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24 November 2021

What can Adam Phillips teach us?

The writer and therapist brings curiosity and delight to psychoanalysis – and, crucially, doubt.

By Lola Seaton

What am I reading about when reading Adam Phillips? What am I learning or getting out of it? Phillips’s style can prompt such doubt – doubt reminiscent of anxiety about the efficacy of psychoanalytic treatment, about whether it can help you, change you, make you feel better. This suggests one is drawn to his work by the promise of a form of wisdom that can help you live, of some relief through enlightenment. So you could say that one reads Phillips with the kind of expectation that his latest book is about, but will naturally not directly satisfy: a book of his titled On Getting Better will not tell you how to get better. Rather, this slight collection, a sequel to On Wanting to Change, which appeared earlier this year, “is about how we might get better at talking about what it is to get better”.

Phillips is a practising psychoanalyst; as a writer he is best described as an essayist – many of his books are, like this recent pair, collections of lectures, essays and reviews, and even his stand-alone books tend to be slim enough to qualify as extended essays. His themes – boredom, pleasure, worrying, missing out, self-criticism – are usually beguilingly ordinary, Phillips’s enticing conduits to the major psychoanalytic subjects: the superego, the unconscious, desire, and so on.

[See also: Christine Smallwood’s darkly funny novel of a stuck generation]

His meandering essays proceed by association, digression and repetition. They are improvisatory and energetic, buoyed by thought-enacting questions and self-qualifications. They perform an unrelenting curiosity, take obvious pleasure in themselves, make discoveries rather than arguments, provoke and amuse rather than instruct or persuade. A child psychotherapist for many years, Phillips has an irreverent way of eschewing what he sees as psychoanalysis’s self serious jargon, dour theorising and Olympian pretensions. The iconoclasm of his accessible idiom and engaging style is in part an inheritance from the English psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott, the subject of Phillips’s first book, published in 1988.

The five essays of On Getting Better (on, for example, the idea of a “cure”, “unsatisfying pleasures”) are loosely connected to the headline theme; the best and most poignant, “On Not Having Experiences”, is about getting better at “missing the mother, and then missing all the people one loves and needs”. As Phillips tells us again and again, here and elsewhere, the quest for self-improvement is itself the problem. What we suffer from, Phillips suggests, “are our self-cures”, otherwise known as “symptoms”; what we need to be cured of are our cures, and our hankering for them. “There is no cure,” Phillips wrote in his 1995 collection On Flirtation, riffing on the idea of psychoanalysis as the “talking cure”, “but there are ways of talking.”

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[See also: Jonathan Franzen’s bland late style]

“Getting better at talking” sounds a rather meagre activity on which to bank our hopes for ourselves, a feeble answer to the problem of suffering, a paltry substitute for happiness (I came for a cure and all I got was this lousy talking). But if Phillips doesn’t believe in remedies, he does believe in the power of language: his writing is as much literary-critical as psychoanalytic, as likely to invoke Shakespeare or Emerson as Freud or Lacan. Phillips has catholic tastes and an egalitarian approach to texts: originally attracted to Freud as “a writer”, he regards psychoanalysis as part of the “history of literature”, one “language” among others, a “form of conversation”.  The psychoanalyst, in Phillips’s preferred image, is a maker of sentences rather than a dispenser of theories; a kind of “practical poet”, not an expert in living.

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Phillips’s whole animus is directed against knowingness, forms of authority that foster compliance, myths of progress or omniscience – within psychoanalysis, but more broadly within ourselves, narrowing our minds and diminishing our lives.

