Beyond the Couch: Psychoanalysis and the Human Talent for Unhappiness

By Shilling, Jane | New Statesman (1996), January 4, 2013 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Beyond the Couch: Psychoanalysis and the Human Talent for Unhappiness

Shilling, Jane, New Statesman (1996)

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves

Stephen Grosz

Chatto & Windus, 240pp, [pounds sterling]14.99

What, exactly, is an "examined life"? One that is worth living, according to Plato's Apology, in which he records Socrates, on trial for his life, arguing that "the unexamined life is not worth living".

The American-born psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz borrows the philosopher's aphorism-in-extremis for the title of his book of case studies or "episodes". For Grosz, the psychoanalytic examination of a life is a joint "quest" (his term) between practitioner and patient to find the hidden insights that might restore or save a damaged psyche.

Classically, the psychoanalyst is the blank surface on to which the client's anxieties are projected. As the archaeological layers of ancient psychic damage are gradually revealed, the analyst exposes nothing of his or her own inner life. There are excellent clinical reasons for this therapeutic reticence, which also casts the analyst somewhat in the mould of an author, imagining his troubled clients from catastrophe into composure.

Grosz, true to type, relays a minimum of personal information. He was born in Indiana in 1952 and educated at Berkeley and Balliol College, Oxford. He does not specify his academic discipline--an omission significant only because of the question of "scientific" rigour that is one of the formative anxieties of psychoanalysis. He has practised as a psychoanalyst for the past 25 years, during which he has spent more than 50,000 hours with child, adolescent and adult patients. He teaches at the Institute of Psychoanalysis and University College London and writes a column on psychological matters for the Financial Times Magazine, in which versions of some of the case studies in this book originally appeared.


In his preface, Grosz writes that the book is about "our desire to talk, to understand and be understood. It's also about listening to each other, not just the words but the gaps in between. What I'm describing here isn't a magical process. It's something that is a part of our everyday lives." This is slightly disingenuous, for the psychoanalytic sessions from which his case studies--or "stories", as his publisher calls them--are drawn are not part of universal everyday experience. However, it is certainly the case that the habit of self-reflection, of turning a life into a narrative, with scarcely a breath drawn between the experiencing of an event and its transformation into anecdote, is now more widespread than at any time in history.

At its most primitive, the act of self-examination is what makes us human. With consciousness comes context--a sense of past, present and future. Rub those three together and the genie of narrative instantly appears, attended by its balefully fascinating outriders of regret, wishing and the entrancing desire of an individual to shape the story of his or her life.

The writer and philosopher Julian Baggini has argued that the Socratic maxim about the examined life is profoundly elitist. "The bulk of humankind, today and in history," he writes, "has been far too busy struggling for survival to engage in lengthy philosophical analyses. So if an examined life is one in which more than just a little investigation takes place, by implication, huge swaths of humanity are ignorant beasts."

In a time and place in which education and leisure are the preserve of a privileged minority, this might be a persuasive argument. It is true that we have no verbatim record of the inner lives of Athenian slaves, though they are a significant presence in classical literature and history. And the servant who cured the Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne of his fear of death by causing the 16th-century equivalent of a near-fatal, high-speed car crash when he galloped into his master's horse left no account of his version of the incident.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Beyond the Couch: Psychoanalysis and the Human Talent for Unhappiness


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?