It’s getting late. Outside, the glare of the winter sun has given way to the airless purple of a cold January evening. A patient is due any moment now. But, as my interviewee makes profoundly clear, there really is no time like the present. So I ask one more question: ‘How much of Sigmund Freud’s thought is still vital to psychoanalysis today?’
‘That’s a very big question because there’s so much…’ Stephen Grosz pauses. Seated in his consultation room, opposite the proverbial couch, or, in this case, a bed, a testament to the imperatives of the talking cure, and speaking thoughtfully, quietly, he is clearly an heir of Freud. He tells me of his first encounter with The Interpretation of Dreams, as a 16-year-old, when his older brother, then a student at Berkeley, gave him a copy to read. And he talks of how exciting it was, in those intellectually heady years in the Sixties and Seventies, when as a Berkeley student himself, his interest in psychoanalysis intensified as his engagement in radical politics grew.
‘We all read Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, which was drenched in Freudian thought. And Norman O Brown was at Berkeley and Santa Cruz at this point, too… Everything was political in those days’, he says, chuckling. ‘It was in Marcuse, in Brown, in the Frankfurt School in general, which I was intellectually very close to. At Berkeley, remember, the head of the sociology department was Leo Lowenthal, a friend and colleague of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. There was a great linking together of psychoanalytic ideas and political ideas, and this was happening against the background of the anti-war movement, People’s Park, the Free Speech Movement. It was an incredibly exciting time to be a 17, 18-year-old.’
And yet, for those who know Grosz from his intensely moving, almost parabolic work, The Examined Life, a presentation and interpretation of some of his most resonant case work over three decades, Freud is noticeable by his absence. There is little talk of sexuality or libido and nothing of the Oedipal complex, or its heir, the superego. The Examined Life, open-ended, ironising, wise, is closer to Chekhov than to what is popularly thought of as psychoanalysis. So is the founder of this most theoretical of psychotherapies, the explorer of the continent of the unconscious, no longer relevant?
‘I think some of Freud's classic ideas of just listening, listening to the words of the patients, their stories, remain vital’
‘One’s not looking to apply Freudian ideas to patients’, Grosz answers. ‘For a start, there’s been so much theoretical development since then, so many great clinicians and analysts, and we’ve learned a lot clinically since Freud, so we wouldn’t do some of the things that he did.’ He pauses again. ‘But I think some of Freud’s classic ideas of just listening, listening to the words of the patients, their stories. Trying to understand, for example, how their anxieties are driving their actions, how their fears are constructing these defences – these fundamental ideas, which inform my work, are there in Freud.’
‘What I tried to do in The Examined Life’, he continues, ‘is to give a picture of the way in which those ideas are in use now, but doing so without all of the Freudian language. A historian once said it wasn’t ignorance that prevented the discovery that the world was round; it was the knowledge that the world was flat. And that’s been a problem with Freudian terminology – it has become a way of knowing things that stops us learning, a language that got in the way of seeing the patient. Psychoanalysis is a process of not knowing together, and starting to learn things.’
And that’s what The Examined Life exemplifies: not an ossified theory, heavy with jargon, but a method, a way of seeing individuals, of listening and interpreting and, alongside the patients – ‘It’s an honour to be brought into people’s lives in the way that the analyst is’, says Grosz – telling the stories that need to be told. It makes for a deeply affecting experience. There’s the anxious and depressed Rebecca, worried about her relationship, but who comes to realise that, at root, she misses her no-longer-infant son needing her; there’s lovesick Helen, whose forlorn affair with a married man, who continually breaks his word, has turned into a means to keep herself from the tumult and promise of the here-and-now; and there’s the immeasurably sad tale of nine-year-old Thomas, a disturbed, troubled, academically challenged boy, who racially abuses and even spits at Grosz as a way to provoke the angry response he needs, because it means Grosz (or the boy’s parents, or teachers) thinks he can be better than he ever really can. ‘My brain is broken’, the child admits.
Grosz’s patients are not all suffering some childhood, parent-related trauma, as psychoanalytic caricature would have it. But they are all haunted, yes, often by something obscured, painful or troubling in their past, but sometimes by a future they fear losing — the marriage and the children. They are selves haunted by loss, and by the prospect of loss, and an inability to accept, and to face up to, the necessity of change. And so they are stuck, living now, but haunted and troubled by the no longer or the not yet.