A question from a reader: “I just read A Burnt Child, and I have been thinking quite a lot about it. I can see that it is partly about self-deception but I can’t describe how properly. Could you possibly help me, by summarizing what in the book makes it clear that it is about self-deception?”
Here is my take:
Reading Bengt’s letters to himself, you can see how he in the beginning denies his sexual interest in Gun. In fact, he says that he hates her, that what she’s doing is immoral, and he plans to somehow take revenge on her on behalf of his “pure” deceased mother.
Bengt is not lying about his intentions, he just doesn’t have a clue about the real nature of his obsession with her. It’s all in his unconscious, and Bengt’s ego is valiantly defending against his sexual longing as that longing is unacceptable to whom he so far understands himself to be: an individual of the highest moral integrity (in contrast to his father whose actions he despises).
Stig examines how Bengt gradually brings the real state of affairs into his awareness: Gun isn’t as ugly as he thought, in fact, she is quite beautiful; she isn’t as repulsive as expected, but interested in him; he notices that he can’t be hostile to her, etc. His commitment to truth forces him to observe his own behavior and then he recognizes that he is, in fact, in love with her. That in turn, brings on turbulent feelings that are difficult for him to manage: he becomes jealous and murderous; despairing and suicidal. What Stig does is to look at how these feelings rage within this inexperienced highly strung young man, and how Bengt’s thinking about his feelings and actions gradually allows more complexity: Instead of hate, he feels love for Gun, but this love is complicated, he discovers, as it is linked to the loss of his mother. As he gains insight into his feelings, he becomes calm. After Bengt’s suicide attempt, for example, Stig, the narrator, writes: ” …little by little, you are infused with a warm certainty: you didn’t do it to die or to be saved either – but to have peace. Peace with everything inside you that wanted to die, peace with everything outside of you that pressured you to live.” (A Burnt Child, “When the Desert Blooms”, first para)
It is as if Stig uses the book as a laboratory to explore what happens to a young, naively idealistic – some would say fanatical – person when powerful events (death and betrayal) throws him into completely new and turbulent emotional territory. The question Stig wants us to think about is whether we can always trust the explanations we tell ourselves about our actions? “Sometimes we do something without knowing why. And once it is done, we are surprised that we did it. Or sometimes we are even afraid. But from the surprise, as well as the fear, comes an explanation. It has to come. Because the unexplained fills us with a dread that we cannot tolerate for long. But by the time the explanation is thought of or uttered, we have already forgotten that it came after – that the deed came first. If we’re never reminded of it, because the act corresponds with the explanation, then everything is fine. But sometimes everything is not fine. This is when it suddenly occurs to us that the explanation given to us is mendacious, and that after the consequences of our action become clear to us in light of all that has happened, the explanation reveals itself as a distortion of our true intentions. This is when we experience real dread, because real dread is being unable to rely on your thoughts on their own. Real dread is knowing that your thoughts lie to you, even when you think you are being honest.” — A Burnt Child, Tea for Four or Five, first para
Bengt’s journey in the novel ends with him feeling calm. At that moment, this young man is no longer in self denial. “We are not happy but feel momentary peace. We have just witnessed our life’s desert in all its terrifying grandeur, and now the desert is blooming. The oases are few and far in between, but they do exist. And although the desert is vast, we know that the greatest deserts hold the most oases. But to discover this, we have to pay dearly. The price is volcanic eruption. … Therefore, we ought to bless the volcanoes, thank them because their light is dazzling and their fire scorching. Thank them for blinding us, because only when we are blind can we gain full sight. And thank them for burning us, because only as burnt children can we give others our warmth.” A Burnt Child, When the Desert Blooms, second to last para
I would like to add a caveat: Don’t try this at home. Bengt did not get any professional help to handle his “volcanic eruption”: his outpouring of destructive violent emotions. So he was in great danger – his sense of calm came, as Stig writes, at a very high cost indeed. Stig himself did not have experience of therapy – those were simply not the times (194os). Today we can get help to explore our feelings, impulses, thought patterns and behavior in safe settings.