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    So Much Water, so Close to Home: The 2017 PPAA Conference Panel Presentation

    A Psychoanalytic Exploration of Raymond Carver’s Short-story and its Creative Adaptation and Transformation by Australian Artists into Film and Song.

    Carol Bolton

    In the time I have available I want to explore three issues: the meaning of what we have been asked to do, what is falling apart and then the short story itself. I will start by taking apart the title of our discussion:

    A psychoanalytic exploration of a work of literature or some other creative form.

    What does that mean? What do we bring to the encounter from our theoretical position that is special or helpful? I believe that we do bring some things and I will come to that later but first I want to propose that mostly it is literature which illuminates psychoanalysis rather than the other way round. Poets knew about the unconscious long before Freud, as I think he acknowledged. Think of Lady Macbeth’s response to her guilt for instance in the sleepwalking scene (Shakespeare, W. 1606. Act V, scene 1) the doctor who is brought to see what is happening says that the matter is beyond his expertise, but we all know what is going on.

    The Greek dramatists are a source of deep insight into family dynamics. Blake writes about envy and the death instinct among other things in his poem The Sick Rose. (Blake, W. Songs of Experience. 1794)

    O Rose thou art sick

    The invisible worm

    That flies in the night

    In the howling storm

    Has found out thy bed

    Of crimson joy

    And his dark secret love

    Does thy life destroy.

    And Tennyson, who explores loss and grief very insightfully in In Memoriam, had clearly done an Infant Observation. Listen to this:

    The baby new to earth and sky

    What time his tender palm is pressed

    Against the circle of the breast

    Has never thought that ‘this is I’

    But as he grows he gathers much,

    And learns the use of I and me

    And finds ‘I am not what I see

    And other than the things I touch’

    Sorounds he to a separate mind

    From whence clear memory may begin

    As through the frame that binds him in

    His isolation is defined.

    (Tennyson, A. In Memorium, 1850)

    So, in the light of these, and many more similar examples I approach the question of what our theory can bring to the reading of literature with humility. Maybe we have more to learn from literature than to add to it. I do think that we have some things to offer from a psychoanalytic perspective and I will come to those soon in discussing the short story. But before I do that I would like to consider the theme of the conference “The centre cannot hold”. What could that mean for Yeats and then for us? The poem from which the quotation is taken is in a volume published in 1921. The previous few years had seen not only the horror of the First World War but also the Anglo-Irish conflict which included the Easter rising of 1916. Yeats knew the men who were arrested and executed by firing squad at that time and was much involved in the Irish question. This is what the wife of one of the executed men said about her last contact:

    I had to stand there at the cell door while the soldier locked the door of what seemed to be my husband’s tomb. How I held myself together, with my head up I do not know, I must have turned to stone … but the sound of the key in that lock has haunted me ever since. (Toibin, 2016)

    It was a deeply troubled time, safety, social order, trust and community all fell apart. Yeats I believe , in this poem and in others is drawing on both the internal and the external sense of things falling apart. The connection between internal and external is of obvious interest to us and is also very relevant to the short story which I will discuss soon. Yeats also uses symbolism in a way which is familiar to us in our work. In a poem published a few years later he uses symbols which stand for both inner and outer. In Sailing to Byzantium he writes:

    An aged man is but a paltry thing

    A tattered coat upon a stick unless

    Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

    For every tatter in its mortal dress

    Nor is there singing school but studying

    Monuments of its own magnificence

    And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

    To the holy city of Byzantium.

    I think that for Yeats the holy City of Byzantium is a container in both the external and internal worlds. It stands for order, continuity, security, a refuge and on the inner level it stands for a safe place for the soul, a holding place for the psyche. When the holy city is under threat then things fall apart.

    Inner and outer are connected and vulnerable. When we come to the discussion it will be interesting to see how this audience understands and experiences things falling apart but for the moment I would like to turn to the works we have been asked to consider.

    I shall concentrate mostly on the short story which I think is the most interesting and powerful of the three iterations we were offered, but I will make some reference to the film. There are many themes here and many strands of meaning which I expect we shall explore in our discussion. I would like to start with what I see as the central theme of the story: the denial of death and of destructive processes and the consequences of this. The men who go on the camping trip cut themselves off totally from the death they encounter. They disregard their own feeling and social and cultural meanings of death, but more than this, they simply block death out. This has many consequences, the most serious being that if you deny death you also deny life. The fishing group dulls itself with alcohol, but at a more intensive level thinking and feeling are dulled. Perhaps this is a place where the film has something to add. The environment is so beautiful in its wildness and the men are so cut off from any real contact with nature. The usual liveliness and energy of camping in the bush are absent.

