Adam Phillips’ working day is provided as an introduction to an interview in the Paris Review. He says how he apparently arrives at his office as “early as six in the morning in order to read for an hour or two before his first appointment,” supplementing this with reading in between sessions. His impetus for this is to “hear other voices” before adding his belief that “there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves”. And so Phillips’ essays, as much as they are a discourse on psychoanalysis and Freud, are ultimately a collection about the art of reading, and of being amidst those voices.
Although Phillips occasionally introduces moments from his therapy sessions, he might contend with my assertion that reading is similar to the act of analysing here. But what makes therapists and analysts so skilled at their jobs, not to mention crucial at times, is that they are able to disarm this direction of desire that Phillips talks of:
“Language becomes the lure and the lead. The dreamer neither goes on describing his dream nor does he try to explain it; he just notices and reports the words that occur to him form the verbal description he has already given…It is there to stir us into words, to call up language, an appetite to speak; to take the direction of our desire.” (from ‘The Dream Horizon’).
Language is Phillips’ concern here rather than the therapy and he is willing to follow that lure and the lead in the essays. But to read Phillips is akin to E.M Forster’s notion of writers, not writing in a linear succession of history, but all in a room at the same time. Phillips is in that room. He critiques Freud, borrows from Beckett, and praises Klein. What differs in Phillips’ writing from a literary critique perhaps is that he is often returning to Freud as the authority meaning both an indebtedness and rebellion in the way that authority offers. You’re therefore unlikely to be persuaded to a new doctrine (and he certainly is not here to do that) as he discusses Oedipus, sexuality, trauma, love and hate, symptoms, and all the things that you readily associate with psychoanalysis. The writing alone, though, is the compelling spectacle. Like Freud he is interesting even when you’re disagreeing with him. Sharing a penchant for lucid, rhetorical prose amidst the psychoanalytical theory, he is able to balance paradoxes and court double meanings. This is from ‘Against Inhibition’:
“They [inhibited people] really know something else could be done, but not by them. But, of course, they can think of themselves as inhibited only if somewhere they have a strong belief in free will. The inhibited person – and/or his analyst – believes that his free will has been constrained by something; as though something in him taunts him with a free will he has but is not permitted to exercise. He has inside him a free will, but it is not for him.”
Personal, political, analytical. It traverses the spheres of our living in one stroke. But there’s something to be said about psychoanalysis and the political, and although it’s fair to say that it’s not explicitly Phillips’ concerned subject, there is something ‘essential’ about Phillips’ work. In recent decades psychoanalytic theories have been appropriated by the Marxists and postmodernists, and whilst psychoanalysis is obviously itself a theory (and I’ve read and used these theories), they’ve explicated it away from what appears as Phillips’ apparent project of trying to understand the human in all its complicated and paradoxical realms of living and meaning. The essential aspect of the theory – the human. He even, too pithily maybe, asserts his diversion from these schools in ‘The Uses of Desire’:
“The metaphysical incantation of lack and being can be wearying; though the rhythms of Lacan’s baroque liturgy seem somehow integral to the void he pursues and is clearly so enchanted by. But I am less interested in the persuasiveness or otherwise of Lacan’s quasi-Freudian assertions than I am in whatever it is he is trying to work with; and how he cannot do without the notion of desire.”
Those who have grappled with a Žižek or Jameson text might take some comfort here, but this is testament to Phillips’ philosophy and style. Because whilst he is not directly tackling the theoretical elephant in the room, there is the insinuation of something or someone else occupying the room, which is for Phillips where it began, and where it appears he wants it to remain: the someone, the person. It might be argued by the likes of Žižek that this is a symptom born of liberalism but instead it is just something that often gets dismissed behind the cliches of the past and the obscurantism of the present when psychoanalysis and Freud is concerned. We forget that fundamentally the person is what it’s about.
This isn’t to say Phillips is trying to restore the Freudian project for our present day, and in fact, he has said in an interview with Daphne Merkin, that it’s more worrying when people are glorifying Freud rather than disagreeing with him. There is something restorative about Phillips work though. It was Harold Bloom who said that Freud’s writings will live on longer than the actual therapy and since The Interpretation of Dreams (which, I’m not afraid to admit I still enjoy reading), there has a been a century of revilement and glory in equal measure, both from therapists and non-therapists alike to the Freudian legacy. Bloom also said it was Shakespeare who ‘invented’ the human, and although he may credit Freud’s writings, with Phillips you get a sense that there is a potential here to credit this kind of writing as the ‘restoration’ of the human. To watch the ensuing febrile tension between the language of the interpretation and the interpretation of the language in Phillips is to see the psychological project continued by Freud as an incredibly restorative power. It is to see reading, writing and language in all of its engrossing, humane wonder.
“Think, for example, of the recondite writer and the inadequate reader, the artist as genius and the audience baffled. And think of how much pleasure – of bafflement, of puzzlement, of the desire to be left out and the desire not to be – that this predicament generates. The pleasure – and it is clearly, as we say, a gift and a curse – is in the conversion of pain into pleasure. Is in childhood that we learn how to master our arts.”
Phillips says this aptly in ‘Punishing Parents’. Because life is never, ultimately, reducible to the one, individual person, and this why I think the liberal accusation will not sustain here. Like when we’re reading, even when we’re alone, there is always more than one person, or voice in a room. We bring history with us. So in the same way Phillips is talking, ultimately about the act of sublimation above, he’s also talking about the simple, expressive childhood that everybody deserves to have. And in the same way that ‘our arts’ might be a euphemism for sexual, psychoanalytical or just the quotidian events in our lives, it might just also be about the art itself. One way and another.
Any Cop: Not necessarily restoring the Freudian project for our present day but what it means to be a person. A person, that is, who does not necessarily know all of the time how to live in our present day. And who can blame us?