I am them

Richard Wollheim

J.-B. Pontalis is a Parisian intellectual de pur sang. Born into a wealthy upper-middle-class family, he was brought up in Neuilly, and, as a child, spent long summers at a family house in Cabourg, Proust’s Balbec. He studied philosophy under Sartre, and taught it for some years. He entered psychoanalysis under the aegis of Lacan, and having weaned himself from that unfortunate affiliation, is now one of the leading figures in the French psychoanalytic world. He was on the editorial board of Les Temps modernes, and he founded and now runs La Nouvelle Revue de psychanalyse. He is part of the hierarchy of Gallimard, which is as much an academy as a publishing house. He has always had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, and he seems never to have let his experience of life be restricted by the constraints of employment or profession. He has always, as he puts it, ‘tried to diversify’.

Love of Beginnings is Pontalis’s autobiography, and a reader might be forgiven for going to it in pursuit of information about those French intellectuals whose names are so vivid to us but whose personalities remain elusive. In intellectual life as in politics, the cult of personality does very little to bring personality to life. But any reader who comes to the book with these perfectly reasonable interests will be disappointed. Love of Beginnings has none of the factuality of a novel by Aldous Huxley or Simone de Beauvoir. It is about as full of gossip as a poem by Elizabeth Bishop.

In composing his autobiography, Pontalis made a very explicit choice of genre. He cast it, deliberately and decisively, in the lyrical, not in the narrative, mode. Indeed, not only would it be impossible to reconstruct even the outlines of Pontalis’s life from these cunningly juxtaposed chapters with their mysterious titles – ‘Hollows’, ‘London in Venice’, ‘The Smell of Closed Rooms’, ‘The Fall of Bodies’ ‘At the End of the Line’ – but it is often hard to follow the chapters without having some independent knowledge of the life of their author.

In his foreword to the book, Adam Phillips cannot resist making a reference to Proust. I do not find it very apt, since the dominant element in Proust is the weaving together of narrative and lyric, of story and image. But the two books do have one characteristic in common, something that, in the case of Remembrance of Things Past, notably adds to the difficulty of following the narrative: it is often impossible even to guess what the age of the protagonist would have been.

A closer parallel, which Phillips also hints at, is with a book which, differing greatly in tone and content from Pontalis’s, has an important stylistic similarity: Michel Leiris’s L’Age d’homme. Leiris’s book is a far grimmer testament, freely playing on the nerves, while Pontalis’s is a sunny work: but each is the product of a writer, classically formed, inheriting the standards of the finest 17th-century French prose, who has then been, at some sensitive age, dipped in surrealism. The lyricism of Love of Beginnings is the lyricism of surrealism, the lyricism of surprise and carefully etched incongruity.

Despite its official protestations, surrealism has basically nothing in common with psychoanalysis: something which the founder of psychoanalysis was quick to appreciate. One way in which the incompatibility manifests itself is that, while it is the central concern of psychoanalysis to penetrate the surface, the often humdrum surface, of everyday life, and to excavate the darker impulses that lie on the far side of it and contributed to its making, surrealism aims at the creation of a hard surface with the glossy impenetrability of a mirror, which causes the viewer, the reader, to retreat from the work, and to turn round and look inwards for affinities to what is out there. What psychoanalysis reveals in the artist surrealism is anxious to arouse in the spectator. Nevertheless, the attempt to forge an alliance between the two has been a persistent theme in French culture of the last seventy years.

So the interesting question is; how is it that Love of Beginnings ever came about? In other words, how is it that Pontalis uses a style basically resistant to a certain form of inquiry in the construction of a self-portrait that is itself the fruit of that form of inquiry? After all, Pontalis is no innocent in these matters. He is a survivor of Sartre and Lacan, the two most ferocious opponents that psychoanalysis has had to endure: Sartre with his insistence on self-assertion and autonomy, Lacan with his denaturing of inner conflict and his reduction of psychology to psycho-linguistics. No one could have slipped away from such masters, from such tyrants as Pontalis concedes them to have been, without having a very acute sense of the issues at stake. So what has Pontalis acquired from psychoanalysis about the constriction of a person that allows him to think this can be conveyed in images, or cast in the lyric mode?

