On January 17th, 2017, BPSI screened 20th Century Women at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. The film went on to receive the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The following essay is adapted from remarks delivered after the screening.
Harold J. Bursztajn, M.D.
Mike Mills’s semi-autobiographical film, 20th Century Women, is about more than the gender and time period suggested by the title. It tells the story of a teenage boy being raised by a single mother, two oddball tenants (a young woman facing the threat of cervical cancer and a man who has lost himself), and a platonic girlfriend whose mother is a psychotherapist. These characters, adrift amid the cultural incoherence of Santa Barbara, California in 1979, feel a need to read books, attend group meetings, and role-play with one another to learn how to live and how to love. As in psychoanalytic dialogue, they contend with memories of the past, feelings in the present, and desires for the future. Perhaps most remarkably, it is not only the 55-year-old Dorothea but the younger characters who feel the gravitational pull of passing time, conscious of opportunities, experience, and potential fulfillment already lost in however many years they have been alive.
For me, this film called to mind two sayings that exist in tension with each other: One is from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida:
Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes:
Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour’d
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
The other is Hegel’s famous comment in the Preface to “Philosophy of Right” (1820) referencing the Roman goddess of wisdom. “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”—meaning that philosophy cannot be prescriptive because it understands only in hindsight. The dialectic set up by these two thoughts can be found to occur in any psychodynamically informed therapeutic encounter, as well as in memoirs and autobiographical dramas such as 20th Century Women.
As the film’s loosely but meaningfully structured narrative unfolds, the passage of time both obscures and clarifies the characters’ understanding of themselves and their lives. Such understanding is not static; it ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, leaving us with both gains and losses. Arnold Modell’s illuminating discussion of the ongoing process of contextual revision of memory[i] can be understood as an elaboration of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s observation that “you cannot step twice into the same stream” [of consciousness]. That is why some analyses have to be very long; just as life takes time to unfold, so do conversations of any depth. I recall a favorite quotation by George Kelly, the father of cognitive clinical psychology, which I picked up during my residency: “Today’s insight is tomorrow’s resistance.”
Psychoanalysis as a method proceeds via free association.[ii] As we associate, time flows, and even as our associations live in the present and point to the future by way of desire, they also recede into the past. When we think or write or paint or compose in autobiographical terms, as when we engage in psychoanalysis, we look back in order to look forward, thereby freeing ourselves from the limitations of our present perspective, valuable as that snapshot of life may be. As 20th Century Women poignantly dramatizes, as we grow we also look back and remember. And as we remember the lives we have lived, we also experience time’s arrow of entropy—i.e., that our lives will have an end point; we must die. Memory of a past that is gone is a reminder of a finite future, an immutable memento mori. In ironic defiance of the powerful human drive to achieve immortality,[iii],[iv] increasing consciousness of life inevitably entails increasing consciousness of death. This is also a crucial dimension of the autobiographical process in psychoanalysis. As Freud illustrates in his essay On Transience (Standard Edition, Vol. 14, pp. 303-307) , the existential is not a subtype of psychoanalysis, but rather is vital to a psychoanalytic process that (to adapt T.S. Eliot’s phrase in The Waste Land) is continually “mixing memory and desire” in the context of inescapable mortality.
In analysis we learn about living our lives every day in the face of death. The psychoanalytic method, even as it reminds us of our mortality, is also a reminder of what Charles Schulz captured in this classic Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown and Snoopy contemplate mortality on a lakeside dock.
“Someday, we will all die”, “but on all the other days, we will not.” The insight that we have to die and that we have to live is by no means confined to psychoanalysis or to autobiography. It is found also in great art, such as the photographs of the Lodz ghetto Jews (to be shown at an upcoming exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts) who were doomed to die and yet smiled bravely at the photographer Henryk Ross, and the paintings of Hyman Bloom, such as The Cauldron, where even in death and in the midst of dissection the colors of life shine wondrously This insight likewise informs imaginative literature that may be autobiographical only in the most metaphorical sense. Paul Ornstein points to the classic example of The Brothers Karamazov, where Dostoevsky dramatizes “the central preoccupation of his adult life: the unresolved struggle between faith and doubt, between believing in God and immortality and not believing in them.”[v] In that spirit I have saved the last ending of this analysis of life’s endings for Shakespeare and his Sonnet #77.
Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book, this learning mayst thou taste.
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know
Time’s thievish progress to eternity.
Look what thy memory cannot contain,
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.
[i] Modell AH. Other Times, Other Realities: Toward a Theory of Psychoanalytic Treatment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
[ii] Kris AO. Free Association: Methods and Process (rev. ed.). New York: Routledge, 1996.
[iii] Cave S. The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization. New York: Crown, 2012.
[iv] Haque OS, De Freitas J, Viani I, Niederschulte B, Bursztajn HJ. Why did so many German doctors join the Nazi Party early? Int J Law Psychiatry. 2012; 35(5-6):473-479.
[v] Ornstein PH. The novelist’s craft: Reflections on The Brothers Karamazov. American Imago 2012; 69(3):295-317.
I am grateful for the conversations and the work of Bennett Simon which illuminates my reading of Shakespeare.
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