At the heart of this fine and moving book by a highly respected American Jewish psychoanalyst living in London is a universal theme that itself is at the heart of human existence: how change involves loss.
The tact, patience and understatement, which are particular components of Grosz’s wisdom, remind the reader that this writer’s insights and empathy result from thousands of hours with patients. They are also generated by the mastery of structure and language involved in writing a book of this quality.
The subtle architectonics of The Examined Life raise the individual stories to a level impossible in, say, his regular newspaper column.
One could say that the subject matter is the descriptions of the lives of patients and that the form the author discovered in the process of writing contains that subject matter, as an analyst contains the patient in the sanctuary of his room. Grosz, like his patients, tries “to make sense of [his] life by telling stories”.
The Socratic origin of the book’s title is a reminder that his professional skills include teaching. This book is not polemical literature like R D Laing’s non-poetical works, not self-consciously brilliant literary writing like that of Adam Phillips.
Nor is it an academic work or a popular self-help book. It is a true literary work and a very modern one, in that there is no foreground or background. It’s not that the narrator is unreliable (as in Ford Madox Ford and other writers). On the contrary, it is very clear that the narrator is reliable and trustworthy.
What he does is work his professional threads (1, patients; 2, other practitioners) and his personal threads (1, himself; 2, his own family; 3, Jewishness etc) into the tapestry in a satisfying musical way. I note, too, that, at 60, this is his first book. What a way to start!
On a personal level, I was very struck by his discussion about praising children. Now that I am a grandfather, I observe how this works with my grandchildren and their parents, and am trying to remember how I handled it.
Some readers may, rightly, feel uncomfortable in the face of several of the passages dealing with failure to change, and the pages about paranoid fantasies being a defence. “Lovesickness is”, Grosz writes, “... a way of thinking about the world that is not altogether dissimilar to paranoia”.
Here, I think he could have gone further and said that the lovesick person’s behaviour often is paranoid. I liked his discussion of “self-sabotage”, a painful business, not to be confused with masochism.
Two short extracts to conclude: “Closure… is the false hope we can deaden our living grief”; and the final words of this important book: “Now, so many of the patients I saw when I was young are gone or dead, but sometimes, as when waking from a dream, I find myself reaching out to them, wanting to say one more thing”.