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Book Reviews   |    
Therapeutic Action: An Earnest Plea for Irony
Reviewed by Caroline Fisher, M.D., Ph.D.
Psychiatric Services 2004; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.55.7.844
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by Jonathan Lear; New York, The Other Press, 2003, 288 pages, $40

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Analytic training teaches one to be at the same time acting and noting one's actions. The problem with many psychoanalytic authors is that they are at the same time writing and, by use of copious footnotes, commenting on the writing. Jonathan Lear succumbs to this style, with the notable difference that he writes very well. The effect is a cross between a fireside chat and a hall of mirrors: it is as though the reader sits with Jonathan Lear to study the writings of Jonathan Lear.

In the first chapter of Therapeutic Action: An Earnest Plea for Irony, Lear explores his ambivalence about the concept of disciples before admitting that in fact he is enamored of Hans Loewald. He then proceeds to weave Loewald's theories throughout the rest of the book. Here he makes his initial plea for irony, or at least for levity. That done, he gets to the crux of the matter in the second chapter by defining the term "subjective." He defines "subjective" as the attribute of being in the process of becoming more of what one already is. Philistines among us will say "That's not the definition!" But if you can suspend disbelief long enough to allow this redefinition, you will come to see the beauty of this book. Through a careful process of redefining psychoanalytic terms, Lear makes the terms fresh and lively again.

Among the terms Lear defines—or redefines—is "irony." He offers a wealth of consideration of the true meaning of the word but defines it in the service of becoming. That is, irony is a strategy of making one reconsider what the subject of the irony really means: it is a way of pointing out coexisting but conflicting views in the listener. Lear makes the argument that irony is not unwelcome in psychotherapy—rather, it is a viable force in psychotherapeutic action.

Therapeutic Action is a meditation on becoming a better psychotherapist by thinking through what it means to become a better psychotherapist. It is exacting and careful, yet audacious at times. After sitting with Lear through new definitions of term after term, you emerge feeling confused as to whether you've found a new system of thinking or have come back around to the usual one. This, perhaps, is the book's final plea for irony.

The philosophers in the crowd will enjoy this book—it begs for a fire and a brandy. Its conversational style, liberal quotations from a variety of philosophical sources, and that feeling of having glimpsed something important make it a philosophy lover's confection. However, the pragmatists will find the book lacking in definable techniques, clinical applications, and, at times, a clear organizational structure. Therefore, it can only be recommended to philosophers, whether professional or amateur, who have an interest in psychotherapy.

Dr. Fisher is affiliated with the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.




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