Reflections on The Examined Life

The Examined Life (affiliate link), by Peter Grosz, is a book based on his practice as a psychoanalyst. I was led to it by an article that I had read on The Guardian about the use of cognitive behavioral therapy as opposed to psychoanalysis to treat mental illness. The article itself is more in-detail in its findings than I care to be here: you can read it for yourself if you so desire.

When I was in college, I had to read one of Freud’s case studies for a course. It was a survey of the humanities, and while I greatly enjoyed the class in general I remember being somewhat put off of the whole notion of psychoanalysis by Freud.

It is only through the work of Joseph Campbell that I wound up making a connection to Jung, and from Jung I discovered that psychoanalysis of the sort practiced by Freud was not the extent of the field.

Grosz provides case studies of psychoanalysis that are both analytical (as they should be), but also personal. While there is a limit on how much can be said for the sake of the patients’ privacy, there is also a lot of depth, which makes reading the case studies an interesting and intimate process.

There is something about the way that Grosz recounts things that makes the whole affair into something like a biography of the ordinary man. While it is true that many of the clients that Grosz works with would not technically be considered wholly ordinary, the humility that he expresses and the earnest, down-to-earth practice (including admissions of his own errors or misjudgments) goes a far way toward making the read worthwhile.

All-in-all, I finished The Examined Life in two days. The book is structured into sections and chapters based on topics, though the majority of chapters focus on just one or two cases.

There’s something transcendental in reading such things. Our human minds are capable of weaving mysteries hidden from ourselves, but seeing that same process go on in others shows us something of our essence, to borrow a notion from ancient philosophy.

The structure of the book, as it is, is probably one of its best achievements. I’ve also been reading the essays of Montaigne and listening to a sort of biography-cum-analysis centered on his life and works, and I am immediately struck by the similarity in the broad-topic specific-analysis correlation between the two works, written centuries and languages apart.

I think that it’s possible to see something of ourselves when we read a work like this, both in Grosz and his clients. While some of the examples are extreme (for instance, a child who engages in increasingly oppositional defiant behavior), there are also more common examples.

Upon reflection, I can easily draw connections between Grosz’s patients and the work of Ibsen, or of Miller. There is something that is literary and timeless in the individual mortal experience; an archetypal connection between the being of an individual and the Being of reality as a whole.

There is another side here, a side that Tolstoy illustrates in his magnificent Death of Ivan Ilych, the notion that we are incapable of believing that which we do not wish to believe, as Grosz’s patient who has every possible piece of evidence that her husband is having an affair, but only draws the connection after discovering a neatly loaded dishwasher in his apartment away from home.

However, the art of the psychoanalyst goes deeper; the mind is deep and multilayered, and there are things within it that remain unconscious to the individual, shown in dreams and complexes but not in conscious thought. These things cannot be believed not because they are necessarily abhorrent or because a person is in conscious denial, but rather because they are entirely unknown to us: Jung’s conception of this took the form of the Shadow.

The Shadow is the part of the mind that we are unaware of, the subconscious. Confronting the Shadow is important, because it bears strengths and weaknesses that otherwise are occluded from our awareness. Having these known to us provides us with a great tool to improve ourselves, both by extending our potential and by allowing us to shield ourselves from our greatest weaknesses.

Grosz’ work involves voyaging into that realm, that unknown part of the mind, and retrieving from it treasures. To do so, he must often help his patients vanquish the dragons that guard their inner keeps.

I think that this is why The Examined Life is such a compelling read. It is not merely the fact that it presents a deep picture of each of us as individuals, something which we want dearly to believe for the sake of avoiding the oblivion of meaninglessness. This is an expansion upon the explanation given for its popularity in The Guardian’s article, which I mentioned earlier. However, I think that this is just part of the appeal: it is a compelling read not only for its picture of the human individual as a being capable of worth, but also because it is a reflection of the heroic process.

After all, the individual is meaningless if their actions are also meaningless, but when an action becomes meaningful it provides the actor with meaning. Carry that further, to the greatest possible good, and you have a sort of deity in the form of Meaning: values strong enough to justify the pain and suffering of existence.