The Shrink as Reader, Playing With Persuasion

Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature , by Adam Phillips. Basic Books, 376 pages, $27.50.

Adam Phillips is an unusual man. Until recently, he was principal child psychotherapist at the Charing Cross Hospital in London. This is his eighth book on psychoanalysis. Most of them are collections of essays, published at the rate of about one a year. He has also introduced and edited volumes on Charles Lamb, Walter Pater, Edmund Burke, John Clare and Richard Howard. Judging from the collection under review, Mr. Phillips gives a new talk or writes a review roughly every 10 days. His essays have been published in The London Review of Books, Raritan, Threepenny Review, History Workshop Journal, fort/da, The New York Times, Slate, Critical Inquiry, Salmagundi, Contemporary Psychoanalysis and The Observer, too. He seems to be extremely well read he takes his epigraphs from Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, Richard Lewontin and Marshall Sahlins, to cite a few and well connected in the intellectual and literary world. His persona is flashy, playful and cheery. This is not our image of the sober psychoanalytic clinician.

Nor are his essays the kind we expect from a psychoanalyst, for they are neither philosophically abstract nor oriented to the lives of patients. They dart. The ideas connect and separate and then connect again, as if the essay were a cotillion, or as if the essayist were writing music (which Lévi-Strauss claimed to be doing because he wrote about myth, and the vehicle for myth was naturally harmonic, unlike the sequential linear tread of words). When Mr. Phillips’ technique succeeds, his essays are a delight to read evocative, sparkling, fun; when it does not, as happens too often in this new collection, Promises, Promises, you wish that he, or at least his editor, had been more disciplined. There are moments the book’s title seems ironical.

And yet the book works, perhaps because Mr. Phillips is more like Lévi-Strauss than either of them might realize. What fascinates him is the harmony between literature and psychoanalysis, not some absolute truth. “I don’t have a line on psychoanalysis and literature,” he remarks. But he thinks of psychoanalysis as part of the “cultural conversation” that is going on in literature. “For me for all sorts of reasons there has always been only one category, literature, of which psychoanalysis became a part.” He means by this that psychoanalysis is only one style of interpretation among others, all of them attempt to get a grip on the human condition, all of them more or less equally valid. “In the early days of psychoanalysis there were people who might be interested in a Freudian reading of Keats; nowadays they might be as curious to imagine what a Keatsian reading of Freud might sound like.”

There have always been many Freuds. In the academy, he now appears in two quite different incarnations. To clinicians who practice psychodynamic psychotherapy and hold appointments in departments of psychiatry and psychology and these days, even anthropology, sociology, history and philosophy Freud described a method. Wherever they stand on his metaphysics, these clinicians (or clinically minded scholars) see Freud as laying out a way of thinking about human pain that enables one person to hear, through the noise of another person’s conversation, the shape and structure of intimate distress and, perhaps, to help him. Often they use Freud’s language with implicit scare quotes “Oedipal,” “psychotic,” “cathected,” even “penis envy” as a way of pointing toward something that may or may not exist, but whose identification helps to illuminate the scope of an individual’s struggle. These scholars come to Freud because they are drawn to persons in pain, and for them, Freud is about private, concrete despair.

Then there is the Freud of the literary critic. These are the scholars who read Freud as avidly as the clinically minded, but who are not at all interested in understanding a particular individual’s distress. They are likely to hold appointments in departments of literature and on committees of gender studies, cultural studies and media studies. They are likely to have come to Freud through his European interpreters Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Slavoj Zizek. For them, Freud offers metaphors to understand social process, particularly power, and often they use the psychoanalytic paradigm to make sense of the entwined relationship between those who dominate and those who resist. There is pain in this writing, but anger is even more in evidence; these scholars often see themselves as writing at the social margins and striking back to comprehend and reconfigure the conventional mainstream. Here, too, there are scare quotes, but their referents are social and abstract. There is also a great deal of sportiveness, because the freedom from clinical responsibility how will this person, telling me this confidence, hear my response to her? allows the language an unfettered, allusive, evocative play that Freud himself might well have enjoyed.

Adam Phillips has been the student of a different Freud. His Freud is more pensive (but not abstract), more teleological (but not deterministic), more engaged with the pragmatic question of how to live a good life. Neither the wish nor the relationship, Mr. Phillips says, should be the primary psychoanalytic category. Instead, that category should be something like “moral aims”: “What or whom we seek to be influenced by to be changed by depends on the kind of selves (and worlds) we want to make and the kinds of culture in which we happen to live.” Psychoanalysis and literature are different forms of persuasion which become, in the course of our conversations with them, ways of imagining our futures, of “promising” to ourselves. Promises, Promises coheres in the end not because Mr. Phillips explains how this persuasion works, but because the play between the essays demonstrates the way that this man immersed in, and perhaps torn between, literature and psychoanalysis imagines human freedom.

My favorite essay in this collection is a paean to clutter. Psychoanalysis, Mr. Phillips rightly observes, tends to be an intellectually tidy enterprise. It explains and orders and tends to treat disorder as what we do to frustrate ourselves. Psychiatric illness, after all, is couched as “disorder.” But, he continues, citing the psychoanalyst Michael Balint, anyone who is running away from something is running toward something else. “By the same token, when we are talking about clutter we should remember, anything that stops something happening is making something else possible. That if you lose something you might find something else in the process of looking for it. Indeed, this may be the only way you can find something else.” And he proceeds to tell the story of a painter who lived in and painted with clutter, who was afraid of the clean outdoors and, through his impossible excess of disorganization created the moratorium the unconscious time-out through which he came to find his unique integrity as an artist.

In these essays, psychoanalysis neither cures with insight nor soothes with relationship nor diagnoses oppression with metaphor. Instead, psychoanalysis muddles our lives by constantly offering other interpretations of them, and by so doing, frees us from our own self-wrought shackles. When I imagine Adam Phillips writing these essays, I see him in a giant sandbox of ideas, happily pouring poetry and case history from one colored plastic pail into another. The essays aren’t exactly systematic. But their joy is infectious.

Tanya Luhrmann’s most recent book is Of Two Minds: The Growing Disorder in American Psychiatry (Knopf).