Mysteries of Biography
There is nothing we protect more than our own history.
Posted September 9, 2014
Nothing is more alluring or mysterious than peering into the lives of celebrities. We are fascinated and spellbound by how the rich and famous live, what they wear, how much they weigh, and with whom they sleep. A quick scan of any newsstand reveals the breadth and stamina of our preoccupations with the glitterati. We are at least as taken by their missteps and misfortunes as their successes—whether having a relapse of cancer, entering rehab, or having nude pictures hacked from a cloud.
And yet when it comes to ourselves, there is nothing we safeguard more, nothing we are more protective of, than our own biographies. This is, of course, not to say that we are in any sense bound to be private. We live ubiquitously, of course, in the social media feeds that narrate modern life. Yet in the telling of our own stories, we are painstaking editors. The truth of one’s biography, if there is such a thing, may lie not in the chronology of what is revealed, but on the cutting-room floor.
Freud’s greatest innovation was a psychological treatment that involved the drawing out and re-describing of personal stories—yet Freud himself was highly suspicious of the writing of such stories. Freud described, perhaps better than anyone before (or since), our penchant for being strangers to ourselves. And anyone undertaking a biography of Freud would have to account for Freud’s own skepticism about biography—indeed, his deliberate efforts to prevent future biographers from documenting his life (Freud is said to have destroyed all of his personal diaries in order to thwart such efforts). As part of the Jewish Lives Series, the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written just such a biography, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst.
Phillips calls the first chapter of his book “Freud’s Impossible Life,” drawing attention to a central paradox in the Freud story. In psychoanalysis, patients tell the story of their lives by recounting whatever comes into their minds. As Phillips points out, “one of the first casualties of psychoanalysis, once the facts of our lives are seen as complicated in the Freudian way, is the traditional biography…all our coherence and plausibility—are suspect…history begins to sound like fiction, and fiction begins to sound peculiarly wishful.” This drive for coherence offers a kind of refuge because, at least in the Freudian account, we are too fearful of our own desires. When we relate our own history we conceal the past from ourselves. Or, as Phillips puts it, we “obscure ourselves from ourselves.”
Biography, in this view, is part of our problem. Freud believed that psychoanalysis, if it has a cure, would cure our need for biography in the first place. The facts of life might not line up in a linear manner and may not fit nicely within a traditional narrative arc. This was true for Freud and he seemed to think it might be the case for everyone. Phillips states that, “What we don’t need, then, in writing that impossible thing, a Freudian life of the young Freud, is the always fanciful (i.e., wishful), novelettish setting of scenes, and thumbnail sketches of characters, with their suppositions about what people were thinking and feeling and doing, that biography has traditionally traded in…Nor do we need to be too impressed by the plausibility of chronology…” What Phillips points out is that a more interesting—or indeed, honest—biography would be the biography that allows for a measure of incoherence and does not require us to recruit a beginning, middle, and end.
When the British filmmakers Ian Forsyth and Jane Pollard collaborated with Australian musician Nick Cave in making a documentary of his career (20,000 Days on Earth), they decided against straightforward biography and went with a kind of dream day in the life of Nick Cave—his imagined 20,000th day on earth. The film begins with a a rushed, visual biography of his life, and the viewer travels through snapshot-memories of his 56 years in a matter of moments. We are then teased with a fictional day-in-the-life-of, which serves as the film’s primary narrative arc. We are really along for a ride into his childhood memories, fears, and wishes. Cave drives a Jaguar around the south coast of Great Britain, accompanied at different times by past musical collaborators—Kylie Minoque, Ray Winstone, and former Bad Seeds guitarist, Blixa Bargeld. He has a fictionalized, semi-staged lunch with fellow band-mate Warren Ellis, where they reminisce about Jerry Lee Lewis and Nina Simone. Cave later visits his archive, rehearses songs from his new album, then sees his therapist, who happens to be the British psychoanalyst Darian Leader. In his session with Leader, we learn about Cave’s early junkie days, parts of his sexual history, and Cave’s creative process. And the dream day reaches a crescendo with a thrilling live performance of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in Melbourne.
20,000 Days on Earth is a kind of parody of the celebrity documentary that is also reminiscent of what Phillips was getting at in his biography of Freud. Cave acknowledges that the rockstar persona is an invention that happened early on in his life. The film is self-mockery without self-absorption. The style of storytelling excludes much more than it includes. Yet what it includes seems crucial and formative. The truth telling embraces the mystery of Cave’s life, rather than revealing it. The film also parodies the celebrity-as-god myth by exposing our yearnings to be starstruck in the face life’s routines and banalities. Indeed, toward the end of the film we find Cave retreating back to his home in Brighton, watching TV and eating pizza with his kids.
In this age of everyone-knowing-everything, the more mysterious, unconscious elements of a life might go unnoticed. We might usefully wonder what it would mean to think beyond storytelling when we think of a life lived. We might also maintain a level of suspicion about the life easily told.
20,000 Days on Earth is in theaters September 19th.
Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst is available from Yale University Press.
© 2014, Bruce C. Poulsen, All Rights Reserved.