Promises Promises Essays On Literature And Psychoanalysis

Adam Phillips.

Far from the imperium of treatise and consulting room, we dabble in the contingent art of persuasion, the gathering together and trying out of a personal poetics. And soon, lovers, friends, and rivals become targets for our witting dismay. We usher out and away from the mirthless kingdom of theory and system to interest ourselves in what we remember having read, heard, and seen. The British author and clinician Adam Phillips has similarly walked out on any willful theorizing and taken to book reviews and newspaper articles as his “wider arena” from which to write a refashioned psychoanalysis unafraid of contradictions—and with some uncertainty as to its usefulness at all.

Admirably prone to finding both what is resistible and worth celebrating, Phillips ranges in his reading of contemporary culture from anorexia to Pessoa to cloning to the London Blitz to Hart Crane and onward up to 28 entries and nearly 400 pages. Such delicious titles as “Roaring Boy,” “Doing Heads,” and “On Eating, and Preferring Not To” whet the reader’s appetite and set her merrily perusing until her hour is up, unaware of time having passed. Yet simultaneously she may find herself jotting down so many of Phillips’s aphoristic insights that a notebook will have to be enlisted. This unassuming but incisive quality allows for Phillips to impinge upon the self in solitude, to approach what Jane Austen referred to as “my self-consequence,” and to force the reader’s hand. For, in true Emersonian style, Phillips is ultimately interested in the democratic idea of being true to oneself: “Our relationship to ourselves must be inextricable from our relationship with others; but in what sense does one have a relationship with oneself, or with a book, or with its author, or with a tradition?” What if, as in the case of Pessoa, our fidelity accepts and includes multiple devotions (selves)? What release and revelation might we find if we practiced Henry James or recited Freud aloud?

—Fionn Meade

On the Couch: Adam Phillips and Daphne Merkin

Adam Phillips, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Freud, is joined by novelist and critic Daphne Merkin for a discussion of Phillips’ strikingly original biography of the father of psychoanalysis, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst.

An enormously powerful and compelling discussion on the legacy of Sigmund Freud and the nature and scope of psychoanalysis today.  Subjects discussed include:

  • Freud’s view of his own Jewishness, and the discussion of whether psychoanalysis is a “Jewish science”
  • The impact of anti-Semitism on the political dimension of early psychoanalytic thinking
  • Freud and Nazism: “It is not incidental that, at the very time when Freud is, in a sense, not talking the Nazis seriously – because of course he wasn’t the only person who did this – he was writing almost entirely about how people refuse to perceive the things that matter most to them, and the ways in which people are skilled at refusing, denying, foreclosing, very evident knowledge.”
  •  “We are all, in Freud’s view, trying to contain the uncontainable”
  • “So there are two fundamental dangers Freud describes: one is being overwhelmed by excitement, and the other is committing the crime of excitement”
  • “And that’s why the ego in Freud’s story is such an absurdist figure – pretending to be masterful, faced with the sort of impossibility of one’s life”
  • “Freud was very interested in the idea of a kind of ‘unofficial intelligence’.  And Freud was also interested in the question: not, who do we believe, but why do we believe.  What is it that actually makes people believable to each other”
  • “Respectability is bought at the cost of considerable vitality”
  • “It dawned on him very early, that what he was opening up, by letting people say what they thought and felt, was really very very explosive – and would really have unpredictable consequences”
  • “Because the real truth about analysis is it’s absolutely unpredictable. So once analysts start promoting ideas of ‘cure’ they’re radically misleading the public, I think.  There’s no actual way of knowing where this is going to go, if you do it properly”
  • “The method is revolutionary; the aims are very conventional”
  • “Ferenczi said, why can’t we all say whatever comes in our minds to anybody? – and that’s a very good question. Why are people so frightened of each other”
  •  “The reason a lot of psychoanalysis is so boring and grim is because it’s all written by old people”
  •  On how dangerous psychoanalysis is. “But the danger is the point, not the problem”
  •  “A lot of arguments are not worth having”
  •  Freud “really did show us the ways in which we’re working very very very hard not to have pleasure. And that’s a very very strange thing to be doing”
  •  “What is curative is different for each person”
  •  “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as an addictive personality. I don;t know what that could possibly mean”
  •  “I still do not do email”

Adam Phillips’ most recent works include Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst,Unforbidden PleasuresMissing Out: In Praise of the Unlived LifeWinnicottTerrors and ExpertsPromises, Promises: Essays on Literature and Psychoanalysis, One Way and Another: New and Selected EssaysMonogamyOn Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined LifeGoing SaneOn Kindness, and On Balance.

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