Tracking the writing process, Guilt and Grace part 2: On the Edge of the Psychoanalytic Rabbit Hole

You really need to start from the beginning to understand what’s going on here.

Yesterday, when I started this feature, I said I’d check in in a week. So this has a little more momentum that I thought it would. Here is Part 2.

The titular trial is an externalization of the protagonist’s guilt – for convenience, I’m going to call him John Doe for now. The inciting incident is a casual moment, a chance impression that sends John into a spiral of guilt, the trial being the externalization of that crisis. I hit on the idea that this inciting incident will involve a sequence of two (perhaps three) unimportant events that trigger John’s memory by association, unobtrusive impressions whose meaning will be just as unobtrusively revealed later in the story.

I connected the idea of a chance, apparently meaningless occurrence that triggers guilt to a particular moment in Mulholland Drive in which Naomi Watt’s character sees the thick-eyebrowed man in the diner, which according to Film Crit Hulk’s interpretation of the film was essentially the same thing I’m thinking of here – the man looks at her by chance, his expression neutral, but she sees judgment in his stare because she is feeling guilty. Earlier in the movie, in her dream, this same man was sitting where she was, talking to his therapist about feeling judged (later the therapist looks at him as he had looked at Watts in the dream, from the same location). The man immediately after meets the physical manifestation of guilt, in the monster my friends and I like to call “Poopy Bob Marley.”

Now that I’ve made the connection between Mulholland Drive, a movie that deals with the same subject matter, guilt, with a similar approach, fantasy/magical realism, I can’t help but plumb the movie for insights and other bits to pilfer. The other option would be to attempt to ignore the movie altogether, but there’s something that feels even more dishonest about that. Better to revel in the influence, and steal responsibly – that is, steal high-level abstractions, or take particular devices and twist them so far that they become unrecognizable. In any case, I need to be vigilant not to outright plagiarize. Anything I take, I must remake anew.

Next I’ll try to recall the film and any interesting elements I might glean. (Recalling, rather than rewatching, might be productive, because sometimes interesting things happen through imperfect remembering.) There are the creepy-as fuck parent figures, who, if I’m reading correctly, provide an unquestioning (and unsettling) loving support that is so intolerable to Diane (Watts’ character). The fact that they believe in her so completely haunts her because of the gap between the way they see her, the way the believe in her so innocently, and what she knows herself to be, i.e., a murderer (if by proxy).

So here is an intriguing insight – that guilt (or perhaps shame – and here I make a note to ponder the distinction, and what it might mean for this story, later) might be intensified by others’ admiration, or perhaps even others’ love. This actually dovetails nicely with the idea of John Doe having a family. If their love always brings him a pang of guilt (because he knows he is undeserving), he will reflexively reject their love. This might be a psychological mechanism by which he remains emotionally distant from his family his entire life – a sense of unworthiness, perhaps fear of hurting someone again. I make a mental note to look into this, without much idea of where to look. Perhaps the dream of the trial might reenact this dynamic, or perhaps invert it. Perhaps the inversion will come from his family’s revulsion once they find out what he did – not literal, but what he always imagines would happen, a vision of some sort. Possibilities!

Back to the film and Hulk’s interpretation. Hulk brings up displacement a lot. I look it up to get a clear idea of what it means and maybe have some ideas. The phrase “a shift of emphasis from important to unimportant elements” pops out, but I have no idea how to apply it. I set it aside, for now. The section on Lacan suggests it’s a kind of metonymy. Intriguing, but still too vague. File away for future consideration.

This does bring to mind the more general idea that the guilty person might engage in all sorts of mental contortion to avoid guilt.  A quick brainstorm suggests he might blame the victim, dehumanize the victim, blame circumstances (alcohol, his upbringing, peer pressure, insurmountable lust), assert some kind of right, minimize the transgression.

These are all conscious and rational (that is, making use of reason, not reasonable) ways to approach his avoidance. Can I come up with avoidance mechanisms using dream-logic? Time to look it up. The whole concept is essentially an instance of delusional projection. I might incorporate some projection/projective identification. Others that call my attention from the list: fantasy/wishful thinking, idealization (of victim, of family), somatization, ritual, hypocondria and social comparison. I will keep these in mind when time comes to develop the plot the protagonist and choose significant details.

At this point, it might be productive to sketch a rough outline to work out some sort of structure for this story, and try to determine if I have enough material to figure out important gaps. It would also help now to consider biographical details about the protagonist.

The other thing I’m putting off is putting the finger in the wound, so to speak – to work myself into a state of guilt and see what I might observe or learn, what associations I might make, to bring to bear in this process. Some, perhaps all of these, next time.

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