destroyed by our zeal to open it up to the gaze of the world?’ His answer, emphatically, is the latter. ‘The less you conceal,’ he writes, ‘the stranger you become.’

Through an analysis of Big Brother’s depleting allure, he explores Hannah Arendt’s diagnosis of the modern world’s blurring between the public and the private spheres. But, he asks, don’t Big Brother and Arendt share the same faulty logic? The private life isn’t simply what we do when we’re at home, but owes more to the fact of not being at home … This is the wisdom of Freud, and of Blanchot. For the latter, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is about the passion for the invisible; Orpheus’s impossible desire to see Eurydice not when she is visible and worldly, but when she is invisible and obscure. This, for Cohen, is the private life. It’s that which can’t be brought to light because that’s precisely where it hides; that which can’t be paraded on TV or kept discretely behind closed curtains. ‘This isn’t a secret lurking in the dark. It’s right there on the face across the breakfast table, in the mirror.’ Arendt’s logic finds an unexpected corollary in tabloid snooping; both imagine that the private life can be reduced to secrecy; they simply differ on what is to be done with it. Both rub balm on a more unsettling fact: the less we hide, the more we’re hidden; even from ourselves. Aren’t your closest friends, your family, your lover, so much stranger to you than the person you pass on the street? Like that difficult book you held so close to your face that its long words blurred and became incomprehensible, the closer we draw people towards us, the more they confound us. The less you conceal the stranger you become.

The public and the private, the internal and the external; such divisions are fantasies. The private life is too strange to be reduced to any binary. The real secret isn’t somewhere behind; it’s paraded in clear view. I think here of a line of Derrida’s, one of his most beautiful: ‘There is something secret. But it does not conceal itself.’ Thus the private life is not simply the invisible, the clandestine, the secret. It’s both eerily close and frustratingly distant. It’s the obscurity of this fact, Cohen argues, and the discomfort it provokes, which makes us not only victims, but also perpetrators. It’s what holds together the ‘unholy alliance of voyeurism and exhibitionism’ that defines the modern age.

Cohen is a great writer; anecdotal and aphoristic by turns, often in just a few words he can capture a person or an idea perfectly. For example: ‘Blanchot’s writings mine the great events of history and literature not for what can be known about them, but for what can’t.’ Or: ‘This story has turned me into the reluctant voyeur of my own private madness, has rubbed me up against the someone else that I am.’ Or: ‘Wedded to the kind of hardbitten cynicism that comes only with vast inexperience, I felt [Jane Austen’s] unsentimental materialism licensed me to like her.’ Because of the elusive nature of what he seeks, the work is almost fugal in its composition, a book of variations. Cohen starts each chapter with a personal story, a few observations carefully followed through, then waits as that which hides itself shows itself and follows it through its manifold retreats as it slips from grasp. This way of proceeding has a powerful de-mastering effect. Here we have an analyst in service of and bound to that obscure, unconquerable region, the unconscious, rather than someone feigning to teach us about it from an illusory position of authority. Cohen that is, doesn’t pretend to be anywhere other than in the dark.

My only concern with the book is that by rooting peculiarly modern tendencies in psychoanalytic structures, we risk hypostatising them or shielding them from social criticism that can result in change. Isn’t to explain someone’s voyeurism based on the inherent non-normative hypocrisy of the subject in some sense to mitigate it, or at least to make it more difficult to criticise? This is not at all to say that psychoanalysis isn’t important here, but that the discussion would benefit from a consideration of its limitations as a form of cultural criticism. If Cohen’s aim is to imagine how ‘a different relationship to our own and others’ privacy’ might be possible, he could perhaps do with more normatively charged analysis. As Cohen brilliantly demonstrates, psychoanalysis’s great virtues are its non-prescriptiveness and its patience. In the face of such rapacious assaults on privacy, these are the precisely the reasons why, while we might wish to start from the insights of psychoanalysis, we should also depart from them.

But this seems almost irrelevant. Because in the end, I think, privacy turns out to be a MacGuffin, a hook on which the book’s more diffuse contents can be hung. The book is an elegy to the strangeness and complexity of human experience, and to psychoanalysis and literature — the two disciplines that can do it justice. For me, its ultimate message and value — if we can talk about such things — lie in the following insight. ‘You could say, rightly, that this persistence in remaining in the dark is cause for despair. But also, and equally right, that it’s our only hope.’ Despair and hope are two sides of the same coin. Conversation — with ourselves, with others, with literature — is always ruined by an irreducible opacity at its heart, a fundamental incommunicability. Just as Orpheus will never see the nocturnal Eurydice, we will never gain full access to the obscure regions of ourselves, or reveal them to others, or see those of others. Thus is Prufrock’s lament.

“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

And yet it is the impossibility of seeing the invisible Eurydice which draws Orpheus ceaselessly towards her. The failure of coincidence becomes the condition of conversation. As Minus’s father says in Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, ‘Suddenly the emptiness turns into abundance, and despair into life. It’s like a reprieve … from a death sentence.’ This ruination, this impossibility, protects the very possibility of conversation, its ceaselessness. That’s why we’re pulled unendingly towards artworks, other people, and even ourselves. Never arriving is another way of saying always underway. As we learn from Blanchot in the aptly titled The Infinite Conversation, impossibility’s other face is infinity. Cause for despair then, certainly; but also our only hope.

Will Rees recently finished a philosophy master’s, and now he just isn’t sure.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 4th, 2014.