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Beyond the couch

Psychoanalysis and the human talent for unhappiness.

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves
Stephen Grosz
Chatto & Windus, 240pp, £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 TimesMagazine, 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. It might be that the collision that inspired Montaigne to write so eloquently about his acceptance of mortality left his servant in a lingering state of mortal dread; we shall never know.

Now, however, anyone with access to the internet (and that is a vast number of even the otherwise most severely impoverished members of the world’s population) can indulge in public acts of self-examination, whether blogging clandestinely from a country in the grip of a tyrannical political regime, or soliciting sympathy on Facebook for what might once have been an anxiety or grief too intimate to mention to any but the closest of friends, or tweeting updates on one’s changing frame of mind. Self-examination has become one of the most democratic of all activities.

Psychoanalysis, however, has not. Pro bono and NHS work notwithstanding, its image remains decidedly that of a therapy available mainly to people with plentiful reserves of time and money: a cure for unhappiness, in short, that resembles a rather luxurious pastime – albeit one that demands an unusual degree of emotional and intellectual commitment.

The ostensible purpose of Grosz’s book is not to present an apologia for psychoanalysis in the manner of, say, Adam Phillips’s Terrors and Experts (though it touches on many of the conundrums and ambiguities that Phillips addresses). Its format is familiar from the work of Oliver Sacks and other authors who write about highly specialised disciplines in an anecdotal style that a general reader can comprehend and enjoy.

The book is arranged in five parts: Beginnings, Telling Lies, Loving, Changing, and Leaving. Under these headings, Grosz groups lapidary, essay-length narratives of his encounters with individual patients, each given an explanatory, Montaigne-like title: “On Laughter”; “How We Can Be Possessed by a Story that Cannot Be Told”, and so on.

Sometimes it appears as though an entire course of treatment is compressed into the space of a few pages; in other essays, a single vivid incident is described. Often the stories conclude with an ingenious, quasi-fictional twist or surprise revelation. Grosz tells them in the first person and in doing so becomes a shadowy figure in his narrative: the psychoanalyst bemused, astonished, confounded, saddened, occasionally triumphant – and invariably in possession of the last word.

In his preface, Grosz writes, “What follows are episodes drawn from day-to-day practice. While I’ve altered some details in the interest of confidentiality, I’ve stayed close to the facts: these stories are true.” That intriguing oxymoron – in what sense can a story be “true”? – is the conundrum at the heart both of this book and of psychoanalysis in general. To present case studies in a format intended to beguile and entertain, as well as to inform, is a psychoanalytic practice that began with Sigmund Freud.

Ernest Jones, who was present when Freud gave his account of the case of the Rat Man to the international congress of psychoanalysts in Salzburg in April 1908, wrote that the case history was “both an intellectual and an artis - tic feast”. Freud remarked that: “The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious. What I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied.”

What Phillips called the “mystique of expertise” still veils the practice of psychoanalysis, although when the veil is partly lifted, as in this volume, the mystery seems to occupy a terrain closer to that of literature than science. Grosz writes: “When I teach psychotherapeutic technique, I often include Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ on the reading list. I do this because I believe it’s a story about an extraordinary psychological transformation, and that Dickens teaches us something essential about how people change.” In a later essay, a client who repeats the phrase “I’d prefer not to” when presented with the possibility of love, reminds Grosz of the title character of Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, whose catchphrase this is. “Negativity – this ‘I would prefer not to’ state of mind – is our desire to turn away from the world, repudiating normal hungers,” Grosz writes. He does not explain how this insight differs from one that a general reader of Melville’s fiction might achieve for him or herself.

Repeatedly, the book returns its reader to the question of what psychotherapy is for. As individual stories, his essays, though elegantly structured and written, are oddly unsatisfying. To read several of them in sequence is to experience a curious form of literary vertigo, as one follows the story of the boring Graham, who uses his remarkable talent for tedium as a way of controlling the world, or Francesca, who resolutely refuses to acknowledge the obvious reality that her husband is having an affair, only for the account to end just at the moment when a fictional narrative would begin its development.

The overwhelming impression is of the analyst as an all-powerful mediator of secret information. These characters are “real” and their stories are freighted with the heft of “truth”, yet we may know of them only the fragments that Grosz chooses to reveal – exactly as though he were a novelist and they his constructs, though unlike most novelists he closes down their story at the very moment when it starts to become most interesting. (Did they, one wonders in passing, agree to be written about? And how would their accounts of their treatment differ from Grosz’s?)

There is an urgent and unmistakable sense in these stories of a writer grasping for signi - ficance. In his recent volume of essays, the novelist Julian Barnes writes, “Fiction, more than any other written form, explains and expands life . . . Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong and how we lose it.” Yet the essence of successful fiction (as of successful memoir) is that it does all this as a by-product rather than the object of the story it tells. Narrative with a didactic purpose is almost a definition of imaginative failure.

More than a decade ago Phillips wrote, “Most psychoanalytic theory now is a contemporary version of the etiquette book.” This was prescient, given the subsequent development of what one might call “psychoanalysis lite” – the dilution of the hermetic, private intensity of individual therapy into a more appetising and popular fusion of self-help and entertainment. Examples of the tendency include the successful television drama series In Treatment, in which the actor Gabriel Byrne plays a troubled psychoanalyst; the flourishing of such ideas nurseries as Alain de Botton’s School of Life, which offers, among other opportunities for self-examination, a “Life MOT” with a “highly qualified psychotherapist” for £100; and, indeed, some of Phillips’s more light-hearted publications. Yet etiquette books, though despised by those who think they already know how to behave, can offer considerable reassurance and consolation to those who think they might not.

As literature, Grosz’s book is intensely readable but lacks the depth of humanity that makes the very best memoir and fiction writing, from Montaigne to Melville, so resonant. As an account of psychoanalytic treatment, it largely ignores the problematic question of the therapist’s role as – on some level – the star of his or her encounter with a patient. Grosz confesses, “A psychoanalyst can envy his patient. Sometimes our patients are younger, brighter and financially more successful than we are.” This is about as close as he gets to addressing the matter. Yet as a reminder of the strangeness of human existence, the myriad ways we find of making ourselves unhappy and the perplexing resourcefulness of the unconscious mind, Grosz’s book is a worthwhile addition to the literature of the examined life.

Jane Shilling is the author of “The Stranger in the Mirror” (Vintage, £8.99)

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.