The Examined Life

Happy New Year!

I hope you had a restorative break and are ready to throw yourselves into 2014 with gusto. I would love to know your New Year’s resolutions, especially if they are reading-based. Stuck for inspiration? Then here are some suggestions that I wrote for The Spectator a while ago.

This year, my rather unliterary resolution is to be able to do a press up. Yes, just one single press up. I know it seems unbelievable that anyone could be quite so feeble not to manage even one, but I have pathetically weak arms – probably thanks to a childhood spent reading rather than playing lacrosse – so I have at last resolved to take action to be strong. (No doubt, key to developing my upper-body strength is to read more heavy books and never to own such a spindly-arm-encouraging gadget as a Kindle.)

New Year can be a difficult time. Christmas is over and real life returns, only now we’re broke, fat and cripplingly used to lie-ins. As my bookselling friend and colleague said to me, when we were trying to pin down what exactly was so grim about January, ‘There’s something about it being a new year and yet nothing’s new.’

This is of course why many of us are so keen to try to change, to introduce something new to our lives. I am always thrilled by how many people turn to books for this element of newness, which makes for a curiously uplifting time in the bookshop. I had always anticipated January to be deathly and depressingly quiet after the frantic present-buying busyness of Christmas, especially given that we don’t have a sale. And yet the bookshop is thoughtfully, browsingly busy at the moment, as though people have decided that one way to make 2014 a good year is to begin it by reading some good books. A wise resolution indeed.

The Examined Life by Stephen GroszI dipped into The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz over Christmas, savouring a chapter here and there between rounds of charades or mince pies, but have really read it in earnest over the past few days. I would go so far as to say this is a life-changing book and I urge you to read it now, for when better to read such a thing? Added to which, it has just come out in paperback, although I put up with 2013’s hardback, prematurely wrinkled from when the husband dropped it in the bath.

Stephen Grosz is a psychoanalyst, and The Examined Life is a collection of his case studies. Many of the chapters began life as his column in the Financial Times, which gives them a winning incisive brevity. All names have been changed, all jargon eradicated, and the book reads more like a collection of short stories than a textbook. It is a clutch of diamonds – beautiful, elemental, gleaming with multi-faceted light, and sharp as hell.

Psychological issues tend to feel like overwhelming, ongoing problems, things that threaten to affect someone for their entire life. Grosz, however, distils a patient’s course of analysis, which often goes on for over a year, into just a few pages.

He describes the manifestation of the issue, delves in to discover its root, draws an illuminating parallel or two, and then, in his explanation of a patient’s behaviour, so comes the resolution. Unwieldy psychological problems are given beginnings, middles and ends – a narrative structure which makes for satisfying, illuminating reading.

There are many brilliant examples to choose from, but here’s one that I found particularly intriguing:

Amanda P., a twenty-eight-year-old single woman, returns home to London after a work trip to America. She has been in New York for ten days. She lives alone. She sets her briefcase down on her doorstep, and, as she turns her key in the lock, an idea takes hold. ‘I had this fantasy – I saw it like a film: turning the key triggers some sort of detonator and the whole flat blows up, the door exploding off its hinges towards me, killing me instantly. I was imagining that terrorists had been in my flat and had carefully primed a bomb to kill me. Why would I have such a crazy fantasy?’

Why indeed?! Having outlined the issue – a ‘crazy fantasy’ of paranoia – Grosz gives a few other examples and tells us that:

Most, if not all, of us have had irrational fantasies at one time or another … and yet we rarely acknowledge them … we find them difficult, even impossible to talk about.

What is at the root of our paranoia? First, key to his explanation is the fact that:

We are more likely to become paranoid if we are insecure, disconnected, alone.

Grosz explains:

Paranoid fantasies are disturbing, but they are a defence. They protect us from a more disastrous emotional state – namely, the feeling that no one is concerned about us, that no one cares.

Then follows a fascinating digression about soldiers suffering from paranoia during the First World War. Apparently British soldiers in the trenches were convinced that French and Belgian farmers were signalling to the German artillery. They saw codes in the way they ploughed the fields, or hung up their washing. Unsurprisingly, paranoia is also rife amongst the elderly:

All too frequently – like the soldiers in the trenches – the elderly face death feeling forgotten … Paranoid fantasies are often a response to the world’s disregard. The paranoid knows that someone is thinking about him.

And so, of course it makes perfect sense that when Amanda P. returned home to an empty flat, she had a paranoid fantasy:

The fantasy frightened her, but ultimately this fear saved her from feeling alone.

The case of Amanda P. is a satisfying thing to read. A curious incident, to which we can relate, followed by some interesting digressions, penetrating insight and then tidy resolution. A beginning situation, then middle development, and end resolution.

This near-short-story form points to something more profound than just a satisfying frame for reading. Grosz is emphasising the narrative similarities between real life and storytelling. At the beginning of the book, he quotes Karen Blixen:

All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.

