Adam Phillips <em>Faber and Faber, 246pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 057120970X

Adam Phillips's previous book, Houdini's Box, found a fairly general readership, but this collection of psychoanalytical essays, padded out with a couple of lectures and 90 pages of old book reviews, appears to be mainly for psychoanalysts. Discussing the work of someone called Emmanuel Ghent, Phillips writes: "We must all have passages of psychoanalytical writing that we are keen to quote, or re-read, or determinedly avoid quoting." The "we" in question there has to be pretty exclusive.

In his preface, Phillips makes the claim that psychoanalysis is "essentially a democratic art". Because the whole thing rests on the authority of doctors, and a very small number of doctors at that, this idea seems somewhat odd. Phillips goes on to suggest that psychoanalysis presents "an unusually ideal opportunity to explore these issues". His academic, mandarin prose tends to the opaque, so the reader has to backtrack to work out what "these issues" are. The grammar of the passage does not yield any satisfactory antecedents except "our modern political hopes" for "certain cultural goods that can be shared by everybody".

Despite his view that psychoanalysis "is an experiment, like democracy, in what people can bear about each other, what they are equal to", Phillips makes a curious admission: "The decision is always in the one who listens, not in the one who speaks." Later on, reviewing a book about the impact of George du Maurier's bestselling novel Trilby, he discusses the fad for hypnosis on which du Maurier capitalised, and remarks that "There are many ways of hypnotising people - sitting out of sight and saying very little is one." In other words, the Freudian analyst has something in common with du Maurier's hypnotic villain, Svengali.

At present, Phillips is series editor for Penguin's imminent new edition of Freud's collected works. According to a press release, which Phillips may or may not have had a hand in, this edition aims to present the writings "as works of literature rather than obscure professional texts". That seems fair enough, as Freud's reputation nowadays is largely that of a literary figure.

But, throughout the pages of Equals, Phillips emphasises psychoanalysis as a clinical technique, and even as a "cure". He is vague as to what it is a cure for: he does not regard "depression" as a proper term, and "inhibition" is more his line of country. He quotes approvingly another analyst's dictum that "the patient is not cured by free-association, he is cured when he can free-associate".

He admires the breakthrough made by Ghent in placing a rug over the knees of a woman patient, who promptly burst into tears and said: "I didn't even know I was feeling cold." (Ghent's office was a bit draughty.) This moment of release was a "turning point", apparently.

Phillips emphasises the method of "redescription" - the tricky process whereby the analyst rephrases the patient's monologues - although he has to concede that even a "very good, facilitative redescription of an inhibition" can often "still not make a blind bit of difference". Well, I'll go to the foot of our stairs.

Still, Phillips is probably right to highlight one of the virtues of psychoanalysis: it "doesn't make appeals to what used to be called the will". Unlike the various schools of therapy that have mostly superseded it, traditional psychoanalysis never assumes that the patient can simply pull himself together, demolish his mental prison, or otherwise feel the fear and do it anyway.

Phillips ticks off the biographer Ray Monk for attributing to Bertrand Russell "a deep-seated fear of madness and a quite colossal vanity", without considering that the vanity may have been a "forlorn and pernicious self-cure" for the fear. The psychoanalytical approach can be absurdly mechanistic - "too rational", as Phillips says - but it can nevertheless come up with genuine insights.

Unfortunately, Phillips's insights are often obscured by his conference-paper style, with its habitual use of the phrases "as it were" and "by the same token", and its recourse to snappy but not very useful paradox: "When is a need not a need? When it's a need." And for every astute observation, such as that "mockery is always performed from a position of wished-for privilege", there is a non sequitur, such as the assertion that "What is always being ridiculed is our wish to be together, our secret affinity for each other."

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