The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark

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South Africa. The last trace of Karl Reich was when a company in Johannesburg tried at least eight times to draw money from his account without success.

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Nathanson said it appeared that Reich was approached by someone he knew. Nathanson said Reich led a private life.


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Subject as it is to unrelenting attack, privacy is often a dirty word these days.

Privacy is evil … it brings out hypocrisy. She committed suicide in In the Communist and, for that matter, the Nazi state, nothing was allowed to remain in the dark. Norman Mailer: a Double Life.

The Private Life : Our Everyday Self in an Age of Intrusion

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What can explain our fascination with deeds and privacies not our own? Cohen, a practising psychoanalyst, suggests that it might be. In the past hundred years it seems there has been a shift of prudery from sex to death: the Victorians shunned their bodies the way we shun our mortality.


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  • Summoning literature from Milton to Sophocles, Cohen concludes that our only hope now may be to protect things that should remain unknown. One nation under CCTV? Proust described reading as a peculiar form of solitude in which we nonetheless receive the impulse of another mind—we are, with a book, at once alone and in company.

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    Privacy, in this account, is not isolation or solitude—the retreat or exclusion from a shared human experience. Describing the writing of torture and of the Holocaust, Cohen describes a form of writing where the self has been dragged into a realm of obscurity and isolation, expelled to the outer fringes of human expression, to solitude, and abandoned to an entirely private inner existence.

    There is something incommunicable and enigmatic at the core of human subjectivity; but, for Cohen, this private self exists in a crucial, if always precarious, relationship to its public expression in a shared human language. As Cohen observes, writing about the unknown treads a delicate path: there is always the danger that the enigmatic will be rendered too knowable in the writing, or elevated into a mystical secret accessible only to privileged initiates.

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    Through its engagement with literature, philosophy and psychoanalysis, The Private Life carefully negotiates its subject to share a conceptualisation of privacy that is, the author suggests, at once a burden and a cause for hope. A burden, because the idea of this essentially unknowable, enigmatic excess at the heart of the private life pushes us to the margins of the psyche—to the point where language and communication break down. A hope, because if we cannot fully know or fully master such aspects of our own subjectivity, it is through books like this that we can at least intuit those recalcitrant and radically singular domains of psychic life.