Friday 12 December 2008

Writing Emily V: The Meeting of Freud and Holmes

Freud is exciting to read because one finds in him an ingenious and imaginative mind in full activity, engaging in the question: How do minds work? In writing The case of Emily V., it was interesting to get inside Freud's mind and think about whether neurosis was caused by being abused in childhood, or whether it derived from inner conflicts between those matters with which we can come to terms and those with which we cannot. Since Freud wrote in German, and since the story is set mainly in Austria, it was welcome to have the book published in German, helped by Steffen Huck (to whom I am very grateful), in a translation by Frieda Ellman. To the left is the cover of the German edition.

Among the questions Freud considered in 1904, when the main part of the novel was set, was that of homosexuality. He thought that whereas the neurotic was someone whose inner conflicts had turned into symptoms, people who were homosexual didn't have enough inner conflict. Instead they acted out forbidden desires. These are the kinds of thoughts with which Freud is engaged in his treatment of Emily, while at the same time she kept from him the crime she thought she had committed by pushing her seducing guardian off a crag in the Austrian Alps. By clicking here, you can access Chapters 9 and 10 of the novel, in which Emily's and Sara's relationship develops and Freud thinks about it.

In the second part of the novel (Book 2, Investigation), Holmes and Watson try to discover the cause of death of Mr S, Emily's guardian, a diplomat who was engaged in secret discussions with the German govenerment. Following the investigation by Freud and by Emily herself (in Book 1, Confession) of Emily's inner world, this second part moves to the outer world and the kind of evidence that is the stuff of forensic investigation. This part was enjoyable to write because without giving up the idea of following clues, it allowed me to imagine the transmutation of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective genre into something closer to a spy story.

Most of all, of course, the second part of the novel provided the opportunity for a meeting between Freud and Holmes, which was the idea that prompted the book in the first place. Watson engineers the meeting because he has been worried about his friend's fits of depression, which medical science was unable to comprehend, let alone treat. He thinks Freud's new form of treatment, psychoanalysis, might do some good. So Holmes himself becomes the subject of an investigation—a psychological investigation—the result of which is a certain insight into that steely mind, and a glimpse of some cracks that appear in it. At the same time Holmes wants from Freud a clue for his case, that only an inner invesigation can provide.

My interest in writing about both Freud and Holmes was to imagine the interaction of two systems of thought: the pursuit of inner truths by means of psychotherapy and the drawing of conclusions about the outer world by what C.S. Peirce called abduction (see Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 2002), generally now described as reasoning from evidence to the best explanation of it, but which Peirce also described as reasoning backwards from results to causes. This is a type of reasoning that, as one may argue, Holmes contributed. As a fiction writer, moreover, the challenge was to do this not just in terms of an academic article, but by means of concretely imaginable events.

In Book 3, Obsession, the consequences emerge of the two kinds of investigation, inner and outer, consequences that change the lives of Emily and Sara considerably, and perhaps change Holmes to some degree. Whether Freud—that advocate of psychological change—is changed by the events recounted in the novel, is more questionable.

Keith Oatley & Philip Johnson-Laird (2002). Emotion and reasoning to consistency: The case of abductive inference. In S. Moore & M. Oaksford (Eds). Emotional cognition: From brain to behaviour (pp. 157-182). Amsterdam: Benjamin.

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