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22 February 2021

“Can you imagine if you presented Freud to Jane Austen?”: Josh Cohen on literature and psychoanalysis

The analyst and writer's latest work, How to Live. What to Do., is a mix of case studies from his consulting room, personal reminiscence, and literary reference points.

By Leo Robson

How should we conceive the relationship between fiction and psychoanalytic thought? What is the largest area of overlap, or the most fruitful point of connection? There’s a boisterous history of literary interpretation with analytic leanings – one thinks of the American scholar Peter Brooks in Reading for the Plot (1984) or Freud himself in his essay “Dostoevsky and Parricide”. The psychology of the literary artist has also been widely explored – by the psychiatrist Anthony Storr in his essays on Kafka and Balzac, for example, or Freud again in “Creative Writers and Day-dreaming.” And it’s often said that the best clinical case studies read like accomplished short stories, with elegant prose, well-timed revelations, and identifying details tweaked.

In his wonderful new book How to Live. What to Do., Josh Cohen, a Freudian psychoanalyst who is also a professor of literary theory at Goldsmiths, University of London, goes for a simpler answer – one staring us right in the face. He proceeds from the idea that the novelist, like the psychoanalyst, is concerned with human beings, and so the richest novels – like the most nuanced case studies and most lucid theoretical essays – serve as a repository for insight about our motives and behaviour. Although Cohen discusses characters from 24 novels, his book is not about writing. Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Updike’s “Rabbit” Angstrom and Frances from Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (2017) are discussed in the same way that Cohen describes visitors to his consulting room, as individual cases that reflect a state, stage, or predicament: adolescent rebellion, the confusions of first love, the perils of ambition, marital misery, old age. Cohen isn’t interested in how psychoanalysis might help the novel, or vice versa, but in what the two traditions jointly, or uniformly, allow us to explore.

[see also: Sally Rooney on sex, power and the art of being normal]

“Can you imagine if you presented Freud to Jane Austen?” Cohen asked me recently, during a two-hour amble around Kensal Rise, near where he lives in north-west London. “She would think that it was both an absurd confection and so obvious that it’s not even worth remarking.” Cohen, who turned 50 last year, is compact and subtly scruffy. He has a boyish central parting, a salt-and-pepper beard, a serious mouth with mild guppy tendencies, and small dark eyes that project a tickled gleam from behind his black-rimmed glasses. His conversational style is at once forthright and soothingly sibilant as he expounds on the subjects to which he has devoted his life: post-romantic literature, 20th-century theory, the human mind. At times, he is reminiscent of his contemporary Louis Theroux, though he comes armed with a different sort of question, more searching, perhaps, or less confident about what it wants to provoke.

How to Live. What to Do – like its predecessors, The Private Life (2014), and Not Working (2019) – is a mix of case studies from Cohen’s consulting room, personal reminiscence, literary and cultural reference points, and psychoanalytic theory. Though the books are crisp and gently aphoristic, you wouldn’t call what Cohen does an exercise in popularising. The aim is less to describe arcane ideas for a broader readership, as in Cohen’s earlier book, How to Read Freud (2005), than to take a topic with a modish cast – the right to “privacy”, workaholism and burnout, and now, more obliquely, personal growth – and reveal its larger implications.

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Much of Cohen’s work is driven by his aversion to a type of spatial metaphor that minimises the value and variety of familiar experience. His first book, Spectacular Allegories (1998), a study of modern American fiction and journalism that emerged from his PhD, questions the postmodern idea that spectacle somehow floats “outside” history and “above” material reality. It was written before Cohen was a practitioner, or even employed Freudian theory. He told me that his “obsessional preoccupation – and I’m pointedly using the singular – has been what is concealed in what is right in front of us, in what is present”. He isn’t only talking about unconscious blind-spots. The book’s title is “filched”, as he puts it, from the American poet Wallace Stevens, and Cohen expressed a particular fondness for Stevens’s idea of a “strange presence that irradiates through the world that his poems are always gesturing towards and trying to get us to see”.

