Even the truest writing is false

Even the truest writing is false. It can’t be otherwise. Despite the best intentions, words fail. They carry our bias as much as our clarity. This is because writing is unnatural. To write well is to arrive with hands bloodied by platitudes, that is, to have been painstakingly selective with language.

Such effort, while productive of pleasing prose, is not conducive to truth, an entity that hides in the interstices, rather than declaring itself in head-lines. This is, in some ways, sadly so, as it is both counter-intuitive and contradictory of literary heroes. I so much wanted to believe John Ralston Saul when he said in The Unconscious Civilization that anything could be made instantly clear with good writing. George Orwell claimed something similar with his famous analogy from 1946’s Why I Write. Good prose, he said, is “like a window pane,” transparent, direct, and devoid of artifice.

Unfortunately some sentences are truer than others, and some words, while they gleam and preen, are merely devices for persuasion. Orwell tried to combat this with spare, muscular prose. But even he knew that he could not erase himself from his writing. It is just not possible to take ourselves out of our words. Like the way we walk or react to our mirror image, there is always some adjustment, no matter how small, going on.

Speech is perhaps more revealing, particularly when it is the sort of talk Freud called Free Association, or speaking without censoring yourself. It is via free associative speech within the transference in treatment that truth can arise. It is, as Lacan noted, only ever half said: you can never say it all; but enough can be said for something new to emerge for the speaker.

This happens because free association is not free. What we say, while it might seem random, is always linked to pre-existing personal references. Thus, whatever one says within the transference is being said of oneself. And the decoding of dreams, rather than a matter of consulting a system of established equivalences, involves the associations the dreamer offers.

Would this work with free associative writing – that is – pouring whatever comes into your mind onto the page? Writing teachers deploy such a method, and while it may free up ideas, it does not have the same effect. What makes free association work in psychoanalysis is the interpretation supplied by the analyst within the transference relationship. While writing may attempt to reach truth via an exercise that seeks to mimic this, with-out the transference established, the unconscious won’t reveal itself in the same way, nor without interpretation, will the words yield new meanings.

What is required is what the ancient Greeks thought of as a dialectic, that is, a discussion to find the truth. It is this dialectical method that Socrates – who Lacan thought of as the first psychoanalyst – used to find truth. It is only by means of an endless dialectical process – employed by Tibetan monks and, up to the 1950s, leading teachers of medicine at Melbourne University – that the analyst can subvert the ego’s disabling illusions of permanence and stability, in a manner identical to the Socratic Dialogue.

What is at stake is desire, which is one way of thinking about what truth might be. For psychoanalysis and for many writers, desire is unconscious desire; unconscious being the knowledge that emerges in free associative speech. It is a knowledge the subject does not know he knows. Writers refer to such surprising knowledge. E. M Forster, author of A Passage to India, liked to describe his art as throwing a bucket into the unconscious in order to see what it dredged up. And novelists often assess their work on its capacity to disarm or surprise, not just the reader, but themselves.

Psychoanalytic treatment then aims at revealing this knowledge to the subject, and is based on the premise that the only means of doing so is through free association. However, analytic treatment does not aim at a Hegelian ‘absolute knowledge’, because the unconscious is irreducible. There is, as Dylan Evans writes in his Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis an inescapable divide between the subject and knowledge. The symbolic knowledge that emerges in an analysis is knowledge, not of some higher absolute truth, but of the truth of one’s unconscious desire.

For analysts speech is the only means of access to the truth about desire; ‘speech alone is the key to that truth,’ Lacan writes. I am not sure what Orwell, a political and literary writer, would make of this. He hoped he had cleared his mind of cant and escaped the fog of cliché. But had he? It’s odd that a writer who worshipped transparency was so opaque in his life. In his introduction to the latest book on Orwell: Orwell: A Life in Letters, editor Peter Davison writes that “Orwell had within his deepest self an unresolved conflict that made him so contradictory a character.” When he died in 1950 he was a success around the world but believed he was a miserable failure. He attacked Christianity but married in church and baptized his adopted son. He was an accomplished controversialist and scene-stealer who hated to have a fuss made over him by friends.

As the US journalist, Andrew Ferguson writes in The American Spectator, there are moments in the letters when Orwell’s passion for clarity and precision is more than unsettling. His friend Malcolm Muggeridge always assumed Orwell, for all his reticence, was shattered by the death of his first wife, a few years before Orwell’s own death. “But nothing offers a clearer picture of Orwell’s disorientation than a harrowing letter he wrote to a young, pretty art student who for a time lived in a flat beneath his”.

He opens with an apology: “You are very beautiful…[and] it’s scandalous that a person like me should make advances to a person like you, and yet I thought from your appearance that you were…a person who lived chiefly through the intellect and might become interested in a man who is much older and not much good physically.”

She wasn’t interested, but Orwell reassures her by referring to his imminent death: “What I am really asking you is whether you would like to be the widow of literary man.” There will be royalties and “unpublished stuff” to edit. “It isn’t so much a question of someone to sleep with, though of course I want that too.” And because “I am also sterile, I think,” she would be free to find a “handsome young man” with whom she could have children. “I have very little physical jealousy.” “You say you wouldn’t be likely to love me. I don’t see how you could be expected to.” No, he goes on, “I want peace and quiet and someone to be fond of me.”

As prose this seems to be truth. But, as Ferguson says, is the laying bare of grief, loneliness, lust and neediness something else; “is it guile?” In an analysis the words could not remain intact and aloof. They would be part of a dialectic that would, hopefully, not just honour Orwell as the artist he was, but also resemble the window pane he thought words could become.