The prose of psychoanalysis

This review of Adam Phillips’s One Way and Another appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.

We learn a good deal about psychoanalysis, and perhaps about any profession, from the prose genres to which it attaches itself. According to the analyst Adam Phillips, writing in a coda to his new collection, Freud and the past century’s Freudians have employed a telling variety of forms – or at least signalled allegiance to such forms with the titles they (or later acolytes) have given their works. Works in fact is one such, as in the case of Melanie Klein, while Ernest Jones produced Papers and Jacques Lacan his Écrits. (Though we might remark that alongside those écrits are many séminaires: an avowedly occasional, less monumental genre.) Lesser figures have been content with mere “articles”, “lectures” and modest “contributions”; but one style of thought has been notably rare. Freud himself used the word “essay” on only two occasions – in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) and Moses and Monotheism: Three essays (1939) – and for the most part psychoanalysis has “discarded the essay as a useful term and a useful form”.

Why should this be so, and why does it matter? Because, says Phillips, the essay is exactly the genre you’d imagine would appeal most to psychoanalytic writers, both as source material and something to imitate or inhabit. Poems, plays and novels are routinely quoted by Freud and his followers – “often, of course, as evidence of the truth of psychoanalysis” – but the essay is typically ignored. And this is odd because the essay is in part an exercise in free association; it lives by surprising swerves of thought and description, proceeds as though digression could be canalized into the main stream, as if one thing always implied another, off to the side or underneath. The essay is a monologue pursued to the extent that we start to hear other voices, notice the undercurrents taking over. Psychoanalysis seems curiously shy of invoking or mimicking a form whose methods it surely shares. One explanation for this reticence, Phillips ventures, is that “essay” names many things but not the scientific rigour to which the analyst aspires. It is rather “the form in which we can get things other than right”.

The essay is digressive in its very choice of topic or theme, and few post-Freudian writers have been more keenly interested in the byways of our psychic lives and our overlooked habits of thought and desire than Phillips. Here is a psychoanalyst whose starting point is rarely the symptom or the disorder itself, at least not so named. Rather, he tends to light obliquely on some quotidian aspect of mental or physical being and examine its pitfalls and potential from a suavely integrated series of viewpoints: what is spoken on both sides in the analytic encounter, the pragmatics of our relation to key words and ideas, the sometimes flummoxing wisdom of poets, philosophers and of course analytic colleagues and precursors.

Phillips’s best books have accordingly been collections of essays; even when elaborated to a single argument or narrative – as in Houdini’s Box: The art of escape (2002), his study of the escapologist but also of escape itself – they have been tethered to an originating image or example. Or better: a gesture, a habit. One Way and Another selects essays from across Phillips’s oeuvre to date, and includes pieces on tickling (“an introduction, perhaps, into a kind of ecstasy”), on boredom (“the most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire”) and on success – this last in the context of a lecture to student counsellors: university, says Phillips, “is essentially a crisis of ambition”. There are essays – almost all taken from earlier books, others revised from magazine and journal commissions – about clutter, narcissism and forgetting, a consideration (“Bombs Away”) of the effects of the Blitz on post-war British psychoanalysis and a canny reflection on Diane Arbus’s photographs of “freaks”. The Arbus essay is something of an anomaly because unlike most of Phillips’s collections this one concentrates on pieces that uncover their subjects via more or less direct approaches to curious themes, rather than stalking them first in the works of artists or writers, or through the words of patients. His voice here seems more authoritatively that of the theorist as well as practitioner, which in turn puts some pressure on Phillips’s claims for his essayistic approach. The question of the relationship between psychoanalysis and style – and one might say that rethinking psychoanalysis as style has been his great project – seems more starkly posed than ever.

The variety of Phillips’s interests, and the skill with which he makes his connections or dramatizes his insights, has led John Banville, in his introduction to One Thing and Another, to compare him with Sir Thomas Browne and the Metaphysical poets. (Banville has also spoken, in a comment perhaps used too frequently on the back of his books, of Phillips as “an Emerson for our time”.) In terms of eclecticism and wit, the seventeenth-century comparisons are just, but up to a point: the point where the analyst fights shy of genuine experiment or estrangement at the level of his writing’s texture. Phillips’s particular essayism involves him in long-standing habits of style that, while appearing to imply a great deal of openness and potential, actually work against the vagrant desires of the essay as form. It is worth asking – to employ some of the author’s own language – precisely what Phillips’s much admired style looks like.

