March 11, 2021

How do you feel about the palace hearing you speak your truth today?

“Your truth”. That phrase slipped off Oprah’s tongue with such ease during her interview with Meghan and Harry. But on this apparently simple construction hangs a question that has divided us with an explosion of animosity: how many truths can there be?

With the new world once again pitted against the old, I find myself reminded of the words of another Royal confidante, those of Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “To thine own self be true,” he advised his son. This sentiment seems to encapsulate so much of what is philosophically at stake in this interview, with the Prince and the Princess expressing “their truth”, a truth that was as much a function of the need to be true to who they are, as it was a reference to objective reality.

Put aside for one moment the on-going debate about their claims concerning Royal racism, for it seems to me that there is a troubling tension between two meanings of truth going on here: being true to yourself, something we have come to call authenticity, and truth as an empirical statement of fact.

The former was largely conceived by Rousseau and is often known as “expressivism” — the idea that, as the philosopher Charles Taylor describes in his magisterial Sources of the Self, “the moral or spiritual order of things must come to us indexed to a personal vision.” And this is where we divide. For some their “personal vision” is a hallmark of truth; for others it is very much a reason to be suspicious of it.

Here, too, it’s worth returning to Hamlet — not least because it is impossible not to be struck by the parallels between its title character and Prince Harry. For Freud, Hamlet represented an archetypal example of the Oedipus complex: a kind of childhood compulsion where a son develops an unconscious sexual desire for his mother and a sense of rivalry with his father.

Joseph Schwartz, in his definitive history of psychoanalysis, Cassandra’s Daughter, sees this “sexualisation of the mother-son relationship” as “part of the dynamic of the Victorian patriarchal family”. He continues:

 “This family romance is dominated by an absent authoritarian father who, arriving home, asserts his own needs over his children’s by making overt or covert sexual demands on his wife. The wife, resentful of abandonment by her husband and of his authoritarian attitudes, lavishes attention on her son. And the son, perceiving rivalry for the mother’s affections expressed in sexual terms, responds in kind.”

It is hard to read these words and not be reminded of the relationship between Charles and Diana, a woman “resentful of abandonment by her husband and of his authoritarian attitudes [who] lavished attention on her son”.

If Freud has taught us anything, it is that we may not always be the best judges of who we really are, let alone what really drives us. That is the very point of the unconscious; we are run by forces that we do not always properly understand, which are often repressed, working away in the background without us being fully aware of them. And if this is the case, then the problem with “my truth” is not just that it can fail to describe objective reality, but — and this is crucial — that it may fail, just as much, to describe subjective reality too.

That is not to say whether we should or should not believe Meghan or Harry. Instead, Freud’s work simply demonstrates that phrases such as “my truth” are not always helpful, either objectively and subjectively. It presumes too quickly that there is little more to inner truth than simply what you feel. But as the psychoanalytic experience so often demonstrates, “my truth” also requires a kind of discipled critical vigilance — the sort of push-back provided by a skilled analyst.

All of us are complex creatures; we are often a mystery, even to ourselves. And being at the intersection of Royalty and celebrity no doubt makes one’s life confusing in ways that are unimaginable to most of us, especially given that both are objects of considerable projection. It cannot be a coincidence that the stories that Freud most associated with the Oedipus complex — Oedipus Rex and Hamlet — are stories about princes.

None of this would matter so much were it not for the fact that the “truth” expressed to Oprah has the capacity to undermine one of the constitutional foundations of this country. It is one thing to sit on a couch in front of a therapist and work out your issues in private. I have done so myself and recommend it.

It is quite another to sit in front of millions of people, giving a half-interview, half-therapy session conducted by an unchallenging friend and neighbour, and for others to take this on face value. The stakes are far too high to allow “my truth” to go unchallenged. At the end of Hamlet, most of the protagonists lie dead; the court in ruins. “To thine own self be true” may have a nice ring to it. But it remains very poor advice.