Reading for the Plot

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What do the flashbacks and nightmares of trauma victims have to do with the way we experience pleasure? Peter Brooks makes these unexpected connections in his essay, Freud’s Master Plot, within his book, Reading for the Plot.

A professor of literature at Yale, Brooks wanted to know why stories are a certain length. Why don’t we go directly from the beginning to the end and skip all the twists and turns along the way? Why is it necessary to have a plot? Brooks believes that he can explain with some help from Freud.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Freud noted that, in their dreams, flashbacks, and patterns of behavior, trauma victims compulsively repeated their horrible experiences as if they were happening in the present, rather than remembering them as events of the past. If you believe in the pleasure principle, namely that people do whatever is pleasurable, you would not expect this. Freud developed his idea of the death drive in an effort to explain.

This is how the death drive works. Death, you see, awaits you. You prefer not to think about it, but it forces itself into your consciousness when you have a close call; a trauma, in other words. Your trauma made you experience something close to death, before you have had a chance to live life fully. You wish you had the sufficient vigilance to ward it off.

Having a death drive doesn’t mean that you want to die. Far from it. You know that you will die, but you want to do so on your terms. You attempt to master the inevitability of death by compulsively repeating the event that brought it to your awareness. This compulsion to repeat the trauma is to keep up the kind of vigilance which you think you failed to have in the past. You can’t take your eyes off of it, no matter how much you’d like, because of the threat it poses and the significance it has to your story. Flashbacks, then, are rehearsals.

Here’s where Brooks advances Freud and further develops the death drive. The moment you have a desire, you seek to extinguish the desire. When you crave chocolate, you mentally rehearse the eating of chocolate in the same way that trauma victims rehearse, or “remember forward”, their death. All desire, says Brooks, naturally heads towards quiescence, and all life heads towards death.

Turning to Brooks’ interest in reading: when you pick up a book, you soon find that the hero in the story has a desire. The boy desires the girl, the detective desires to solve the crime, the vampire desires blood. If the book hooks you, you soon have a desire, too: to keep reading until the book is done. A good ending achieves a sense of boundedness when all desires are resolved and all the loose ends tied up.

But there’s more, and this is why novels are long: not too long, not too short, but of a certain length. When you crave chocolate, you know it’s not that enjoyable to just cram it into your mouth at once. The craving can be enjoyable, too. If you look forward to the chocolate, delay your gratification; if you lick it, savor it before consuming it, then you enjoy it more.

This process is what Freud calls binding. The more you tease yourself with the desire, the more you rehearse its satisfaction, the more you tightly bind yourself to it. In addition to its original importance, the desire, once it’s bound, becomes invested with all the energies generated by delay.

When you read, you want the hero to be successful, but only after having adventures, suffering setbacks, and acquiring helpers. First, there’s the hero’s desire that drives the plot forward. Then, there’s the delay, the detour, the arabesque, the refusal of closure, the making of bad choices. This is what fills the pages in the middles of literary plots. Subplots, with their own system of desires, setbacks, and resolutions, contribute to the delay. A satisfying story, by teasing you with the ending, binds all of these elements together. In a good book, everything is there for a reason.

In summary, in real life, just as in fiction, whether there has been trauma in it, or not; life moves toward death. You know you’re going to die, but you want to die on your own terms, after having had a full life. A full life consists of the very same desires, setbacks, adventures, and delay we find in fiction. It is enriched by the subplots provided by our associates. An awareness of death adds a great deal to the story by bringing to mind what’s at stake. Trauma adds drama. The pleasure principle and the death drive coexist and cooperate in the developing and enriching of the good life, as it does in the developing and enriching of the good plot.