Literature and psychoanalysis share an interest in neurosis. Many great novels are a study of neurotic character. From Emma Bovary to Holden Caulfield we are in the world of neurotics, that is, people who, to some extent, misconstrue their surroundings, particularly their relationships. Emma, the Madame Bovary of Flaubert’s novel, sees her 19th century life through a fantasy of her misplaced desire and desirability, Holden Caulfield, the young protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s ‘Catcher In the Rye’, views his 1950s New York with an engaging chip on the shoulder. Both fail, as we all must, but are unforgettable because the mechanisms of that failure are hinted at by the novelist. We read them, not only because they are forged artfully, but because we glimpse shadows of ourselves in them.

‘Neurosis’ originally meant a disease of the nerves, but since Freud’s discovery that one of the neuroses, ‘hysteria’, is a disorder of the personality and not of the nerves, it has been used to describe a disorder of the personality. Personhood, of course, cannot help but be disordered; that is the result of having minds, initially at least, made for us. We are born into expectations and excitations; they live—in our parents—before we do and, unless grasped, determine destiny. Emma’s romantic fantasies are not genetic wilfulness, but the way a beautiful child attempted to touch the perfection that the nuns who trained her suggested was her due.

The odd thing is that most of the time, neurotics don’t actually realise that they are misreading their lives. A clever young man like Holden Caulfield knows in a peripheral sort of way that his branding of nearly everyone as a ‘phoney’ has something to do with his all-too-successful parents. But, as Freud said, we have the eerie ability to know and not know something at the same time. That is how neurosis works; it creates symptoms, such as Emma’s romantic illusions, both from what we know—our knowledge of our wishful thinking—and what we don’t—how we defend against it.

So, clever as we may be, we are in the dark about ourselves, which is why literature, which explores the hidden recesses, and therapy, which tries to expose them, have their uses. The problem is that, while it was possible to say that the question of 19th century literature was ‘how are we to live’, the question of this century is more to do with lifestyle. The word ‘lifestyle’ was coined in 1929 by former Freud follower, Alfred Adler, who wanted to reclaim free will from the psychological determinism of Freud. Adler could not accept that human subjectivity is programmed by childhood, and argued for the power of personality to affect change. This he called ‘lifestyle’, the values, passions, knowledge, actions and oddities that make up a unique individual. A century later, the life Adler talked about has been subordinated to the style he did not even consider, and we are left with an expression that has come to mean the clothes we wear, the work we do, how we enjoy and the nature and quantity of our toys. That is why we have so many publications that are not books but style guides for living. This fetish for setting down rules as if life were a fashion to be followed, rather than an ambivalence to be experienced, has also touched psychotherapy, as the fad for manualised, measured treatments testifies.

Styles, of course, change. They must. That is how faux novelty is created and new objects sold. Just look at the profusion of diagnoses in DSM IV. In literature, however, novelty is nowhere near enough. Fashions change: When Flaubert wrote a later novel, Sentimental Education in 1869, he linked good looking with ‘plump’, but that style difference is incidental. Change for the sake of it has nothing to do with what real writers put on the page, or analysts and therapists say or do not say in the session. Their task is to recognise the otherness of those they write of and listen to, not make them over in their own likeness or image. It is the reverse of what happens with those addicted to lifestyle, as the popularity of ‘make-overs’ shows Lifestyle is burying yourself in the commercial whim of another. The excuse is that newness is originality and communicates something—your clothes/car speaks for you, as if expanding the means, in this case, the wardrobe/garage, leads to expanding the mind. Flaubert, who decried the expansion of the rail line between Paris and his home in Rouen—he thought it would give people more time to say nothing—saw the fallacy. Communication, which was also a buzzword in his time, he knew, was dependent on the eccentricity of the self to itself, not on a manualised effort to breach the gap—either between us or between Paris and Rouen.

This urgency to iron out the kinks, essentially eliminate the individual subject in pursuit of an imagined predictably, is a severe neurosis of its own. It infects writing—the weasel words of spin and soap operas—and psychotherapy, just as it does business and government. It masquerades as science and so-called communication but is in fact a pathological urge to seal the gaps that constitute human subjectivity. What is so feared that we have to nail ourselves down with conforming numbness? The writer Franz Kafka, a great admirer of Flaubert, saw what was at stake. ‘Those who build new media to eliminate the spectral elements between people,’ he observed, ‘only create more ample breeding grounds for the ghosts.’