This might sound philosophical or religious, but the kind of epiphany that Cohen wants to talk about belongs to a messier or more mundane realm. Against the promises offered by what he calls “cod psychoanalysis”, or the romantic notion of the “descent” into madness or hell, he offers the image of something “pressing” through if you look “close enough”. Cohen feels a temperamental affinity to the strain of “the transcendent ordinary” that he identifies with the writing of Freud, Stevens and Henry David Thoreau, as well as many of his favourite novels.

“There’s no burrowing to a more authentic layer of personal or social life,” Cohen told me. We have to find what is “real” within our “contrived environments” – in the mediocre suburban existence described by Updike, or, in Virginia Woolf, Clarissa Dalloway’s milieu of “Palace of Westminster intrigue and moneyed aristocratic London”. In How to Live. What to Do., Cohen quotes a passage from Updike’s novel Rabbit is Rich (1981) in which the meaning of life is described as something that sits on the tabletop like an unopened dewy beer can. I asked him whether we should be capable of expressing our sense of this meaning in language. He replied that verbal precision “is not about a mathematical binding of the object. It might involve delineating the limits of your capacity to understand something.” If Updike had tried to go further, he argued, the passage might “spill into what we call sentimentality”.

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There’s a recurring emphasis in Cohen’s thinking on the virtues of realism. It’s evident in his love of novels and promotion of the joys and depth of domestic life, and also perhaps in his preference for the Connecticut insurance man Stevens over Yeats or TS Eliot, and the bourgeois atheist Freud over the more hifalutin and ecstatic Carl Jung. Cohen argued that the gradual approach and humble aim of Freudian analysis – in his definition, “to make it easier for a person to live with themselves” – offers an alternative, a way of inverting or reversing what has become “an entrenched culture and history of positive thinking” as well as “hubristic notions of making our own happiness”. I raised the common-sense idea, implicit in cognitive behavioural therapy and prevalent among parents and schoolteachers, that you can simply urge someone to do something differently. He said that all you’re really doing is “adding a layer of anxiety to the impulse”. He acknowledged that “it’s what passes for common sense. As soon as you give it the most cursory examination, it sounds completely mad.”

[see also: Locking down with Kafka]

How to Live. What to Do. is a surprising and variously perceptive book about the forms of knowledge and solace that are available to us as long as we cultivate a sense of curiosity about ourselves, and other people. Later this year, Cohen will publish a more traditional piece of psychoanalytic writing, Losers, an essay-length reflection on the theme of loss that considers the examples of Franz Kafka and Thomas Bernhard as well as that of the recently departed US president, who evidently found the prospect – or reality – of electoral defeat so unbearable as to be inconceivable. I asked Cohen what he might say to Donald Trump if he dropped by for a session. “Of course, he never would come,” Cohen replied. “That’s part of the point of Trump. It would be an admission of a vulnerability that his whole character structure is organised around avoiding. But let’s say I were just a random interlocutor… I would really want to listen. And I’d be interested in any hint of some perception of a difference, or a gap, between the world as he sees it and the world as it is. The thing that distinguishes his entire time in office, and it’s an achievement to which you have to pay a certain kind of homage, is that there was not even a small intimation of that.”

Just before we parted ways, I raised a thought that had been nagging me – that the Freudian approach has a habit of subsuming everything else to its own concerns. Cohen immediately recognised this inclination, and recalled a philosopher friend bemoaning the fact that every analyst he knew no longer believed in theories or rational arguments, just the “pathology” that underpins them. I said that the strongest risk was of chauvinism – of becoming like the character in an Updike story who assumes that everyone living west of the Hudson River must be “in some sense, kidding”. He replied, “That’s right,” and then, spotting a link that was right in front of me, he added: “And of course, New York is the home of the Freudian community.”

“How to Live. What to Do” is published by Ebury.