This rings true to any reader or writer. For surely one of the main reasons why novels are so wonderful to read is because this creative sharing of a sorrow creates empathy which connects a reader both to the writer and to other readers.

Throughout The Examined Life, Grosz calls on stories from literature to illustrate his point. A Christmas Carol is used particularly well to show how a glimpse of your future self can haunt you enough to inspire change. What I loved most about Grosz’s case studies is that they are written not just by a psychoanalyst, but by a reader of fiction. So many adults – especially men – tell me that they have stopped reading fiction because there is so much interesting and important non-fiction to read instead. But what can be more vital than the emotional truths at the heart of a novel? I was struck by Julian Barnes’ brilliant conclusion to his article on the late great Penelope Fitzgerald in this weekend’s Guardian Review:

Writers, over the long run, are judged by the truths they detect about the human condition, and the artistry with which they represent those truths.

I couldn’t agree more. And I suspect Stephen Grosz feels the same. (Indeed I happen to know that Grosz is a fan of Penelope Fitzgerald, as he was in the bookshop when I was setting out to discuss The Blue Flower for Emily’s Walking Book Club, and said it was a great book, although alas he and his beautiful enormous dog didn’t join us.)

I would add to Julian Barnes’s insightful comment, that readers as well as writers are judged by the truths they detect about the human condition in the books they read. If someone has given up on reading fiction, then it suggests to me that he hasn’t read it well. He has paid it too little attention, or lacked the perspicacity to engage with what the writer is saying through the story.

Grosz is a very astute reader. Indeed he is so astute that he can find the truths about the human condition at the heart of a story, even when the writer struggles to tell it. Grosz responds to Blixen with the questions:

But what if a person can’t tell a story about his sorrows? What if his story tells him?

Psychoanalysis is a means of helping people to tell their stories. By enabling someone to put his sorrow into words, the patient can understand the truth about his particular human condition. Moreover, the patient can shape the narrative of his life, rather than be shaped by the sorrow from which he suffers. These case studies read like short stories because they are short stories – creative understandings of the human condition.

Read it. Read it now!

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8 Responses to “The Examined Life”

  1. The Northern Reader Says:

    Happy New Year, Emily. A dog or two, especially of the sort that pull, will sort out upper-arm strength. Meanwhile, the NorthernReader resolution, thanks to you, is to get going with a Walking Book Club here.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Hooray, your New Year’s Resolution is immediately my favourite – how wonderful! Good luck and do let me know how you get on. Yes, perhaps I do need a dog… alas little Daphne doesn’t do much for my upper-arm strength.

  2. Kinga Says:

    Happy New Year!
    My resolutions are to read more eclectically, read more women, more translations (or books in languages other than English – provided I can speak them of course). Read classics, read new releases… And read LESS romance novels – it’s my literary equivalent of junk food. 🙂

    • emilybooks Says:

      These are all excellent resolutions. Looking forward to hearing how you get on with them – especially the ones in translation. Good luck!

  3. lilydunn Says:

    I read the Examined Life over the holidays and I too was engrossed. I love the way he has made each case into a short story, though it left me feeling a little perturbed by the simple summing up of some of these people’s problems. I agree there is some satisfaction in having a beginning, middle and end, but many psychological problems are not so easy to sew up, and shouldn’t be. Often it is a matter of acceptance and trying to make a life a little more liveable.

    Having said that, I particularly enjoyed reading these stories because I felt Grosz’s innate creativity come through: in the way he viewed his patient’s problems and then put them on the page. It’s refreshing to see fiction merged with psychoanalysis in this way.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Lily – wonderful to hear your thoughts.
      I see what you mean about the simple summing up and forcing complex problems into such a neat, perhaps simplifying short story form, but I think I didn’t mind so much, as the chapters read like such distillations – a very long course of analysis condensed to show the insight in just a few pages.
      I’m very glad you enjoyed the refreshing psychoanalysis-fiction blend too.

      • lilydunn Says:

        You’re right, and, come to think of it, he did write about catching up with some patients years later and being pleased to find them fulfilling their needs in some form or another, which wasn’t so much about tying up. Though the short story form of some of the case studies felt limiting, and perhaps it was more that these stories in particular triggered such interest in me, and I just wanted to know more. Sometimes finding reason for people’s problems, giving them a name, can over simplify, and feel a little glib. BUT having said that, it is a fab book that I will revisit again and again. Helpful on a personal level as well as in my craft. It also made me consider, for the first time, training psychotherapy. What an amazing complement it might perhaps be with writing fiction… (though expensive and time consuming to train…)

      • emilybooks Says:

        Yes it would be v interesting to come at the training from a novelist’s perspective!

        Have you read Consequences, published by Persephone Books (and I reviewed it here: https://emilybooks.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/consequences/)? It’s a great novel and completely fascinating thanks to the presence of Freudian psychoanalytical ideas lurking beneath the surface. I think you might like it!

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