Among the great merits of that style has been the way it partially elides analytic terminology. Phillips does not go so far as to follow Roland Barthes’s dictum regarding his own essayistic escape act – “to substitute metaphor for the concept: to write” – and in fact as Banville points out, he is a surprisingly unmetaphorical writer: an anti-Banville, in that regard. Instead, much of the work of inquiry and persuasion in his prose is being done at the level of tone of voice and turn of phrase: a personal jargon in the gaps between the professional jargon. It is customary to say that Phillips thinks and writes mostly by paradox, condensing his reflections and analytic anecdotes to tightly counterintuitive formulations. This seems almost correct. What is striking in the relatively long essays in One Way and Another is his constant aphorizing, whether this is explicitly paradoxical or (more likely) simply sidelong, recursive or surprising. The book is well stocked with such statements as: “the bored child is absorbed by his lack of absorption”; “The desire for the object can be used to mask the desire for the obstacle”; “A useful way to think about a symptom is to ask how you could teach someone to have it”; “To fail at one thing is to succeed at another, and vice versa”.

More striking still is a certain recourse, if not to metaphor then to other types of figural transport or displacement. To put it crudely, Phillips is forever asking what things are like or what they might be like if some other things – mostly ourselves – were otherwise. Phillips’s “like” is a way of canvassing such alterations or adventures: “it is, I think, impossible to imagine a person without inhibition, or a person who is not somewhere curious about what it might be like to be disinhibited”. Likewise, on compromise: “We have to imagine what it would be like to live in a world in which we valued compromise more than any of the things we were willing to compromise over”. At the risk of making Phillips sound like a bored, evasive teenager, “like” goes along with “kind of”: a phrase he uses and maybe overuses to suggest that this or that besetting trait may be described in other terms, as yet undiscovered or uninvented.

Then there is the matter of “whatever”, or more accurately “whatever else”. The phrase recurs with amazing regularity in Phillips’s writing, and more so in recent years, as if the unnamed alternatives to which it refers were proliferating in the writer’s mind. “Knowing when to stop, whatever else it is, is always guesswork”. “Whatever else” appears to signal both the literal meaning of the topic at hand – a literal meaning that Phillips is about to leave behind – and a wealth of alternative and likely paradoxical analytic insights from which the author plucks just one for detailed analysis. The point is we must always know, for whatever reason, that the analyst is thinking about all this other stuff. “I’m thinking, among a lot of other things . . .”, he writes of one analytic encounter. And elsewhere: “The idea of the unconscious is, among other things, a way of describing the fact that there are things we didn’t know we could say”. With Phillips, we are always as it were among other things.

In one sense this is a banal fact to have noticed about the writings of a psychoanalyst: of course, you might say, the analyst is on the lookout for implications, not all of which will necessarily make themselves clear to patient or practitioner – their existence in potentia is one of the very points (or perhaps one point) of a successful analysis. And such moments in Phillips’s prose are of a piece with a psychoanalytic rhetoric of use, availability and resourcefulness: a sense that there are stores of psychic possibility so far unopened, unexplored – resources we often find that we have locked away behind other ideas and other urges: “By definition the ineluctable isn’t something we can think of as being available to escape from”. But if we take seriously Phillips’s insistence on style as liberation – which is one way of describing the writerly freedom he ascribes to the essay – then we have also to ask what is gained and what lost in the author’s own style, which appears so seamlessly of a piece, so addicted to these turns of phrase and thought. The consistency with which Phillips declares his own availability and openness risks becoming a recurrent, if rhetorically impressive, sort of closure.

The essay, he writes in the collection’s final piece, entitled “Coda: Up to a point”, is “nothing if not curious”. (We might add “nothing if not . . .” to an inventory of Phillips’s devices.) His own essays are elegant, devious examples of the genre’s ambition to inquiry and its tendency to incompletion: “the essay . . . thrives on the conclusion that conclusions are unsatisfactory”. But there is a strange assertion buried in Phillips’s defence of his own form’s itinerancy: “The essay, it should be noted, though an experiment, is a stable form, not subject to much innovation”. It is experimental without being avant-garde – but can this be right? Certainly the well-made essay, self-enclosed and polished, may be what we first think of when the genre is invoked. But it’s hardly sufficient to describe – just to stick with writers Phillips employs for his epigraphs – the formal disparities between Samuel Johnson, Gertrude Stein and Dave Hickey. The historical accuracy of the statement, however, is less important than what it suggests of Phillips’s own reticence as a writer. “Coda: Up to a point” is an excellent defence of the essay’s wandering nature at the level of content, but one longs for – and suspects that Phillips is well capable of – another sort of writing: a prose that would give up on the mere pragmatics of “availability” and give in to his discipline’s implied practice, and theory, of metaphor.


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