Who is Adam Phillips? Why does he seem to inspire such fervent admiration and yet such hostility? Little known outside literary London but widely respected, Phillips has been described as the best psychotherapist in Britain and one of our greatest contemporary psychoanalytic thinkers. To Adam Mars-Jones, he is "the closest thing we have to a philosopher of happiness". To John Banville, he is "one of the finest prose stylists at work in the language, an Emerson of our time". Alain de Botton recently confessed that Phillips was the only author to whom he had ever written a fan letter. But to his critics, who prefer to remain anonymous, Phillips is little more than a charlatan around whom an alarming cult of personality is developing.
Certainly, when I began researching this profile, I was surprised at how many people called to speak about Phillips (strictly off the record), people I neither knew nor had approached. One afternoon, I was kindly contacted by a former partner of Phillips's. She seemed surprised when I told her that I was not writing a long article about him for a Sunday colour supplement. Many people, it seems, want to know Phillips, want to be part of his world.
Among the luminaries to have entered his Notting Hill consulting room are the novelists Will Self, Tim Lott and Hanif Kureishi. Writers do not often put their faith in analysts, trusting themselves to have a better understanding of the psyche than a suspect branch of the medical profession. When a writer goes to see Phillips, however, he is meeting an equal.
Psychology was once distrusted because it was thought too young to be taken seriously. It was, to a real science of character, what alchemy was to chemistry. Freud himself protested that psychology was born middle-aged - the stage of alchemy having consisted in the work of poets. While orthodox psychoanalysts struggle to maintain a veneer of scientific respectability, Phillips has become Britain's most celebrated exponent of psychoanalytic writing for the literary value of his work. "I read psychoanalysis as poetry," he has said. "So I don't have to worry about whether it is true or even useful, but only whether it is haunting or moving or intriguing or amusing."
Phillips has intrigued and amused his own readers in a succession of critically acclaimed essays. Like a good clinician in the consulting room, he never dictates or harangues, but hints at hidden meanings and points of interest. In his early works - On Flirtation, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored - he wrote of topics such as tickling and cross-dressing with the same care he lavished on love and death. Packed with maxims and allusions to philosophy and letters, they attracted admirers whose eulogies jostle for position on the back covers of his paperbacks. The one dissenting voice came from within his own profession. Reviewing On Flirtation in the British Medical Journal, Anthony Daniels, a consultant psychiatrist at All Saints Hospital, Birmingham, complained that "paragraph after paragraph conveyed little or no sense to me, and I could detect no difference in meaning when I converted some of his affirmative sentences into their negatives".
All praise was suspended briefly after the publication of Monogamy, a book of aphorisms, in 1996. Despite containing such gems as "Masturbation is not only safe sex, it is safe incest" and "A couple is a conspiracy in search of a crime. Sex is often the closest they can get", the book brought accusations of pretentiousness. Carmen Callil wrote in the Telegraph that it "oozes the arrogance of a man no one has contradicted for too long".
Normal service has since resumed, although Phillips's latest volume, Houdini's Box, is a below-par study of escapism that achieves neither the wit nor depth of The Beast in the Nursery or Darwin's Worms. On the fly-leaf, Alain de Botton puffs him as "the finest essayist working in Britain". I asked de Botton about his interest in Phillips. "If there is a cult of Adam Phillips, it is not a cult of personality in any way," he said. "If you appreciate his books and read them seriously, this doesn't mean you will want to meet him at a party. He is a writer, not a personality."
This is just as well, because Phillips never attends parties. This is not for want of invitations. He does little to seek out the fame that he enjoys in the literary world. He claims not to make money from his books, but they sell in respectable numbers, and it has to be remembered that psychoanalysts employ notoriously high standards when judging the size of cheques. Interviewers are apt to be mesmerised by his steady gaze, cool demeanour and the good looks that survive his uncanny resemblance to Bob Dylan (one female journalist was moved to describe him as "the shrinking woman's crumpet").
Phillips was born in Cardiff in 1954, the grandson of Jew- ish immigrants who came to Britain to escape persecution in Poland and Russia. His parents sent him to a Bristol public school and he went on to study English at Oxford University. He left with a third-class degree.
For 18 years, until 1995, he worked in the National Health Service, becoming principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital. He left to concentrate on writing and his private practice. He lives with the writer and critic Jacqueline Rose and their daughter, Mia, a Chinese orphan whom the couple adopted six years ago. Phillips is said to be a doting father, and his bond with his daughter has made him feel uncomfortable, some say, treating children.
One journalist who knows several former patients of Phillips's professes never to have heard of anyone getting better as a result of his treatment. If this is true, his popularity has not suffered as a result. There is also a question of what "getting better" means - a subject on which Phillips has controversial opinions. He once said: "If people leave my room feeling OK, then I have failed. I have just reproduced a little enclave of well-being." In The Beast in the Nursery, he wrote: "The reassuring notions of so-called insight - the how-I-came-to-be-who-I-am stories - are a poor substitute for people's capacity to transform their worlds. Psychoanalysis should not be promoting self-knowledge as a consolation prize for injustice."
He recoils from the assumption of many therapists that life must necessarily be a process of dealing with disillusionment. Therapy, he writes, "teaches us to accept frustration, to tolerate dissatisfaction. It can teach you to bear too much." The notion that therapy has promoted, rather than abolished, stoicism seems absurd; but there is method in his treatment of madness. Phillips has a refreshing disdain for the snobbery of suffering, the respect for pain that supposedly makes it worth enduring. To him, the purpose of psychoanalysis is less to metabolise this experience than to show how it can be made a source of creative action.
Phillips is content to suggest his ideas rather than establish them. He will simply raise the question of why the negative aspects of an individual's character are taken to be more revealing than the positive ones.
Phillips is more than ready to promote play and gaiety, and his reluctance to pathologise otherwise innocuous personality traits is admirable. Yet by relying on aphorisms and asides to make his case, he takes up an attitude rather than an argument. He has written, in Promises, Promises, that he thinks of literature and psychoanalysis as "forms of persuasion". Accordingly, he avoids the therapeutic vocabulary - of "shyness", "depression" and "low self-esteem" - in favour of "language that's more productive, language that goes on to produce more language".
In Phillips's view, the main requirement of therapy is that it be interesting, and if nothing remarkable exists then it is necessary to invent it. In Houdini's Box, he wrote: "Psychoanalysis, of course, does not reveal what people are really like, because we are not really like anything; psychoanalytic treatment is productive of selves, not simply disclosing selves that have been there all the time waiting to be discovered, like Troy or Atlantis."
Psychoanalysis seeks to cure by helping us to understand how we represent our lives. If this is to have a chance, Phillips knows that it had better come up with pretty compelling representations of its own, because they must compete with the actual events, pleasures and pains. With his literary talents, he is singularly well-equipped to help construct these representations. However, because in Phillips's work psychoanalysis does not hold out the prospect of coming to know or understand things that are true about oneself and others, it becomes, in the words of one academic, a "cultural experience rather than a clinical one".
Oliver James remarks that Adam Phillips's books are "beautifully written in a grotesquely badly written sector of the literary world". This they undoubtedly are, though whether they are enough to make a mark on posterity is another matter. Wittgenstein and Nietzsche constructed aphorisms, but they also had a body of great theoretical work to support them. The dictionary of quotations makes a poor history book in which to be remembered.
Nicholas Fearn's Zeno and the Tortoise: how to think like a philosopher will be published by Atlantic Books in September