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.”
All of which has LI wondering about the emotional customs he is tracing. Are we dealing with myth when we deal with the capitalist discourse of happiness? Is happiness triumphant a sort of weaving together of personal myths into a collective one, where a ‘feeling tone’, a transient mood, is projected onto social circumstances and transformed into a judgment about life?
LI has been pursuing happiness as the central notion in the way in which emotions are interpreted socially, and thus as one of Mauss’ total social phenomena, like the gift-giving.
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’. And here we touch on a sore point in the radical tradition. Engels condemns the life of the factory worker, who is watched and beaten down worse than a slave, in no uncertain terms. Yet, he is, or at least his class is, finally thrown into the vortex of history by capitalism, and that is, in the long term, a good thing. The emancipation of the working class begins with the formation of the working class.
Gramsci, in an essay on the factory worker, writes:
The working class, on the other hand, has been developing towards a completely new nad unprecedented model of humanity: the factory worker, the proletarian who has shed all psychological traces of his agricultural or craft origins, the proletarian who lives the life of the factory, the life of production – an intense, methodological life. His life may be disorderly and chaotic where his social relations outside the factory are concerned, and his political relations within the system of the distribution of wealth. But, within the factory, it is ordered, precise and disciplined.
The working class has come to be identified with the factory, with production: the proletarian cannot live without working and without working in an orderly, methodical way. The division of labour has unified the proletarian class psychologically: it has fostered within the proletarian world that body of feelings, instincts, thoughts, customs, habits and attachments that can be summed up in the phrase: class solidarity. (Gramsci, Pre-Prison writings, 152)
Gramsci is, of course, sounding the modernist note. Engineering would not only be art – it would be the art of life. Modernity consists of knowing that things can be reduced to their parts, and that the parts can be put back together to make the things. In the chaos outside of the factory, this may not be true – and so much the worse for that chaos! If one can take apart and put back together the personal, then the mythic would seem to be on its last legs – here there will be no more fantasy or repressed trauma, but methodology, discipline and, of course, class solidarity.
But if class solidarity comes at that price, who wants it?
Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
And... I can't stand the rain...