It was Karl Marx, not Sigmund Freud, who said that the past “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” But surely it was Marx who was more optimistic about the possibility of lifting this weight, and thus liberating us from a libidinal attachment to an irretrievable past. In the beginning, Freud wanted desperately to convey the truths we discover on the outskirts of reason—in the place we call religion as well as in the nether world we call dreams—but he eventually decided religion was mere illusion, yet another instance of false consciousness.
Still, I want to analyze the dream told by Patrick Melrose as if I were a shrink at the stage of counter-transference, having fallen in love with this creature who is already the artifact of mere words—his words. Then I want to ask if his absence of faith, a “mental nullity” according to William James, must become bad faith. Is there any promise in the dread of the past that binds him, any remainder of truth in his falsehoods? Can I retell his story so that his past—and mine—now look different?
I’ve already cited Auden to claim that Patrick Melrose and Vivian Gornick could be characters in one of Poe’s horror stories, “as passive as the ‘I’ in dreams.” They’re so passive that they resemble the allegorical figures who populate gothic romances rather than the self-concious citizens who populate realist novels, or, to transpose to the language of social science, Patrick and Vivian operate as “other-directed” rather than “inner-directed” individuals: they are creatures of circumstance so large and causative that they function as registers rather than makers of it. And they are such astute registers of this circumstance that the detail on display in realistic fiction looks perfunctory by comparison, like ornament instead of infrastructure.
But this large and causative circumstance is not the vast middle ground between the state and the family—civil society, as Adam Smith and G.W.F. Hegel conceived it, where the novel was born in the 18th century, and where Jonathan Franzen still pitches his writerly tent—no, it’s the narrow margins or the odd extremities, the dream work of infantile experience or the insular worlds of British aristocrats and New York intellectuals. The past is “miniaturized” in these narratives, then, but its gravitational force is far greater than the irresistible pull of History’s dark matter. It’s as if the rhetorical revolution of the New Testament and the Reformation had never happened, as if the common folk had retreated to their classical state of comic relief. So, to the question raised by realism—given these characters, what will happen?—the answer is, nothing new: many memorable things will happen, many words will be spoken, but nothing will change.
James Wood gets to the heart of the matter I’m trying to measure in his New Yorker review of the last installment in the Melrose cycle: “Patrick, with his cool wit, plays the adult role quite well; but he is really the throbbing child, pulsing with pain. And in this way St. Aubyn’s novels seem to be not only books about trauma but traumatized books, condemned to return again and again to primal wounds. The striking gap between, on the one hand, the elegant polish of the narration, the silver rustle of these exquisite sentences, the poised narrowness of the social satire and, on the other hand, the screaming pain of the family violence inflicted on Patrick makes these books some of the strangest of contemporary novels.” (2/27/12, p. 84)
Just so, I would say. This striking gap is of course filled with thrashing memories of sex, then massive amounts of amphetamines, Quaaludes, heroin, and finally oceans of alcohol—anything but rock ‘n’ roll to cover over the wounds left by the family violence. The Talking Heads make a brief appearance in a club where Patrick’s trying to score either sex or drugs or both (Bad News, second installment). Otherwise the music of the late 20th century never scratches the narrative surface, except for that fugue David Melrose is playing at the piano on the morning he chooses, with cool, deliberate malice, to beat and then rape his five-year-old son Patrick.
The soundtrack, all lyrics like a voice-over, runs always backward to this primal scene of monstrous yet casual cruelty, but not always toward its victim. Here is the father immediately after: “During lunch David felt that he had perhaps pushed his disdain for middle-class prudery a little too far. Even at the bar of the Cavalry and Guards Club one couldn’t boast about homosexual, paedophiliac incest with any confidence of a favourable reception. Who could he tell that he raped his five-year old son? He could not think of a single person who would not prefer to change the subject . . . The experience itself had been short and brutish, but not altogether nasty. He smiled at Yvette, said how ravenous he was, and helped himself to the brochette of lamb and flageolets.”
The pious critics of Freud have always insisted that such a primal scene of parental or sexual abuse was a real event, not a fantasy, and that to treat it as a fantasy is to ignore the realities of oppression and suffering inflicted on the victim, whether child or female. It is to withdraw from social reality, they have said, where injustice can be programmatically addressed, and to let windmills stand in for criminals. It is a pointless criticism, of course, because the only access we have to these past experiences is provided by the words we use to describe them, and as soon as these words take the form of a narrative, they have already falsified the normally meaningless sequence of real events by adding meanings to what hitherto had none.
Past events are not significant because they happened, but because we make them significant by placing them in a semiotic order they didn’t—and couldn’t—have as real events. As William James put it: “Day follows day, and their contents are simply added. They are not themselves true, they simply come and are. Truth is what we say about them.” In discussing the case of the Wolf Man, Freud himself said pretty much the same thing, insisting that it couldn’t matter, to either the analyst or the analysand, whether the primal scene was an actual experience or a narrative construction, fact or fiction, because talking was the only cure. In short: social reality is what we can agree and act upon, not what a third party tells us.
I raise the issue because every reviewer and interlocutor, even the virtual Victorian James Wood, has solemnly verified that St. Aubyn did not invent the trauma of being raped by his own father. All mention that the author says, yes, this was an actual experience, and all suggest that as such, it lends a frightening authenticity to the extremities that follow (including the heroin habit, also solemnly verified by every reviewer and interlocutor)—it’s not mere narrative construction, in other words, and so it must be taken seriously as the real event that grounds the fiction.
But the teller of these tales, as against the man interviewed outside their ambit, is careful to warn the reader off this crude notion of authenticity—the notion that reduces the novel to the memoir, and, with the same stroke, reinstates authorial intention as a reliable index of artistic integrity or achievement. St. Aubyn the five-year old boy couldn’t possibly have known what his father was thinking immediately before or after the original rape, but St. Aubyn the grown-up novelist certainly does—he augments and to the same extent falsifies his own experience by narrating it from the father’s point of view. But by the same token the “psychic reality” of seduction, which regulates every aspect of the Child’s relation to the Father (or the Mother), now becomes a “lived reality,” for both writer and reader.
So the real event, the actual experience, is no less causative or formative because the novelist has turned it into fiction. In fact—a dangerous locution under these circumstances—the weight of this past, this primal scene, becomes more palpable, unavoidable, and overwhelming precisely because it’s been constantly falsified in narrative retrospect, thus adding layers of meaning that couldn’t have been legible to a five-year old.
I started by saying that Vivian Gornick and Edward St. Aubyn specialize in a return to the repressed. James Wood is saying it better when he calls the Patrick Melrose novels “traumatized books.” We’re now in a position to understand what these books are traumatized by—it’s a past that appears as a time you can’t outlive. The question for this historian is, Where are the exits? In the next installment, I explore the territory St. Aubyn maps, and then ask how David Graeber, Margaret Atwood, and Michel Houellebecq might answer my question.