Beyond the Couch: Psychoanalysis and the Human Talent for Unhappiness

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

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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.

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