Imaginary histories?

One of the problems with any form of history, be it personal, social, or political, is how the historical narrative, the story told by the historian, relates to ‘what really happened’.  As the quotation marks suggest, the status of this ‘what really happened’ is itself problematic.  In semiotic terms we could perhaps pose the question in terms of how the narrative relates to its referent; in this case the referent refers to the events that the narrative is purportedly describing.

Of course, this opening paragraph is making a number of assumptions, not least that narrative or story telling is what historians actually engage in; or even, perhaps, that this is what analysts and analysands engage in during the work of psychoanalysis.   The key point here is that both analysts and (professional) historians are working with material from ‘the past’ (another highly problematic concept) and both, in their different ways, often (though not always) present such material in the form of a narrative.  The classic example of this in psychoanalysis is the case history, and in the case of professional historians the narrative form tends to dominate most historical accounts, be it the (his)story of the Thirty Years War or that of the Cold War.

This is not to suggest that history is purely about story telling and the interpretation  or analysis of such stories is of little or no consequence; rather, it is to suggest that the narrative form itself lends itself to such an analysis.  This is certainly the position of theorists such as Hayden White, whose work I shall be referring to a number of times in this text.1

However, this still doesn’t resolve the question of what exactly such narratives, such stories, are actually about .   In other words, do the narratives of, for example, the Thirty Years War tell the story of ‘what really happened’?  Or, to give perhaps a more contentious example, do the stories of childhood abuse told by analysands in the consulting room refer to ‘what really happened’ to them?  This latter example immediately raises the spectre of, amongst other things, the whole controversy of ‘recovered memories’, which raged so bitterly in the 1980s and ‘90s.  That controversy in turn refers back to the (again bitterly contested) argument of whether Freud did or did not think his patients were describing real events when they told him about their early childhood sexual experiences (most of which would now be seen as sexual abuse), or whether these were fantasies.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether the narratives recounted in psychoanalysis have the same (epistemological) standing as those recounted in history books, the question of ‘what really happened’ touches upon a rather sensitive nerve in the whole domain of the social sciences, and particularly in the field of history.  This relates to the ‘scientific’ status of such disciplines, and for history this seems to hinge on the question of ‘referentiality’; in  other words, does history ‘tell it as it was’, does it describe ‘actual events’?   As White points out, the adherents of ‘scientific history’ (and there still seem to be plenty around) would argue that:

…what distinguishes “historical” from “fictional” stories is first and foremost their contents, rather than their form.  The content of historical stories is real events, events that really happened, rather than imaginary events, events invented by the narrator.  This implies that the form in which historical events present themselves to a prospective narrator is found rather than constructed2

But as White reminds us, the truth is not out there, at least in the sense of some crude correspondence theory of knowledge, some naive empiricism.  Even before the heyday of post-structuralism, theorists such as Lévi Strauss and Roland Barthes were arguing against this approach.   Barthes, for example (quoted by White) asks the question:

Does the narration of past events, which, in our culture from the time of the Greeks onwards, has generally been subject to the sanction of historical “science” bound to the underlying standard of the “real”, and justified by the principle of “rational” exposition – does this form of narration really differ, in some specific trait, in some indubitably distinctive feature, from imaginary narration, as we find it in the epic, the novel, and the drama?3

Note, however, that in this quotation Barthes is emphasising the form of the discourse rather than its content.   And this raises another interesting point about historical narrative, again highlighted by White: that in such narratives the form is treated as the content.   In other words, the narrative form, the form as story, is the story.  What matters is whether the story ‘hangs together’, whether it can develop a coherent plot or set of sub-plots.

At this point I think it is important to emphasise that neither I or writers such as White are suggesting that there is nothing ‘outside of the text’, as some post-structuralists would have it.  Rather, the argument is that this ‘extra-discursive’ reality (or perhaps we should name it the Real) is precisely that, i.e. outside of the text, outside of discourse.  In other words, the idea that historical narrative can ‘tell it as it was’ is a complete fallacy.   What is perhaps more puzzling is that although these arguments have been circulating around for decades now, they seem to by and large have been resisted or ignored in the field of history.  Hence the fact that so many historical documentaries and history texts include, at some point in the proceedings, the words ‘we now know that….’  The implication, of course, is that ‘we’ (the contemporary body of (celebrity) historians) have access to a knowledge that their (pre-scientific) predecessors lacked.

But to what extent can such arguments be applied to psychoanalysis?   Doesn’t psychoanalysis deal with a different kind of truth, a different notion of ‘what really happened’?  I would argue that it does not, and the only reason that it can be argued otherwise is to retain some mythical notion of ‘historical truth’ which can be contrasted with the kind of truth that emerges in psychoanalysis.   Interestingly, though, the proponents of ‘historical versus psychoanalytic truth’ argument are not necessarily claiming that historical truth is actually accessible.  Rather, their argument seems to hinge on the notion that such a truth exists in principle.  Paul Roth explores this argument with particular reference to the work of Donald Spence. 4  As Roth notes:

For Spence, historical truths are brute facts. Narratives give them a connection which is not merely chronological. The process of presenting a narrative about one’s past requires identifying what events are significant and why. The problem is not that reports of the analysand or the listening of the analyst are subject to some special bias; rather, the problem resides precisely in the selection which occurs in the very processes of speaking and hearing.5

Interestingly, Spence’s position is that there is a difference between historical truth (‘what really happened’) and the narratives that attempt to describe this truth.  At the same time he is sceptical regarding the possibility of ever gaining access to such historical truth.  Furthermore, he does not deny the validity of the truths that emerge in psychoanalysis; rather, he applies a different criteria of ‘truth’ to them.   To quote Spence (in Roth’s paper):

Narrative truth can be defined as the criterion we use to decide when a certain experience has been captured to our satisfaction; it depends on continuity and closure and the extent to which the fit of the pieces takes on an aesthetic finality. Narrative truth is what we have in mind when we say that such and such is a good story, that a given explanation carries conviction, that one solution to a mystery must be true. Once a given construction has acquired narrative truth, it becomes just as real as any other kind of truth; this new reality becomes a significant part of the psychoanalytic cure.6

Essentially, Spence is arguing that the psychoanalytic cure rests on the possibility of the analysand being able to formulate a narrative which ‘makes sense’ to him or her, rather than such a narrative referring to ‘what really happened’.

There are a number of serious problems with this argument, not least that the ‘making sense’ can be part of the subject’s problem rather than their ‘cure’.  However, the key difficulty here is Spence’s distinction between what he describes as ‘narrative truth’ and ‘historical truth’.   And this is turn is linked to the false distinction between form and content.  Ironically, perhaps, he fails to recognise that what he describes as ‘narrative truth’, i.e. the kind of truth that (according to him) emerges in psychoanalysis, is precisely the kind of truth that emerges in all  historical narrative, whereby the form functions as the content.  In other words, it is all about constructing a ‘good story’ that ‘makes sense’.

However, this is precisely what psychoanalysis is not about.  This is not to say that analysands (and analysts for that matter) do not tell stories, which may or may not make sense.  However, whilst such stories may indeed provide (some of) the material for the analysis, this is by no means the end of the story.   At the same time it should be acknowledged that being able to construct a ‘personal narrative’ for oneself can indeed have strong therapeutic effects, and give one a sense of meaning and identity.   Ironically perhaps, this applies equally, if not more so, to narratives that centre on abuse; being able to construct a history that revolves around being abused as a child can actually, in some almost perverse way, give a person a sense of ‘comfort’, of meaning, because all of a sudden all their troubling thoughts, feelings, their nightmares, their flashbacks, make sense.

But does this mean that, at the end of the day, analysis should try to get an idea of ‘what really happened’, rather than constructing a ‘good story’?  Interestingly, Freud himself seems to have been rather sceptical as to whether his patients could ever remember ‘what really happened’.  For example, in his paper Constructions in Analysis he writes:

The path that starts from the analyst’s construction ought to end in the patient’s recollection; but it does not always lead so far. Quite often we do not succeed in bringing the patient to recollect what has been repressed. Instead of that, if the analysis is carried out correctly, we produce in him an assured conviction of the truth of the construction which achieves the same therapeutic result as a recaptured memory. The problem of what the circumstances are in which this occurs and of how it is possible that what appears to be an incomplete substitute should nevertheless produce a complete result—all of this is matter for a later enquiry. 7

Here Freud seems to be acknowledging precisely what Spence is arguing for, i.e. that therapeutic efficacy does not have to correlate with the ‘reality’ of the subject’s history.  In other words, analysis can ‘work’ through enabling the subject to construct a story that has beneficial effects, even though they may not be able to remember ‘what really happened’.

At the same time though, one senses that Freud is not altogether comfortable with this position.   And neither, perhaps, should he be.  This is not because the idea of the notion that ‘the truth is (somewhere) out there’ is (necessarily) worth pursuing.  In the case of psychoanalysis this would presumably mean that there is some way for the analysand to remember ‘what really happened’.   Interestingly, though, in his paper, Freud makes a number of references to ‘historical truth’ and the problems of arriving at it.  And it is seems clear that, like Spence, Freud equates such a truth with ‘what really happened’.

It seems to me, however, that a more profitable avenue would be to look at where the historian and psychoanalyst differ in their approach to the whole question of historical narrative as form itself.  If we start with the assumption that, in actual fact, there is no distinction between ‘historical’ and ‘narrative’ truth, and that in both psychoanalysis and in historical studies in general the form is the content, i.e. the narrative form, is the content, then the question of ‘what really happened’ is a misnomer.   What seems more interesting, to me at any rate, is how such narratives are constructed in the first place – and why.  And this is where the historian and the psychoanalyst perhaps part company.   The analyst is far more interested in the process by which a particular narrative is constructed than whether it relates to ‘what really happened’.   Equally important are situations in which the constructions of such narratives fail, which is linked to the status of the signifier of the Name-of-the-Father in the subject’s history.

This is not to suggest that historians do not reflect carefully on the process by which they construct their own particular narratives, i.e. the histories that they present and publish; I’m sure they do.  Rather, I would argue, this is not the focus on their work, whereas it is (or should be) for the psychoanalyst.

At the same time, though, there is still a shadow that lurks behind all of this.  Not so much the shadow of ‘what really happened’, although at some point perhaps this question will have to confronted.  Rather, it’s the shadow of ‘the past’; in other words, it is not simply a question of ‘what really happened’, but when did it happen, or perhaps, even, where did it happen?  Where is this ‘place’, this ‘other country’, called ‘the past’?

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  1. White, H. 1984. The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory. History and Theory. 23(1),pp.1–33. []
  2. ibid, p.2, italics in original. []
  3. ibid p.12 []
  4. Roth, P.A. 1991. Truth in Interpretation: The Case of Psychoanalysis. Philosophy of the Social Sciences. 21(2),pp.175–195. []
  5. ibid p.178 []
  6. ibid pp.178-9, italics in original []
  7. Freud, S. 1937. Constructions in Analysis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume XXIII (1937-1939): pp.255-270 []

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