    Death intersects with life all the time and at many levels. Again a poet puts it well although in the prose of a sermon this time “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind” says John Donne “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” (Donne, 1624). Involved in mankind ​—​ exactly what these men are not. And a modern analyst has this to say: “the psychotic state is one characterised by a hatred of reality … . The mind becomes a kind of machine for evacuation”(Eaton, 2001).

    I think this describes the state of mind of the men in this story and also helps us to come close to the mind of the narrator who is struggling against these psychotic energies in the men, in society and in herself.

    Love and hate can come together in the depressive position and I suppose that the ultimate depressive position is an ability to hold life and death in mind together. Not an easy thing to do but if death/hate is denied so is life/love. Mourning is the link between life and death, when feelings are denied there is a lack of meaning.

    If I put my Lit Crit hat on to approach this story then one of its great strengths is the point of view from which it has been told. As the story is seen through the eyes of the wife that leads to particular subtleties which are not available to the film. Are we to believe her account? Are there things which she leaves out or distorts? I sometimes found myself wondering as I read, what I might be missing. This took me back to my psychoanalytic position; reading the story is in some ways like being with a patient: listening, trying to stand with the narrator’s mind while also listening to one’s own response and counter transference. I had a fantasy that I might be getting it all wrong and that my colleagues, seeing things that I don’t see , would expose my inadequacies. Is this my material or is it a kind of literary counter transference? I am inclined to think mostly the latter. The writer is able to evoke fear and uncertainty both in the narrator and in the reader. Whatever we decide about the narrator’s account she makes two statements about what may be falling apart:

    People no longer care what happens to other people and

    Nothing makes any real difference any more

    It seems to me that at the centre of this story is the narrator’s identification with the victim. That is how I understand the title “So much water so close to home.” It is as if she experiences herself as the dead girl and links her own returning memories of unresolved trauma with the girl’s terrifying experiences. So her whole sense of self, perhaps never very strong, is falling apart. She lives in a terrifying world where people don’t care and where nothing makes a difference. When she says, at the end “For God’s sake Stuart she was only a child” she is talking about herself.

    Does our professional understanding about identification help us? It might allow us to make theoretical explanations . Does it also affect our reading of the story? Perhaps it sharpens for us our thinking about the husband/wife relationship. The vicissitudes of this relationship clearly predate the events of the story but are thrown into focus as the wife reacts to the hands which with so little feeling touched the dead girl also try to touch her. Is there any hope for this marriage? Can they possibly deal with the hate as well as the love and in this way bring life back.

    Finally I would like to consider the symbolic significance of water. As I thought about my associations to water and rivers in particular I thought of the mythical rivers Lethe and Styx. Lethe is the river whose water brings forgetfulness and Styx is the river which separates life from death. They are both very close in this story but I don’t think you need psychoanalytic training to see that. At another level water is sometime related to the unconscious and, also in Australia particularly , to life and growth, where here it is related to death. This might be seen as another example of splitting the good and the bad which I see as the central theme of the story.

    So on the whole I am coming down on the side of literature being where the insights are although as I hope I have suggested, our psychoanalytic position can add and expand some insights. Literature is one of the things which doesn’t fall apart. For me at least it provides a strong link to the centre. It links me to my culture and traditions and to other cultures beyond my own. It is a kind of container in which I connect with other minds and indeed, to requote John Donne, it involves me with all mankind. What I hope I may have done is stir up some discussion on this matter.


    Blake, W. (1794 1970). Songs of Innocence and Experience. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

    Donne, J. (1624 1987). Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. NY Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Eaton, J. (Ed.). (2011) A Fruitful Harvest: Essays after Bion. Seattle: Alliance Press.

    Shakespeare, W. (1606 1994). Macbeth. London: Penguin.

    Tennyson, A. ( 1850). In Memorium in Alfred Lord Tennyson Selected Poems. (2007) Christopher Ricks (Ed.) London: Penguin

    Toibin, C. (2016) After I am hanged my portrait will be interesting. London Review of Books 38 (7), March 2016.

    Carol Bolton
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