The superego, as Phillips describes it, is the punitive, doctrinaire part of ourselves, our personal tyrant of self-betterment. Not unlike free association, Phillips’s writing is the antithesis of, and potential antidote to, its bullying mantras. Where the superego bores us with spiteful repetition, Phillips’s essays aim to interest us with surprising turns of phrase. This might be the closest we come to a cure: Phillips has written that psychoanalysis “should not pretend to be important instead of keeping itself interesting (importance is a cure for nothing)”, intimating that interestingness might be a cure for something. (“One of the aims of psychoanalysis,” Phillips writes in his 1998 book The Beast in the Nursery, “is to free people to do nothing to the future but be interested in it.”) Phillips’s prose, like psychoanalysis, aims to “break the spell” of the superego’s truisms by providing more elaborate, “enlivening and diverse redescriptions” of ourselves and our lives, which allow us our true complexity, and which, as he put it an essay titled “Winnicott’s Magic”, we might be able to “use, or even enjoy”.

Phillips’s approach entails some trial and error, implying permission for the reader to be opportunistic and selective – to take what they can use, what works for them. The mischievously aestheticising terms in which Phillips describes his favoured kind of psychoanalysis seem to admit the possibility of failure: psychoanalysis can “give us new lines on things that matter to us”; it’s “another good way of speaking about certain things like love and loss and memory, as songs can be (and that, also like songs, is only ever as good as it sounds)”; “I wouldn’t want people to come away from my books knowing my theory of worrying or boredom” but “as if they were humming a tune”. If his books are closer to melodies than theories, then one’s response may be capricious, fleeting – a matter of sensibility, intuition, mood. Like all experiments, his essays involve risk: there are misses among the hits, lines that don’t land, passages that leave you cold.

“If we are committing ourselves to truthfulness…what, if anything, are we committing ourselves to?” Phillips asks in On Getting Better, deploying a favourite reversal that can, when it works, generate insight through a kind of studied, defamiliarising naivety, but only by narrowly skirting vapidity or banality. (The obtuse answer to the question above, is, of course, “truthfulness”.) Phillips has a knack for striking synthesis and distillation, often delivered en passant, but these can occasionally seem uselessly general, not so much provably false as unverifiable or glib: “the finding of representations of what people can do to (and for) each other” is “what, presumably, the so-called humanities, and psychoanalysis, are for”.

When Phillips’s prose isn’t working on you, a disconcerting suspicion can arise about the entire enterprise. Does his commitment to sentences over theories bespeak a priority of surface over substance, sound over sense? He is a prodigal user of epigraphs (there are frequently several per essay), and his writing can sometimes seem to be aspiring to epigraphic status, as if preening or fishing for that sort of fame. But epigraphs, tellingly, are only beginnings – a way of provoking thought, not completing it.

A taste for spontaneity and aversion to argument risk denaturing into an evasion of the slog of methodical thought, a dereliction of rigour. At one point in On Getting Better, Phillips writes that psychoanalysis “is a picture of a relationship, of sociability, in which there is no propaganda, indoctrination, coercion, submission, intimidation, authority or teaching”. The inclusion of the last word on the list puzzled me – are there not non-coercive forms of pedagogy? – and returned me to my doubt about what, or whether, one learns by reading Phillips’s essays.

The “fallible” writer, as opposed to the “immaculate” one, Phillips wrote in his anomalous book of aphorisms Monogamy (1996), is “never quite sure what might be a good line; and they have a superstitious confidence that the bad lines somehow sponsor the good ones”. Phillips doesn’t give the impression of sweating over his sentences but of enjoying his gift for eloquently thinking on his feet. The reader who can withstand the disillusionment of the less good lines is profoundly rewarded by his very good ones – indeed the failures, Phillips suggests, may not be collateral to the successes but integral to them, and this itself may hold lessons about the “experiments in living” that psychoanalysis of Phillips’s kind encourages. What one goes to his writing for – and what it often delivers – are arresting, renewing paraphrases that divert you from your overfamiliar tracks. At his best, his handling of language yields glancing illuminations that promise some partial, but permanent, emancipation.

On Getting Better
Adam Phillips
Hamish Hamilton, 166pp, £6.99

[See also: How Raymond Williams redefined culture]

This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos