As Edward Said showed us in much of his writing, fiction writers often don’t know half of what they are saying. It’s strange because the most common point of view taken by fiction writers is that of narrative omnipotence, an odd and somewhat psychotic position that should raise our suspicions immediately as to what the hell writers of fiction think they’re doing when they write.
In his long paper The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud explored the ramifications of an idea that his first English translator, Bloomsbury-ite James Strachey, referred to as ‘parapraxis’. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life has to be one of my favourite titles of any book. Freud’s title reminds me that he was, among other things, a kind of novelist and some of his case histories, The Schreber Case, The Wolfman and Other Cases, read like uncanny versions of his contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle. The Great Brain sits in his rooms waiting for suffering humanity to knock at his door, rooms bizarrely decorated with bullet-holes and Victoriana (Holmes) or various antiquities and objets d’art (Freud). When the confused stranger arrives carrying some deranged and barely credible story, the mighty detective, puffing away on pipe or cigar proceeds to point out revealing details of the stranger’s life and person purely on the basis of a perfunctory greeting.
Parapraxis, or what is more commonly termed the ‘Freudian slip’, has now become a sort of colloquial shorthand for a slip of the tongue, a slip popularly concerned with disclosures of a salacious nature. Actually parapraxis refers to any slips of the tongue, to slips of the pen, to mistakes, misreadings, mishearings, slips of memory and forgettings, and all the ways we try to hide from ourselves or find ways back to ourselves. At David Irving’s libel trial, Irving, who prosecuted his own case when suing Penguin for allegedly defaming him, accidentally referred to the presiding judge as ‘mein Fuhrer’.
When David Cameron said his government would be the ‘greenest government ever’, it should have been clear to everyone that he would in fact preside over exactly the opposite. It’s not that Cameron is a chronic liar – though that might well also be true – but that the Tory anxiety that their ruthless neoliberal contempt will be publicly exposed is one of their most salient characteristics.
A couple of years back Silvio Berlosconi told the world, ‘In absolute terms, I am the most legally persecuted man of all times, in the whole history of mankind, worldwide, because I have been subjected to more than 2,500 court hearings and I have the good luck – having worked well in the past and having accumulated an important wealth – to have been able to spend more than €200m in consultants and judges … I mean in consultants and lawyers.’
What Freud was getting at though, was that we give ourselves away all the time, or to put it another way, we have stellar skills at disguising to ourselves what we are doing and how we are living, and that the psychoanalytic attitude – a kind of writing of the real as though it were imaginary – is based on the idea that blind spots are where the interesting narratives are, rather than the narrative we claim is The Narrative. In his great lecture Freud and the Non-European, Edward Said showed very simply and clearly how the political in literature, and in many other things, is often obscured in the name of a sublime unitary transcendence, as though literature, like religion and sport, were somehow removed from the political realm. Freud himself had a wildly exaggerated respect for writers, a kind of hagiographic reverence, a reverence that the literary world itself has thoroughly imbibed, that makes fiction writing a special practice reserved for the unhinged and the sacredly gifted.
Finding the blindspots, either in fiction or in ourselves – which is something of the same thing – isn’t a dour exercise of digging up skeletons and exhibiting them in their ragged funeral clothes. Rather, it’s a way of reading that makes the object of investigation richer, wilder, more engaging and far, far more worthy of ordinary human consideration.
When I left school, I enrolled in a university degree in literature. I was too much of a school failure to get into any other degree. One day we were reading something by Saul Bellow, and when I timidly questioned the lecturer’s interpretation of a passage and suggested that Bellow may have made meaning he hadn’t intended, I was immediately squashed. No, that’s not what Bellow meant, the lecturer said. He meant THIS. How did she know? Because Bellow knew everything about his own writing. Everything was deliberate. Nothing could be accidental or unknown.
It’s not that we cannot say what we mean, or communicate an idea or emotion successfully, but when someone specifically claims that they mean a particular thing without the possibility of unintended or unconscious meaning our bullshit detectors should light up. We continually make such claims with ourselves and with each other, as a successful way of disguising our own blindspots.
In a world of essentialist vocabulary, a world where nothing is allowed to have any other meaning than the ones officially designated, denials or indisputable claims of precise meaning give the game away. And it might also go some way toward explaining why conspiracy theory is so rife. After all, when no hidden meaning is allowed people will invent some, often constructing a kind of dark mirror of the actual world. Many people believe that George W Bush and Dick Cheney were responsible for the September 11 attacks. And in a way they were, as Bush was clearly informed weeks prior that the attacks would take place. The reality is that while Bush and Cheney may have been demonic enough to plot terrorism on native soil for their own ends, they weren’t smart enough to plan and conceal such a complex operation. In fact their incompetence and ideological faith in values characterised by greed, brutality and stupidity were enough to guarantee all the disasters of their watch.
The other day I was thinking that there has to be room for a kind of writing that speaks of the real as though it is something imaginary, rather than the other way round. Some writers have done this, of course, and with remarkable results. Still it sounds weird I know, and possibly even foolish, so I’ll try and make myself clearer if I can, and use Roberto Saviano’s book Gomorrah as an example, before I talk about what I think it is Saviano has done.
Gomorrah is a bloody and nerve-wracking expose of the Camorra crime syndicates of Saviano’s native Naples and their international reach into the transglobal marketplace. Saviano relentlessly demonstrates that the global economy is dependent on and thrives in an environment of violent criminal activity. Criminal action – exploitation, murder, torture, blackmail – is not a kind of cancer that needs to be cut out so that the market can blossom. It is the market’s internal structure. Without an expanding network of violent, sophisticated and exploitative chains of causality, there would no marketplace as we understand it. Saviano writes like someone half out of his mind with pain and outrage. I found myself fearing for his sanity, and consequently my own, and wondering if my own was what I thought it was. Saviano tells his tale of violence, and makes it into a narrative that is barely imaginable, because it rewrites so many understandings of what our affluence is based on, what happens when someone takes note of it and makes it public, and what writers, even at this late and generally indulgent and boring stage of literary development, can still do, who they can frighten and how they can be heard.
Saviano shows us not just that the ordinary world is full of sham identities and expensive and elaborate facades but, more importantly, is loaded with politics at every level. Our narratives of the good life are inextricably linked with other narratives of violence and destruction – the sea of suffering on which the consumer dream floats. Whatever version we imagine of the dream of the white-picket fence always rides on the back of the forgotten or the conveniently ignored. Saviano digs beneath the surface of the contemporary marketplace, and he doesn’t have to dig very far before he’s unearthing scenes that are difficult for him to believe in, look at or understand. It’s not a lack of imagination that hamstrings him he realises, but more an inability to recognise what is in front of him, or that it always has been.
In the same week that I read Gomorrah, I also read Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater, another expose of the brutal inner life and the true intentions of imperial capitalism. Scahill’s book is excellent, comprehensive and meticulously researched. But he could write for another hundred years and still always come in second place to Saviano’s achievement in Gomorrah.
Even if I had the talent to do so, I would never in an aeon have the courage to write what Saviano has written. Like the Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho, who has continually exposed the violent institutional and cultural misogyny in her own country, Saviano may well be murdered for what he has written. The clans of the Camorra will kill him for what he has done, openly and in public, and they will wait – ten years, twenty years, wait as long as it takes. Saviano is not only tearing off one of the many masks of the demented violent face of contemporary global capitalism, but showing it nakedly at work, revealing the flows of money and the trails of suffering it leaves behind, revealing how transglobal capital feeds on suffering and is created by suffering. And as a writer he shows us how little writers usually have to lose when we put pen to paper and how little we are prepared to give up.
I don’t know what future literary fiction will look like and I care very little. It’s not that writers need to get more political, as some pundits have commented. Writers already are political, whether we like it or not, and carrying on as though we were not – or could be if we wanted to be or as though literary storytelling-fiction is somehow transcendentally significant – is such a strange and unsightly attitude that it’s difficult to look at with a straight face. We continually reveal the conditions under which we write. That is to say, writers give themselves away all the time and it’s often not pretty. Saviano has given himself away too, but once and for all, because he put everything on the line, and he can never retreat from what he has done.