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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Friday, December 31, 2010

personal myth and character

I have written before about the concept of the personal myth – the use of a ‘well-knit’ self generated autobiography as a screen developed against inconsistencies, neuroses, traumas, or the everyday thorns and pricks – that was developed in a paper by Ernst Kris in the fifties. This is what I said about it in an earlier post:
Ernst Kris was a Viennese art collector, historian, and psychoanalyst who taught Freud to the great Ernst Gombrich. When he died in 1957, he left behind a large reputation. Even in the seventies, when his papers came out, a review came out in the New Republic. One of his papers, from 1956, left a phrase that has been lifted, since, by many - especially Jungian analysts: the personal myth.

“Kris found that certain patients when routinely probed about their pasts were able to respond with detailed, fluent, and highly consistent autobiographies embracing all their past history. Now this is somewhat unusual because most people do not usually have ready access to a well worked out autobiography in which themes of different lifetime periods are highly consistent with one another and smoothly extend across the lifespan. During the process of analysis, Kris determined that these personal myth autobiographies were in fact being employed as part of the process of repression to keep from consciousness other traumatic autobiographical knowledge. For example, in one of his cases he eventually discovered that the myth, which included the patient leaving home when 16 years old, was in fact incorrect and the patient had actually left home when 18 years of age. The missing two years, it later transpired, referred to a period in which a sequence of events had repeated (repressed traumatic events from earlier in childhood and the myth, by editing out the memories of the repeated events, was able to maintain the repression.

Kris proposed that personal myths constitute a central part of the self but that in the nonpathological individual the myths are constantly changed and updated. (Collins, Theories of Memory, 113)

Of course, in the late eighties, this whole matter of repressed memories of trauma led to mythmaking in the moral panic mode. LI has no patience for that. Leaving aside the dubious claims of the repressed memories crowd, Kris’ notion does seem intuitively right: there are individuals who have the story of themselves down, and there are those who seem oddly unprepared for their own history, as if consisted of information that they hadn’t studied. As a writer, I hugely prefer the former type of person, and have always found the latter puzzling. Of course, as a quasi-pathological type of individual myself, I am ever ready to believe my own lies – but the interesting twist in Collins summary of Kris is that the non-pathological constant changing and updating of myth leads to – well, to those puzzling, inconsistent myths with which we are greeted whenever we look seriously into Greek or Indian or Egyptian or any kind of rich mythological data base. Or, for that matter, even into something as simple as the facts in Jesus’ case, which are shuffled differently in the different gospels.

A recent book by Sophia Heller, The Absence of Myth” takes a self consciously ‘deconstructive’ approach to personal myth:

“Personal myth represents a particular response to the collective loss of myth and religious meaning. Though it may profess otherwise, the personal myth approach does not and cannot seek to remedy this absence because it utterly depends on it. Its philosophy basically says that what the collective has lost, the individual can and should reclaim. And how one reclaims myth and meaning is through knowing and telling one’s personal story. However, what separates a personal myth from a mere autobiography, biography or memoirs is the underlying belief or hope that if a personal story is contextualized within myth, it carries an archetypal and numinous significance and, as such, is elevated and geared to replace the metaphysical void created by the departure and death of the gods.” – Sophie Heller, The Absence of Myth

For Heller, myth is myth – she is unwilling to countenance the metaphorical transfer of myth to a world view that depends on truth claims. “What makes a myth a myth is, in part, the fact that it is absolutely true because it is real.”

If we provisionally take it that Heller is right, and that personal myth is a sign of the breakdown of myth, then we have a different angle from which to look at what Engels called the uprooting of a population from ‘apathy’.”
Now that I am thinking about the myth of the homo economicus, I am wondering whether these notions of myth apply – whether, in the same way that the personal myth papers over a repressed memory, the myth of the homo economicus is a way of creating a tight-knit structure that conceals an ancient act of repression.

Kris’ 50s paper was simply one in a series going back to Kris’ days in Vienna as a psychoanalyst and art historian. In particular, the idea that a personal myth takes the place of – substitutes for – memory seems forshadowed in a paper Kris wrote about biography, that was published in Imago in 1935. In this paper, Kris sought a way of penetrating into the idealized picture of a life produced by a biographer by using ‘philology’ – that is, by having a statistical sense of the way certain formula are used by biographers in different biographies. These biographical formulas emerge again and again – and one is tempted to say that they are borrowed, or that there is a sort of fund of formulas to which the biographer returns to fill out his picture of the subject, for “In fact the criticism of sources has long proved that such typical reports – I will call them simply the formulas of the biographer – in ancient times were also put in places when the biographer was not aware of anything about the life of the hero, and couldn’t know anything”:

“Out of this supposition I can effortlessly derive the principle of the investigative method that I am suggesting to you. It deals with the interpretation of biographical formulas without reference to their truth content, although even in this perspective the formulas are instructive; they strive after greater proximity to life and always have the effect of ‘credibility’; one can speak of their ‘plausibility’. As our introductory finding, however, what is solely important for us is the question of their consistent application by the biography.” (1935)

Of course, I am moving, here, from personal to public myth, and from autobiography to biography. This step may seem trivial or neutral, but in fact it is conditioned by a phenomenon Freud writes about in an 1898 paper, On Screen Memories – Ueber Deckerinnerungen – which I’m going to write about next.

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