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When novels weave a web of life

Josh Cohen creates a cartography of human emotions through the spidery web literature spins over life

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’, illustration by Sir John Tenniel, 1871. Courtesy istockphoto

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It’s common to start the new year with goals and resolutions but how often do these pledges push us to think about the Big Questions? Questions like: How To Live. What To Do. That’s the title of this month’s book, written by the British scholar and psychoanalyst Josh Cohen.

I picked it off my bookshelf recently, lured partly by the promise of the subtitle: In Search of Ourselves in Life And Literature. As someone who has spent well over half a decade studying literature at different institutions, and far more years reading fiction every day of his life, I have an instant affinity with the overarching premise of the book: Can books, especially novels, be mirrors for us to gaze into and understand our lives better? Or, to flip it around, can it be that all the answers to our desires, failings, achievements and impulses lie hidden in stories spun by strangers?

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The short answer is, obviously, yes. Every so often, one study or the other will urge you to read more fiction—for the sake of longevity, better mental health, leadership skills, romantic success, what you will. It isn’t rocket science that reading fiction can make us emotionally intelligent but Cohen takes the idea a step further. Like William Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” (from As You Like It), he maps specific works of fiction that, according to him, illuminate different stages of our lives. In a sense, his is a history of emotions masquerading as literary history.

Over eight sprawling chapters, Cohen covers the themes of Childhood (“Play” and “Schooling”), Adolescence (“Rebellion” and “First Love”), Adulthood (“Ambition”, “Marriage” and “Middle Age”) and, finally, “Old Age And Dying”. This lay of the land, while arresting by itself, becomes even more compelling as Cohen intersperses his literary explorations with glimpses into real case histories—stories of people who have walked into his practice to talk about their private hurts and sorrows.

'How to Live. What to Do: In Search of Ourselves in Life and Literature' by Josh Cohen
'How to Live. What to Do: In Search of Ourselves in Life and Literature' by Josh Cohen

To preserve confidentiality, Cohen has changed names and often merged multiple characters to create a composite personality. These are poetic licences by a psychoanalyst who, quite expressly, takes his cue from the venerable Old Master, Sigmund Freud. It may seem redundant to read Freud, in light of all the advancements made in the field of psychiatry and neuroscience in the 21st century, especially if you are looking for empirical knowledge. But reading the Austrian doctor to decode the mystery behind the workings of our minds—as one would read Shakespeare, or Rabindranath Tagore, or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—is still richly rewarding.

Cohen, who is also a literature professor, adopts the classical mode of deep reading, inspired by his rich experience as a clinical practitioner. By combining two modes of analysis—literary and psychological—he brings in fresh, often intriguing, insights to familiar works. Alice In Wonderland, for instance, is about the “ordinary madness of childhood”, in Cohen’s words. A subtle but powerful phrase, it explains so many quirks of infant behaviour that the mind cannot fathom from the vantage of adulthood.

Focusing on a less familiar work—They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell—Cohen draws out a nuanced reading of psychologist D.W. Winnicott’s theory of creativity and its relationship with “the maternal presence in our early lives”. One of the novels discussed in the chapter on “Schooling” is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which may seem predictable, until Cohen hits you with one of his razor-sharp observations: “The French psychoanalysts César and Sára Botella,” he writes, “have argued that our deepest unconscious fear—more so than even violence or physical pain—is total neglect, the void of any human presence in our lives.” This observation segues into a passage about the tragic core of King Lear.

It is through such circuitous connections, the spidery web that literature spins over life, that Cohen creates a cartography of human emotions, from birth to death. Understandably, as a psychologist, his focus is squarely on the mind rather than the body, but, even so, I couldn’t help wondering all along how fascinating it would be to read a history of the human body, from babyhood to ripe old age, through the lens of literature.

If Cohen’s reflections on depression (focusing on Goethe’s The Sorrows Of Young Werther) and marriage (a fine comparison between Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Isabel Archer in The Portrait Of A Lady by Henry James) are beautifully on point, it’s the chapter on middle age, centred around Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, that moved me the most.

In hindsight, my response feels a bit odd because it is one of the few novels discussed by Cohen that I am intimately familiar with, having studied it as part of my post-graduate curriculum some 20 years ago. Yet, back in the day, despite my devoted attention to every nuance of the plot, the novel hadn’t come alive for me as vividly as it did recently, when I read Cohen’s analysis of it.

As a 20-something, I had dutifully noted all the stylistic flourishes, the allusions to Woolf’s personal history, and the richness of the prose, unfolding over a summer day in London. I had grappled with the gossamer thread of melancholia that runs through Clarissa’s consciousness, one that connects, unbeknownst to her, to Septimus Warren Smith. But I hadn’t felt the glimmer of hope and optimism that Cohen reads into the novel, the mastery with which he finds in it a muted celebration of middle age.

The “point about middle age”, Cohen writes in this chapter, “is that to be settled—in character, in place, in habits, in work, in interests, in loves and hates—can beget generativity just as much as stagnation.” This phase of life—when so many 40-somethings (including me) experience a dimming of vitality, an impasse at our work, relationships, or decision-making skills—“can be the platform for a renewed attentiveness to people and things, a kind of imaginative rebirth”.

I read this passage as an epiphany, a call to reframe the way I view life and the possibilities that lie ahead. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter if you haven’t read most of the novels Cohen writes about; what he offers you in the end is far more valuable and intangible than just a reading list. As Cohen writes in the conclusion, “We have a mysteriously abundant willingness to pursue what we don’t have, but not that ‘little willingness to see’ what is already there.” If psychoanalysis is one tool to open your eyes to the truth of your life, to help you pursue what is hidden in plain sight, so too is a great novel.

Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi.

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