Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Lydia Davis: What She Knew

I’ve been thinking about identity and the internalised object following the PsyLitFilm symposium at Sussex University on Monday. I’ve been wondering, in particular, about a Lydia Davis vignette used to illustrate a loss of perception between the interior and the exterior in a paper given by Professor Josh Cohen on Bion and Laplanche and externalisation in literature and psychoanalysis. Here is the vignette:

What She Knew

People did not know what she knew, that she was not really a woman but a man, often a fat man, but more often, probably, an old man. The fact that she was an old man made it hard for her to be a young woman. It was hard for her to talk to a young man, for instance, though the young man was clearly interested in her. She had to ask herself, Why is this young man flirting with this old man?

It’s only four sentences – a wisp of smoke, maybe – but there’s so much happening that it seems a shame to stop at using it to make one point about a problematic situation: a young woman who has not been able to communicate all of herself to a young man and the resulting breakdown between a “perfect” interior and an “imperfect” exterior. It’s amusing for a start. If the young woman is conscious of her external identity and if she is so acutely aware of the object she has internalised that she can describe his characteristics, then it is not really necessary for her to ask herself why the young man is interested in her, except to draw on irony when he flirts with her. There is also a suggestion that the internalised object is a changeable entity. That the object is “often a fat man” tells us that sometimes he is not – he might be a thin man or a muscular man, or even a woman. That he is “more often, probably, an old man” implies that he might be a young man, or, perhaps, a young or old woman during the times when he is “more often, probably” not an old man. The old, fat man isn’t therefore a prisoner of the young woman, or vice versa, if the object shifts and changes – perhaps as quickly as it takes to follow the meaning of the sentences. And what about the internalised object of the young man? Maybe it’s an old woman? Or a young woman? Or maybe not. Maybe the young man is as he appears. Maybe he is even aware of the young woman’s internalised object when he flirts with her. Maybe she knows he knows this too and this is why she finds it difficult to talk to him.

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