The Private Life

The Private Life

Q&A with Josh Cohen, author of The Private Life

Can people reveal their true selves on TV: on Big Brother, What Katie Did Next, or Pamela Stephenson’s Shrink Rap?

Participants on reality TV are forever being told to ‘just be yourself’, as though this were the easiest thing in the world: stick your daily life in front of a TV camera or tell your deepest secrets, and your true self will be magically transmitted to the viewer. Psychoanalysis has a very different sense of your true self as elusive and obscure, more likely to reveal itself in spite of rather than because of your best efforts. This is very much true of those programmes – we discover surprising little truths about their participants, not in the staged scenes of loud exhibition or confession, but in moments of unguardedness – sleeping, eating, staring at someone else or the floor.

In your book you talk about the ‘obscure yet essential region’ in us, which remains private.  Should we worry about our inability to know ourselves? 

I think we do, regardless of whether we should! One of the key points of the book is that we feel enraged and humiliated by this inability – by the feeling of not being, as Freud put it, master in our own house. But I argue that this might be an occasion for relief as well as worry.

Is there a remedy for this lack of self knowledge, or do we have to just accept it? 

Neither. There’s no means by which we can know ourselves fully. We can’t eliminate ‘the unconscious’ – that region of the mind which hides from us. But rather than just accept it passively, we can enter into a working relationship with it and listen to what it’s telling us even when we don’t like the message. We can deny, dismiss and lament how obscure we are to ourselves, or we can see it as a source of endless curiosity and creativity.

How has technology impacted upon our sense of self – particularly our potential ability to be constantly available, on the phone, on social media, etc.?

Social media and other forms of electronic communication encourage a kind of constant externalization of our thoughts, feelings and activities, exerting a subtle pressure to be visible at all times. The more time and energy we dedicate to this, I fear, the more apt we are to confuse the self with what’s on the surface, and so lose touch with our interior lives. There are futurological prophets who claim that interiority is a thing of the past, that we’re destined to become parts of a ‘collective externalized mind’. I think that’s fanciful – technology can’t do away with inner life. But it can leave it desiccated and undernourished.

We think of grief as private – as one of your patients says ‘I can’t even reveal it to myself, let alone you.’ Is social media changing our attitude to bereavement?

The tweeting of grief and mourning is one of the clearest examples of how easily, in the age of social media, private experience can be confused with its public expression. Recently, a teenager traumatized by the murder of a friend outside her party tweeted, within hours, ‘George you was cutting some serious shapes last night! Sleep tight my angel’. I can’t help wondering if this rush to instant broadcast cuts the tweeter off from the emotional reality of her bereavement, and from the urgent need to mourn in her own space and time.

Are younger generations further eroding their sense of not ever knowing themselves? Do social changes alter our relationships with ourselves?

I’m wary of hasty sociological generalizations, but talking to teens reveals the sheer scale of the anxieties generated by social media. How many ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ do you have? How are they talking to and about you? There’s a massive incentive to invest in their external images, in the ways they’re seen and heard by others. This can only drain their investment in themselves. I sense that young people desperately want to cultivate a more private sense of self, but can’t find space for their inner lives in this culture of permanent self-broadcast.

Do you think there is a particularly British reaction to the change in our sense of the private world?  We are, traditionally, a nation that doesn’t tend to ‘share’.

True, there’s both squeamishness and cynicism in this country towards the language of the emotions, which may be why psychoanalysis has always been such a marginal interest here. But recent history suggests that if we don’t tend to share our selves, we’ve more than ready to intrude on the selves of others – we are, after all, among the most avid producers and consumers of tabloid scandal and reality TV. In the book, I argue that our demand to know everything about others is intimately linked to our fear of self-knowledge, which you could also call a passion for ignorance.

‘The less you conceal, the stranger you become.’ Can you explain this paradox.

In the book, I discuss prominent cultural figures from Rousseau to Katie Price, who have staked their entire lives in confession, in exposing the truth about themselves. But if you read Rousseau’s Confessions or watch What Katie Did Next, you’re not rewarded with a clear and complete understanding of who these people are. They promise to tell you everything, to leave nothing out, but the accumulation of detail ends up obscuring them and turning them into an unruly mass of facts rather than a coherent self.

Pornography is everywhere yet it remains taboo.  Can it remain private?

Isn’t pornography the ultimate attempt to drag the private into the public? It’s arousing because it seems to offer a portal into an experience we consider inalienably private. But it’s disappointing for the same reason. Porn can never capture that obscure psychic dimension of sexual life that exists beyond words or pictures. There’s a palpable hollowness about the pornographic sex act that tends to leave its viewer feeling duped and oddly humiliated.

Kurt Vonnegut once said ‘Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.’ Is our sense of self an act? 

I don’t believe that our sense of self is an act in the sense of a contrived performance masking who we ‘really’ are. I argue in the book is that the human psyche is given by design to dissimulation and deceit. We hide our most dangerous and painful thoughts, feelings and impulses from ourselves as much as others, usually without realising it.

How does psychoanalysis help resolve these problems?

One way it can help is to cultivate a more humane, non-judgemental relationship with our most disturbing feelings and impulses. Far from being pathological, feelings of envy, murderousness, callousness or greed are part of the ordinary range of inner life. Both on and behind the couch, I’ve been struck by how much of a surprise and a relief this discovery is.

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