From Love of Beginnings it is possible to retrieve three separate strands that, its author believes, and believes on the basis of his psychoanalytic experience, go to the making of a person. These strands impose constraints on any adequate autobiography, but at the same time, they allow a resourceful autobiographer who is able to make use of them to convey what is distinctive about himself.

In the first place, there is the idea of the person as the conglomerate of internalised figures: as, in Freud’s famous phrase in The Ego and the Id, the ‘precipitate’ of all those whom he has loved – and, Pontalis adds, of all those whom he has detested, and, for that matter, of all those to whom he has been indifferent. Pontalis makes it clear that, in his own case, introjection has come readily, it has been a singularly potent factor in his constitution, and, in a touching passage, he suggests that it is the strength of the internalised father, a father whom he lost suddenly and at an early age, that ultimately safeguarded him from domination by Sartre and Lacan.

At least since Rousseau’s Confessions with its stirring opening – ‘I am like no one else in the world. I may be no better, but at least I am different’ – modern autobiography, as a literary form has set itself the aim of recording, not so much a person who has lived through unique events, as a unique person. It is reasonable to ask, therefore, whether this project can be sustained when the person is seen, by himself as well as outsiders, as a conglomerate of others.

This difficulty arises only on a very inaccurate view of the process of introjection, however. Freud, in a famous passage, referred to introjection as ‘psychic cannibalism’. But he did not intend to suggest that, at the Day of Judgment, say, the inner figures would struggle out into the light of day, and resume their free-standing existence. To think this would be to ignore the fact that introjection, taken seriously, calls in doubt the very idea of the free-standing figure: all of us, not just some of us, are partly made what we are by those we internalise. And, more gravely, it ignores the fact that, in internalising a figure, we mould it in accordance with our own fears and desires and fantasies. The figures who people us are like fictional characters whom we create on the model of real-life prototypes.

Something like the novelist’s art lies at the core of introjection; that of the actor lies at its periphery. The love of mimicry is a symptom of internalisation, and though it is surprising that Pontalis the autobiographer should make so little use of the inner voice, it comes as no surprise to the reader that Pontalis the man should have had the youthful ambition to become an actor. It is at this point that the book has its one irresistibly comic moment. In 1944 Sartre told Pontalis that he wanted to start a revue after the war was over: would Pontalis be interested? Pontalis said he would be: very. And what he would be particularly interested in was being one of the chorus line, one of the garçons, who circle round the star.

The second strand that, according to psychoanalysis, goes to the making of the person is the testing of fantasy against reality. In the process, the person comes to find out how much is belief and not just wish, how much is desire and not just omnipotence. In his own case, Pontalis constantly emphasises how being a writer has complicated the task of reality-testing, because words have no inherent check on themselves. How can a writer, a thinker, ever be confident that the sentences he spins out of himself and out of the language he has mastered are not just insubstantial invention? How can he know that his phrases are not just phrase-making, images without substance? Love of Beginnings is shot through with a hankering after the visual, and in one passage Pontalis contrasts the arbitrariness of ‘the hand with a pen’ with the reassuring accountability of ‘the painter’s hand in front of a live model’. But no small part of the charm of this book is an underlying optimism about the possibility of a kind of writing that has measured up to what is here called ‘the weight of things’.

Thirdly, there is the idea of the person held together by memory, but with memory itself now thought of, not as a series of sharp, accurate pictures of the past, but as an almost corporeal deposit of experience, left behind in the body, inaccurate, fugitive, permeable. And, once again, looking for what is most distinctive of his own case, Pontalis finds it in the adhesiveness of memory to place: to particular places rather than to particular times. The tonality of the prose lightens when the genius loci is invoked.

Love of Beginnings is embedded in its prose, which makes the task of carrying the prose intact from one language to another formidable. It is an unfortunate fact about translation – unfortunate for the translator – that the infelicities are always more conspicuous than the felicities, no matter their ratio. In this case, the translators may, as their Note suggests, have been hindered by too many helping hands. Their final version is marred by three failings. They do not know the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’; they have an inelegant sense of word-order; and they use gallicisms, which is unforgivable in a translation from the French. But sometimes their prose sings.